For decades, Hong Kong’s movie industry has enthralled global audiences with balletic shoot-em-ups, epic martial-arts fantasies, chopsocky comedies and shadow-drenched romances. Now, under orders from Beijing, local officials will scrutinize such works with an eye toward safeguarding the People’s Republic of China.
The city’s government Friday said it would begin blocking the distribution of films that are deemed to undermine national security, marking the official arrival of mainland Chinese-style censorship in one of Asia’s most celebrated filmmaking hubs.
The new guidelines, which apply to both domestically produced and foreign films, come as a sharp slap to the artistic spirit of Hong Kong, where government-protected freedoms of expression and an irreverent local culture had imbued the city with a cultural vibrancy that set it apart from mainland megacities.
They also represent a broadening of the Chinese government’s hold on the global film industry. China’s booming box office has been irresistible to Hollywood studios. Big-budget productions go to great lengths to avoid offending Chinese audiences and Communist Party censors, while others discover the expensive way what happens when they do not.
Hong Kong’s storied movie industry is as much a pillar of its identity as its food, its soaring skyline or its financial services sector.
During its peak as a filmmaking capital in the decades after World War II, the city churned out immensely popular genre flicks and nurtured auteurs like Wong Kar-wai and Ann Hui. It has minted international stars such as Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, Andy Lau and Tony Leung. The influence of Hong Kong cinema can be seen in the work of Hollywood directors including Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, and in blockbusters such as “The Matrix.”
Censorship worries have loomed large over Hong Kong’s creative industries ever since the former British colony was returned to China in 1997. But concerns that once felt theoretical have become frighteningly real since Beijing enacted a national security law last year to quash the anti-government protests that shook the city in 2019.
So while few in the local movie industry said they felt caught totally off guard by the new censorship guidelines issued Friday, they still expressed concern that the sweeping scope of the rules would affect not just which movies are screened in Hong Kong, but also how they get produced and whether they get made at all.
“How do you raise funds?” asked Evans Chan, a filmmaker who has faced problems screening his work in the city. “Can you openly crowdsource and say that this is a film about certain points of view, certain activities?”
Even feature filmmakers, he said, will be left to wonder in tense anticipation whether their movies will fall afoul of the security law. “It’s not just a matter of activist filmmaking or political filmmaking, but the overall scene of filmmaking in Hong Kong.”
The censorship directives are the latest sign of how thoroughly Hong Kong is being reshaped by Beijing’s security law, which took aim at the city’s pro-democracy protest movement but has had crushing implications for aspects of its very character.
With the blessing of the Communist government, Hong Kong authorities have changed school curricula, pulled books off library shelves and moved to overhaul elections. Police have arrested pro-democracy activists and politicians as well as a high-profile newspaper publisher.
And in the arts, the law has created an atmosphere of fear.
The updated rules announced Friday require Hong Kong censors considering a film for distribution to look out not only for violent, sexual and vulgar content, but also for how the film portrays acts “which may amount to an offense endangering national security.”
Anything that is “objectively and reasonably capable of being perceived as endorsing, supporting, promoting, glorifying, encouraging or inciting” such acts is potential grounds for deeming a film unfit for exhibition, the rules now say.
The new rules do not limit the scope of a censor’s verdict to a film’s content alone.
“When considering the effect of the film as a whole and its likely effect on the persons likely to view the film,” the guidelines say, “the censor should have regard to the duties to prevent and suppress act or activity endangering national security.”
A Hong Kong government statement Friday said: “The film censorship regulatory framework is built on the premise of a balance between protection of individual rights and freedoms on the one hand, and the protection of legitimate societal interests on the other.”
The vagueness of the new provisions is in keeping with what the security law’s critics say are its ambiguously defined offenses, which give the authorities wide latitude to target activists and critics.
Tin Kai-man of the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers told the local broadcaster TVB that the industry needed to better understand whether the censors’ decisions could be appealed — after, for instance, they had ruled that a movie could not be shown in Hong Kong because of national security risks.
“All of this must first be made clear,” Tin said. “We don’t want this thing to come in and grow out of control so we start worrying about the impact on movie production.”
The new censorship guidelines announced Friday seem directed in part at one specific kind of movie. They say censors should give extra scrutiny to any film that “purports to be a documentary” or to report on “real events with immediate connection to the circumstances in Hong Kong.”
Why? “The local audience may likely feel more strongly about the contents of the film.”
Censors, according to the guidelines, “should carefully examine whether the film contains any biased, unverified, false or misleading narratives or presentation of commentaries.”
That could spell tougher scrutiny for movies like “Ten Years,” a low-budget independent production from 2015 that offered dystopian tales of life in a 2025 Hong Kong that is crumpling under Beijing’s grip. It might also put a chill on documentarians’ efforts to chronicle Hong Kong’s political turmoil.
A short documentary about the 2019 protests, “Do Not Split,” was nominated for an Academy Award this year, raising global awareness about China’s crackdown in the city. (The film’s nomination may have played a role in Hong Kong broadcasters’ deciding not to air the Oscars broadcast this year for the first time in decades, although one station called it a commercial decision.)
Efforts to bring other politically themed documentaries before audiences in Hong Kong in recent months have become engulfed in bitter controversy.
A screening of a documentary about the 2019 protests was canceled at the last minute this year after a pro-Beijing newspaper said the film encouraged subversion. The University of Hong Kong urged its student union to cancel a showing of a film about a jailed activist.
The screening went on as planned. But a few months later, the university said it would stop collecting membership fees on the organization’s behalf and would stop managing its finances as punishment for its “radical acts.”
Mainland China has long restricted the number of films made outside China that can be shown in local cinemas. But Hong Kong has operated much like any other movie market around the world, with cinema operators booking whatever might sell tickets.
The city’s expanded censorship could therefore take a small but meaningful bite out of Hollywood’s overseas box office returns.
“Joker,” the Warner Bros. supervillain film from 2019, was not cleared for release in mainland Chinese cinemas, for instance. But it collected more than $7 million in Hong Kong, according to the entertainment industry database IMDBpro.
China has become more important to Hollywood in recent years because it is one of the few countries where moviegoing is growing. Ticket sales in the United States and Canada, which make up the world’s No. 1 movie market, were flat between 2016 and 2019, at $11.4 billion, according to the Motion Picture Association. Over that period, ticket sales in China increased 41%, to $9.3 billion.
As a result, American studios have stepped up their efforts to work within China’s censorship system.
Last year, PEN America, the free-speech advocacy group, excoriated Hollywood executives for voluntarily censoring films to placate China, with “content, casting, plot, dialogue and settings” tailored “to avoid antagonizing Chinese officials.” In some instances, PEN said, studios have been “directly inviting Chinese government censors onto their film sets to advise them on how to avoid tripping the censors’ wires.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.