The animosity surrounding Hong Kong’s autonomy from China has been encroaching onto the football pitch at both club and international level in recent years.
Matches between the two at international level, Hong Kong Premier League ties, and AFC Champions League fixtures are increasingly becoming geopolitical flash points.
Despite transferring from British to Chinese control in 1997, Hong Kong has been allowed to maintain its own sports teams under the “one nation, two systems” principle.
The sides have been drawn in the same group for World Cup qualification on three occasions, all of which have proven controversial.
Hong Kong famously defeated China 2-1 in Beijing during qualification for the 1986 World Cup – effectively ending China’s hopes of reaching the finals.
The Chinese fans at the Workers’ Stadium rioted, preventing Hong Kong supporters from leaving the ground.
Drawn together once again for 2006 World Cup qualification, China’s manager Bora Milutinovic offend Hong Kong fans by saying: “How can China play Hong Kong? Hong Kong is China. They are the same country.”
The 2014 Umbrella Revolution gave extra political significance to 2015 fixtures between the two during 2018 World Cup qualification.
The Umbrella Revolution saw tens of thousands of Hong Kongers protesting Chinese encroachment upon the semi-autonomous region’s democratic system.
The Chinese Football Association (CFA) consistently labelled their opponents “Hong Kong, China” in the build up to the 2015 qualifier- flying in the face of Hong Kong’s autonomy.
The CFA were also accused of racism for issuing posters highlighting the Hong Kong team’s multi-ethnic background, saying: “Black skin, yellow skin, and white skin. Best to be on our guard against such a multi-layered team!”
At the qualifier at Hong Kong’s Mong Kok stadium China’s fans waved red Communist flags and sang Communist songs.
Hong Kong’s fans chanted “we are Hong Kong” and displayed signs reading “Hong Kong is not China”, while booing their shared anthem – March of the Volunteers.
Booing of the anthem by Hong Kong fans continued during subsequent matches against Cambodia, Bhutan, and Malaysia, prompting the Chinese government to pass laws restricting anti-anthem protests.
China and Hong Kong’s political tensions have also become manifest in club football.
During an AFC Champions League fixture between Hong Kong’s Eastern Sports Club and China’s Guangzhou Evergrande at Mong Kok violent scenes more commonly seen in European football caught the world’s attention.
During the game Guangzhou fans unveiled a banner reading: “Annihilate British Dogs, Extinguish Hong Kong Independence Poison.”
Eastern fans attempted to storm the away end, and were only restrained by the significant police presence.
Similar scenes have however not yet occurred in any Hong Kong Premier League fixtures despite Guangzhou-based R&F entering the competition in 2016.
This has largely been achieved by R&F – a satellite of Chinese Super League side Guangzhou R&F – depicting themselves as a Hong Kong club.
Vice President Hwang Shenghua said in 2016: “In the long run, our target is to become a club with roots in Hong Kong and produce players for the Hong Kong national team.”
So far R&F have stuck to their word; 16 of the current first-team squad are Hong Kong nationals.
This approach has worked for now, but may not apply if the league is suddenly flooded by Chinese teams all professing to be loyal to Hong Kong.
This is a distinct possibility as outgoing Hong Kong FA CEO Mark Sutcliffe believes the incorporation of more non-Hong Kong sides into the HK Premier League is essential for its survival.
“I think they should look at the options for the future of a professional league, which might mean going to 12 teams, having six from Hong Kong and six from outside Hong Kong” said Mr Sutcliffe.
“There was a lot of resistance to [R&F] at first and I can understand why, but its working reasonably well now. If you could have a league in Hong Kong between teams from Macau, Chinese Taipei, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and expand it so there’s more interest, thats one option.
“Another option might be to look at putting in a couple of teams playing in China.”
If Mr Sutcliffe’s thoughts are an indication of the direction of domestic football in Hong Kong, do not be surprised to see evidence of Hong Kong and China’s growing political tensions during a Hong Kong Premier League fixture in the near future.
Source for cover photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip