Protest song played for Hong Kong rugby team in South Korea

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — 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, an incident that sparked 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.

Video of the song playing at the tournament went viral on social media in Hong Kong, where the song composed by a local musician and sung by demonstrators during widespread anti-government protests in 2019 is now highly sensitive.

The Hong Kong government early Monday issued a strongly worded statement to express its dissatisfaction over the incident. “The national anthem is a symbol of our country. The organizer of the tournament has a duty to ensure that the national anthem receives the respect it warranted,” 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 it wasn’t politically motivated.

Union officials said they’ve apologized to the Asia Rugby Union as well as to the Hong Kong and Chinese sides. They said staff of the mainland Chinese team also competing at the tournament 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 handing the playing of the national anthems accidentally chose the protesters’ song saved in a computer file folder named “Hong Kong.” They had mistakenly saved that song without knowing it’s linked to protesters before each tournament competitor submitted the recordings of their countries’ respective anthems, the officials said.

Asia Rugby also apologized to the Hong Kong Rugby Union and the governments of Hong Kong and China, adding the song mistakenly played was downloaded from the internet.

While the Hong Kong Rugby Union accepted it was a case of 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 was unintended, the act would not constitute a criminal offense. But if an investigation proves it was a deliberate act, 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, the veteran lawyer said.

The sweeping security law was imposed by Beijing 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 penalizes insults to the Chinese national anthem.

Hong Kong leader John Lee said police would probe into whether the incident had constituted a breach of the National Anthem Ordinance or other local laws. Chief Secretary Eric Chan also met with South Korea’s top diplomat in the city to condemn the incident and requested the Korean side to investigate the matter, Lee added.

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 broke out into singing “Glory to Hong Kong” at the event and brought 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.”

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Leung reported from Hong Kong.

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