A national anthem bill to be tabled in Hong Kong’s legislature would stipulate the conditions under which the song could be played but not define what constituted disrespectful conduct, a government source said on Thursday.
Authorities in the city were also studying the need to include legislation that would make it compulsory to educate primary and secondary school pupils on the importance of the anthem, according to the source. The possibility of the move sparked concerns over what is seen as encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Last November, China’s top legislative body imposed a national anthem law on Hong Kong by inserting it into the city’s mini-constitution, meaning the local administration is required to draft local legislation criminalising any abuse of the song.
Sources said the government would table a policy paper to the Legislative Council next Friday, one week before the constitutional affairs panel was set to meet and discuss the matter.
The government aims to secure a first reading of the bill in Legco before July, after which a committee would be set up to scrutinise the clauses in the draft.
Under China’s national law, everyone must stand solemnly when the anthem is played, and anyone who maliciously modifies the lyrics, or plays or sings the song in “a distorted or disrespectful way in public” may face criminal charges.
According to the government source, the local law would centre on occasions when the anthem could be played, such as at flag-raising ceremonies of events celebrating the anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule, as well as during National Day. The legislation would ban playing the anthem for commercial purposes or at private funerals.
Those who play or sing the song in “a distorted or disrespectful way in public” could face criminal charges on par with levels set under the city’s existing National Flag and National Emblem Ordinance – three years’ imprisonment and a fine of HK$50,000 (US$6,400).
“Not standing does not constitute an offence in itself. The key would be whether a person is deliberately doing this to demonstrate disrespect,” the government source said. “The law will not list out any scenarios. Any disputes will be handed over to the court to judge.”
He admitted that while it would be contentious if the city enacted laws similar to the mainland to educate children on the national anthem, a local study on this was already under way.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok, a representative of the legal sector, expressed worries about the idea. “Education falls under the scope of Hong Kong’s autonomy, which should not be regulated by a national law inserted into the Basic Law,” he argued.
Former secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, Raymond Tam Chi-yuen, now a delegate to the National People’s Congress, said in Beijing that this was something for the Hong Kong government to decide, and he believed laying out requirements for schools under a set of guidelines would be “more flexible”.
Executive councillor Ronny Tong Ka-wah said it was not an issue about education. “The national law has already been inserted into the Basic Law. We have the responsibility to legislate it,” he said. “I don’t think that means an interference in our local education system.”
Meanwhile, former secretary for security Lai Tung-kwok said he saw no difficulties for police to enforce the law. The delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top political advisory body, said the Hong Kong government had the responsibility to enact the legislation as soon as possible.
The anthem law comes in the wake of recent cases of abuse of the song, including by Hong Kong soccer fans, who were seen booing the anthem at international matches.
Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said he felt there was no need to use legislation as a method to regulate teaching.
“In Hong Kong, the Education Bureau usually has guidelines for schools to develop their own curriculum, and we seldom use laws as a method to say what we should teach or how it should be done,” Ip said on a radio programme on Friday morning.
Most local schools in Hong Kong already teach pupils how to sing the national anthem, and some schools have regular flag-raising activities where the song is played.
Last year, the bureau adopted new curriculum guidelines for the General Studies subject in Primary One to Three. Under a section on national identity and Chinese culture, the core elements pupils should learn about included China’s national flag, emblem, anthem and, at more advanced stages, important milestones in the country’s history and its relationship with Hong Kong.
Schools in the city are required to follow the guidelines but are free to interpret them and to develop their own teaching materials.
Lions College secondary school principal James Lam Yat-fung agreed with Ip, saying that there was no need to include the education element in a specific piece of legislation.
Lam said that by the time pupils reached secondary school, they already had a basic grasp on how to sing the national anthem. They would then usually be taught more about the lyrics and the song’s history and background as part of Chinese history or music lessons.
“As educators, we want children to grow up knowing how to act when the national anthem is played and what should be the right attitude,” Lam said.
“I believe, as do many in the education sector, that the guidelines are already enough to delegate what to teach, but there could be some improvements. If the public or lawmakers feel there is a need or reasons for such legislation, then I think they will need to convince us,” he said.