What do Hong Kong’s anthem boos achieve?

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre takes a look at the contentious issue of Hong Kong fans booing the Chinese national anthem and other football protests down the years.

As the most popular sport in the world it’s little surprise that amongst all the joy and heartbreak, all the goals and saves, that football has often been deeply intertwined with politics.

Often it’s been Europe and South America where the game has laid a platform for dissent but the ongoing issue over the booing of the Chinese anthem in Hong Kong has thrust Asia into the global spotlight.

After the pro-democracy street ‘Occupy’ protests that began three years ago failed to secure political change from Beijing public dissension quickly found a prominent vehicle in the Hong Kong national team.

Whenever the ‘March of the Volunteers’ has been played pre-match it’s been met by a cacophony of jeers but with a looming legislature change the issue is becoming more heated game by game.

Although the change still needs to be formalized by the Hong Kong government, last week’s announcement by Beijing that ‘disrespecting’ the anthem has now become a criminal charge under Hong Kong’s ‘Basic Law’ (punishable by a maximum three year prison term) means that political tensions are surely set to rise.

Even though it may take up to a year for that law to be formally enacted, local supporters showed clearly what they felt of the change this week when Hong Kong hosted Bahrain and once again the anthem was roundly jeered with cries of ‘We are Hong Kong’ also echoing from the stands at the Mongkok Stadium.

The issue will surely be a touchstone one once again next Tuesday when the side hosts Lebanon in a crucial Asian Cup qualification match and indeed for many people, certainly those outside of Hong Kong, a far greater degree of interest lies in what will happen pre-match rather than the 90 minutes that follows.

That was certainly the case across much of the United States for the past couple of months as what started as a small scale protest in the NFL turned into almost a league-wide revolt as players kneeled or raised fists during the playing of the national anthem to protest both social inequality and the reaction of many – including President Trump – to those actions.

Although scarcely reported in his homeland, one Asian football player – Japan’s Genki Haraguchi – then showed solidarity with those NFL players as his entire club side also ‘took a knee’ the week after the most virulent of those protests.

Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin argued that the move was a show of support for ‘tolerance and responsibility’ and that made Haraguchi one of the very few North Asian players to have used football to highlight political issues.

Elsewhere over the past century, fans, players and even ground staff have used the sport as a way of addressing political concerns.

The black bands painted at the base of the goals in Argentina at the 1978 World Cup represented a silent protest against brutality by the country’s ruling military powers, Brazilian side Sao Paulo took to a match in the early 1980s with a sign that read, ‘Win or Lose, But Always with Democracy’ and a section of Celtic fans flew Palestinian flags in support with that nation and the challenges they face in 2012 and 2016.

Celtic fans for Palestine.

Indeed, Palestine has been one of the few Asian nations in recent times where the players themselves have led a form of political protest with many speaking openly of the fact that the team can play internationally being a ‘symbolic’ victory more important than results on the pitch.

Iran too has long been the site of protests with four players from the national team having faced intense scrutiny for wearing green tape around their wrists in support of the then opposition leader Mir Houssein Mousavi during a match in Korea in 2009 whilst two others were the focus of recent attention after they played against Israeli opposition for their club sides.

Pro-independence banners can also be seen at matches in Taiwan and Chinese supporters gave a visceral ‘welcome’ to Japanese fans at the final of the 2004 Asian Cup but far too often – especially in more conservative nations – there has been a fear for players and fans to protest openly in Asia.

It’s why what’s happening in Hong Kong is worth watching closely as that nation stands straddled between two identities and the last time that supporters were warned to tone down their booing pre-match (after the HKFA received yet another fine from FIFA) they responded instead by waving a collection of placards with the word ‘boo’ written on it.

The question of identity in Hong Kong is also one that stretches beyond just the influence of Beijing with the national team comprised of numerous players who were born elsewhere in Europe or Africa and perhaps that’s just as pressing an issue, but for now it seems that there is no clear end as to how this fascinating struggle between football and politics may wind up in Hong Kong.