A woman who waved a British colonial-era flag to celebrate Hong Kong claiming Olympic gold has become the first person in the city to be jailed on a charge of insulting the Chinese national anthem.
Paula Leung, a 42-year-old online journalist, admitted the charge and was given a three-month jail sentence on Thursday, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK reported.
Leung, who said in mitigation that she had autism and learning difficulties, had waved the flag in a shopping mall where a big screen was showing the medal ceremony following Edgar Cheung’s victory in the foil at the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021.
Large crowds had gathered to celebrate what was Hong Kong’s second ever Olympic gold medal and its first in fencing, but the scene turned rowdy when the Chinese national anthem was played for the award ceremony and some people began booing.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, continues to represent itself separately from mainland China at the Olympics despite having handed over to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
Cheung’s win was seen by many as a breakthrough for Hong Kong’s athletes and a rare moment of unity in a city that has been rocked in recent years by anti-government protests.
But the use of the Chinese national anthem – “March of the Volunteers” – to mark his victory was controversial as it was the first time the anthem had been used at an Olympics medal ceremony for a Hong Kong athlete. When windsurfer Lee Lai-shan took Hong Kong’s only other gold, at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, “God Save The Queen” was played and the British colonial flag of Hong Kong was raised.
Pro-democracy protesters in the city have occasionally used symbols from the British colonial era to mark defiance against mainland China’s increasingly tight grip on the semi-autonomous city.
Protesters often waved the colonial era flag at the pro-democracy demonstrations that took place across the city in 2019, while some of the thousands of Hong Kongers who lined up outside the British consulate to pay their respects to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II following her death in September saw their actions as a subtle form of protest.
Public gatherings have been rare since China imposed a national security law in June 2020 to extinguish the increasingly forceful pro-democracy protests.
That same month, Hong Kong’s local authorities brought in legislation that made insulting the Chinese national anthem an offense punishable by up to three years in jail and a maximum fine of $6,400 (HK$50,000).
The legislation requires people to “stand solemnly and deport themselves with dignity” when “March of the Volunteers” is played or sung.