The top sports federation representing Hong Kong at the Olympics has warned that it could suspend the Hong Kong Ice Hockey Association (HKIHA) after a blunder that saw a pro-democracy protest song played instead of China’s national anthem at a recent international match.

Ice Hockey Match Hong Kong Iran National anthem blunder
The protest song Glory to Hong Kong was heard instead of China’s Marches of the People during an ice hockey match between Hong Kong and Iran on February 28. Photo: Screenshot, via Hokejaški Savez Bosne i Hercegovine.

In a statement published on Tuesday, the Sports Federation and Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China (SF&OC) said the association had one month to provide a “full written explanation” about its “non-compliance… to handle the national anthem in a dignified manner.”

Otherwise, the federation would suspend the HKIHA’s membership, a decision it added was supported by the Hong Kong government.

The move comes over a month following the anthem mishap, in which Glory to Hong Kong – a song composed during the protests in 2019 – was played at a February ice hockey match in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It was at least the fifth such incident involving the wrong song being played at an international sporting event in recent months. Hong Kong authorities have referred to the tune being “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.

Sports Federation and Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China.
Sports Federation and Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

When Glory to Hong Kong was played after the match in Sarajevo, athletes made the “time-out” gesture as per new guidelines on how to respond if the incorrect song was heard. The correct song, Chinese anthem March of the Volunteers, was played soon after.

Leadership ‘failings’

In the Tuesday statement, SF&OC repeated earlier criticism that the HKIHA had been uncommunicative and failed to act with “the appropriate due diligence.”

The federation said it had made “repeated attempts” to meet with HKIHA’s leadership to discuss the incident, but that such a meeting could only be arranged after more than three weeks.

“Such unwillingness and evasiveness reflect the failings of HKIHA’s leadership to communicate and cooperate with SF&OC, as well as its placing insufficient importance to the display of the national anthem and to uphold the dignity of the country,” the SF&OC wrote.

Glory to Hong Kong
Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

In addition to a report on the association’s “non-compliance,” it will also have to submit “a plan of improvement on corporate governance.”

HKIHA said in a statement a day after the incident that it had “strictly observed” SF&OC guidelines with regards to the anthem, having issued the “official version” to the event organiser, the Ice Hockey Association of Bosnia & Herzegovina.

The European association expressed its “deepest apology” over the error, calling the mishap an “honest human mistake” made by a technician playing the anthems.

Anthem saga

The national anthem saga began last November when the song associated with the 2019 extradition bill protests was heard at South Korea’s Rugby Sevens instead of the national anthem. Asia Rugby President Qais Abdulla Al Dhalai later flew into the city to apologise as the government demanded an investigation. Organisers had reportedly downloaded the top song listed when when searching online for the “Hong Kong national anthem.”

Hong Kong rugby Glory to Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s national anthem was labelled as “Glory to Hong Kong” in a match between the city’s team and Portugal held on November 6, 2022. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

The government said it had asked a search engine to pin the correct information about the national anthem at the top of their search results. The Innovation, Technology and industry Bureau added that it was “enhancing” government webpages including adjusting keywords and adding text titles to boost their search ranking.

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

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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.