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Film censorship amendment kills dissident films

This is translated from CitizenNews' weekly digest tracking Hong Kong's political news over the past week. (一周政情:電檢修例扼殺異見電影 國安審查趕絕泛民人士

There were three prominent political news in Hong Kong over the past week. The first is that the government has introduced a bill to amend the Film Censorship Ordinance to empower the Chief Secretary to prohibit a film from being released to the public on the grounds that it is “contrary to the interests of national security”, and to revoke the approval of the film censorship authority if it was previously approved for public screening.

Secondly, the National Security Department sent a letter to all the standing committee members of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (the Alliance), stating that the Alliance was a "foreign agent" and requesting an account of its contacts with organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in the US. Thirdly, the Election Committee's eligibility review has resulted in the immediate loss of the Legislative Council seat of Civic Passion, Cheng Chung-tai, who was found to be disqualified.

The amendments to the Film Censorship Ordinance have had a significant impact on Hong Kong, and the Bill has caused widespread concern in the film industry that any future films involving political or social controversies may not pass the censorship process and may not be screened.

Even politically satirical films that have been screened in the past may have their public permission revoked. The amendment will make Hong Kong's film distribution similar to that of the Mainland, where political censorship is often imposed on films. Hong Kong will no longer be the Hollywood of the East, and it is likely that Seoul will take its place as the film capital of Asia.

The industry's concern is that the censorship standards are too broad. What constitutes “contrary to the interests of national security” depends entirely on how the government's Commission for Safeguarding National Security sees it, without the need for objective evidence that the film is likely to incite unlawful acts against national security.

It is not necessary to prove that the film might incite unlawful acts against national security. Simply because the political appointees who review the film feel that it is not conducive to national security, they can refuse to approve it and turn a multi-million or even multi-million dollar film into rubbish.

As for national security, the national security laws enacted by Beijing in recent years cover a wide range of issues, including not only military and diplomatic security, but also financial, economic, health and ideological issues.

This means that Hong Kong's film censorship system will be very similar to that of the Mainland, where a more lenient censorship system has allowed Hong Kong to produce many films that could not be released in the Mainland for the local and overseas markets. This market space may disappear after the passage of the amendment.

Apart from the film industry, the public is also concerned that the amendment will give the law enforcers great power to enter any premises without a court warrant to search for illegal films and to stop the showing of illegal films in private premises. This power to enter and search premises is not available even for the investigation of serious criminal offences. The police must first apply to a judge for a warrant to enter and search premises where there is prima facie evidence of an urgent breach of the law.

This reflects the government's total disregard for the common law tradition and its disregard for the golden rule that judges have been the gatekeepers for the protection of private premises for many years. Once this legislation is in place, all minor, suspected offences can lead to break-ins, and the risk of abuse of power and bribery will be greatly increased.

Another detail of the amendment is that it expands the scope of the ban on distribution to include not only films that are banned from being shown in cinemas, but also external memory, CD-ROMs, USB discs and external hard drives. Government officials explained that this is to prevent the banned films from being distributed in the market by other means. If, after the passage of the Bill, the Chief Secretary exercises his power to disqualify a previously approved film, such as Ten Years, Inside the Red Brick Wall, or even Her Fatal Ways, not only will these banned films not be shown in cinemas, but they will not be allowed to be stored on video discs, CD-ROMs, computer memory, etc. for the purpose of distribution. All of them have to be removed from the shelves and can no longer be distributed. Local broadcasters can no longer broadcast them as old films. In this way, the only outlets for these illegal films will be the Internet, such as overseas streaming platforms. Whether the government will propose further legislative amendments to control the flow of information on the Internet will be a major concern.

Is the Alliance a "foreign agent"? This allegation is hard to believe, because since its establishment in 1989, the Alliance has been an organisation concerned with the Chinese pro-democracy movement, demanding the vindication of the Tian’anmen incident and organising annual memorial activities for the Tian’anmen incident. How did they suddenly become "foreign agents"?

One is the New School for Democracy (NSfD), which was established in May 2011 and is based in Taiwan, with the aim of establishing a platform for exchange and providing theoretical studies. The Alliance's Vice-Chairman, Albert Ho, is a founding board member of NSfD, and Andrew To, a former member of the Alliance's Standing Committee, is a board member of NSfD.

It was reported in Ta Kung Pao that NSfD had received money from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in the US, and now it is not only rehashing old accounts, but also becoming the Alliance's foreign affiliation. The National Security Department (NSD) of the Police has requested information from each of the Alliance's standing committee members (even those in jail) according to the implementation details of the National Security Law, and it is an offence to refuse to provide it.

Another related organisation is the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, established in January 2007, whose founding members include Albert Ho, Emily Lau, John Clancey and others.

There is also a group called "Federation for a Democratic China". A letter from the National Security Department requested the Alliance's Standing Committee members to provide information on the activities of these organisations, as well as contact information with Mark Simon, Jimmy Lai's assistant, and to provide minutes of meetings related to these organisations.

According to Ta Kung Pao, the Alliance's Vice-Chairman Chow Hang-tung is an executive committee member of Amnesty International Hong Kong, an organisation with close ties to the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States, so she is suspected of being manipulated by outside forces.

Judging from this enforcement action against the Alliance, and from the reports of the Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece media in support of the action, it is believed that the National Security Department could not find any evidence of the Alliance's violation of the National Security Law, so it tried to look at other organisations of which the Alliance's Standing Committee members are directors or executive committee members.

As long as these so-called associated organisations have some foreign political connections and have received foreign political donations, the Alliance will be suspected of being a "foreign agent", receiving instructions from or conspiring with foreign governments or political organisations. In this way, an organisation that has always claimed to love China can be discredited as a traitor.

This tactic was common during the Cultural Revolution, when many patriotic intellectuals in the Mainland were targeted for criticism because of their overseas study background or their overseas family and friends.

Lawmaker Cheng Chung-Tai displays a document as he is surrounded by reporters after being disqualified from the legislature in Hong Kong, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. AP Photo

The only two remaining non-establishment members of the Legislative Council, Cheng Chung-tai and Pierre Chan, appear to be out, leaving the Legislative Council entirely in the hands of the establishment. Under the revised electoral system, LegCo members can become ex-officio members of the Election Committee, which is responsible for electing the Chief Executive, but they have to pass a new political eligibility review, with the CSNS as a gatekeeper.

Pierre Chan did not sign up as an ex-officio member, probably because he did not want to be re-elected. Cheng signed up for the seat of EC member and the pan-democratic camp questioned him for disregarding his principles and taking the initiative to participate in an unfair and arbitrary coterie election, but his supporters said that he had endured the humiliation in order to preserve the voice of opposition in the Legislative Council.

In explaining the decision, Chief Secretary John Lee derided Cheng as a liar and would not let him get away with it. The result came as a surprise to many who doubted that Cheng had already surrendered to Beijing and were surprised to find that those who had kowtowed and surrendered would still be kicked out. Does this mean that the Democratic Party will be able to pass the eligibility test if it applies for the election? Or is it just a show, and when the time comes to enter the election, we will still be accused of not being sincere in our support?

If we add to this the criticism of Jasper Tsang by the Chairman of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), Stanley Ng Chau-pei, earlier in the week, even a veteran leftist like Jasper Tsang will be questioned for “opposing the red flag while carrying one”, how can anyone in the pan-democratic camp meet the current patriotic standards?