The national anthem blunder at South Korea’s Rugby Sevens has sparked a chorus of complaints from Beijing loyalists, with local lawmakers demanding the national security police to step in and investigate how a song linked to the 2019 extradition bill protests was played instead of China’s national anthem.

It was “extremely ridiculous” and “unacceptable” for organisers of the tournament to mistakenly play “Glory to Hong Kong” during the men’s final between Hong Kong and South Korea, pro-Beijing lawmakers said on Monday. The Hong Kong government earlier expressed strong opposition to the mix-up, which saw the protest song played ahead of kick off rather than “March of the Volunteers” – the anthem the city shares with China.

Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions
(From left to right) Hong Kong Federation of Trade Union lawmakers Kwok Wai-keung, Michael Luk and Dennis Leung meet the press on November 14, 2022. Photo: Michael Luk, via Facebook.

Playing a song closely associated with “black-clad violence” seriously violated China’s sovereignty and seriously insulted the country, said legislator Michael Luk of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions. It was “impossible” for such an error to occur, he said, as the Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) had provided the national anthem of China to the organiser.

The lawmaker demanded the National Security Department of the police to launch an in-depth probe into the incident to see if there was any “collusion” between Hongkongers or Chinese people and Korean personnel that lead to the playing of the protest song.

“We are very worried that someone would make use of these international tournaments as a platform to collude with foreign forces and spread pro-independence messages. Our law enforcement agencies must take action,” Luk said, adding he hoped China’s foreign ministry office in Hong Kong would step in and assist in diplomatic negotiations.

The unofficial protest anthem occurred at the second leg of the Asian Rugby Seven Series after a junior member of staff mistakenly played “a song downloaded from the internet instead the correct anthem,” Asia Rugby said on Monday in a public apology to the HKRU and the governments of Hong Kong and China.

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An apology was also announced in both English and Korean at the stadium in Incheon after the final match and before the prize presentation ceremony, the regional association said. The organisers played “March of the Volunteers” when the Hong Kong team lined up again and edited online match footage to replace the protest song with the Chinese national anthem, it said.

Beijing loyalists in Hong Kong rejected explanations that the incident was an “honest mistake,” however, with some alleging that it was “intended” to upset the people of China. The largest pro-establishment party DAB said on Monday that the Chinese national anthem was “widely known in the international community,” and Asia Rugby had made an “unforgiveable mistake.”

“It makes people suspect that someone intended to stir up trouble and offend Chinese people,” the party said.

Starry Lee, chairwoman of the DAB, also called on Asia Rugby to apologise to “the entire [Chinese] population” and ensure a similar situation would not happen again.

‘Disband’ rugby team

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho hit out at the Hong Kong rugby team for their “lack of response” when they heard the protest song being played instead of the Chinese national anthem. The players “let their country be insulted,” he said, adding they had “lost the confidence” of the people of Hong Kong.

“They have failed completely… the only solution is to disband the Hong Kong rugby team!” the legislator wrote on Facebook.

Ho also told online news outlet InMedia that the players should have reacted “within three seconds” and made hand gestures or shouted to stop the protest song from playing.

“You should make a T sign, [say] ‘Stop! Stop! Suspend! Wrong song! Wrong national anthem! This is inappropriate!’,” InMedia cited the legislator as saying.

“Glory to Hong Kong” was released in September 2019, around three months after protests erupted in June that year 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 the police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.” 

When asked by HKFP if the protest song was illegal in Hong Kong, the Security Bureau did not give a clear answer: “Whether a person or entity violates the law would depend on the actual circumstances of the case, including the facts, the relevant acts and the mens rea, the evidence gathered, etc., and all cases will be handled in accordance with the law,” a spokesperson said. The song is, however, banned in schools and a busker who performed it last year was arrested by police.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.