China’s Censorship Widens to Hong Kong’s Vaunted Film Industry, With Global Implications
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For decades, Hong Kong’s film industry has delighted audiences around the world with ballistic shoot-em-ups, epic martial arts fantasies, choppy comedies and shadowy romances. Now, on orders from Beijing, local officials will examine such work in terms of protecting the People’s Republic of China.
The city’s government announced on Friday that it would block the distribution of films intended to undermine national security, marking the official introduction of censorship to mainland China at one of Asia’s most famous hubs.
The new guidelines, which apply to both domestic and foreign films, are a blow to the artistic spirit of Hong Kong, where state-protected freedom of expression and a disrespectful local culture had given the city a cultural vibrancy that set it apart from the megacities of the world Mainland.
They also represent an extension of the Chinese government’s influence on the global film industry. China’s booming box office is irresistible to Hollywood studios. Big budget productions go to great lengths not to offend Chinese audiences and Communist Party censorship while others discover the expensive way of what happens when they don’t.
Hong Kong’s film industry, steeped in history, is as much a pillar of its identity as its food, its burgeoning skyline or its financial services sector.
During its peak as film capital in the decades after World War II, the city produced immensely popular genre films and sponsored writers such as Wong Kar-wai and Ann Hui. It has shaped international stars like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, Andy Lau and Tony Leung. The influence of Hong Kong cinema can be seen in the work of Hollywood directors like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, as well as in blockbusters like “The Matrix”.
Since the return of the former British colony to China in 1997, concerns about censorship over Hong Kong’s creative industries have grown. But concerns that once seemed theoretical have become shockingly real since Beijing enacted a national security law last year to quell anti-government protests that the city opened in 2019.
So while few in the local film industry said they were completely surprised by Friday’s new censorship guidelines, they still voiced concerns that the wide scope of the rules would affect not only the films shown in Hong Kong, but also how they are produced and whether they are produced at all.
“How do you collect money?” asked Evans Chan, a filmmaker struggling to get his work done in town. “Can you openly say about crowdsourcing that this is a film about certain points of view, certain activities?”
Even feature filmmakers would be eagerly wondering whether their films violate security law. “It’s not just about activist or political filmmaking, but about the entire Hong Kong film scene.”
The censorship guidelines are the latest sign of how thoroughly Hong Kong is being reshaped by Beijing’s security law, which targeted the city’s pro-democracy protest movement but had devastating effects on aspects of its character.
With the blessing of the communist government, the Hong Kong authorities have changed school curricula, removed books from library shelves and revised elections. The police have arrested democratic activists and politicians as well as a high-profile newspaper publisher.
And in art, the law has created an atmosphere of fear.
The updated rules announced on Friday require that Hong Kong censors considering a film for distribution not only pay attention to violent, sexual, and vulgar content, but also how the film portrays acts “that may constitute a criminal offense, that endangers national security ”.
Anything that can be “objectively and reasonably perceived as approving, supporting, promoting, glorifying, encouraging, or inciting” such acts is a potential reason for a film to be considered unsuitable for exhibition, it now states.
The new rules do not limit the scope of a censorship’s judgment to the content of a film alone.
“In considering the impact of the film as a whole and its likely impact on the people who are likely to see the film,” the guidelines state, “the censorship should increase the obligations to prevent and suppress any acts or activities that are national Endanger security, consider. “
A statement by the Hong Kong government on Friday said: “The regulatory framework for film censorship is based on a balance between protecting the rights and freedoms of the individual on the one hand and protecting legitimate societal interests on the other.”
The vagueness of the new rules is in line with what critics of the Security Act refer to as vaguely defined crimes, which allow authorities a lot of leeway to target activists and critics.
Tin Kai-man of the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers told local broadcaster TVB that the industry needs to better understand whether the censors’ decisions can be challenged – after, for example, they decided that a film was not in Hong Kong because of national security risks.
“All of this needs to be clarified first,” said Mr. Tin. “We don’t want this thing to come in and get out of hand, so we’re concerned about the effects it will have on film production.”
The new censorship guidelines announced on Friday seem to be partially aimed at a certain type of film. They say the censors should pay special attention to any film that “purports to be a documentary” or reports “real events directly related to Hong Kong circumstances”.
Why? “The local audience may be more sensitive to the content of the film.”
According to the guidelines, censors should “carefully examine whether the film contains biased, unverified, false, or misleading narratives or representations of commentary.”
That could mean a tougher test for films like Ten Years, a 2015 low-budget independent production that features dystopian stories about life in a 2025 Hong Kong crumbling under Beijing’s grip. It could also frighten documentary filmmakers’ efforts to record Hong Kong’s political turmoil.
A short documentary film about the protests of 2019, “Do Not Split”, was nominated for an Oscar this year and raised awareness of China’s actions in the city around the world. (The movie’s nomination may have played a role in Hong Kong broadcasters’ decision not to air the Oscar this year for the first time in decades, despite one broadcaster calling it a commercial decision.)
Efforts to bring more political-themed documentaries to audiences in Hong Kong in recent months have become bitterly controversial.
A screening of a documentary film about the 2019 protests was canceled at the last minute this year after a Beijing-friendly newspaper said the film encouraged subversion. Hong Kong University urged its student union to cancel the showing of a film about a detained activist.
The demonstration went as planned. But a few months later the university announced it would stop collecting membership fees on behalf of the organization and managing its finances as a punishment for its “radical acts”.
Mainland China has long restricted the number of films made outside of China that can be shown in local cinemas. But Hong Kong operated much like any other film market around the world, with movie theater operators booking anything that could sell tickets.
The city’s expanded censorship could therefore take a small but meaningful bite out of Hollywood’s overseas box office revenue.
For example, Warner Bros. 2019 super villain film “Joker,” was not approved for release in mainland cinemas. However, it raised more than $ 7 million in Hong Kong, according to the entertainment industry database IMDBpro.
China has become more important to Hollywood in recent years because it is one of the few countries where cinema attendance is growing. Ticket sales in the United States and Canada, which make up the world’s largest film market, were flat at $ 11.4 billion between 2016 and 2019, according to the Motion Picture Association. During this period, ticket sales in China rose 41 percent to $ 9.3 billion.
As a result, American studios have stepped up their efforts to work within the Chinese censorship system.
Last year, PEN America, the advocacy group for freedom of expression, denounced Hollywood executives for voluntarily censoring movies to appease China with “content, cast, plot, dialogue, and attitudes” tailored to “avoid” to anger Chinese officials ”. In some cases, according to PEN, studios have “invited the Chinese government censors directly to their film sets to advise them on how to avoid tripping the censor cords.”
Brooks Barnes contributed the coverage from Los Angeles.