HK football fans boo the anthem: what would Trump think?1

Why Hong Kong was glad to see the back of ‘white coolies’

What would Trump think about the scene here in Hong Kong in recent days, where hundreds of local soccer fans booed and turned their backs during the playing of the Chinese national anthem, March of the Volunteers? He would probably side with China’s Communist Party rulers, who this month decided to make insulting the national anthem a criminal offence, punishable by up to 15 days in jail.

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First, sports figures, like actors and musicians, have long used their celebrity to draw attention to political and social causes, despite Trump’s admonition that millionaire athletes should just shut up, play the game and check their first amendment rights at the stadium gate. I remember as a 10-year-old kid in Detroit feeling a mix of astonishment and pride when athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists into a “Black Power” salute while receiving their gold and bronze medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

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That brings us back to Hong Kong. The territory’s Basic Law, often called its “mini-constitution”, says “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication.” That’s a pretty emphatic statement of a right, without any qualifiers.

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Patriotism has to be earned, not force fed to people. Respect for symbols like flags and anthems cannot be crammed down citizens’ throats with national education policies or demanded under the threat of prison. Hong Kong is unique — 150 years as a British colony, but just two decades under Chinese rule. And those two decades have seen a gradual tightening of control by Beijing. The Hong Kong Journalists Association recently warned: “The past 20 years have seen a regression of freedom of expression in general and press freedom in particular.”

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Keith Richburg

Keith Richburg

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Director, Journalism & Media Studies Centre, the University of Hong Kong; author of Out Of America; Wash Post Bureau Chief in China, ASEAN, Europe, Africa.