Hong Kong Police Use Colonial-era Sedition Law to Arrest Man Mourning Colonial Era

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8, Hongkongers have used the subsequent period of mourning to air their emotions in rare public gatherings of political solidarity. The citizens of this former British colony expressed a mix of nostalgia for the past, dissatisfaction with the current leadership, and anger about the steady dismantling of civil rights since the city was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. While Hong Kong authorities initially showed restraint towards those gathered, on Monday night outside of the British consulate, police arrested one man for sedition after he played a song on the harmonica. AFP reported on the incident:

Hundreds gathered outside the consulate on Monday evening as Britain was holding a state funeral, sharing livestreams on phones as well as laying candles and flowers.

At one point, a man started to play songs on a harmonica, according to an AFP reporter on the scene, including the British national anthem and “Glory To Hong Kong”, a popular song during huge, sometimes violent pro-democracy protests three years ago.

The mourners outside the consulate applauded the performance and shone their phone lights, with many later shouting the protest chant “Hong Kongers add oil” and singing “Glory To Hong Kong”.

[…] On Tuesday, police said a 43-year-old man surnamed Pang was arrested outside the consulate for “seditious acts”. [Source]

Earlier that evening, a police van showed up and a female police officer reportedly put out several candles that had been placed outside the consulate. Selina Cheng from The Wall Street Journal described how the song, which the man reportedly played without any lyrics, could have possibly been construed as a threat to national security:

The arrested man, surnamed Pang, was arrested under the British colonial-era sedition law, which Hong Kong’s national security police have increasingly used to arrest activists and opponents. The arrest marks the first time someone was arrested under that law for playing music.

[…] The song the man played, “Glory to Hong Kong,” has become popular with some buskers as it hasn’t been officially criminalized. Still, at least two street musicians have been prosecuted on other charges after playing it in public.

A former education minister in the city said the song should be banned on schoolgrounds, while the city’s state-owned press have said it incites independence. Judges have also ruled that a protest slogan contained in its lyrics, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” could endanger national security. [Source]

Zen Soo and Alice Fung from the Associated Press described how nostalgia and protest against the current Hong Kong administration motivated the public gatherings:

“I would imagine that some people are going there not so much for nostalgia reasons, but as a kind of protest, now that dissent is suppressed,” said John Burns, an honorary professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong.

“Some people, for example, who agree with the kind of universal values that the U.K. stands for, and that were incorporated in our Bill of Rights at the end of colonialism could participate in this as a form of protest,” Burns said.

[…] “There are some who are genuinely nostalgic and have sentimental feelings for the Queen, but there are also people who have grievances about the current situation in Hong Kong,” [former Democratic Party chair and ex-lawmaker Emily Lau] said. [Source]

Hillary Leung from the Hong Kong Free Press described how the ritual of public mourning allowed Hongkongers a rare opportunity to indirectly express their dissatisfaction with the current administration:

With few avenues left for political expression, mourning the late monarch who reigned over colonial-era Hong Kong – and the subsequent decline of the city’s freedoms in the hands of Beijing – is one way for people’s voices to be heard.

“It has been a long time since I have taken part in an event in a public place with people who, I think, share some of my ideals,” a woman who asked to be called Mrs. Chan told HKFP.

[…] “We are mourning the end of an era when there was hope that the future would be better,” said Tommy, who was in his early 30s. “This is our way of indirectly expressing our dissatisfaction with the state of Hong Kong now.” [Source]

One Hongkonger who brought his dog on a leash with a Union Jack flag told the BBC that mourning was an “alternative form of political expression,” adding that had it been a typical day, displaying that flag would risk arrest under the National Security Law. Kathleen Magramo from CNN described how the Hong Kong people and government have fought over visual symbols of the city’s past under British rule:

But in celebrating the monarchy and its symbols, some Hong Kongers see an opportunity for a veiled dig at both the Chinese Communist Party, which has made no secret of its eagerness for Hong Kongers to forget the era, and local authorities who recently introduced school books that claim the city was never even a colony to begin with. The books instead refer to the period of British rule as a “forcible occupation.”

[…T]he displays of affection are also a reminder of the city’s pro-democracy protests, during which demonstrators adopted the colonial flag as a sign of resistance to Chinese one-party rule.

