Government bid to ban ‘Glory to Hong Kong’ protest song approved by appeals court

Glory to Hong Kong. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP. Used with permission.

This report was written by Hilary Leung and originally published in Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) on May 8, 2024. An edited version is published below as part of a content partnership agreement with HKFP.

A Hong Kong appeals court has sided with the government in its attempt to ban the protest song “Glory to Hong Kong”, overturning last year’s decision by a lower court that cited free speech concerns.

Three Court of Appeal judges handed down the judgment on May 8, writing that the injunction sought by the authorities was “necessary” to persuade online platforms to remove the “problematic videos.”

Popularised during the 2019 protests and unrest, “Glory to Hong Kong” has been confused with China’s anthem, “March of the Volunteers”, at international sporting events — mix-ups that have prompted investigations by the police. Authorities have linked the song to “violence and disturbances” and advocacy for Hong Kong’s independence, although that was not one of the official demands of the anti-extradition protests.

The Hong Kong government had earlier asked Google to remove “Glory to Hong Kong” from its results and pin the correct information about Hong Kong’s anthem to the top of the results page, but to no avail.

The judges said in their decision that internet platforms have indicated that they are “ready to accede to the [g]overnment’s request” if there is a court order. The judgement states:

It is impracticable to bring proceedings against each of the wrongdoers… A much more effective way to safeguard national security in such circumstances is to ask the [online platforms] to stop facilitating the acts being carried out on their platforms.

Meanwhile, Google told HKFP it did not have immediate comments but that it was “reviewing the court’s judgment.”

HKFP has also reached out to Meta and Microsoft as to whether the platforms will remove content involving “Glory to Hong Kong”, or block them from being uploaded in the future.

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said as the appeal court handed down the decision:

Stopping anyone from employing or disseminating the relevant song… is a legitimate and necessary measure by [Hong Kong] to fulfil its responsibility of safeguarding national security.

The Asia Internet Coalition, a group that counts Google and Spotify among its members, said it was assessing the implications of the decision and how the injunction will be implemented. The coalition told HKFP:

We believe that a free and open internet is fundamental to the city’s ambitions to become an international technology and innovation hub.

‘For safeguarding national security’

The Court of Appeal’s decision comes almost a year after the government said it was seeking an injunction that would effectively criminalise acts of performance that involved illegal intentions.

Authorities said the song — affiliated with the 2019 protests and unrest — has been “mistakenly presented… repeatedly” as the city’s anthem. They were referring to a string of gaffes at international sporting events where “Glory to Hong Kong” was played instead of China’s anthem, “March of the Volunteers”.

Last July, the High Court rejected the government’s bid, saying the move could have a “chilling effect” on free speech. However, the authorities were given a chance to challenge the court’s decision.

During the appeal, a lawyer representing the government cited an interview the song’s composer gave, in which he called the song a “weapon” he contributed to the 2019 protests.

“The song is regarded by the composer himself as a weapon,” Senior Counsel Benjamin Yu said in December.

Despite the implementation of the national security law (NSL), which has chilled Hong Kong Civil society, “Glory to Hong Kong” remained prevalent and continued to “arouse emotions.” It was mistaken as Hong Kong’s national anthem more than 800 times, Yu said citing an estimation by the police.

Protests erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill, which would have allowed China to extradite citizens from Hong Kong without due process. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.”

In Wednesday’s decision, the judges wrote that, “prosecutions alone are clearly not adequate to tackle the acute criminal problems and that there is a compelling need for an injunction, as a counter-measure, to aid the criminal law for safeguarding national security.”

The judges added that Yu had proposed exceptions regarding “lawful activities” in connection with the song, such as for academic or news activity. They accepted these exceptions, the judges wrote.

Anthem blunders

Composed by protesters and with lyrics co-written by users of the online forum LIHKG, “Glory to Hong Kong” was released on YouTube in August 2019. It includes the slogan “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” a common refrain chanted by protestors during the unrest.

The slogan has since been ruled as capable of inciting secession, according to the judges who presided over the city’s first national security trial in 2021. Secession is an offence under the Beijing-imposed national security law, which can see offenders jailed for life.

From late 2022 to early 2023, with international sporting events restarting after pandemic restrictions eased globally, the city saw at least five incidents in which “Glory to Hong Kong” was confused with China’s national anthem. The mistakes prompted local police to investigate.

The first known case was a mix-up at South Korea’s Rugby Sevens in November 2022, when the protest song was played instead of China’s March of the Volunteers. Organisers had reportedly downloaded the top song listed when searching online for the city’s anthem.

Hong Kong authorities then asked Google to remove “Glory to Hong Kong” from the results and pin the correct information at the top of the page, with Chief Executive John Lee saying that the search engine has a “moral obligation” to comply.

Last July, after the government launched the injunction bid, the city’s Secretary for Innovation, Technology and Industry Sun Dong said Google had not acceded to the request. Google said it needed evidence to prove the song violated local laws, Dong added.

The government eventually produced an official webpage clarifying the issue, which rose in search engine rankings.

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