A woman who waved a colonial-era British flag to celebrate Hong Kong and claimed Olympic gold is the first person in the city to be jailed on charges of insulting the Chinese national anthem.
Paula Leung, a 42-year-old online journalist, admitted the charges and was sentenced to three months in prison on Thursday, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK reported.
Leung, who said she had autism and learning disabilities, had waved the flag at a shopping center where a large screen showed the medal ceremony following Edgar Cheung’s victory in the foil at the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021.
Crowds had gathered to celebrate what was Hong Kong’s second ever Olympic gold medal and the first in fencing, but the scene turned into a rowdy atmosphere as the Chinese national anthem was played for the awards ceremony and some people started cheering.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, continues to represent itself separately from mainland China during the Olympics, despite being handed over to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
Cheung’s victory was seen by many as a breakthrough for Hong Kong’s athletes and a rare moment of unity in a city rocked by anti-government protests in recent years.
But using the Chinese national anthem – “March of the Volunteers” – to mark his victory was controversial, as it marked the first time the national anthem had been used at an Olympic 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 hoisted.
Pro-democracy protesters in the city have occasionally used symbols from the British colonial era to protest against mainland China’s increasingly tight hold on the semi-autonomous city.
Protesters often waved the colonial-era flag during the pro-democracy demonstrations that took place across the city in 2019, as some of the thousands of Hong Kongers lined up outside the British Consulate to pay their respects to the British Queen Elizabeth II after her death in September saw their actions as a subtle form of protest.
Public gatherings have been rare since China enacted a national security law in June 2020 to quell increasingly powerful pro-democracy protests.
That same month, Hong Kong local authorities passed legislation that made insulting the Chinese national anthem punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $6,400 (HK$50,000).
The legislation requires people to “stand solemnly and act with dignity” when “March of the Volunteers” is played or sung.