The original version of this report was written by Tom Grundy and published in Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) on May 26, 2023. The following edited version has been published on Global Voices as part of a content partnership agreement with HKFP.
The government is seeking a legal injunction and an interim injunction to ban the performance and circulation of the 2019 protest song “Glory to Hong Kong”, the lyrics of which contain a slogan that has been deemed a call for secession.
It comes almost three years after the authorities were unable to give a clear answer as to the song's legality, though it has already been banned in schools.
According to a press release on June 6, a writ from the Department of Justice — filed on June 5 — seeks to ban the “broadcasting, performing, printing, publishing, selling, offering for sale, distributing, disseminating, displaying or reproducing in any way (including on the internet and/or any media accessible online and/or any internet-based platform or medium) the Song.” Those who commit such acts will be criminally liable if they are found to have intended to commit sedition or secession.
Citing the Beijing-imposed national security law (NSL), the sedition law, and the national anthem law, the legal provisos would also ban the melody, lyrics and any adaptations of the song. Pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho is among those known to have parodied the song.
The move comes almost a week after a busker, known for his public renditions of “Glory to Hong Kong” was cleared of charges by a court amid doubts over police testimony. A Hong Kong court also adjourned the verdict on June 2 in the first trial relating to insulting the Chinese national anthem after a magistrate cleared doubts over a police sergeant’s expert testimony.
The 2019 protest song’s lyrics and melody would also be banned, with the “broadcasting, performing, printing, publishing, selling” or parodies potentially attracting criminal charges.
The justice department claimed that the song is “likely to be mistaken as the national anthem” and that its existence could suggest that the city has an anthem of its own or could encourage others to commit seditious acts. Injunctions would protect the national anthem from insult, it added.
It also pointed to the lyrics, which are banned under the security law. The government has said the lyrics “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” allude to Hong Kong's independence, separating the city from China, altering its legal status, and subverting state power.
The song and the slogan — coined in 2016 by ex-localist leader Edward Leung, ousted lawmaker Baggio Leung and a former Youngspiration member — were popularised during the city’s month-long pro-democracy protests and unrest in 2019.
Those who assist others in committing an offense relating to the song would also be criminally liable if the injunctions are granted.
The department said the injunctions would complement existing laws: “The HKSAR Government respects and values the rights and freedoms protected by the Basic Law (including freedom of speech), but freedom of speech is not absolute.”
When asked how the injunctions could be applied to foreign-hosted or owned websites and social media sites and whether the rules would be retrospective or enforced against news media, the justice department sent a link to its original press release. When pressed, a spokesperson said: “As legal proceedings are in progress, the Department of Justice will not comment further.”
China’s anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” is Hong Kong's official national anthem.
With multiple copies of the song hosted on websites such as YouTube and social media platforms — in various forms and languages — it is unclear whether the move would herald the advent of internet censorship in the city. It is also unclear how the rules would be applied internationally to websites hosted abroad or whether the injunctions would be retroactive.
The writ submitted to the court contained 32 links to YouTube videos related to the song.
Last year, Google refused to take action over its search results when searches for “Hong Kong national anthem” led to the Wikipedia page for the protest song. The security chief said the company’s inaction “hurt the feelings of Hong Kong people“, though it was only in April that the government updated its own page with the official anthem details. The page quickly became the top search result for “Hong Kong national anthem”.
The US tech firm has vowed to decline data requests made under the NSL and entirely withdrew from China in 2010 amid rising internet censorship.
HKFP contacted Meta, Google, and Twitter for comment. Twitter responded to inquiries with a “poop” emoji – an auto-response to journalist inquiries since mid-March 2023.
The months-long anthem saga began last November when the protest song was heard at a Rugby Sevens game in South Korea after an intern reportedly downloaded it from the internet.
Similar mix-ups occurred at international sporting finals, including at a prizegiving ceremony of a weightlifting championship in Dubai and, most recently, at a February ice hockey game in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution — bypassing the local legislature — following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.
Hong Kong’s national anthem law, which criminalises insults to “March of the Volunteers”, was enacted on June 4, 2020 — violators risk fines of up to HKD 50,000 (about USD 6,376) or three years in prison.