(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “Who Owns the Truth” was the title of an October 2020 award-winning documentary by Hong Kong’s public broadcaster that investigated the police’s handling of a gang attack on commuters during the 2019 pro-democracy protests. Authorities had their own answer: They replaced the broadcaster’s top management, rejected the awards, and prosecuted and fined one of the producers. It’s a question that continues to reverberate.
Hong Kong’s streets are quiet these days, stilled by a combination of the pandemic and the national security law that China imposed on the city at the end of June last year. The drive to erase the last vestiges of democratic opposition and assert a redefined Hong Kong identity has shifted to the intangible realms of public relations and image management. The task looks challenging.
The government reported back last week on its efforts to rebuild confidence in Hong Kong as a city that is “always welcoming” and open for business. Publicity messages devised by London-based communications consultancy Consulum FZ LLC stress the city’s cosmopolitan lifestyle, cultural richness and creativity. Officials plan an overseas push later this year “to reinforce Hong Kong's image as the best place in Asia to live, work and invest in,” Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui said.
The daily news flow from Hong Kong jars with this inviting picture. On Tuesday, the government signaled the latest constriction on the city’s freedoms by announcing amendments to the film censorship law that will allow the chief executive to retroactively ban movies deemed a threat to national security. In other recent headlines: Courts saw the first convictions under the security law, prosecutions condemned as politically motivated by the cross-country Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China; the city’s largest teachers’ union and its biggest protest group disbanded under government pressure; four university students were arrested for “advocating terrorism” after they held a moment of silence for a man who stabbed a police officer and then killed himself; and Chief Executive Carrie Lam told the Law Society — an influential local organization of attorneys — to stay out of politics.
That’s just a smattering. Authorities charged 47 opposition figures in February over their participation in a primary election that the government deemed subversion; most remain in prison pending trial. The popular pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily shut down in June after its assets were frozen; its founder and several editors and executives are in jail. And government figures this month showed that Hong Kong’s population fell by a record in the 12 months through June as the security law triggered an exodus; pictures on social media continue to show long lines at Hong Kong airport for flights out of the territory. Meanwhile, authorities are blocking some fleeing Hong Kongers from accessing their retirement savings, Bloomberg News reported last week.
Business is hardly immune to Beijing’s push to enforce its will in Hong Kong. A coalition of internet companies that includes Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google has expressed concern over a proposed anti-doxxing law. The Biden administration issued an advisory last month that warned investors about the risks of doing business in Hong Kong. In one rare moment of respite, China’s parliament last week delayed plans to apply the country’s anti-sanctions law to Hong Kong, perhaps concerned about the effects on the financial hub. The law would give authorities the power to punish companies and individuals that comply with U.S. sanctions.
The government says the national security law targets only a small minority of people and has restored stability but authorities’ actions in the past year go much farther. This is a Communist-style whole-of-society rectification campaign aimed at moving Hong Kong closer to the social orthodoxy of mainland China. The dissolution of the teachers’ union alone affects tens of thousands. If you include the voters who handed a landslide victory to the opposition in the 2019 District Council elections, then the impact stretches to the millions. In reality, there is almost no aspect of Hong Kong life that has been left untouched. A few endearing and outdated PR slogans can’t change that.
But TV might help. Amazon Prime Video has not one but two upcoming drama series that focus on the lives of expatriates in Hong Kong. The first, at least, should be safe from the censors. The Expats, starring Nicole Kidman, is already filming in the city. Kidman’s exemption from Hong Kong’s strict quarantine rules provoked ire, though that’s not the only reason some have taken umbrage.
It’s easy to see why Hong Kong authorities would welcome such a project and also why it has caused such agitation. If faithful to the source material, The Expats will portray a privileged class of people who are able to carry on their narrow and self-obsessed lives oblivious to the concerns and upheavals of the society that surrounds them. For a government keen to emphasize how Hong Kong remains open for business to foreign investors and businesspeople, that’s a convenient message. Entirely omitted, even as background noise, is the epochal drama of Hong Kong’s failed struggle for democracy and the majority of people who supported it. (The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee, on which the series is based, was published in 2016, between the Occupy movement that disrupted the city in 2014 and the start of the 2019 unrest.)
Having paid Consulum $5.7 million for its services, the Hong Kong government may find that the soft propaganda power of television holds much more value. The right kind of TV, that is.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Matthew Brooker is a columnist and editor with Bloomberg Opinion. He previously was a columnist, editor and bureau chief for Bloomberg News. Before joining Bloomberg, he worked for the South China Morning Post. He is a CFA charterholder.
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