Within days of Hong Kong’s controversial new national security law taking force on July 1, scenes once unimaginable in the financial hub have nightmarishly come true: a 15-year-old girl arrested for waving an independence flag; books potentially offensive to China’s Communist Party removed from public libraries; protesters, fearing life imprisonment for wielding slogans, holding up blank sheets of paper — but getting detained anyway.
By imposing the law, Beijing is forcibly and abruptly moving its Great Firewall of censorship and illiberal approach to dissent southward to encompass Hong Kong — a move that amounts to a takeover, experts say.
In the space of a week, major U.S. tech firms have found themselves facing the thorny question of whether continuing to do business in Hong Kong, within reach of China’s increasingly long arm, is desirable or even feasible.
“Now [Western] companies must reevaluate whether they can effectively, legally or safely operate within Hong Kong, similar to what they did in the last 10 to 15 years” when Google and Facebook, among others, decided to stop operating in China rather than submit to government censorship demands, says Charles Mok, a Hong Kong legislator representing the IT sector.
TikTok, whose parent firm is China’s Bytedance but does not itself operate on the mainland, said it was removing its app from Hong Kong immediately. Facebook, Google and Twitter say they have temporarily suspended cooperation with Hong Kong authorities’ requests for user data until they gain further clarity on the law’s scope.
The law makes the companies liable for political speech that occurs outside Hong Kong’s borders, explains Mok. Global platforms must remove “certain messages about Hong Kong, Taiwan or other parts of China that our authorities deem to be illegal here … everywhere in the world,”
The lengthy law criminalizes the four offenses of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces in vague terms that give Beijing broad range over whom it wishes to target. Punishments include up to life imprisonment.
Meanwhile, it remains unknown whether journalists will face legal repercussions for quoting government critics, reporting on penalties against offenders of the law or even speaking up critically outside China or Hong Kong’s borders.
That confusion is itself problematic. Right now, “perhaps what is of the most concern is the uncertainty, leading to a degree of self-censorship,” says Charmaine Koo, one of Hong Kong’s leading entertainment lawyers. “People don’t know what the law means and are just scared. They therefore stop saying and doing things that may be legal.”
The law could also be an inflection point for many of Hong Kong’s film companies that have so far tried to have their cake and eat it, too, enjoying their own territory’s greater freedoms while maintaining access to China’s larger, strictly censored market.
For years, Hong Kong studios’ stock-in-trade has been ribald comedies, action thrillers and crime dramas featuring corrupt officials and other content that runs afoul of Communist Party narratives and patriotic standards. Now the jig may be up.
“Co-production and cooperation to date have rested on the express understanding that the mainland and Hong Kong are, for those purposes, different countries,” but the new law will “result in the effective nullification of this distinction,” says one Beijing-based lawyer who requested anonymity. “Expect local Hong Kong content to be required to comply with mainland regulatory settings.”
This would formalize a shift that’s in progress, as many Hong Kong filmmakers are already operating according to mainland diktats. Last November, when Chinese authorities called for all Chinese nationals to boycott Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards, most Hong Kong producers also duly stayed away. For some, it was an agonizing decision that betrayed principles and promises.
Hong Kong’s mainstream entertainment industry so far hasn’t been at the forefront of the debate around the new law, despite growing concern among professionals about the statute’s deliberate vagueness.
“Companies must reevaluate whether they can effectively, legally or safely operate within Hong Kong.”
Charles Mok, Hong Kong legislator
“I don’t believe that the national security law targets creative freedom and the film industry, but I’m worried about the gray areas,” says Tenky Tin, chairman of the executive committee of the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers. “What if someone films another ‘Ten Years’? Would that breach the new law?”
“Ten Years” was an ultra-low-budget portmanteau film made in 2014-15 during the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.
It predicted a dystopian future in which the local language, Cantonese, is replaced by Mandarin, and depicted self-immolation by Hong Kong citizens protesting against a national security law.
Hong Kongers are not the only ones worried.
Variety has established that H.K. participants in Hong Kong-mainland film co-productions are now being required to sign side deals indemnifying their partners in the People’s Republic if the film or filmmaker runs into political headwinds.
All co-productions, like local China-based films, must receive the approval of PRC censors on two occasions: at script stage and again prior to release. These new indemnities, however, put the financial responsibility solely on the Hong Kong party, as junior partner.
Liu Chun, head of the China Film Co-production Corp., tells Variety that PRC authorities have not made such requirements. Instead, he speculated that the mainland’s private sector companies may be imposing the measure themselves to lay off risk.
Liu says there have been only 40 applications for Hong Kong-mainland co-productions so far this year — a drop compared with 2019, but one that’s more likely due to the coronavirus-related economic slowdown than to the new national security law.
More than ever, Hong Kong’s filmmakers will have to ask themselves if they want to play by China’s rules, knowing that many subjects will be taboo and that an out-of-favor actor’s gaffe could cause an entire movie to be canned. Compliance earns them access to the world’s second-largest theatrical market, valued at $9 billion last year. Spurning China means continuing to play in a minor league.
“Top players will be just fine since they’ve been politically neutered for years anyway,” says one former employee of a major U.S. studio in China who asked to remain anonymous. Filmmakers pushing harder against red lines may find their careers at an end or wind up in exile, he says.
Another veteran producer who requested anonymity says that Hong Kong producers have been focused for too long on the “silly money north of the border,” which has distracted them from capitalizing on the booming new market of Asia’s pay TV and streaming platforms, which are all hungry for original local content.
“In future, more Hong Kong producers will have to look outside China for finance. They should have done so years ago, but it has been too easy,” she says. “They have allowed Taiwan studios to catch up and overtake [them].”
And if library books that were acceptable in June can be deemed illegal in July, so, too, can movies and TV shows.
Variety asked leading Hong Kong-based pay TV operator PCCW and Netflix if they plan to remove films such as “Seven Years in Tibet,” “Red Corner” and “Ten Years” from their servers. Netflix declined to comment. The response from a PCCW spokesperson was terse but nonconfrontational: “As always, PCCW Media will operate its businesses in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations.”
Vivienne Chow contributed to this report.