A group who applied to hang Chinese national flags on lampposts over multiple highways in Hong Kong last year will see fees totalling HK$147,000 refunded by the Highways Department, following instructions from Chief Executive John Lee.

national flags wan chai
Rows of national and regional flags in Wan Chai. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Lee said he learnt that a community group was asked to pay administrative fees and inspection fees by the government after applying to hang national flags over some highways in the New Territories for National Day last year.

The leader wrote on his Facebook page on Thursday night that he had asked the relevant department to educate the public on how to properly hang the national and Hong Kong flags. Lee said he also required the government body to prevent similar incidents from happening again.

“The government values the promotion of patriotic education and has been actively pushing community groups and the public to celebrate special dates such as the National Day, with respect to the flags and symbols of the nation and Hong Kong,” Lee added.

Less than two hours after Lee’s post, the Highways Department published a statement saying that it had approved the waiver and will inform the group of refund arrangements “as soon as possible.”

John Lee
John Lee. File photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

According to the statement, the local group had filed the application last August and had paid the required fees according to procedures.

The group then submitted a request for an exemption to the fees, although there was no fee waiver mechanism in the existing procedures.

However, the department said that it is now working with other government bodies to formulate arrangements to waive the fees for “hanging national flags on lamp posts” in the future.

Pro-Beijing backlashes

The issue was first raised by pro-Beijing columnist Chris Wat in an opinion piece published on Tuesday in Headline Daily.

Wat said a group was asked to pay HK$147,670 by the Highways Department for hanging some 1,200 national flags on lampposts around Kam Tin Road and Fan Kam Road between September 20 to October 9 last year.

Chris Wat
Chris Wat (right). File photo: Hdklp32, via Wikicommons.

“When the people self-initiated to do what the government didn’t, why are you still punishing these patriots who gave their heart and sweat?” Wat wrote in her article.

A day after, lawmakers Michael Lee and Rock Chen wrote to the department to ask what legal grounds the fees were based on.

“During the riots in 2019, many political parties and groups were hanging flags and leaflets on streets as well – how were you dealing with those items?” Lee and Chen wrote.

The Highways Department said in its statement that the fees collected were for inspection work carried out by “public lighting maintenance contractors,” during the period when the flags were displayed.

After John Lee announced that he had asked the department to waive the fees in question, Michael Lee thanked the leader for his “immediate concern” on Facebook on Thursday night as well.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.