The National Anthem Law: Taking a Principled Approach

By Marika Miner
Senior Writer
20 February 2018

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do!” tweeted President Trump on September 23, 2017. This attack on football players kneeling in protest during the national anthem by the president has negative repercussions that reach beyond the United States. The principled stance that the United States takes on human rights has made it into a model for other countries. However, spewing rhetoric reminiscent of authoritarian regimes dilutes the strength of U.S. values abroad. Particularly striking in this case are the similarities between President Trump’s tweets and the recent actions taken by the Chinese government to stymie free speech in Hong Kong. While President Trump has often brushed off the optics of his actions, the direct comparison that can be drawn between his reaction to football players protesting the national anthem and the Chinese government’s insistence on Hong Kong’s new National Anthem Law is deeply disturbing. Moreover, President Trump’s Twitter attacks on the media in the United States have been used by authoritarian regimes to justify their own crackdowns on free press. President Trump must reassure the world of the United States’ resolve to protect human rights domestically and internationally by demonstrating this commitment both in law and on Twitter.


Hong Kong’s National Anthem Law prohibits people from disrespecting the national anthem, punishable by jail time. This law was adopted in November 2017, at the insistence of China’s National People’s Congress, after Hong Kong protestors began booing the Chinese national anthem at soccer matches. Hong Kong prizes its freedom of speech, as demonstrated by its scathingly free press and active protest movements. Bookstores in Hong Kong sell books that are considered taboo in China because they praise prominent figures who have been critical of China’s government, such as the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo. Protestors in Hong Kong commemorate the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, the mention of which is forbidden in mainland China.

President Trump’s tweets condemning U.S. athletes for protesting the national anthem a month prior to the passage of Hong Kong’s National Anthem Law, reflect a shift in the wrong direction by U.S. leadership on human rights. While the actual threat of jailtime in Hong Kong is not analogous to being lambasted by President Trump in the United States, both cases evoke a message of intolerance for dissent from the government, one of the hallmarks of an authoritarian state. Rather than undermine U.S. human rights values abroad, President Trump should be using his platform on Twitter to condemn the pressure that China’s National People’s Congress put on Hong Kong’s to enact the National Anthem Law.


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The proliferation of the “fake news” phenomenon highlights the importance of using rhetoric that reflects U.S. values. President Trump’s tweets calling established U.S. media companies “fake news” started a trend that authoritarian leaders who have antagonistic relationships with the press were happy to follow. Since President Trump legitimized the deployment of this term as a weapon against unfavorable news coverage, it has been used against reporters by authoritarian regimes around the world. In China, the state-controlled newspaper, People’s Daily, published an op-ed titled, “Trump is right, fake news is the enemy, something China has known for years.” China has also claimed that reports on its use of torture on activists were “fake news” spread by the Western media. Beyond China, Venezuelan President Maduro accused the world media of spreading lies, stating: “This is what we call ‘fake news’ today, isn’t it?” Syrian President Bashar Assad similarly rebuked reports on Syria’s military prisons by Amnesty International with the assertion that, “We are living in a fake news era.” While President Trump’s use of Twitter to attack free speech in the United States is not the cause of attacks on free speech by authoritarian regimes, his rhetoric has emboldened these regimes to cast aside blame for rights abuses and introduce doubt by way of the term “fake news.”

As Twitter has become a primary method of communication between President Trump and the American people, it is imperative that he crafts tweets carefully, keeping in mind the impact they can have on human rights around the world. Rhetoric of intolerance for free speech from the President of the United States provides cover for authoritarian regimes to commit human rights abuses. In order to combat those abuses, the United States must reemphasize its commitment to strengthening human rights norms, using every platform available, including the president’s Twitter.

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Marika Miner is an M.A. candidate in Asian Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She has interned at the State Department and the U.S.-China Business Council. Her research interests include East and Central Asia.

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