Hong Kong’s government has strongly criticised a rugby sevens tournament after a song from the city’s protest movement was played in place of the Chinese national anthem during a match in South Korea.
Hong Kong said it “strongly deplores and opposes” the playing of a song associated with “violent protests” and the pro-independence movement in 2019, when the Chinese national anthem, March of the Volunteers, should have been played.
Authorities did not name the song but online footage from Sunday’s match suggests that Glory to Hong Kong, a song that rose to popularity during the 2019 protest movement, was played before the cup final match between Hong Kong and South Korea in Incheon.
A statement from the government called for an investigation into the incident.
“[W]e have already written to the Hong Kong Rugby Union last evening demanding them to deal with this matter seriously, launch a full and in-depth investigation and submit a detailed report, and convey our strong objection to Asia Rugby, who is the organiser of the Series.”
The office of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Eric Chan Kwok-ki, said he had requested a meeting with the South Korean consul general, Baek Yong-chun, to demand a full investigation over the “unacceptable” incident.
The song was written and published online by a group of local activists during the 2019 protest movement as a statement opposing the enactment of an extradition bill. While the song is not outlawed on paper, it is deemed risky to play it in public after the introduction of national security law in Hong Kong in June 2020.
Despite winning the match 19 to 12, the Hong Kong Rugby Union has not celebrated the victory on its social media accounts thus far, and livestream videos of the game were not available across Asia Rugby’s various platforms.
Hong Kong authorities said Rugby Asia had apologised for the incident and explained that the mistake “was caused by human error of a junior staff” at the local organiser.
The Hong Kong Rugby Union told the Guardian on Monday: “The organisers initially played incorrect music for Hong Kong. This was brought to their attention and an apology was announced after the game.” A correction was made and the March of the Volunteers was “properly played” afterward, it said.
The union said it expressed “extreme dissatisfaction” to local organisers, and accepted it was a case of “human error”. It added that Asia Rugby had expressed its sincere apologies and vowed the mistake would not be repeated.
Asia Rugby said a junior member of the local organising committee had played a song downloaded from the internet, instead of the Chinese anthem. The organiser said it had issued an apology to Beijing and Hong Kong.
The government said that the correct recording of the Chinese anthem was submitted by the Hong Kong team and that it would participate in the next game, in Dubai in late November.
Hong Kong has a national anthem ordinance, more commonly known as the anthem law, which came into effect in June 2020. The law was enacted after sports fans started booing the national anthem at international games played in Hong Kong.
The law criminalises insults to the Chinese anthem, but local media reports suggested the booing continued at a football match between Hong Kong and Myanmar in September 2022. Local police were seen filming the crowds during that match when the anthem was being played, but no arrests have been made so far.
Earlier this month, a man was sentenced to three months in jail in the first conviction under the anthem law. He had waved a colonial-era flag inside a shopping mall, where crowds watched a live broadcast of the 2022 Olympics, during which the anthem was played.
Ronny Tong Ka-wah, senior counsel and a government adviser on Hong Kong’s executive council, said there could be legal consequences if the protest song had been played deliberately. “If that is the case, there is the intention to subvert the Hong Kong government and glorify violent acts,” Tong said.
Tong added the city’s national security legislation still applied to someone outside Hong Kong but that the facts of the case should decide whether the law is invoked.
Tong said he was not worried the incident could damage Hong Kong’s international reputation.