December 4, 2022

Hong Kong CNN —

A woman who waved a colonial-era British flag to celebrate Hong Kong’s Olympic win has become the first person in the city to be jailed for 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 public broadcaster RTHK reported.

Leung, who said mitigatingly that she has autism and learning disabilities, had waved the flag at a mall where a large screen showed the medal ceremony following Edgar Cheung’s victory in the foil at the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021.

Large crowds had gathered to celebrate Hong Kong’s second-ever Olympic gold medal and first in fencing, but the scene turned rough as the Chinese national anthem was played for the awards ceremony and some people started booing.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, continues to compete separately from mainland China at the Olympics, despite being handed over to China 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.

However, the use of China’s national anthem – “March of the Volunteers” – to celebrate his victory has been controversial, as the anthem was used for the first time at an Olympic medal ceremony for a Hong Kong athlete. When windsurfer Lee Lai-shan clinched Hong Kong’s only other gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, God Save The Queen was played and Hong Kong’s British colonial flag was raised.

Pro-democracy protesters in the city have occasionally used British colonial-era symbols to express their opposition to 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 queued 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 become rare since China enacted a national security law in June 2020 to quell mounting pro-democracy protests.

That same month, Hong Kong local authorities enacted a law making insulting the Chinese national anthem a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of US$6,400 (HK$50,000).

The legislation requires people to “stand solemnly and behave with dignity” when “March of the Volunteers” is played or sung.