Why playing the harmonica at a vigil for the queen got a man arrested

(CNN) — A man was arrested in Hong Kong on suspicion of sedition after playing the harmonica at a vigil for Queen Elizabeth II, under a colonial-era law that once outlawed insulting the Queen.

Videos posted to social media show hundreds of people gathering outside the city’s British consulate Monday and Tuesday to pay tribute to the Queen as her funeral took place in London — an event heavy with political significance in the former British colony, where mourning the monarch has become a subtle form of protest.

In celebrating the monarchy and its symbols, some Hong Kongers see an opportunity for a veiled dig at the Chinese Communist Party and local authorities, which have made no secret of  their eagerness to erase colonial history.

One video from the vigil shows a man playing on his harmonica the tune “Glory to Hong Kong,” a protest anthem created during the depths of the pro-democracy, anti-government protests that rocked the city in 2019.

Crowds waved iPhone flashlights in the dark and sang along to the harmonica. Police officers then arrived and escorted the man into their van.

When CNN asked police about the harmonica player, they said a 43-year-old man surnamed Pang had been arrested that night at around 9:30 p.m. Monday. He was suspected of committing acts of sedition, and was detained for questioning then released on bail, police said.

He will be required to report back to police in November.

Hong Kong’s sedition law is part of a 1938 ordinance once used by the colonial government to target pro-China groups and publications. It originally defined sedition as speech that brought “hatred or contempt” against the British monarchy or the Hong Kong government.

The law had been unused for decades until it was revived in 2020 alongside Beijing’s introduction of a sweeping national security law, which targets secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist activities.

A conviction under the sedition law carries a maximum two-year sentence.

The revival of the law — and its use amid a broader crackdown by Hong Kong and Beijing authorities — has drawn criticism from activists and humanitarian organizations around the world.

In July, the UN’s Human Rights Committee urged Hong Kong to repeal the law, saying it was concerned it could limit citizens’ “legitimate right to freedom of speech.” It has been used to arrest activists, journalists, protesters and former elected lawmakers.

Without traditional avenues of protest — people have now been arrested for social media posts and even for publishing children’s books deemed seditious — the queen’s death emerged this month as an unexpected opportunity for dissent.

A retiree named Wing, who spoke to CNN outside the consulate on Monday but declined to give his full name, said it was “incredible” to be part of a mass gathering again.

“I feel angry that the Hong Kong government is not showing any respect properly (to the Queen). They’re scared of the Chinese government telling them off, but we were part of the colony,” said Wing, who was born in the 1960s.

The displays of affection are also a reminder of the city’s pro-democracy protests, during which demonstrators adopted the colonial flag as a sign of resistance to Chinese one-party rule.

However, other critics have pointed out that even under British rule, Hong Kongers did not have universal suffrage. And many felt London neglected its duty by failing to grant British citizenship to Hong Kongers at the time of the handover, instead offering most a limited passport that did not give them the right to live and work in Britain.

Since the introduction of the national security law, Britain has created what it calls a path to citizenship via a new type of visa.

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