Hong Kong protest song replaces China anthem at S. Korea rugby match
People gather at a shopping mall in September 2019 to sing 'Glory to Hong Kong', which became an anthem for the city's democracy movement Nicolas ASFOURI AFP/File

Hong Kong's government reacted with fury on Monday after a popular democracy protest song was played instead of the Chinese national anthem for the city's team at a rugby sevens tournament in South Korea.

The city's sports teams play the Chinese national anthem, but before Hong Kong took on South Korea in the final of the Asia Rugby Sevens Series in Incheon on Sunday, "Glory to Hong Kong" was broadcast instead.

The song was written by an anonymous composer during the huge and sometimes violent protests in 2019 and became an anthem for the city's now-crushed democracy movement.

The Hong Kong government "strongly deplores and opposes the playing of a song closely associated with violent protests and the 'independence' movement" in place of China's national anthem", it said in a statement.

"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 mix-up has now engulfed Hong Kong's rugby team in a political row.

Video of the incident showed the players kept straight faces and did not react to the wrong song being played.

Junius Ho, a firebrand pro-Beijing Hong Kong lawmaker, attacked the players for that choice.

"They just let the country be humiliated," Ho wrote on Facebook.

"They have completely failed and lost our trust. Now the only solution is to dissolve the Hong Kong rugby team."

Ronny Tong, who serves in Hong Kong's cabinet, said the incident "cannot be a careless mistake" and has likely breached the city's national security law.

China imposed a sweeping security law on Hong Kong in response to the 2019 protests to stamp out dissent.

Its wording claims universal jurisdiction -- Hong Kong and Chinese authorities say they can prosecute people for national security offenses committed overseas.

"It is hardly believable that the incident does not involve any assistance provided by people in Hong Kong," Tong wrote on Facebook.

'Human error'

The tournament organizers issued an apology and played the Chinese anthem after the match, the Hong Kong government statement added.

Hong Kong authorities said they had ordered the city's rugby union body to launch an investigation and "convey our strong objection" to tournament organizers Asia Rugby.

Hong Kong Rugby Union's preliminary investigation found that the correct anthem was given to the organisers by the team's coach, the city government said.

"The mistake was caused by human error of a junior staff of the local organizer," it added.

In a statement posted online, Hong Kong Rugby Union said they had "registered our deepest concern and regret over this incident" with the tournament organizers.

"Whilst we accept this was a case of human error it was nevertheless not acceptable," HKRU said.

AFP has approached Asia Rugby for comment.

China's "March of the Volunteers" was born out of the Communist Party's struggle to liberate the country from Japanese occupation and begins with the rallying cry "Arise! Ye who refuse to be slaves".

It was played at the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China as colonial Britain departed.

"Glory to Hong Kong" has a similarly rousing composition and was secretly recorded by an anonymous orchestra during the protests.

But its lyrics are about a very different struggle -- freeing Hong Kong from Beijing's control and bringing democracy to the city.

Playing the song in Hong Kong is now all but illegal under the national security law.

In September, a harmonica player who played the tune to a crowd commemorating Britain's late Queen Elizabeth II was arrested.

© 2022 AFP