Hong Kong won its first World Cup qualifying match in nearly eight years on Thursday, thrashing Bhutan 7-0. But ahead of the match at Mong Kok Stadium in Hong Kong, the sounds of jeers filled the air.
The boos of the Hong Kong fans were triggered by the playing of the Chinese national anthem, “March of the Volunteers.” Hong Kong, a former British colony, has chafed at times over its return in 1997 to partial Chinese control. Last year demonstrators occupied major Hong Kong roads for weeks to vent their frustration at Beijing’s restrictive proposal for direct elections for the semiautonomous territory’s leader. Further protests are expected next week when the Hong Kong Legislative Council votes on an election framework.
Tensions have been exacerbated by tens of millions of mainland Chinese who visit Hong Kong every year. While the visitors bolster the local economy, they also crowd Hong Kong’s narrow streets and drive up the price of consumer goods and real estate.
So it was not surprising that the discontent would spill into sports.
There is a history of China and Hong Kong venting their differences over soccer. In 1985, when Hong Kong was still a British colony, it defeated the Chinese national team 2-1 in a match in Beijing. The victory, which eliminated China from the next year’s World Cup, triggered a riot outside Workers’ Stadium.
The Chinese men’s team has suffered from years of frustratingly poor play, but in January it advanced to the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup in Australia. That performance, along with President Xi Jinping’s stated goal of improving Chinese soccer, has raised the hopes of Chinese fans.
China and Hong Kong will meet in September in Shenzhen, the mainland Chinese city that borders Hong Kong, before the two sides have a rematch in Mong Kok in November. A Chinese Football Association poster that warned fans not to underestimate the Hong Kong team and its “black-skinned, yellow-skinned and white-skinned players” triggered complaints of racial insensitivity. Hong Kong fans responded with their own poster celebrating the team’s multiethnic makeup, with black, white and Asian players all fighting for Hong Kong.
Hong Kong residents are familiar with the Chinese national anthem. Under a government initiative to enhance “the sense of national identity,” local television stations have played it every day since Oct. 1, 2004, before the evening news. By 2014, a survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that more than 53 percent of Hong Kong people could sing the anthem, up from 41 percent in 2006, even though the words are in Mandarin and most Hong Kong residents speak Cantonese.
But over the same period, the percentage of those who said they felt “averse to” the song had risen to 14 percent, up from 5 percent.
Mainland fans have complained online about the jeering of the national anthem in Hong Kong and are looking for retribution during the fall matches between the two sides.
“Hong Kong fans jeering during the national anthem, that’s truly disgusting,” the Chinese state television soccer commentator Liu Jiayuan wrote on Sina Weibo. “But there’s no better way to handle it on the soccer pitch than defeating them.”
Alan Wong contributed reporting.