Organizers of a Dubai weightlifting competition played a banned Hong Kong protest song instead of China’s national anthem during a medal ceremony, as the city’s organized crime squad investigates a similar incident at a sporting event in South Korea.
“Glory to Hong Kong,” the anthem of the 2019 democracy movement that ranged from mass, peaceful demonstrations for full democracy to intermittent, pitched battles between “front-line” protesters and armed riot police, was banned in 2020 as Beijing imposed a draconian national security law on the city.
The anthem, which calls for freedom and democracy rather than independence, was nonetheless deemed in breach of the law due to its “separatist” intent, officials and police officers said at the start of an ongoing citywide crackdown on public dissent and peaceful political activism.
Footage from a medal ceremony at the Asian Classic Powerlifting Championship 2022 in Dubai on Dec. 2 showed Hong Kong weightlifter Susanna Lin take to the podium after winning the women’s 47kg open competition.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the national anthem of Hong Kong,” a voice says over a public address system, before the first strains of “Glory to Hong Kong” are heard, including the English lyrics, “We pledge no more tears on our land; in wrath, doubts dispelled, we make our stand.”
‘It’s the wrong one?’
The officials lined up in front of the podium show scant reaction, but Lin, who could be targeted under the national security law if she had said nothing, quickly gestures to the organizers to cut off the recording, using the “time out” hand signal in the shape of the letter T.
“No? It’s the wrong one?” a voice replies.
An awkward pause ensues before the organizers play China’s actual national anthem, the “March of the Volunteers.”
The Hong Kong government said it “deplored” the mistake, but praised Lin and Hong Kong officials for following guidelines and responding immediately.
“The [Hong Kong] government recognizes the action taken by the Hong Kong representatives on the spot which upheld national dignity,” it said in a statement dated Dec. 3.
It said the Sports Federation & Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China, had promised to launch an investigation into the incident.
“The [Hong Kong] government attaches great importance to the incident and has requested the … report as soon as possible,” the statement said.
Social media support
Some online comments appeared jubilant, however.
“Well done, team Hong Kong,” read one comment under the YouTube clip. Another user said “Glory to Hong Kong” filled them with hope, compared with the Chinese anthem, which describes people forming a “Great Wall of flesh and blood” and marching into enemy cannon fire.
One user commented “Hong Kongers, add oil!”, also a slogan of the 2019 protest movement. User @kaibotski4939 quipped, in a reference to Lin’s hand signal: “T for Truth. T for top notch. T for Tiananmen square.”
Video footage of the error was later removed from official YouTube footage of the event but was reposted by other channels.
The gaffe came after the protest anthem blared out over the sound system at an Asian Rugby Sevens match between Hong Kong and South Korea near Seoul on Nov. 13, in another departure from international sporting protocol.
The incident prompted the Hong Kong government to summon South Korean officials and repeatedly denounce the error, despite public apologies from the tournament organizers, who blamed the incident on the “innocent mistake” of an inexperienced intern.
The government then announced that the Hong Kong organized crime and triad police would be investigating the incident for possible breaches of the national security law, which bans public speech or actions deemed likely to “incite hatred” of the government.
A letter to the government from the president of the Asian Powerlifting Federation blamed the incident on volunteers working at the event, the English-language South China Morning Post reported.
The incidents aren’t the first time the playing of anthems at sporting events has become a touchy subject for authorities.
Hong Kong passed a national anthem law in June 2020 banning “insults” to the Chinese national anthem after Hong Kong soccer fans repeatedly booed, yelled Cantonese obscenities or turned their backs when it was played at matches.
The Hong Kong Free Press news website reported on Nov. 16 that government officials asked “a search engine” to pin the correct information about the national anthem at the top of their search results in the wake of the Seoul rugby match anthem gaffe. It cited local media reports as saying that the search engine in question was Google.
Francis Fong Po-kiu, honorary president of the Hong Kong Information Technology Federation, said the Hong Kong government’s request would have bypassed Google’s algorithm, which typically displays search results ranked according to popularity.
“Hong Kong isn’t a country, so it doesn’t have a national anthem,” Fong said. “That means that if you search for [Hong Kong National Anthem], something that doesn’t exist, the results will be ranked according to the most viewed.
“The authorities can negotiate with the search engine provider, but the other party has the right to decide whether or not to change it,” Fong said.
He said search engine providers can theoretically also hide information from users in Hong Kong based on their IP address, but that the content would still be visible to users outside the territory.
Isaac Cheng, a former Hong Kong pro-democracy activist now based in Taiwan, said both incidents were likely genuine mistakes with no political intent.
“The Hong Kong government’s fierce reaction has … made it so high-profile, saying they will send a national security team to investigate whether or not broadcasting the wrong national anthem violates Hong Kong’s national security law,” Cheng told RFA.
“This kind of wolf warrior diplomacy holding countries to account for their errors looks ridiculous to the international community.”
Cheng said reports that the government had asked Google to tweak its search results rankings suggested that they wanted to hide just how popular the Hong Kong protest anthem footage was.
“The high search rankings of ‘Glory to Hong Kong’ tell us about how highly this song is regarded by Hong Kongers,” he said. “This song came out of the 2019 protest movement … about sacrificing their lives and freedom for the city they love.”
Cheng said the song is still regularly played wherever Hong Kongers hold rallies or protests overseas.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.