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Hong Kong Authorities Seek Ban of Protest Song Online, in Public

The high court is seen in Hong Kong on June 6, 2023, after the government sought the city’s court to impose an injuction to ban “Glory to Hong Kong,” a song born out of the pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019.

Hong Kong is aiming to ban digital and public performances of a song that was widely used during the pro-democracy protests four years ago, a move critics say is part of a broader trend to stamp out dissent. The ban, if implemented, would present new challenges for tech companies operating in Hong Kong, analysts add.

During the political unrest of 2019, "Glory to Hong Kong" became the unofficial anthem of the pro-democracy movement.

But on June 5, Hong Kong's Department of Justice announced that it had applied for an injunction citing four unlawful acts related to the song and that it constitutes secession. In a statement, the DOJ said it is waiting for a hearing date.

Acts deemed as secession, subversion, foreign collusion or terrorism are prohibited under Hong Kong's national security law, which was imposed by Beijing three years ago following the widespread protests in 2019. The law carries a maximum term of life in prison. At least 250 people have been arrested under the law.

According to the statement, the requested injunction prohibits anyone from "broadcasting, performing, printing, publishing, selling, offering for sale, distributing, disseminating, displaying, or reproducing in any way the Song." It applies to anyone using the song to "advocate the separation of Hong Kong from China."

Critics say the government's action is part of a wider attempt to eradicate all forms of dissent in Hong Kong following political turmoil in recent years.

FILE - A group of music performers plays a protest song "Glory to Hong Kong" inside a shopping mall at Kowloon Tong, in Hong Kong, China, Sept. 18, 2019.
FILE - A group of music performers plays a protest song "Glory to Hong Kong" inside a shopping mall at Kowloon Tong, in Hong Kong, China, Sept. 18, 2019.

Jemimah Steinfeld, editor-in-chief at Index Censorship, an organization advocating for freedom of expression in Britain, said Chinese authorities fear the anthem's impact.

"The authorities in Hong Kong have long tried to make people sing the Chinese national anthem at sporting events and the like. Now, they want to stamp out Hong Kong's unofficial anthem. It's, of course, part of a broader trend of eradicating all types of dissent in Hong Kong," Steinfeld told VOA in an email.

"And it makes sense. Music, after all, moves people. It creates narratives bridging past, present and future. And it fosters community — the latter being something the [Chinese Communist Party] particularly fears. Anything collective that is not on their terms makes them deeply nervous," she added.

Since the security law came into force, authorities have banned protest slogans, including "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times," which was widely used in the pro-democracy movement. Authorities deem the slogan as secessionist and subversive. Some of the words are also present in "Glory to Hong Kong."

Hong Kong security chief Chris Tang told local media in December 2022 that the government had approached tech giant Google asking the company to put China's national anthem at the top of search results. But Google refused, stating searches were based on algorithms, Tang said.

When VOA conducted a Google search of the phrase "Hong Kong national anthem," a Wikipedia page for "Glory to Hong Kong" was the top result. And since the DOJ's request for an injunction, the song is getting even more attention. During reporting for this story, several versions of the song were seen in the Top 10 of Hong Kong's iTunes store.

Eric Yan-ho Lai, a research fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Asian Law, said a ban presents a quandary for tech companies operating in Hong Kong.

"This possible injunction would put foreign tech companies in a dilemma: to uphold the commitment to enable an internet environment that appreciates free expression and free access to information, or to comply with the court order to avoid liability of judicial contempt. The question on enforcement of the injunction outside [of Hong Kong] is in doubt," he told VOA.

The proposed ban on public performances of the song comes after the anthem was mistakenly played at sporting events over the past year.

At the Rugby Sevens event in South Korea last November, the song was played for the Hong Kong rugby team. In December, the song was again played during the awards ceremony at the Asian Classic Powerlifting Championship in Dubai, where Hong Kong's Susanna Lin won gold.

China's national anthem is the "March of the Volunteers," and as Hong Kong is part of China, it doesn't have its own official anthem.

But during protests in recent years, demonstrators have been charged by authorities for insulting China's anthem. Hong Kong enacted a national anthem law in June 2020, criminalizing insults of the anthem, with violators facing heavy fines and up to three years imprisonment.

Music censorship is one way to prevent political and social movements from gaining power, Steinfeld said.

"At Index, we often see musicians under attack around the world, from heavy metal bands in Iran to drill music in the U.K. Even musicians who don't use lyrics can find themselves condemned. Some of the biggest movements of the last 100 years have had great soundtracks. That's why music and musicians can be so feared by authorities. There's a real power to music," she said.

Hong Kong's sweeping laws and political crackdown in recent years have caused a drop in rank by global research group Civicus Monitor, which tracks fundamental freedoms around the world.

VOA contacted Hong Kong's Security Bureau for comment but had not received a reply at publication.

Spokespeople for the bureau have previously told VOA that Hong Kong residents enjoy freedom of speech under its Basic Law, which was enacted in 1997 to give Hong Kong citizens autonomy under Chinese rule. But the law is not absolute and can be restricted when it comes to matters of national security.