Hong Kong soccer fans defy China anthem law

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Several hundred football fans in Hong Kong defied a Chinese law against disrespecting the national anthem, by jeering it at a friendly international against Bahrain on Thursday.

Slideshow ( 3 images )

At the Mong Kok stadium, a small segment of the crowd numbering several hundred, waved banners and banged on drums, before jeering China’s national anthem before the match kicked off.

The controversy is another instance of recent tensions in the former British colony between pro-democracy advocates and China’s Communist Party leaders, who have been criticized for tightening their grip on Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms.

On Saturday, China passed a criminal law extending punishments of up to three years for disrespecting the anthem, the March of the Volunteers.

At Thursday’s match, some fans refused to stand, while others turned their backs as the anthem was played. When the Bahrain anthem was played, however, almost all the 2,400 fans in the stadium stood respectfully to attention.

Hong Kong, as part of China, will now put its own set of anthem laws to its legislative council, but details including jail terms and the scope of enforcement have yet to be set.

“We are Hong Kong, not China,” some supporters yelled. Others held up “Die for Hong Kong” banners.

“We’re just expressing ourselves freely,” said Bendter Chong, kitted out in Hong Kong’s national jersey. “The greater the suppression, the greater the resentment. They (China) have never tried to understand the reasons behind our jeering. They just say what we’re doing is wrong.”

Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” arrangement that guarantees a high degree of autonomy, including an independent judiciary and the freedom of expression.

The booing of the anthem has become a fixture at Hong Kong football matches, with some parallels to protests in the United States where American football players have knelt during the national anthem, an act denounced by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Hong Kong has another game against Lebanon in an Asian Cup qualifier next Tuesday, that could bring repercussions.

The Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) was warned by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) recently over the conduct of fans who booed the Chinese anthem, and said “a repeat violation may result in more severe punishment”.

Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, said recently she’d like the law to be enacted within a year. She suggested, however, that it wouldn’t be applied retrospectively - meaning fans who jeer before it becomes law locally shouldn’t face prosecution.

Roy Tam, a politician with the Neo Democrats, who was at the game, which Hong Kong lost 2-0, was critical of China’s anthem law being forced on Hong Kong.

“Every Hong Kong person should have the right to sing the national anthem or not sing it. Or to jeer it. This is a part of the core freedoms of Hong Kong. We don’t agree with the transplanting of China’s ideology here.”

Additional reporting by Carmel Yang; Editing by Ian Geoghegan