November 8, 2017 / 11:37 AM / a year ago

Under China anthem cloud, rare interest in Hong Kong vs Bahrain soccer friendly

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Some activists in Hong Kong say they plan to defy a Chinese law against disrespecting the national anthem, by jeering it at international soccer fixtures against Bahrain and Lebanon in the next few days.

FILE PHOTO - Hong Kong fans turn their backs during the Chinese national anthem before the Asian Cup preliminary match between Hong Kong and Malaysia in Hong Kong, China, October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File Photo

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 affairs.

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.

In recent years, some Hong Kong fans have booed the national anthem at soccer matches, with some parallels to protests in the United States where American football players have knelt during the national anthem, a protest denounced by U.S. President Donald Trump.

China’s parliament on Saturday passed an amendment to its criminal law that extends punishments for publicly desecrating the national flag and emblem to disrespecting the national anthem.

Offenders can be jailed for up to three years, Xinhua reported.

Hong Kong, as part of China, is now obliged to put its own set of laws related to the national anthem to the local legislature, but details including jail terms and the scope of enforcement have yet to be set.

For now, though, some fans say they won’t change their behavior when Hong Kong play Bahrain in a friendly match on Thursday and Lebanon in an Asian Cup qualifier next Tuesday.

“It’s something we’ve always done,” said one fan who has attended games for the past few years, including two World Cup qualifiers between Hong Kong and China in 2015 that drew jeers from the crowd.

“It’s a kind of resentment toward China that comes through ... There are several hundred of us and it’s become a tradition now. We’ll keep doing it.”

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”.

Asked for comment, the AFC didn’t specifically address a question on whether they’d been pressed by China to punish Hong Kong, but said a review of video evidence found fans guilty of “improper conduct” under the AFC’s disciplinary and ethics code.

Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has suggested the law would be enacted in the current legislative year, and not be applied retrospectively - which would mean fans who jeer before it becomes law locally shouldn’t face prosecution.

“People should not excessively worry about unwittingly committing an offense. These worries are unnecessary,” Lam told reporters.

“I don’t see this as having any connection to ... freedom of expression. But this has highlighted a recent trend in Hong Kong that whenever there is anything related to Hong Kong and Chinese affairs ... some people cause panic and unnecessary fear.”

Reporting by James Pomfret in HONG KONG and Praveen Menon in KUALA LUMPUR; Editing by Ian Geoghegan

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