After “Glory to Hong Kong” emerged as the unofficial anthem of pro-democracy demonstrators in 2019, the government of Hong Kong has tried to stifle its use. It has banned the song from schools. When it was played in error last year instead of the Chinese national anthem at a rugby match in South Korea, the Hong Kong government demanded an investigation.
This week the authorities asked a court to ban the public performance and online dissemination of “Glory to Hong Kong.” The move could ensnare U.S. technology companies like Google and set up the first legal test of how much control the Hong Kong government can wield over online content.
Hong Kong is seeking to prohibit the distribution or reproduction of the song “in any way,” including adaptations of its “melody or lyrics,” the government said in a statement on Tuesday. It said that the song had been used to “insult” the Chinese national anthem, “The March of the Volunteers,” causing “serious damage to the country” and to Hong Kong. A date for the court to hear the request has not been set.
The Hong Kong authorities had previously criticized Google for displaying the protest song under search results for Hong Kong’s national anthem.
“We’ve already sent a request to Google to pin the correct national anthem but, regrettably, Google refused,” said Chris Tang, the Hong Kong security secretary, at a news conference in December. “I find this explanation unthinkable and the Hong Kong people will not tolerate it.”
The government’s request for a court injunction against the protest song, made on Monday, is the latest attempt by Hong Kong to root out the remaining vestiges of political dissent in the city, a former British colony that once enjoyed more political autonomy. Under China’s president, Xi Jinping, Hong Kong has undergone a stark shift from its days as a prosperous hub for foreign businesses to a frontier in Beijing’s campaign to safeguard national security.
Last week, an annual vigil held on the anniversary of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing was shut down by officers, who arrested and detained protesters and suspected mourners.
In applying for the court injunction against the Hong Kong protest anthem, the government cites its national security law, which was enacted in 2020 and gave Beijing sweeping powers to crack down on what it deemed to be political crimes, including separatism and collusion.
If granted, a court injunction would likely make moderating content in Hong Kong more complicated and expensive for U.S. tech companies, said George Chen, managing director for the consulting firm The Asia Group and former head of public policy for Greater China at Meta. He said the government’s decision to use the courts was “opening the flood gates.”
“Glory to Hong Kong” can be found in Hong Kong on such platforms as Meta’s Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which is owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet.
According to Ming Pao, a centrist Chinese-language newspaper, the court application cited 32 links on YouTube related to the song.
Google and Meta declined to comment. Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.
U.S. technology companies typically follow the rules of the countries and regions where they operate and, at times, remove content. The potential scope of an injunction in Hong Kong was not clear. Critics say the national security law was written with the intent of policing conduct even outside of Hong Kong.
“Anyone in the world can violate the Hong Kong national security law,” said Lokman Tsui, former head of free expression for Asia Pacific at Google. “The question is whether this injunction is similar in scope.”
Refusal to comply with a decision by a Hong Kong court could endanger a company’s staff and business in the region, Mr. Tsui added.
For now, the efforts to suppress the song appear to have driven a wave of interest in it: On Wednesday, eight different versions of “Glory to Hong Kong” topped the singles charts of iTunes in Hong Kong.
For years, even as China has been largely closed off to foreign internet companies, Hong Kong remained an exception — a hub where foreign businesses could operate relatively free of the censorship controls they would face on the mainland.
The escalation of the Hong Kong government’s efforts to proscribe speech could further damage the city’s image as a financial and economic center for China and Asia, said Willy Lam, a senior fellow at Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington. “We’ve already seen many multinational businesses move their personnel to Singapore and other places, now there will be less multinationals choosing to base themselves in Hong Kong.”
“This is another nail in the coffin for Hong Kong,” he added.
Joy Dong contributed reporting.