At the height of the 2019 protests, anti-government demonstrators broke into the city’s legislative chamber, defacing it with graffiti calling for universal suffrage while hanging the colonial flag on the council president’s seat. [Source]

Hong Kong’s public mourning of Queen Elizabeth has been met with scorn by pro-Beijing media and Chinese nationalists. The Beijing-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao ran a commentary accusing “political propaganda” and “anti-Chinese elements” of “white-washing colonial rule.” Later, Chinese nationalists forced Cantonese opera singer Law Kar-ying to issue a video on Weibo apologizing for having previously posted a picture to Instagram with the caption, “Hong Kong was a blessed land during her reign.” In his Weibo video, Law said, “I can’t possibly forget my origin and ancestry. […] I am Chinese and I love my motherland forever. I am sorry.” He also deleted his Instagram post. 

Hong Kong’s complicated past under British rule motivated some criticism of the public mourning. On Friday, one protester outside of the British consulate carried a banner that read: “Chinese people don’t forget the Opium War,” referencing the war that initiated Britain’s century-and-a-half rule over Hong Kong. Global Voices noted that during the Queen’s rule, British control over Hong Kong included periods of intense repression, with crackdowns on protests against the colonial government and the application of strict laws that shut down publications and punished those who insulted the Queen. One such law was the sedition law, used to arrest the man at the mourning gathering on Monday, as well as numerous other citizens over the past two years, including authors of children’s books who were sentenced to jail earlier this month.

Adding to the criticism, some on the decolonial left challenged claims that the Queen had facilitated an expansion of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong. Referencing the Queen’s engagement with her colonies, Howard French argued that “she incarnated and ably helped sell her nation and its system while never criticizing or apologizing for any aspect of its past,” adding that “it is long past the time when the world should pretend that […] British rule was benign or that the rights of London’s imperial subjects had much of anything to do with what ‘empire’ was really about.” Drawing the connection between Hong Kong’s oppression under both British and CCP rule, Promise Li argued for Lausan that “[t]he death of Queen Elizabeth should remind Hongkongers that the lack of democracy in the city is an outgrowth of British colonial rule, not a consequence of its absence”:

Not only did the British Empire under Elizabeth’s reign fail to guarantee and expand democratic rights for Hong Kong until Christopher Patten’s eleventh-hour electoral reform, it also actively suppressed them—at times even in collusion with Beijing. There is no room for colonial nostalgia in Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy, especially as Beijing’s violations of Hongkongers’ civil liberties merely build upon the city’s institutional legacies inherited from its colonial past. 

[…] Were these all Queen Elizabeth’s personal fault? No, but the British’s system of constitutional monarchy intentionally makes it difficult to separate the personal authority of the monarch and the systemic abuses of British colonial rule. Further, the queen was a direct beneficiary of the largesse violently reaped from Britain’s colonial exploitation around the globe, reflected prominently even in the jewels she wears. In fact, her failure partly lies in what she did not do: refusing to even acknowledge, let alone advance policies to contain, her empire’s violence afflicted on colonised communities during the era of “decolonisation.” The British had more than a century to ensure Hongkongers’ right to self-determination, including liberation from unfettered market deregulation and authoritarian control. Instead, they stunted the attempts of almost every Hong Kong social movement to organise and institutionalise their democratic gains en masse, weakening Hongkongers’ capacity to effectively organise for generations and leaving us vulnerable to new forces of oppression today. Thus, the Queen is no symbol of Hong Kong’s former brilliance, but a reminder of how the lead up to Hong Kong’s political death today has been more subtle and gradual than a rapid series of blows by a single state. [Source]

The Queen’s death also put a spotlight on geopolitical tensions between the UK and China. Eleni Courea from Politico reported on the controversy caused by the British government’s offer, cancellation, and reinstatement of an invitation to a Chinese government delegation to attend the Queen’s funeral and lying-in-state:

POLITICO revealed on Thursday that Lindsay Hoyle, the House of Commons speaker, had rebuffed a request by Chinese government representatives to witness the ceremony because of Beijing’s sanctions on seven British parliamentarians.

[…] Access to Westminster Hall is not the sole jurisdiction of the Commons speaker but is shared with the Lords speaker, John McFall, and the lord great chamberlain, who is appointed by the monarch. On Saturday, parliamentary authorities announced that the Chinese delegation would be allowed into the lying-in-state after all.

[…] Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader who is among those sanctioned by Beijing, claimed on Saturday that the “establishment” had “leant” on Hoyle to make him change his decision. [Source]


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