HONG KONG — U.S. tech giant Google is under increasing pressure by the Hong Kong government — and, by association, China — to bury in its search results a politically sensitive pro-democracy song that has been mistaken for the national anthem.
The move shows the rising tensions between multinational tech giants and Chinese authorities as Beijing seeks to hide any lingering dissent from the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that began in 2019.
The Hong Kong government’s renewed concern over the song came after at least two instances over the past few months where it was mistakenly used to represent Hong Kong athletes at sports matches.
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The appearance of the song at sports events abroad triggered angry reactions from Hong Kong authorities. On Monday, Chris Tang, the security minister, said the government will “make every effort to interdict such actions.”
He added Wednesday in a news conference that “there is only one national anthem. Other wrong things will always remain wrong no matter how much you talk about it.”
On Tuesday, Hong Kong leader John Lee also said that the government will continue to correspond and follow up with Google, and that it is “possible to rearrange the search results via advertisements and remove items” that have violated the law.
“Setting aside its legal status, the national anthem represents the dignity and feelings of a country and its people,” Lee said. “It’s a moral issue. I believe any responsible institution must take it seriously.”
Beijing also weighed into the controversy, and it was addressed at the daily Foreign Ministry briefing on Wednesday.
Spokesman Wang Wenbin said Beijing supports the Hong Kong government in “firmly safeguarding the dignity of the national anthem” and that the “internet companies are obliged to convey the correct information to the public, rather than allow false information to spread.”
Since Hong Kong’s handover from British rule to Beijing in 1997, Hong Kong’s official anthem has been the same as China’s — “March of the Volunteers.”
During the 2019 protests, however, demonstrators popularized the pro-democracy song, “Glory to Hong Kong,” which widely came to be seen as the “anthem” of the movement — apparently confusing Google’s search algorithms.
Millions marched in peaceful protests against an extradition bill that year, but increased violence amid a heavy-handed police response, and the protesters’ shifting goals, saw Beijing in 2020 impose a national security law that has been used to crack down on freedoms of protest, speech and academic research.
A Google spokeswoman declined to comment but said its search results are determined by its algorithms. The company says it only removes content that violates its policies or are deemed illegal in different jurisdictions.
The top results of an English search of “Hong Kong national anthem” on Google is the Wikipedia page for “Glory to Hong Kong” with text saying that some have dubbed it the “national anthem of Hong Kong.” The next result is the Wikipedia entry for “March of the Volunteers,” and the video offerings are clips of the pro-democracy song on YouTube.
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In November, a lawmaker staged a protest at Google’s Hong Kong office, delivering a letter at reception saying that, as a big corporation, Google has a “responsibility” to delete the “song about Hong Kong independence.”
Several other members of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing legislative council flagged the severity of the incident and demanded the government regularly inspect search results and inform the service providers to remove “inaccurate information involving national sovereignty.”
The anger toward an international tech firm is out of character for Hong Kong, where access to information online remains largely free as opposed to that in the mainland, and such openness is part of its attraction for multinational companies.
In Dubai two weeks ago, the pro-democracy song was played and then cut short when the Hong Kong gold medal winner at a weightlifting competition alerted organizers.
In November, an instrumental version of the song was played in full at an international rugby match featuring the Hong Kong team in Incheon, South Korea.
Hong Kong authorities immediately launched a police investigation and the chief secretary summoned the South Korea’s consul to tell him the government “strongly deplores and opposes the incident” and request an inquiry.
On Monday, the police arrested a 49-year-old man under a sedition law and accused him of sharing footage of the South Korea incident and expressing gratitude to Incheon for “recognizing the Hong Kong national anthem.”