Hong Kong Loses Movie Freedoms as Beijing Continues Anti-Democracy Crackdown

Hong Kong censors will need to consider what China calls "national security" issues.

People in Hong Kong enjoy an outdoor movie screening on November 10, 2020.
People in Hong Kong enjoy an outdoor movie screening on November 10, 2020.
Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP (Getty Images)

Hong Kong film censors will halt distribution of movies that threaten “national security” according to a government announcement Friday that will effectively bring Beijing-style movie censorship to the semi-autonomous region. The crackdown on movies is just the latest push against Hong Kong’s freedoms by an increasingly aggressive government in Beijing.

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“The censor should be vigilant to the portrayal, depiction or treatment of any act or activity which may amount to an offence endangering national security,” according to the new guidelines published online Friday.

The term “national security” will almost certainly be interpreted broadly in Hong Kong to include anything that film censors in mainland China believe to be subversive in any way.

“When considering a film as a whole and its effect on the viewers, the censor should have regard to his duties to prevent and suppress acts or activities endangering national security, and the common responsibility of the people of Hong Kong to safeguard the sovereignty, unification and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China,” according to the amended film guidance.

Film and internet censors in China are extremely heavy-handed and Hollywood has come under fire over the past decade for making edits on blockbuster movies to please the Chinese government. Sometimes, only the Chinese version of a film is altered, like when Alien: Covenant was edited in 2017 before it played in China to remove a gay kiss. Even more disturbingly, sometimes the final edit of a film is altered for the entire world in order to make Beijing happy, like when Disney whitewashed a Tibetan character in the Marvel superhero film Dr. Strange.

Why would Hollywood bow to pressure from China? The country is the second largest movie market in the world and U.S. films are often far less popular than entertainment made domestically. China doesn’t need Hollywood, but Hollywood sure needs China.

Hong Kong cinema has thrived for the past century with the action films of John Woo, the kung fu comedies of Stephen Chow, and the dramas of Ann Hui, to name just a few. But the openness that allowed Hong Kong filmmakers to make great art is slowly fading away, right along with the pro-democracy movement.

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Hong Kong has operated under a semi-autonomous structure with China’s central government in Beijing ever since the territory was handed over from the UK in 1997. Dubbed “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong is supposed to have some version of the liberal norms that existed under British rule, but those are fast disappearing as China grows impatient with not being able to roll tanks through the streets.

As Variety points out, no one from Hong Kong’s film industry was allowed to comment or push back on the new censorship rules, which are in some ways just a formal declaration of what’s been happening over the past few years. For example, the pro-democracy documentary “Inside the Red Brick Wall” was pulled by theaters in Hong Kong back in March after pressure from the Chinese mainland.

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The Hong Kong government published a statement along with the new guidelines for film censors, paying lip service to freedom of speech.

The film censorship regulatory framework is built on the premise of a balance between protection of individual rights and freedoms on the one hand, and the protection of legitimate societal interests on the other,” an unnamed spokesperson said in the government press release published online.

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“Although fundamental rights (including the right to freedom of expression in the exhibition of films) should be respected, the exercise of such rights are subject to restrictions provided by law that are necessary for pursuing legitimate aims, such as respecting the rights or reputation of others, and the protection of national security or public order, or public health or morals,” the statement continued.

Matt Novak is a senior writer at Gizmodo and founder of Paleofuture.com. He's writing a book about the movies U.S. presidents watched at the White House, Camp David, and on Air Force One.

DISCUSSION

rvincent1960
Times up, time to leave!

that will effectively bring Beijing-style movie censorship to the semi-autonomous region”

Sorry Matt, it’s now “the former semi-autonomous region”. No pretense any longer, this is simply China now. Sham elections with no opposition, strict dissent laws, it remains Hong Kong in name only.