Chinese censorship spreads to much-vaunted Hong Kong film industry, with global implications
For decades, Hong Kong’s film industry has captivated audiences worldwide with ballet shoot-em-ups, epic martial arts fantasies, choppy comedies and shadowy romances. From now on, under orders from Beijing, local authorities will examine this work with the aim of protecting the People’s Republic of China.
The city government announced on Friday that it would begin blocking the distribution of films deemed to undermine national security, marking the official arrival of Chinese-style censorship in one of the most famous film centers in China. Asia.
The new guidelines, which apply to both domestically produced and foreign films, are a brutal slap in the face of the artistic spirit of Hong Kong, where government-protected freedoms of expression and an irreverent local culture had imbued the city with a cultural dynamism that set it apart from the continental megalopolises.
They also represent a widening of the Chinese government’s grip on the global film industry. China’s booming box office has been irresistible to Hollywood studios. Big budget productions go to great lengths to avoid offending Chinese audiences and Communist Party censors, while others find out the expensive way to find out what happens when they don’t.
Hong Kong’s legendary film industry is as much a pillar of its identity as its food, booming skyline or financial services industry.
During its heyday as the capital of cinema in the decades following WWII, the city produced hugely popular genre films and nurtured writers like Wong Kar-wai and Ann Hui. It has hit international stars such as Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, Andy Lau, and Tony Leung. The influence of Hong Kong cinema is visible in the work of Hollywood directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, and in blockbusters such as “The Matrix”.
Censorship concerns have plagued Hong Kong’s creative industries since the former British colony returned to China in 1997. But once theoretical concerns have become appallingly real since Beijing enacted a national security law. last year to call off the anti-government protests that rocked the city in 2019.
So while few in the local film industry said they felt totally caught off guard by the new censorship guidelines released on Friday, they still expressed concern that the broad scope of the rules would not only affect films shown in Hong Kong, but also how they are produced and whether they are made.
“How to raise funds? Asked Evans Chan, a filmmaker who has had trouble showing his work in the city. “Can you openly crowdsource and say it’s a film about certain points of view, certain activities? “
Even feature film directors, he said, will be left to wonder with anticipation whether their films will break safety law. “It’s not just about militant cinema or political cinema, but the overall cinema scene in Hong Kong.”
The censorship guidelines are the latest sign of how Hong Kong is being reshaped by Beijing’s security law, which targeted the city’s pro-democracy protest movement but had overwhelming implications for some aspects of its very character.
With the blessing of the Communist government, the Hong Kong authorities changed school curricula, removed books from library shelves and decided to reorganize the elections. Police arrested pro-democracy activists and politicians as well as a prominent newspaper editor.
And in the arts, the law has created an atmosphere of fear.
The updated rules announced on Friday require Hong Kong censors planning to distribute a film to monitor not only violent, sexual and vulgar content, but also how the film portrays acts “which may constitute an endangering offense. national security “.
Anything that is “objectively and reasonably likely to be perceived as endorsing, supporting, promoting, glorifying, encouraging or inciting” such acts is a potential ground for deeming a film unfit for showing, the rules now say.
The new rules do not limit the scope of a censor’s verdict to only the content of a film.
“When considering the effect of the film as a whole and its likely effect on those likely to see the film,” the guidelines say, “the censor should take into account the duties to prevent and suppress an act or activity involving endangering national security “.
A Hong Kong government statement said on Friday: “The regulatory framework for film censorship is based on the principle of balancing the protection of individual rights and freedoms on the one hand, and the protection of legitimate societal interests on the other. go.
The vagueness of the new provisions is in line with what critics of the security law say are its ambiguously defined offenses, giving authorities ample leeway to target activists and critics.
Tin Kai-man, of the Hong Kong Filmmakers Federation, told local broadcaster TVB that the industry needs to better understand whether censors’ decisions can be appealed – after, for example, that they decided that a film could not be shown in Hong Kong due to national security risks.
“All of this needs to be clarified first,” Tin said. “We don’t want this thing to happen and get out of hand, so we’re starting to worry about the impact on film production.”
The new censorship guidelines announced on Friday appear to be aimed in part at a specific type of film. They say censors should pay particular attention to any film that “purports to be a documentary” or reports “real events having an immediate connection to the circumstances in Hong Kong.”
Why? “Local audiences can probably feel the content of the film more strongly. “
Censors, according to the guidelines, “should carefully consider whether the film contains any biased, unverified, false or misleading commentary narratives or presentations.”
This could lead to more rigorous scrutiny of films like “Ten Years,” a 2015 low-budget independent production that featured dystopian tales of life in a 2025 Hong Kong collapsing under Beijing’s sway. It could also hamper efforts by documentary filmmakers to chronicle political unrest in Hong Kong.
A short documentary on the 2019 protests, “Do Not Divide,” was nominated for an Oscar this year, raising awareness of the Chinese crackdown in the city. (The film’s nomination may have played a role in Hong Kong broadcasters’ decision not to air the Oscar show this year for the first time in decades, although one station called it a business decision. )
Efforts to bring other politically-themed documentaries to audiences in Hong Kong in recent months have become engulfed in bitter controversy.
The screening of a documentary on the 2019 protests was canceled at the last minute this year after a pro-Beijing newspaper said the film encouraged subversion. The University of Hong Kong has urged its student union to cancel the showing of a film about an imprisoned activist.
The screening went as planned. But a few months later, the university announced that it would stop collecting dues on behalf of the organization and stop managing its finances as punishment for its “radical acts”.
Mainland China has long limited the number of films made outside of China that can be shown in local theaters. But Hong Kong has operated pretty much like any other movie market in the world, with theater operators booking anything that could sell tickets.
The city’s expanded censorship could therefore take a small but significant bite from Hollywood’s overseas box office returns.
Warner Bros.’s supervillain movie “Joker,” from 2019, has not been cleared in cinemas in mainland China, for example. But he raised more than $ 7 million in Hong Kong, according to entertainment industry database IMDBpro.
China has become more important to Hollywood in recent years because it is one of the few countries where cinema thrives. Ticket sales in the United States and Canada, which are the world’s largest cinema market, stagnated between 2016 and 2019, at $ 11.4 billion, according to the Motion Picture Association. During this period, ticket sales in China increased 41% to reach $ 9.3 billion.
As a result, US studios have stepped up their efforts to work within the Chinese censorship system.
Free speech group PEN America last year slammed Hollywood executives for purposely censoring films to appease China, with “content, cast, plot, dialogue and settings” adapted “To avoid upsetting Chinese officials.” In some cases, PEN said, the studios have “invited Chinese government censors directly to their film sets to advise them on how to avoid tripping the censor’s wires.”
Brooks barnes contributed to Los Angeles reporting.