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Hong Kong’s sports associations have been instructed to include “China” in their names, or risk losing funding and the right to represent the city if the directive is not followed.

The sports bodies have been told to comply by July, the Sports Federation and Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China, told The Washington Post on Friday. Those that do not could lose government funding, which, the city’s Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau said in an email, is dependent on committee membership.

The letter, officials said, was sent to sports organizations in the city this week and was aimed at those that do not have the word “China” in their names, which would include the 109-year-old Hong Kong Football Association and the Hong To install Kong Rugby Union. Only about a quarter of the 83 sports organizations listed on the committee’s website do.

The International Olympic Committee emphasized that the city’s Olympic committee uses “Hong Kong, China” in its name. “This name has been adopted more than twenty years ago,” an IOC spokesperson said in an email to The Post.

Without committee membershipteams and their athletes could lose out on the chance to compete in the Olympics, Asia Games or other international events.

The renaming directive is about more than the words on a jersey. Sports has become a political football in Hong Kong: Its athletes compete as Hong Kong teams, under the Hong Kong flag, even though the former British colony was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” framework, which allows the city to maintain its own passports and currency.

Local fans cheer for Hong Kong teams, and were once so insistent on booing the Chinese national anthem during soccer games that Hong Kong passed a law against it in 2020. When fans erupted in celebration after Hong Kong won a rare Olympic gold in 2021, a resident watching the match in a mall was arrested for disrespecting the Chinese anthem, according to local media,

Hong Kong authorities have become increasingly concerned about symbolism at sports events. When overseas organizers accidentally played pro-democracy protest song “Glory to Hong Kong” during flag-raising ceremonies, they drew condemnation from Hong Kong’s leader and police; the city’s government even tried to push Google to bury the song in search results,

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The most recent directive could cause dozens of sports clubs to change their names. The city’s Olympic committee said by email that using “Hong Kong, China” in names is “in line with the spirit of Article 149 of the Basic Law,” referring to an ambiguously worded section in Hong Kong’s “mini constitution.”

The directive is “really meant to reinforce a sense of national identity toward China,” said Tobias Zuser, a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies sports and culture.

Zuser notes that sports have become a platform for political expression. “At football games with the Hong Kong representative team, the fans themselves very much embrace the opportunity to express a different identity from China,” he said.

Cheering for the region’s team is the “last opportunity” to express local pride, Zuser said. At a soccer game, “10,000 people will chant, ‘Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong,’ and that would not happen anywhere else any more other than inside the stadium,” he said. Protests have been restricted since mass pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019 and the passing of a security national law a year later.

When Hong Kong won an unprecedented six medals at the Olympics in 2021, “it really resonated with Hongkongers at the time,” Zuser said. “I think no matter what their political stance was, they felt like there is a certain kind of investment in Hong Kong, and pride as well that small Hong Kong has athletes that compete and win these competitions.”

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