The South Korean organizers of a regional rugby tournament have apologized for mistakenly playing a song embraced by Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters as China’s national anthem. This incident sparked a strong reaction from the city’s government.
“Glory to Hong Kong” — whose lyrics call for democracy and liberty — was played before the men’s finals between South Korea and Hong Kong in the second leg of the Asian Rugby Seven Series in Incheon, just west of Seoul, on Sunday.
A video of the song playing at the tournament went viral on social media in Hong Kong. The music composed by a local musician and sung by demonstrators during widespread anti-government protests in 2019 is now highly sensitive.
The Hong Kong government issued a strongly worded statement to express its dissatisfaction over the incident early Monday. “The national anthem is a symbol of our country. The organizer of the tournament must ensure that the national anthem receives the respect it warrants,” a government spokesperson said.
The Seoul-based Korea Rugby Union said later Monday that the wrong song was played because of a human error and wasn’t politically motivated.
Union officials said they’ve apologized to the Asia Rugby Union and the Hong Kong and Chinese sides. They told the staff of the mainland Chinese team competing in the tournament and notified them of the error.
The organizers announced an apology both in Korean and English at the stadium after the game, and the official Chinese national anthem was played for the winning Hong Kong team during the award ceremony, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to media on the matter.
According to the officials, a person handling the playing of the national anthems accidentally chose the protesters’ song saved in a computer file named “Hong Kong.” The officials said they had mistakenly held that song without knowing it was linked to protesters before each tournament competitor submitted the recordings of their countries’ respective anthems.
While the Hong Kong Rugby Union accepted it was a human error, it said the mistake was still unacceptable. Pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong also voiced their discontent, with some demanding an investigation to see whether it was a deliberate act.
Ronny Tong, a member of the Executive Council — Hong Kong’s Cabinet — said if the mistake were unintended, the act would not constitute a criminal offence. But suppose an investigation later proves it was a deliberate act. In that case, the veteran lawyer said that those involved could face legal consequences linked to the city’s sedition charge, the National Security Law or the National Anthem Ordinance depending on the results.
Beijing imposed a sweeping security law in 2020 to crack down on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. It criminalizes succession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. The National Anthem Ordinance penalises insults to the Chinese national anthem.
In 2019, thousands of Hong Kong soccer fans booed loudly at the Chinese national anthem when the song was played before a World Cup qualifier match. The crowd sang “Glory to Hong Kong” at the event, bringing the city’s protests into the sports realm.
In September, a man who paid tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth II near the British Consulate in Hong Kong was arrested for sedition. Local media reported he had played songs on a harmonica, including “Glory to Hong Kong.”