The proposed national anthem law for Hong Kong is not aimed at forcing residents to love the country, and the last thing authorities want is to prosecute people over disrespect for the song, the city’s constitutional affairs minister has said.
In a recent interview with the South China Morning Post, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip Tak-kuen said he appreciated the need for a multipronged approach to address anti-mainland Chinese sentiment among Hongkongers who booed the national anthem.
“We can’t make people patriotic simply through the passage of a law,” Nip said, adding that the primary aim of the bill was to promote respect for the anthem.
He was speaking before the tabling of the bill to the Legislative Council on Wednesday.
“My key performance indicator would not be measured by how many people are prosecuted for insulting the anthem,” he said.
“While the bill aims to ensure those who do insult the song have a price to pay, the last thing I want is to have cases for prosecution. I really hope there will be no such case after the law comes into effect.”
The Hong Kong government unveiled the controversial bill to make insulting the national anthem a crime two weeks ago It also requires March of the Volunteers to be played when lawmakers and key officials are sworn in.
Under the new legislation, offenders face a maximum fine of HK$50,000 (US$6,374) and three years’ jail as penalties for publicly and intentionally insulting the anthem. Legco can vote on the bill by July, before the summer recess.
Some Hongkongers fear this will be yet another way of curbing freedom of expression in the city.
Nip noted that there were some misconceptions about the bill, including claims it was another distortion of the “one country, two systems” under which Hong Kong has enjoyed a high degree of autonomy from Beijing since 1997.
He said the national laws listed in Annex 3 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, should be applied locally by way of promulgation or local legislation by the Hong Kong government.
“Our decision to implement the mainland’s National Anthem Law in Hong Kong by local legislation shows our commitment to ‘one country two systems’,” the minister said.
“The bill is not a cut-and-paste reproduction of the mainland law,” he said. “There is no mention of the phrase of practising ‘the core values of socialism’ in the local legislation, as stated in the mainland version.”
The bill also gives authorities up to two years to prosecute offenders, compared with six months for other crimes under the Magistrates Ordinance.
If an alleged wrongdoing came to light at a later time but the actual date of the act was unclear, police can still lay charges within a year of the discovery.
Two weeks ago, former deputy director of public prosecutions John Reading said the window of two years for police to bring charges against offenders was too long.
He added that charging and summoning culprits should be easily done.
Nip maintained that the prosecution time limit was not unique, citing the Copyright Ordinance and the Residential Properties (First-hand Sales) Ordinance, which allow a three-year time limit for prosecution.
The anthem bill also includes provision for the city’s education minister to ensure the song is taught and used in primary and secondary schools. This applies to subsidised, international and special schools, but no punishment is specified for those who fail to comply.
Nip said the government had not yet decided which days and special occasions schools would be advised to play and sing the anthem after the law came into effect.
According to a circular issued by the Education Bureau in 2010, schools were advised to display the national flag and the regional flag on important days and special occasions.
“We may draw reference from the Education Bureau’s circular,” Nip said. “Even if we adopt such an approach to promote the national anthem in schools, it would be in an advisory format, not a compulsory requirement. Educators will be encouraged to promote students’ learning of the national anthem in a school-based manner.”
He said the Education Bureau had discussed the issue with international schools in Hong Kong and they would not find it difficult to comply with the new law.
“International schools have been espousing the need to embrace diversity and respect for different cultures,” he said. “For students in international schools, it is a means by which they learn about the culture and history of the country in which they are living.”
“I don’t think the Japanese International School would have any problem in teaching the Chinese national anthem,” he said.
March of the Volunteers was written for the film Children of Turbulent Times, which premiered in 1935, and portrayed a political awakening of young people who enlisted as volunteers to fight Japanese invaders.
Nip said he noted that many Hong Kong people had cheered for Chinese athletes during the 2008 Beijing Olympics but anti-mainland sentiment had grown recently.
“There are many reasons behind the change,” he said. “We should provide more information to enhance Hongkongers’ understanding of mainland China.”