HONG KONG -- Hong Kong's legislature took up a controversial bill Wednesday that would punish anyone who "publicly and intentionally insults" the Chinese national anthem with up to three years in prison, raising concerns about Beijing's growing influence in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
The move came after soccer fans repeatedly booed the anthem at the start of international qualifiers, upsetting leaders of the ruling Communist Party in Beijing. The measure would also require students to sing and study the song as part of their curriculum.
Ever since Beijing suppressed the pro-democracy movement in the semi-autonomous city in late 2014, heckling China's national anthem has emerged as a form of protest. The bill, which also includes a maximum fine of $50,000 Hong Kong (US$6,410), will be up for passage this summer.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997 but continues to enjoy civil liberties such as freedom of the press that are denied in China. The "one country, two systems" framework is supposed to last for 50 years but has been significantly eroded under authoritarian Chinese leader Xi Jinping, critics say.
"We're worried that by passing the bill, people's right and liberty to express themselves in terms of political ideology will be restricted," said Alvin Yeung, a lawmaker in Hong Kong's Legislative Council, known as LegCo.
Pro-Beijing legislator Holden Chow disagreed, saying the bill was merely about upholding the sanctity of national symbols.
"We are simply deterring people from showing disrespect to the national anthem," Chow said.
Before LegCo went into the morning session, student pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong and several others staged a flash demonstration by mounting a black protest banner right under China's national five-star emblem at Hong Kong's government headquarters.
Emblazoned with the slogan "Freedom not to sing praises," the banner was swiftly removed by security and no arrests were reported.
In 2017, Beijing enacted a national anthem law and entered it as an amendment to Hong Kong's constitution. The anthem, "March of the Volunteers," begins with a call for defiance: "Rise up, you people who refuse to be subjugated."
The bill is virtually assured of passage since the legislators who tend to side with Beijing outnumber the pro-democracy camp. But the law wades into untested waters since it represents Beijing's first effort at requiring Hong Kong to pass a mainland Chinese law, a potential breach of "one country, two systems."
It shows that more and more laws passed by the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp parliament, will "sooner or later be fully applicable to Hong Kong," said Willy Lam, a political analyst and adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "This is a distributing trend."
Newspaper columnists have pointed to the example of American footballers kneeling at the playing of the U.S. anthem as a form of protest that should be tolerated. Some also decry the Hong Kong bill as carrying the harshest penalty of any jurisdiction that has a punitive national anthem law, including Russia, Singapore and Malaysia.
Passage of the national anthem bill could open up the floodgates to further legislative efforts long opposed in Hong Kong, including national security legislation that could significantly increase Beijing's sway over the territory.