LOS ANGELES — The Disney Plus streaming service appears to have censored an episode of “The Simpsons” in Hong Kong, where the platform launched earlier this month. The episode concerns a visit by the fictional cartoon family to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Local media in Hong Kong report that the episode, the 12th in the 2005 16th season, cannot be accessed in the territory. It is available in other parts of the Asia, or from Hong Kong by use of a virtual private network that allows the user to change their IP address.
Disney has not responded to Variety’s requests for comment.
The square was the scene on June 4, 1989 of a student uprising which was put down with lethal force and gave rise to the famous “tank man” photographs of a protester trying to defy oncoming military hardware. Several hundred, possibly thousands, of protesters were killed.
The incident has been heavily censored within mainland China ever since and it is estimated that a large proportion of the population has no knowledge of the events. In contrast, activists in Hong Kong have kept alive the memory for many years, holding large public vigils and erecting a prominent statue at a local university.
Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, when it returned to Chinese rule under a scheme known as “one country, two systems” in which the Hong Kong way of life, the rule of law and its capitalist economy were to be preserved for 50 years.
But in recent years China has suggested instead that it has “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the territory and that its treaty commitments are no longer relevant.
Hong Kong authorities have cracked down on many parts of the free society that the city’s population used to enjoy. Beijing’s 2020 imposition of a National Security Law has been followed by several other pieces of legislation and practices that prioritize security and national identity.
Marches and vigils to commemorate June 4 have been banned in Hong Kong in both 2020 and 2021, ostensibly on Covid-safety grounds. The government has also ordered the removal of the statue and public broadcaster RTHK has deleted its past reporting of the Tiananmen Square incident and Hong Kong protests.
Other parts of the media and entertainment sectors are at the forefront of the rollback of Hong Kong’s previous liberties. The recent enactment of a new film censorship law has already been used to ban government-critical films at a festival. And foreign journalists, including those from The Economist and The Financial Times, have not been allowed to renew their Hong Kong work visas.
The decision process behind Disney’s removal of “The Simpsons” episode — whether this is a case of corporate self-censorship or whether the company was ordered to make the cut — is currently unknown. But it will be closely watched.
That’s because although streaming services are not covered by the new film censorship amendment, the National Security Law, which bans subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, asserts global jurisdiction. Preventing an offending program from being accessed in Hong Kong alone may not then be deemed a sufficient remedy.