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Occupy Central supporters hold up umbrellas when China's national anthem plays at the international friendly soccer match between Hong Kong and Argentina in Hong Kong on October 14, 2014.  © 2014 REUTERS

Should it be an offense to boo your own national anthem at a public sporting event? Apparently FIFA, football’s governing body, thinks so: it’s just opened disciplinary proceedings into Hong Kong fans’ vocal disapproval of China’s national anthem at a World Cup qualifying match, and is considering punishment for the Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) too.

Anger in Hong Kong has been simmering since 2014’s pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement”, which saw mass protests against China’s decision to deny genuine universal suffrage in selecting the city’s top leader. The peaceful protests ended without the central Chinese government agreeing to drop its plans to vet candidates. The ensuing stalemate has fueled popular discontent that’s now spilled over into football, as Hong Kong and mainland China teams find themselves in the same World Cup qualifying group. In these matches, Hong Kong fans have booed and shouted “We Are Hong Kong” when Beijing’s – and only Beijing’s – anthem was played.
HKFA’s chief executive, Mark Sutcliffe, said that fans “used the match as a means of making a political statement.” And in a letter to the HKFA, FIFA seems to have agreed: it said the fans’ booing constituted “improper conduct” and violated its disciplinary code, which prohibits “displaying … political slogans” or “uttering insulting words or sounds.” The HKFA, said FIFA, must ensure that “incidents of such nature do not occur again in the future.” An HKFA official expects the organization will be fined, and playing in a closed stadium without spectators – the athletic equivalent of Beijing’s preferred style of politics – is also a possible punishment.
But why should FIFA concern itself with fans’ political expressions, as long as they are peaceful? Hong Kong and international law protect peaceful free expression and the right to participate in politics, even if Beijing rejects both.
FIFA – which has yet to sanction Iran for banning women from stadiums, and is allowing abusive governments like Russia and Qatar to host future World Cups – has long turned a blind eye to authoritarians committing gross human rights abuses. But now it appears to have gone a step further, by actively abetting Beijing’s efforts to deny Hong Kong people the right to express their views and vote freely. Who is going to show FIFA the red card?

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