Hong Kong legislature votes for law banning China anthem insults

Pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan (top) holds a placard reading ‘A murderous regime stinks for 10,000 years’. (AP pic)

HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s legislature voted Thursday for a Beijing-backed law banning insults to China’s national anthem, a move critics say further stifles dissent in the restless semi-autonomous financial hub.

Lawmakers approved the bill with 41 in favour and one against, but the 75-seat chamber’s pro-democracy faction refused to vote and instead shouted slogans denouncing the law.

The vote came as Hong Kongers marked the 31st anniversary of China sending tanks and troops to crush pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and opponents rallied around the symbolism of the timing.

One lawmaker threw a foul-smelling liquid on the legislature’s floor in a bid to halt proceedings.

Others gave impassioned speeches denouncing the law, which carries up to three years in prison and fines for anyone who insults the “March of the Volunteers”.

“If you want people to respect the national anthem, I’m afraid you have chosen the wrong approach, it is counter-productive,” pro-democracy lawmaker Wu Chi-wai said during the debate.

Wu quoted the first line of the anthem, a revolutionary call to arms that declares: “Arise ye who refuse to be slaves.”

“The Central People’s Government is suppressing us and we are forced to become slaves of this regime,” Wu added.

The legislature is stacked with pro-Beijing lawmakers, and only half the chamber is elected by popular vote.

Hong Kong’s government has rejected the idea the anthem law restricts political freedoms, saying many other nations have similar laws.

“Some people said this is a vicious law and will suppress our freedom of speech. That does not exist at all,” Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Minister Erick Tsang told reporters after the vote.

He said people would only be prosecuted if they “openly and deliberately” insulted the anthem.

Beijing has been infuriated by Hong Kongers – especially football fans – booing the national anthem in recent years to signal dissatisfaction with China’s rule.

Widespread anger towards Beijing and city leaders exploded last year with seven straight months of huge and often violent pro-democracy protests.

Once those protests abated, Beijing urged Hong Kong’s leaders to push ahead with laws similar to those on the mainland outlawing insults to the anthem.

They have also announced plans to impose a new national security law that will bypass the often gridlocked local legislature, a move that has sparked significant alarm.

Under a deal agreed with Britain ahead of the 1997 handover, China agreed to allow Hong Kong to keep certain freedoms and autonomy.

Many Hong Kongers fear those freedoms are being prematurely eroded, a charge Beijing rejects.

The new anthem law needs to be signed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam and is expected to become effective from June 12.