Red Star over Hong Kong | @TimHHartley

‘He’s not bad that Billy is he?’ said my new football friend Joe. ‘Pushes forward well for a centre half.’ The blue flag of Hong Kong Football Club fluttered in the spring sunshine above the Happy Valley racecourse, the home of H.K.F.C. Next to it flew the red flag of China, a reminder, if it were necessary, that although it may be a ‘Special Administrative Region,’ this former British colony is now very much part of the People’s Republic.

The People’s leader, Xi Jinping said so at the 19th communist party congress. His personal doctrine has been enshrined in the country’s constitution. Alongside ‘reform’ there was to be, ‘an emphasis on the implementation of ‘one country two systems’ and the reunification of the motherland – a clear reference to nationalist Taiwan and of course Hong Kong.

Within days of his speech Mr Xi extended the law on disrespecting the national anthem to Hong Kong. Since the pro-democracy protests of 2014 football fans here have booed the Chinese anthem, ‘March of the Volunteers,’ when their own team, Hong Kong,played. Under the newly extended law those who do not show sufficient respect face up to three years in prison. I’d seen the story unfold on local TV the previous night. Images of angry fans turning their backs on the anthem were shown over and over. The city state of Hong Kong fields its own team in international competitions but has been fined by football’s world governing body FIFA for the fans’ behaviour.

Just as in the United States, where President Trump criticised footballers who’d protested by kneeling during the playing of the ‘Stars and Stripes’, for China the national anthem is a big deal. Amidst the headlines about lowering barriers to trade, growth and innovation, the South China Morning Post’s Tony Cheung tried to allay the fans’ fears. ‘Refusing to stand will not mean arrest,’ he wrote.

I’d gone to Happy Valley to see if the beautiful game was indeed a hotbed of anti-Beijing agitation. HKFC were playing Kwun Tong in the second tier of Hong Kong football. The teams themselves offered a bit of an insight into the region. The HKFC team was almost all white, ex pats probably, the language on the pitch English. Kwun Tong meanwhile were Chinese and the coach shouted from the side-lines in Cantonese. I wondered if this was a case of one game two systems within one country two systems.

Over a half time pint of excellent Sportsmen’s Pale Ale I spoke to the few supporters who were watching. ‘They want to criminalise us for a having an opinion,’ said one man who didn’t want to tell me his name. ‘They’re rolling back our freedoms,’ said Jo, who’d stood next to me during the first half. He wasn’t that interested in politics to be fair but then neither are a lot of the ex-pats here. ‘Look. It’s a pro-democracy thing, yes, but as football fans we should really be asking why we don’t have a team in the Chinese national league. There’s big money there. And this lot,’ Jo said, pointing at the players having their half time drinks, ‘why, we can’t we even pay them a decent wage.’ A mixed bag of opinion, hardly the stuff of revolution.

On the streets of the Special Region life carried on as normal. In the glass and concrete palaces of Hong Kong Island the banks and insurance companies were striking multimillion dollar deals. In the markets of Kowloon anything and everything was being bought and sold. Hong Kong is like Manhattan on steroids. It, Shanghai and so many Chinese cities are massive economic engines, national cash cows. So why has President Xi Jinping chosen to pick this particular fight?

He may be flexing his new found political muscle, giving a gentle reminder of who’s really in charge. Beijing believes that Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong are all Chinese. It says so in the constitution. The so called Umbrella Revolution of 2014 may have appeared to wither away peacefully but the president and the communist party is not going to stand for any further public displays of discontent, least of all those shown on television across the world to a footballing audience of millions.

I wrote this piece originally in late 2017. I liked the idea of the protests and was proud that football supporters could enrage one of the most powerful men on Earth simply by ‘disrespecting’ the national anthem. They say sport and politics should not mix but there are dozens of examples of where this happens for good, and bad, in the game’s history.

Football clubs can be associated with different religions, Celtic and Rangers in Scotland for example. Teams can also represent the different politics of their supporters, usually traceable to their history in war or revolution. Real Madrid was considered a fascist team because of its support of General Franco. Barcelona on the other hand are proud Catalans, supposedly a working class team but now definitely supporting independence from the Spanish state. Across Eastern Europe, despite the fall of communism, teams are still associated with and perceived as being part of the military, the Interior Ministry, even the student body.

FIFA is insistent that its constituent members be wholly independent of government. Countries all over the world from Albania to Iran to Peru have at different times been accused by the governing body of political interference in the running of the local game. Some have been suspended from the Federation. But what of the politicisation of the governing bodies themselves or a political stance being taken by the fans themselves as in the case of Hong Kong?

