HONG KONG • Hong Kong unveiled a proposed law yesterday to punish anyone who disrespects the Chinese national anthem with up to three years in jail, as Beijing ramps up pressure on the semi-autonomous city to fall into line.
The Bill, which will have its first reading in the city's Parliament on Jan 23, sets up a fresh battle between the authorities and democracy activists who say the financial hub's freedoms are being steadily dismantled.
Hong Kong has mulled the law ever since China fine-tuned legislation on the proper way and place to sing the anthem, tightening rules that already bar people from performing it at parties, weddings and funerals.
A draft Bill showed that the city planned to copy the mainland by introducing a maximum three-year jail sentence for "serious" cases of disrespect towards the anthem.
The draft outlaws playing the anthem "in a distorted or disrespectful way, with intent to insult".
It also forbids altering the anthem's lyrics and its score. As well as possible jail time, offenders will face fines of up to HK$50,000 (S$8,700).
Mr Patrick Nip, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, told reporters the law would "preserve the dignity of the national anthem and promote respect". Defiant Hong Kong football fans have booed the anthem at matches for years. Fans have also previously turned their backs and displayed banners advocating independence for the city.
The draft Bill cited the difficulty of identifying culprits in a crowd of football supporters as one of the reasons police will be given double the amount of time - one year - to investigate a non-indictable offence.
The Bill also ramps up how often China's national anthem will be played at official events, including at the inauguration of new judges.
That may raise eyebrows, given Hong Kong's legal system is separate from the mainland under the 1997 handover agreement with Britain designed to guarantee the city's liberties for 50 years.
Critics accuse China of reneging on that agreement, citing a variety of moves targeting the city's freedom of expression, including a crackdown on activists.
The Hong Kong authorities say they have acted in accordance with national security provisions in the handover agreement.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo accused the government of using the proposed law as a "political weapon" to "help shut down the entire opposition".
The law is expected to pass with few changes as it needs only a simple majority in the city's legislature, which is heavily weighted towards the pro-Beijing establishment.