Hong Kong passes anthem law on Tiananmen anniversary

On the 31st anniversary of Beijing's Tiananmen crackdown on the student-led pro-democracy movement, Hong Kong legislature approved a law that makes it illegal to insult or abuse the Chinese national anthem. 

Vincent Yu/AP
Pan-democratic legislators in Hong Kong observe one minute of silence for the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown before a debate over the national anthem bill on June 4, 2020. The bill passed, making it illegal to insult the Chinese anthem.

Hong Kong's legislature approved a contentious bill on Thursday that makes it illegal to insult the Chinese national anthem.

Thursday's vote coincided with the 31st anniversary of China's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Before the debate began, pro-democracy lawmakers stood in silence to mark the anniversary and put signs on their desks saying, "Do not forget June 4, the hearts of the people will not die."

With democracy all but snuffed out in mainland China, the focus has shifted increasingly to Hong Kong, where authorities banned the annual vigil that remembers victims of the 1989 crackdown. Thousands of people in Hong Kong defied a police ban Thursday evening, breaking through barricades to hold a candlelight vigil.

Police cited the need for social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak and barricaded sprawling Victoria Park to prevent people from gathering there. Beijing is taking a tougher stance following months of anti-government protests last year, in what activists see as an accelerating erosion of the city's rights and liberties.

Despite the police ban, crowds poured into Victoria Park to light candles and observed a minute of silence at 8:09 p.m. (8:09 a.m. EDT). Many chanted “Democracy now”and “Stand for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”

"If we don’t come out today, we don’t even know if we can still come out next year,” said participant Serena Cheung.

While police played recordings warning people not to participate in the unauthorized gathering, they did little to stop people from entering the park.

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic and Democratic Movements of China that organizes the annual vigil called on people to light candles at 8 p.m. and planned to livestream the commemorations on its website.

“We all know the Hong Kong government and the Chinese government really don’t want to see the candle lights in Victoria Park,” said Wu’er Kaixi, a former student leader who was No. 2 on the government’s most-wanted list following the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Hundreds, possibly thousands of people were killed when tanks and troops moved in on the night of June 3-4, 1989, to break up weeks of student-led protests that had spread to other cities and were seen as a threat to Communist Party rule.

“The Chinese Communists want us all to forget about what happened 31 years ago," Mr. Wu'er told the AP in Taiwan, where he now resides. "But it is the Chinese government themselves reminding the whole world that they are the same government ... doing the same in Hong Kong.”

The legislation was approved after pro-democracy opposition lawmakers tried to disrupt the vote. It passed with 41 lawmakers voting for it and just one voting against. Most of the pro-democracy lawmakers boycotted the vote out of protest.

The pro-democracy camp sees the anthem law as an infringement of freedom of expression and of the greater rights that residents of the semi-autonomous city have compared to mainland China.

The pro-Beijing majority in the legislature said the law is necessary for Hong Kong citizens to show appropriate respect for the anthem. 

Those found guilty of intentionally abusing the "March of the Volunteers" face up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 50,000 Hong Kong dollars ($6,450).

Debate over the legislative was later suspended after pro-democracy lawmakers staged a protest, with one dropping a pot of pungent liquid in the chamber. 

Raising a sign that said "A murderous regime stinks for ten thousand years," lawmaker Ray Chan walked to the front with the pot hidden inside a Chinese paper lantern. When security guards tried to stop him, he dropped the lantern and the pot, and was ejected from the meeting. Another lawmaker who accompanied him was also ejected. 

The chamber was evacuated and police and firemen were called in to investigate the incident.

When the meeting resumed, pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui again splashed some liquid at the front of the meeting room and was escorted out.

The president of Hong Kong's legislature, Andrew Leung, called such behavior irresponsible and childish. He cut short the debate because of the suspension and called for the vote. Critics said the shortened debate allowed the bill to be pushed through.

"I have not cut short the meeting, I have not pushed through the bill," Mr. Leung said afterward. "I have told members that I have scheduled 30 hours [to debate the bill] so we just work according to the schedule."

The contentious debate over the bill comes after China's ceremonial national legislature formally approved a decision last week to enact a national security law for Hong Kong that could see Chinese security agents posted in the city.

The national security law is aimed at curbing subversive activity, with Beijing pushing for it after a monthslong pro-democracy protest movement at times saw violent clashes between police and protesters.

Opponents of the anthem law and national security law see them as signs of Beijing's tightening control over the territory.

While experts have warned that the security law could imperil Hong Kong's status as one of the world's best places to do business, at least two banks with a strong Asian presence have publicly backed the decision.

HSBC said in a Chinese social media post that it "respects and supports all laws that stabilize Hong Kong's social order," while Standard Chartered said it believed the national security law would "help maintain the long-term economic and social stability of Hong Kong."

Beijing began pushing for the anthem law after Hong Kong soccer fans jeered the national anthem at international matches in 2015.

As anti-government protests engulfed Hong Kong last year, thousands of fans booed loudly and turned their backs when the anthem was played at a World Cup qualifier match against Iran in September. FIFA later fined the Hong Kong Football Association over the incident.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted criticism of China and Hong Kong for banning the vigil earlier this week before meeting with a group of Tiananmen Square survivors at the State Department.

The cancellation of the vigil came amid a tightening of Beijing’s grip over Hong Kong. China's ceremonial legislature last month ratified a decision to impose national security laws on Hong Kong, circumventing the city’s legislature and shocking many of its 7.5 million residents.

Police said they made arrests in the city's Mongkok district, where large crowds also rallied. When several protesters tried to block a road, officers rushed to detain them, using pepper spray and raising a blue flag to warn them to disperse or they would use force on the unauthorized gathering. On Twitter, they urged people not to gather in groups because of the coronavirus.

As has become customary, many dissidents were placed under house arrest and their communications with the outside world cut off, according to rights groups. 

After the vigil ended in Victoria Park, groups of protesters dressed in black carried flags that said, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our times” as well as “Hong Kong Independence.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Ken Moritsugu from Beijing, AP videojournalists Alice Fung and Katie Tam in Hong Kong and Taijing Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report. 

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