LOS ANGELES — Hong Kong legislators on Wednesday approved an amended law that will allow film censorship on the basis of national security considerations. It does not cover the online screening of movies, though a government minister described that omission as a “loophole.”
The revision to the law is the latest operation to tighten the government grip on civil society, artistic and speech freedoms in the country.
The city’s legislative council — in which there are no opposing forces — amended the Film Censorship Bill by a show of hands to give movie censors the task of vetting content for violations of a draconian national security law written and imposed by Beijing in July 2020.
The National Security Law bans anything that is deemed to be or incite secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Under the film censorship amendment, violators screening unauthorized films may face punishments including fines up to $129,000 (HK$1 million) and three years in prison.
Significantly, the amended law gives authorities retrospective powers. Movies that have previously received release approval can now be blocked if they are considered to be glorifying or supporting acts that could endanger national security.
Authorities may search any venue screening a movie without warrant, including company offices or private clubs. Censorship authorities are now free to request more information about particular screenings.
At the legislative meeting, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah made it clear that the new law, while making reference to video, does not apply to online distribution.
“We hope the bill will commence as soon as possible, to enhance the film censorship system and to plug the loopholes,” he told the council. “If we are to add online regulation, it’d go beyond the original intent of the ordinance, not to mention the technological and enforcement considerations.”
Foreign streaming companies like Disney Plus and Netflix are currently available to viewers in Hong Kong, which has traditionally had greater internet freedoms than mainland China. They are off limits in mainland China, which operates one of the world’s strictest censorship regimes.
In Hong Kong, the streamers have been able to host, and in some cases produce, content offensive to Beijing such as the Netflix original “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower,” a documentary about a democracy activist.
Yau sought to reassure that most movies will not be affected by the new rules. “Our objective is simple and direct — it is to improve our film censorship system and effectively prevent and suppress any act that would endanger national security,” he said.
The Chinese state press widely reported a quote from pro-establishment lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, who said she stood against films like 2015 omnibus movie “Ten Years,” a searing envisioning of Hong Kong’s future under Chinese control made years before its current, eerily similar political moment. “Ten Years” is currently available on Netflix in Hong Kong.
The film shouldn’t be shown, Leung said, because “no society in the world welcome forces that encourage young people to break the law, harbor hatred against their own countries and embrace terrorism.”
“It is a treacherous climate for businesses having to make content decisions,” Darrell West, senior fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, told Bloomberg.