Singing the national anthem in Cantonese or remaining silent while it plays would not automatically count as insulting the anthem, the Hong Kong government has said.

At a Friday legislative meeting on the national anthem bill, lawmakers asked the government to further clarify what actions would be criminalised. If the bill passes, anyone who insults the anthem, “publicly and wilfully alters” its lyrics or score, or performs or sings it in a “distorted or derogatory manner” will be subject to a maximum penalty of HK$50,000 and three years in jail.

Roy Tang
Permanent Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Roy Tang. Photo: LegCo webcast screenshot.

Permanent Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Roy Tang said the bill simply asks people to “stand solemnly and deport themselves with dignity” when the anthem is played.

“If someone sings in Cantonese, it is impossible for this act alone to attract a criminal penalty,” Tang said. “If a person can only sing in Cantonese, if he sings and stands solemnly, then we believe it will not contravene the law.”

A government document sent to the legislature also said that keeping quiet does not, in itself, amount to insulting March of the Volunteers.

The national anthem bill had its first and second reading at the Legislative Council in January, and has been transferred to a dedicated bills committee for more in-depth discussion. The bill is expected to undergo its third reading before the full Council later this year.

Powers and privileges

On Friday, lawmakers also expressed concern as to whether their actions in the legislature will fall under the law’s purview. In December, the government added a requirement that the anthem be played before lawmakers are sworn into office.

Demosisto national anthem banner
Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow protest the national anthem law. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

The pro-democracy camp, which has often used the swearing-in ceremony as an occasion for protests, criticised the move as clamping down on free speech and being a potential excuse for the government to disqualify them.

Civic Party’s Dennis Kwok asked whether – aside from the swearing-in ceremony – lawmakers would be protected if they said things deemed to be “insulting” to the national anthem during a LegCo speech.

Currently, the Legislative Council (Powers and Privileges) Ordinance grants lawmakers immunity from legal proceedings for words spoken at LegCo and its committees.

Tang replied that the national anthem law would take precedence over the free speech provision.

Dennis Kwok
Dennis Kwok. Photo: LegCo.

“If a court determines that a lawmaker was publicly and wilfully insulting the national anthem… then under the existing arrangement, our understanding is [the lawmaker] would not be protected,” he said.

Kwok’s question was echoed by pro-establishment lawmakers Paul Tse and Martin Liao. Tse said that the immunity ought to be “quite universal,” and Liao – who chairs the national anthem bill committee – pressed the government for a written response.

The pro-democracy Civic Party’s Tanya Chan also questioned why the Secretary for Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Patrick Nip failed to show up for the meeting. Tang said that Nip was out of town for an important meeting on the Greater Bay Area.

Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.