A Hong Kong citizen journalist who waved the British colonial-era flag while the Chinese national anthem was being played has been jailed for three months for insulting the anthem following the first conviction under a new law.

Paula Leung
Paula Leung. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Paula Leung, 42, pleaded guilty to insulting the national anthem and desecrating the current Hong Kong flag at District Court on Thursday. She waved a British-era Hong Kong flag at the APM shopping centre in Kwun Tong on July 26 last year, when crowds gathered to watch an Olympics medal ceremony at which fencer Edgar Cheung was awarded gold in the men’s individual foil event.

The case marks the first conviction and sentencing since the city passed a law criminalising disrespect of March of the Volunteers, China’s national anthem, in June 2020.

Magistrate Amy Chan said there were over a thousand people watching the ceremony live in the mall, which was broadcasting the Tokyo Olympics, at the time. Leung’s waving of the flag sparked cheers from the crowd and demeaned the dignity of “the country’s athletes,” she said according to InMedia.

chinese national anthem march of the volunteers
A music score for the Chinese national anthem. Photo: GovHK.

Chan set a starting sentence of four and a half months, but reduced it to three months taking into account her guilty plea.

July 2021 arrest

According to the case details, crowds gathered at the APM shopping mall at around 9 p.m. on July 26, 2021 to watch the Olympics, at which Cheung won a fencing final, on a large screen.

During the medal ceremony, China’s national anthem was played and the post-1997 Hong Kong flag was displayed.

Around that time, a person began waving the colonial-era flag in the atrium and then used it to cover her head. Crowds booed the anthem and cheered “We are Hong Kong,” the case details read.

apm mall
APM shopping mall. Photo: Wikicommons

A staff member at the mall questioned Leung, who produced a press card showing she was working for an online media outlet called Freeman Express. Somebody at the mall also reported the incident to police.

Official records show the news outlet was not registered with the government’s Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration at the time. Most major news organisations are registered in order to gain access to government press conferences.

Leung was arrested four days later near her home in Kwai Fong after police said they were launching an investigation into“insulting acts” at the mall that night. A staff member from the mall identified Leung and her press card at a police identification parade.

The defence’s plea

Handing down the sentence on Thursday, Chan said there were two reasons why Leung needed to face a heavier jail sentence. There were more than a thousand people watching the Olympic broadcast and the flag-waving could have sparked a “dangerous situation,” Chan said, adding that it was “pure luck” that no violence was triggered.

On top of that, Leung had arrived at the mall with a colonial-era flag, showing she had planned to express contempt towards the Chinese national anthem.

Wan Chai Law Courts District Court
The District Court in Wan Chai. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Ahead of sentencing, Leung’s lawyer said the defendant has autism and a low IQ. Leung studied at a special needs school and graduated in Form 3, and worked as a security guard for some ten years. She was then unemployed for some time.

The lawyer added that Leung had acted alone and put the flag away after shortly afterwards. Nobody was incited by her behaviour, the lawyer added.

Offenders of the national anthem law, which was passed comfortably in a Legislative Council where pro-democracy lawmakers constituted a minority, risk fines up to HK$50,000 or three years in prison.

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Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.