New film censorship guidelines in Hong Kong, released this month, will have a chilling effect on a once-vibrant industry. By Elizabeth Flux.

The chilling effect of film censorship in Hong Kong

A scene from Kiwi Chow’s documentary on the Hong Kong protests, Revolution of Our Times.
A scene from Kiwi Chow’s documentary on the Hong Kong protests, Revolution of Our Times.
Credit: Kiwi Chow

In July, with the Cannes Film Festival well under way, organisers made a surprise announcement. There was one more film in their line-up. This was Revolution of Our Times, a documentary by Hong Kong filmmaker Kiwi Chow, looking at the pro-democracy protests that took over the city in 2019.

For observers, it’s no surprise that the film’s presence at the festival was kept secret until the last minute. The Chinese box office is big business. Last year it overtook the United States’ as the most lucrative in the world, and, globally, filmmakers are keen not to attract the ire of the Chinese censors. The Chinese government has a history of reacting strongly to films perceived as being critical or a threat. It keeps a firm hand on what is allowed on its citizens’ screens.

In 2016 I was in Hong Kong to attend the Hong Kong International Film Festival and conduct interviews on the changing nature of the city’s movie industry. While I was there, buzz about Ten Years, a local film released a few months earlier, was building. Made up of five separate short films, it’s a work of speculative fiction that offers a grim perspective on what Hong Kong might look like in 2025. In one chapter, a taxi driver is discriminated against for speaking Cantonese rather than Mandarin. In another – directed by Kiwi Chow – a protester sets themself on fire. I was still in Hong Kong when Ten Years was nominated for, and ultimately won, Best Film in the 35th Hong Kong Film Awards. Mainland Chinese stations refused to live-screen the ceremony.

Restrictions aren’t limited to political content either. Just two months ago, China’s government introduced a ban on “effeminate” men appearing on television. Controlling what people see is controlling what they know – and by extension is an attempt to control how they think and act. Now, the control over film and television that has become normal in mainland China is spreading to Hong Kong.

Following a year of widespread pro-democracy protests, Beijing imposed a controversial national security law on Hong Kong at the end of June 2020. It criminalises secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces, and terrorist activities, each of which can incur life imprisonment. Beyond these broad terms the actual definitions are harder to nail down, which means it is difficult for people to know exactly what behaviours could be considered criminal. Is telling a friend you’re pro-democracy enough for a secession charge? Could writing an article critical of the Chinese Communist Party for an overseas publication potentially be collusion with foreign forces? What about making a documentary about Hong Kong’s protests – is that an example of subversion?

On November 5, Hong Kong released new film censorship guidelines. In the statement accompanying them, the government explained that the changes were in line with a new ordinance, “which aims to ensure more effective fulfilment of the duty to safeguard national security as required by the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”.

The words “national security” are aggressively present throughout the amended guidelines. One section states: “The censor should be vigilant to contents the exhibition of which would be contrary to the interests of national security, including the portrayal, depiction or treatment of any act or activity which may amount to an offence endangering national security.” In a footnote off this, the guidelines continue: “Offences endangering national security are not limited to those offences under the National Security Law.”

The thing is, just like in the national security law, what constitutes a threat is never clearly defined. “By nature,” the guidelines declare, “threats to national security may vary in character and may be unanticipated or difficult to define in advance.”

In the world outside of film, the 16 months since the national security law came in have started to show what is and isn’t permitted. In January, 53 pro-democracy activists and politicians were arrested. Jimmy Lai, the founder of the recently shuttered Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, was arrested for “collusion with foreign forces” and is in jail for his role in pro-democracy protests. In June, a man was arrested on suspicion of sedition for displaying a flag with a protest slogan outside his apartment. In July, five people were arrested for helping to publish illustrated e-books for children that attempted to explain the pro-democracy movement using cartoon wolves and sheep.

Vigils commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre were banned in both 2020 and 2021. In September a museum commemorating the massacre was raided, and the group that runs the museum and had previously run vigils has been charged with subversion. On November 11, a man was sentenced to five years and nine months in jail for “inciting secession” by making pro-independence speeches at protests and similarly themed posts online. He was imprisoned for words alone.

It’s impossible to predict what actions, big or small, could be considered a breach of the nebulous national security law, but the way in which it has been wielded, heavily and often, means the fear of accidentally breaking it encourages self-censorship and makes it a highly effective tool of oppression and control.

Even though I haven’t lived in Hong Kong since I was a child, and with the privilege of distance living in Australia, I think twice writing about Hong Kong, or sharing a tweet, or posting an opinion. But that’s the point of all of this, isn’t it? To make everyone sit down, shut up and let things unfold in silence.

If a man can be jailed for vocalising a desire for independence, and a children’s book about sheep and wolves is grounds for charges, what are the odds that any film even touching on the Umbrella Movement, on the 2019 protests, on any current events in Hong Kong with even a whiff of dissent, is legal under the national security law – let alone has a chance of making past the censors?

Revolution of Our Times would have absolutely no chance of getting through a censor adhering to these guidelines. The title itself is probably enough for a secession charge, and the guidelines specifically spotlight titles that are “contrary to the interests of national security”. As for the content: “The fact that a film may be perceived as a documentary of, or appear to be based on or re-enacting, real events with immediate connection to the circumstances in Hong Kong necessitates an even more careful consideration of its contents by the censor.”

During my 2016 visit, I viewed a series of student films made that year. Almost all of them focused on the 2014 Hong Kong democracy protests, which have since come to be known as the Umbrella Movement. This is what almost an entire cohort of filmmakers wanted to explore, to speak about, to dissect, and it is this that is now being silenced.

It’s emphasised that applicants and distributors are always welcome to appeal a censor decision. However, tucked away in the footnotes is the clarification: “The review mechanism does not apply in relation to a decision if the decision is based on an opinion that the exhibition of a film would be contrary to the interests of national security.”

These guidelines aren’t really for the censors. They’re for filmmakers, and, by extension, Hongkongers. By keeping things vague and the consequences significant it encourages, even necessitates, self-censorship. By targeting documentaries it’s a way of erasing recent history – much like with the crackdown on Tiananmen Square memorials. First the current voices of dissent are stamped out, and by doing so anyone thinking of speaking up is dissuaded from doing so in future.

There’s a view that things are reasonably okay in Hong Kong because the situation is not violent; that the arrests of pro-democracy activists and politicians are bad but things aren’t really dire. But just because people aren’t being killed doesn’t mean everything’s alright.

It’s a quiet erosion of rights, of expectations. Things are being lost very quickly. The right to protest. The right to run for office if you aren’t pro-Beijing. The freedom to speak or display words calling for democracy. The opportunity to make – or see – films that don’t toe the party line. Oppression isn’t always violent or loud, but it is just as devastating.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 20, 2021 as "A quiet erosion".

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