The Chinese national anthem, March of the Volunteers, was composed for a 1935 film Children of Troubled Times. It is about resistance to the Japanese invaders, with young people choosing to dedicate themselves to that cause.
There is a deep irony then that in modern Hong Kong, where self-determination, democracy and the rule of law are under threat, being bravely defended by large groups of people from all walks of life, many of them young, the local government plans to criminalise “insulting” the anthem.
If the bill passes, anyone who publicly and intentionally insults the anthem could face a fine of up to HK$50,000 (£5,200) and three years in prison. Authorities will be able to bring charges two years after a supposed offence, rather than the usual six months for this class of offence.
Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based NGO, recently published a report on the proposed bill, which it called “legal malware.”
Not only does the bill undermine basic human rights, the method by which it is being created – under the direction of China’s National People’s Congress – is clearly in breach of Hong Kong’s supposed high degree of autonomy, guaranteed under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.
For many months the world has witnessed the erosion of this Declaration, but this is a major further breach. Hong Kong authorities have been ordered to consider a bill which would criminalise publicly insulting the Chinese national anthem as a “priority.”
Legal bodies in Hong Kong have expressed concern too about the vagueness of the definition of “insulting,” the length of time for prosecution and the proposed maximum sentence.
The international community has already fiercely criticised the bill. Canadian Deputy Shadow Foreign Minister Garnett Genius said: “[It] is a clear threat to Hong Kong’s basic freedoms. To impose a three-year prison sentence for ‘insulting’ the national anthem is an appalling violation of freedom of expressions… [and] is not in line with the basic principles of the rule of law.”
Kevin Carrico, a senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at Monash University in Australia, said: “At a deeper level, the bill is symbolic of Beijing’s desire for ever greater control over the city of Hong Kong, producing a vicious cycle in which increasingly heavy-handed rule is rationalised… this is likely to only provoke ever further protests and tension”.
As for the bill’s vague definition of “insult,” even the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has struggled to define it. This kind of legal ambiguity lends itself to abuse by those in positions of power.
When I asked the UK government what further action it planned to take on that matter, FCO minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon responded that the “UK remains committed to upholding the rights and freedoms underpinned by the Joint Declaration, the Basic Law and enshrined in Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights,” and that had “made this position clear to the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in London, and will continue to do so, publicly and privately.”
That all sounds admirable, but where is the action on the National Anthem Bill?
Canada has already led the way. It is past time for the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to publicly criticise this bill as a breach of the agreement.
When I spoke in the House of Lords on human rights in Hong Kong and British responsibilities last October, I reflected on the words of a self-described “ordinary working mother,” deeply fearful about the state of her home.
It is people like that mother, people like the teenagers we see regularly in video footage being violently arrested despite not resisting, people like the medical professionals whose treatment the All-party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong is investigating, to whom the United Kingdom has a special responsibility, by international treaty.
We must live up to that responsibility.