The unofficial anthem of the 2019 Hong Kong pro-democracy protest movement was played instead of China’s national anthem at South Korea’s Rugby 7s on Sunday, prompting the Hong Kong government to demand a “full investigation.”

Update: National security police should investigate anthem error at rugby match, lawmakers say

Hong Kong rugby players remained stone-faced as a protest anthem was played instead of the national anthem in Korea. Photo: Rugby7s screenshot via YouTube.

“Glory to Hong Kong” was heard around the stadium in Incheon, during the men’s final between Hong Kong and South Korea, rather than “March of the Volunteers” – the anthem the city shares with China.

“The National Anthem is a symbol of our country. The organiser of the tournament has a duty to ensure that the National Anthem receives the respect it warranted,” a government spokesman said in a Monday press release. They added: “[W]e have already written to the Hong Kong Rugby Union last evening demanding them to deal with this matter seriously, launch a full and in-depth investigation and submit a detailed report, and convey our strong objection to Asia Rugby, who is the organiser of the Series.”

YouTube video

According to the government, Asia Rugby has already apologised, saying a junior staffer made a mistake and the Hong Kong team had provided the correct anthem. When “Glory to Hong Kong” was played, the Hong Kong team sought to raise the alarm, and – later – organisers made a public announcement to apologise. During the prize presentation ceremony, the correct anthem was played.

Footage was widely circulated online overnight, with the Hong Kong team appearing stone-faced as the song was broadcast. Asia Rugby appears to have removed its live stream of the event.

Protest anthem

The government said the song was “closely associated with violent protests and the ‘independence’ movement in 2019.” Though the protests attracted a handful of pro-independence activists, it was not one of the movement’s demands.

The Sports Federation & Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China echoed the government’s condemnation in a Monday statement, saying: “The national anthem is a symbol of the country, the playing and singing of the national anthem is a solemn ceremony. Athletes representing Hong Kong, China in international games and competitions shall fully reflect this spirit to preserve the dignity of the national anthem.”

Glory to Hong Kong
Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Rugby Union said in a statement: “The HKRU expressed its extreme dissatisfaction at this occurrence and has received a full explanation of the circumstances that led to this. Whilst we accept this was a case of human error it was nevertheless not acceptable.”

The authorities have refused to say if the song is illegal, though it is banned in schools and police have intervened when it is played in public.

Protests erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.” 

Hong Kong’s national anthem law, which criminalises insults to March of the Volunteers,” was enacted domestically on June 4, 2020 – violators risk fines up to HK$50,000 or three years in prison. Last week, a citizen journalist was the first to be jailed under the law.

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.