Singing from the same songbook? How a growing number of Asian countries are enforcing the national anthem

‘Banal nationalism’ is taking some Asian countries by storm, as citizens are forced to sing national anthems – enthusiastically, or else.

Jemimah Steinfeld
20 December 2017

Deputies to China's 12th National People's Congress sing the national anthem at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Xie Huanchi/PA Images. All rights reserved.Syrupy, mundane, bombast, hopeful – whatever the melody, national anthems are experiencing a comeback across Asia, as many countries are making the singing of anthems compulsory and punishing anyone who doesn’t stand ramrod straight and bellow each syllable. 

The most recent sign of aggressive anthem resurgence comes from China, where the government has instituted a law punishing people with up to three years in jail for disrespecting the anthem. The law has just been extended to the semi-autonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macau, where it will come into full force next year. 

In the Philippines last month, a man was arrested after allegedly refusing to stand for the anthem, following the approval of a bill in June that enforces fines or prison sentences for anyone who does not sing the national anthem “with fervour”, and a second offence punishable with all of the above, plus being named and shamed in a national newspaper; Russia’s Supreme Court approved a similar bill and the Indian government passed a law in 2016 ordering all cinemagoers to stand for their anthem, which has since resulted in many arrests and “vigilante” violence.

Speaking to Index on Censorship, Indian law student Shreela Manohar, who faces charges for not standing, said: “it’s a serious blow to my basic civil rights. My mother and I were merely sitting down when the anthem was being played. We didn’t stop anybody from singing it, nor did we in any way disrespect the anthem.”

It’s a serious blow to my basic civil rights. We didn’t stop anybody from singing it, nor did we in any way disrespect the anthem.

These seemingly innocent songs are part of a growing tide of nationalism sweeping across the region. China’s Xi Jinping has cultivated the strongest personality cult since Chairman Mao; Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines ramped up anti-US rhetoric not seen much in the country for decades when he came to power in 2016; Narendra Modi is stirring Hindu pride across India; Putin sits at the helm of an increasingly imperialist Russia. 

Patrick Poon, a native Hong Konger, told Index (as part of a feature on national anthems for the winter issue) that he finds the latest move “very disturbing” and would refuse to sing the national anthem on principle. “I’m not a nationalist. I don’t see the importance of national pride, I mean to all countries. I’m more inclined to be an internationalist and I believe in universal values rather than patriotism and nationalism.” Poon might take the risk of three years in prison, but it’s hard to see that others would be so principled. 

Alex Marshall, author of Republic or Death: Travels in Search of National Anthems, sees national anthems as an odd combination of the best and worst propaganda. They’re “banal nationalism”, he explained to Index. “It reminds you all the time that this is your country, this is where you are from, these are the values you’re meant to espouse.” But they’re not very effective because “very few of them make political points or tell you what your values are meant to be”. 

“The Star-Spangled Banner – that’s very blatant – and in a lot of dictatorships they rewrite the lyrics to make it very clear what they are trying to achieve. But most of them, they pretty much just say our hills look nice,” said Marshall.  

Even so, their resurgence is definitely a concern for free speech advocates. An opt-out-of-singing clause should be a prerequisite of any functioning democracy. It’s no surprise then that the countries where the anthems are most rigorously being applied are also the countries tumbling down free speech lists.  

These seemingly innocent songs are part of a growing tide of nationalism sweeping across the region.

But these laws might ultimately be unsuccessful. How do you police lyrics after all? China, for example, defines disrespect as modifying the lyrics, singing in a distorted way and not standing still or to attention. Does this mean that any song that uses “slaves”, “blood” and “hearts” – words that make appearances in the Chinese anthem – are disrespecting it? I’m no song writer, but I’ve listened to enough music to know that these are bread-and-butter words in many a ballad. And what if you’ve broken your leg, or can’t use your legs to begin with? How do you stand? This might sound like a far-fetched scenario, but in India a disabled man in a wheelchair actually was assaulted in a cinema for not standing up to the national anthem being played.     

Arguably, the absurdity of enforcing these songs has provoked people into fighting back – and Index observed a clear trend of effective transgression. The most obvious example is the #taketheknee protest in the USA, but in Asia there are some successful, and at times incredibly creative, ways to stick two fingers up at the regime. In Hong Kong, for example, football fans have been booing the Chinese national anthem for years. Then, when their chants have been prohibited, they have written the word “boo” on signs that they brandished in sports stadiums.

In a more obvious sign of victory, teachers in Japan, who refused to sing the anthem at school and subsequently lost their jobs, took the case to the Supreme Court and were awarded damages in 2015. This occurred despite Japan’s current leader, Shinzo Abe, expressing a desire to see singing the national anthem, which is particularly controversial in the country due to wartime associations, spread to many walks of life.

These acts of subversion are reassuring. But none detract from the worrying message that nationalism – and its theme tune – is rising rapidly across Asia. The message is loud and clear: sing now or stay silent for far longer than the length of the anthem. 

This article is based on a special report in the winter issue of Index on Censorship magazine, which looks at how the national anthem is gaining traction throughout the world. Click here for more information on Index on Censorship’s winter issue.

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