Beijing’s cancel culture is crushing Hong Kong

THE STRATEGIST – In its efforts to remake Hong Kong into a city in its own image, the Chinese Communist Party has created a new security apparatus and court system to enforce new national security laws. CCP authorities have forced civil servants to take loyalty oaths. They are overhauling the education system to weed out Western-inspired ‘liberal studies’ and shape young minds to love China. And they have remaking the electoral system to dismantle the pro-democracy opposition and ensure that all future candidates for the local legislature receive Beijing’s seal of approval for their patriotism.

But perhaps most insidious of all has been a concerted attack on culture and media, an attempt that appears aimed at quashing dissenting viewpoints and controlling what people see, read and hear.

Consider some of the myriad recent cases.

The Hong Kong Film Critics Society was forced to cancel the planned screening last month of an award-winning documentary, Inside the Red Brick Wall, about a violent November 2019 standoff between police and protesters at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University. The pro-Beijing media had warned that the anonymously made film incited hatred against the police and China, and that showing it might violate the national security law.

The cancellation was announced in late March just weeks after Baptist University cancelled a long-scheduled campus exhibition from World Press Photo, because five of the 157 photographs in the exhibit featured scenes from the 2019 Hong Kong protests. An obscure pro-CCP website warned that the exhibit stoked hatred and glorified protesters. (The exhibit later found a private space in an office building and was shown to large crowds.)

Pro-China members of the city’s legislative council have warned the local grant-making body, the Arts Development Council, not to award funding to any artists who advocate independence or overthrowing the government. Another pro-China newspaper accused the arts council of giving funding to so-called ‘yellow’ filmmakers supportive of the 2019 protests, including the distributors of Inside the Red Brick Wall.

The publicly funded independent broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong, newly placed under the leadership of a long-time civil servant with zero journalism experience, has recently cancelled several programs the new manager considered unbalanced. RTHK’s new bosses also recently requested that two journalism awards competitions—the Human Rights Press Awards and the Society of Publishers in Asia Awards—withdraw all of RTHK’s entries from consideration. Both organisations rejected that unusual last-minute request.

Hong Kong’s much-heralded new M+ Museum, scheduled to open later this year, has also come into the censorship crosshairs. Several pro-Beijing figures have warned that the museum might be ‘spreading hatred against the country’ and breaking the national security law for displaying a photograph of dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The exhibit that attracted their ire shows Ai flipping his middle finger in Tiananmen Square, part of a series by the artist called ‘Study of Perspectives’. The pro-China crowd has warned the new museum that they’ll be scrutinising it for work they consider politically sensitive. Chief Executive Carrie Lam said her government would be on ‘full alert’ to make sure Hong Kong museums don’t display offensive works.

For many ordinary Hongkongers, the most obvious example of the city’s new cancel culture is that the Academy Awards ceremony held in the US won’t be broadcast live here for the first time in more than 50 years. Beijing objected to the inclusion among the nominees of the short documentary Do Not Split, about the 2019 protest movement. The Global Times, a jingoistic, nationalistic tabloid in China, denounced the Norwegian-American documentary, quoting China film observers saying ‘it lacks artistry and is full of biased political stances’.

Beijing’s rulers also object to Chinese-born filmmaker Chloe Zhao, whose film Nomadland has been nominated in several categories, including best picture, best director and best actress. In a 2013 interview, Zhao referred to China as ‘a place where there are lies everywhere’, causing all mention of her and Nomadland to be censored in mainland China.

This approach to cultural and media content is par for the course on the mainland, where the CCP has long been intent on writing its own version of history and controlling everything its citizens read, hear and think. It is a country where a film about Winnie the Pooh was banned because online activists likened the beloved cartoon bear to portly President Xi Jinping. Films depicting US military dominance, like Captain Phillips, have been banned from Chinese screens, pulled before being rejected or altered to appease the CCP’s sensibilities. Movies depicting gay themes or ghost stories, like Ghostbusters, are routinely rejected by Chinese censors.

Hong Kong, by contrast, has always been a bastion of free expression.

For example, while the Cultural Revolution is a largely taboo topic in the mainland, discussion about that period of chaos and violence in China is widespread in Hong Kong. While CCP authorities have attempted to erase the memory of the 1989 massacre by People’s Liberation Army troops of pro-democracy students at Tiananmen Square, here in Hong Kong the 4 June anniversary has been regularly marked by a candlelight vigil drawing thousands, or tens of thousands, to a harbour-front park in the city until it was cancelled last year due to coronavirus restrictions.

Books banned in China, including those critical of the country’s leadership, used to be readily available in bookstores here in Hong Kong. Films banned in China always found venues willing to show them and an eager audience in Hong Kong. Journalists, academics and human rights activists denied visas to visit mainland China were always able to work in Hong Kong, or pass through on short trips.

But no longer. Hong Kong, it seems, now more resembles the mainland than its former self.

Perhaps most ominous is that the new cancel culture is not being ordered by national security officials or police. More often—as in the case of Baptist University pulling the plug on the photo exhibit and the film about the protests being scrapped—institutions and individuals are choosing to censor themselves, often to avoid being targeted by the Beijing-controlled media or by pro-China local politicians tripping over themselves to show who is more loyal to the motherland.

Hong Kong has now entered an unrecognisable new era. Many here are now far more fearful of being attacked online by internet trolls or being singled out by a CCP-controlled media website than they are about a midnight knock on the door by security police.

As a result, Hongkongers are now policing themselves. And that is precisely why the new national security law is so ruthlessly efficient and effective.

Beijing’s cancel culture is crushing Hong Kong