We know that within FIFA votes for top positions and the awarding of tournaments to specific countries have been traded and bought. Corruption was, maybe is, still rife. My own national team has a group called ‘Wales Fans for Independence’ who march from Cardiff city centre to the stadium at the edge of town under banners demanding independence from the UK. (The ‘authorities’ have remained silent on this - I guess that whatever goes on outside the stadium stays outside the stadium.) Whether it is with a small p on the terrace or a big P in the executive committee meetings politics is all around us and it is in football too.

In that sense the Hong Kong anthem debacle looks like any other, albeit very particular, use of football for political ends. But like the democratic ‘umbrella’ protests of 2014 I thought it would prove to be a short term and rather timid expression of annoyance at what was surely a fait accompli: Hong Kong belongs to China, even if its financial importance to Beijing means that it will be cut some slack on its more liberal ways of working and thinking. Surely it would all simmer down, the anthem law would never be implemented and Hong Kong would carry on making money for itself and for mother China. How wrong can you get?

In June 2019 the smouldering discontent in the Special Region erupted. A new law was to be introduced which would allow people charged with a criminal offence in Hong Kong to be extradited to the mainland. There they would be tried in wholly Chinese courts under Chinese law. The fear was that the city’s judicial independence would be undermined, that the new powers would be misused to harass dissidents. Activists and journalists, indeed anyone who took a different view from the official line dictated from Beijing would be unfairly targeted. ‘You don’t like the communist system? Wanna protest against our anthem and all things Chinese? Come this way. Across the border. No, we insist.’

After months of wrangling Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lamb, agreed to suspend the extradition bill but it was a case of too little too late. The protesters were emboldened and widened their demands to include a call for full democracy. Clashes between police and activists became increasingly violent with protesters storming parliament. The island’s airport was blockaded and hundreds of flights had to be cancelled.

The protests downtown became a regular weekend fixture. Fire bombs were thrown at police who responded with water cannon, rubber bullets and tear gas. There were injuries on both sides, scores of people were arrested, some have died.

Reporting and internet restrictions meant that little of these protests has been seen on the mainland but this is not what Beijing wants any part of the motherland, to look like. After initially staying quiet it condemned the protests as ‘behaviour that is close to terrorism.’

Undeterred by the threats, a new unofficial anthem for Hong Kong has been written. ‘Glory be to thee, Hong Kong’ was unveiled by a group of musicians wearing goggles and gas masks aping the dress of the demonstrators. It has been sung at shopping malls around the city and following the booing of ‘March of the Volunteers’ was first heard at Hong Kong’s World Cup qualifying match against Iran.

Here’s a translation of the anthem from the Shanghaiist news website:

For all of our tears on our land Do you feel the rage in our cries? Rise up and speak up! Our voice echoes Freedom shall shine upon us. 
For all of our fears that linger With faith, we shall never surrender With blood, tears, and sweat, we shall stride ahead For this glory, liberal land.
When the stars no longer guide our path In the fog, the horn of conscience summons us. “Preserve! For we are as one, with poise and be brave Courage, wisdom are long with us.” 
The dawn has come. Let’s revive our Hong Kong. Revolution of our time! For righteousness! Democracy and liberty, wish them long last here For the glory of Hong Kong.
Now how about this for a piece of timely football scheduling? In December 2019 China faced Hong Kong in an Asian qualifying match in the South Korean port city of Busan. 200 Hong Kong fans chanted and banged drums to drown out a tiny pocket of ‘Chinese’ supporters before kick-off. They sang ‘Glory be to thee to Hong Kong’ which has now become the protestors’ official unofficial anthem. Avoiding any potential embarrassment television coverage of the match back home did not show the anthem being played but cut in as the players were shaking hands.

Opinion on the terrace there was divided. ‘Football is important,’ said Thomas Lam, who had flown into South Korea the night before the match. ‘But this is a good time to show the world about what’s happening in Hong Kong, too.’ Cai Xudong, a Chinese university student studying at Busan University, preferred to see the game solely as a sporting event. ‘Football is football. Politics is politics,’ he said.

The law making it illegal to mock the official anthem of China has not been adopted by the Hong Kong authorities. What seemed at the time a bit of mischief by football supporters now has a grim, prophetic feel to it. Singing a song you didn’t really like might have been a small price to pay to retain the status quo you really do like. How long China’s patience with Hong Kong will last is anyone’s guess. And by the way China beat Hong Kong in Busan.

This piece was kindly written and given to @TFHBs by Tim Hartley - you can follow Tim on Twitter @TimHHartley 

©The Football History Boys, 2020


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