After COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong have come to a steady decline after almost five months, protesters have begun to crowd the streets as lockdown restrictions start to lift. These protests emerged in Hong Kong amidst a new controversial national anthem bill, which seeks to criminalize any behaviour deemed offensive towards the national anthem. Commercializing or publicly insulting the anthem could warrant up to fines of 50,000 Hong Kong dollars ($9,062 CAD), as well as up to three years in jail. Police are said to have arrested around 230 people on accounts of several charges, such as unlawful assembly and refusing to abide by social distancing regulations. Protests are expected to increase as summer remains the most popular season for protests in Hong Kong. Summer brings upon the anniversaries of June 4, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and July 1, which marks the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China.
The government has warned the public to limit social disturbances as Hong Kong’s economy continues to recover from the COVID-19 crisis. Despite these warnings, the government has pushed for the legislation of the bill. Government officials have suggested the spirit of the bill is for “respect”, and deny that the bill violates freedom of speech. Matthew Cheung, Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary and number two official has stated: “The national anthem is the symbol and sign of the country. [The law’s purpose] is to preserve the dignity of the national anthem so that members of the community would respect [it].”
The government in Hong Kong had proposed a bill in March 2019 to allow extraditions to mainland China. Up to two million people in Hong Kong took to the streets to peacefully protest the bill. In response, the Hong Kong police responded with tear gas, batons, pepper spray, and more. Despite the government dropping the proposed extradition bill, the movement has transformed into a wider call for change in Hong Kong.
Several legal and human rights organizations have accused the proposed national anthem law of violating freedom of expression and breaching Hong Kong’s constitution. Pro-democracy lawyer Claudia Mo spoke on the matter in 2o19 stating: “The Hong Kong anthem bill is a political weapon to help shut down the Hong Kong opposition. Respect cannot be won via legislation. Respect has to be won by oneself. You cannot threaten or force others to respect you unwillingly.”
Currently, Hong Kong is classified as a Special Administrative Region (SRA), controlled by The People’s Republic of China. A former British colony, Hong Kong enjoys limited autonomy in China under Basic Law. Arguably, the most significant difference between the two is that mainland China is a single-party state, while Hong Kong possesses limited democracy. This contrast is often the driving factor for tension between the two regions. Although Hong Kong enjoys freedoms absent in mainland China, many claim these freedoms are slowly declining.
It is important to note that the withdrawal of these controversial bills are only one of five demands by protesters in Hong Kong. In addition, protesters wish for the government to declassify its characterization of protests as riots, investigate the use of force by Hong Kong police, and release those arrested during such protests. Most importantly, protesters desire political reform that allows for legitimate universal suffrage. More specifically, the freedom to be able to choose the leaders of Hong Kong by themselves.
In order to maintain peace in Hong Kong, both the withdrawal of the bill and an unbiased investigation into the use of force by police in Hong Kong are crucial.