A 27-year-old man who replaced China’s national anthem with protest song Glory to Hong Kong in an online video has been sentenced to three months in prison after being convicted of insulting the national anthem.

Thursday’s sentencing marked the culmination of the city’s first trial under the National Anthem Ordinance, which came into effect in June 2020, and the first ruling related to the protest song.

China national emblem PolyU main entrance opening August 24, 2022
Guests attending the opening ceremony of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s new main entrance on August 24, 2022 stand up to sing the Chinese national anthem. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Cheng Wing-chun, a photographer, replaced China’s national anthem March of the Volunteers with an instrumental version of Glory to Hong Kong in a video showing Hong Kong fencer Edgar Cheung receiving a gold medal in the Olympics in 2021.

According to the police testimony in January, the 97-second video recorded 92,115 views by the time the police noticed it. The video was later made private.

Cheng said in a recorded interview with the police that he did not know the meaning of Glory to Hong Kong, and he used the melody of the song because it felt “touching.”

Gold medallist Hong Kong's Cheung Ka Long looks the medal as he celebrates on podium during the medal ceremony for the men’s individual foil during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 26, 2021. 
Gold medallist Hong Kong’s Cheung Ka Long looks at his medal as he celebrates on a podium during the ceremony for the men’s individual foil during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 26, 2021. File Photo: Fabrice Coffinni/AFP.

Magistrate Minnie Wat said on Thursday that the defendant’s arguments were not convincing, as Cheng had worked in political parties and joined assemblies during the 2019 protests and unrest, local media reported.

Wat added that Cheng’s act had triggered others “into making remarks that similarly undermined the national anthem’s dignity”.

The maximum penalty for insulting the national anthem is up to three years in jail and a fine of HK$ 50,000.

Glory to Hong Kong Spotify
This photo dated June 7, 2023 shows the artist page of the team behind 2019 protest song “Glory to Hong Kong” and its related versions on streaming platform Spotify. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Paula Leung, an independent journalist, last November became the first person sentenced under the anthem ordinance after pleading guilty to insulting the national anthem. She was jailed for three months over waving a British flag at a shopping mall where the live stream of Cheung’s historic win, with the March of the Volunteers, was playing.

National anthem blunders

The Hong Kong government is currently seeking to ban unlawful acts related to Glory to Hong Kong, with the hearing happening on Friday.

Released in September 2019 at the height of the protests and unrest, the song was once widely circulated as large groups of people sung it during assemblies in shopping malls and public spaces.

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.

The "March of the Volunteers" was the national anthem of China.
The “March of the Volunteers” is the national anthem of China. Photo: Screenshot of YouTube music video.

The injunction was sought after various international sporting events erroneously played Glory to Hong Kong instead of the national anthem of China.

The government had called on Google to pin the correct information about the national anthem at the top of their search results, and also tried to optimise search engines to put March of the Volunteers at the top of related searches.

The city’s technology chief said that the government’s application for a court injunction to ban Glory to Hong Kong came after Google said it needed proof that the song was illegal.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association announced on June 22 that it would seek an exemption for media reporting to protect journalistic work. On Tuesday, the HKJA said the Department of Justice had it agreed to the proposal to exempt journalistic activity from the ban if the injunction application is granted.

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Irene Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press and has an interest in covering political and social change. She has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Fudan University and a master’s degree in social work from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.