Amazon's TV show about Hong Kong expats 'unavailable' in city

The streaming platform hasn't responded to queries but commentators say 2014 protest scenes could be the reason.
By Chi Chun Lee for RFA Cantonese, Stacy Hsu for RFA Mandarin
2024.01.29
Amazon's TV show about Hong Kong expats 'unavailable' in city Brian Tee and Nicole Kidman in a scene from "The Expats."
(Prime Video via AP)

Updated Jan. 29, 2024, 3:40 p.m. ET.

"Expats," an Amazon TV drama starring Nicole Kidman, is set in Hong Kong but can't be viewed by people living there, likely due to its depiction of the 2014 pro-democracy "Umbrella" movement, 

"Yet more film #censorship in #HongKong: @amazon’s new series “Expats,” with scenes from the 2014 #UmbrellaMovement, can’t be accessed in HK though advertised as available worldwide," the U.S.-based Hong Kong Democracy Council said via its X account on the day the show launched, Jan. 26.

"Dozens of films have been censored in HK in the past three years," the group said.

"Expats" is based on Hong Kong-born Korean-American writer Janice YK Lee's 2016 novel The Expatriates, and follows the lives of three American women -- one of whom is played by Kidman, an executive producer for the show -- in the former British colony in 2014, according to Amazon.

Directed by Chinese-born American filmmaker Lulu Wang, the first two episodes of the show, which includes scenes of protesters with umbrellas, were listed as "currently unavailable" for viewers based in Hong Kong, Agence France-Presse reported.

An image from "Expats" that depicts the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. In the first two episodes of the show, there are scenes of protesters with umbrellas. (Prime Video)
An image from "Expats" that depicts the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. In the first two episodes of the show, there are scenes of protesters with umbrellas. (Prime Video)

Amazon had not responded to requests for comment from Radio Free Asia by the time of publication.

A Hong Kong government spokesman told RFA: "We have no comment on operational arrangement of individual businesses."

Beijing imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, ushering in a citywide crackdown on protest, public dissent and political opposition. The city government followed up in October 2021 with new film censorship laws banning any content deemed to "encourage, romanticize or support" acts seen as "endangering national security." 

In Washington, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio called the lack of streaming access "further proof that Hong Kong is neither autonomous nor free."

National Security Law concerns 

However, Hong Kong's film censorship laws don't currently apply to streaming services, so it's possible that any censorship is coming from Amazon itself, Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers spokesperson Kai-Man Tin told RFA.

"It's possible that ... [Amazon] isn't releasing it [here] to avoid trouble," Tin said, citing "risks" under the 2020 National Security Law, which bans protest slogans as "incitement to hatred" of the authorities.

Documentaries depicting the later 2019 protest movement have already been pulled from public screening in the city, because the government sees them as trying to "glorify" the movement, which it views as a violent attempt to undermine the government.

"There may be risk considerations [due to the National Security Law], given that this is for worldwide release, and Hong Kong is the only place to have such a law," Tin said.

Undated screenshot of "Expats" actress Bonde Sham's Facebook page. (Facebook)
Undated screenshot of "Expats" actress Bonde Sham's Facebook page. (Facebook)

Tin said the authorities will typically order filmmakers to delete certain scenes under the National Security Law for Hong Kong, or even ban a film from public screening, but have yet to arrest anyone over a movie or a TV  show.

If the action was taken by Amazon, it wouldn't be the first time an overseas streaming service has bowed to pressure under the National Security Law.

Since launching in Hong Kong in November 2021, Disney+ has removed episodes of "The Simpsons" referencing the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and forced labor in Xinjiang after someone reported the content to the authorities. 

Self-censorship

Censorship actions often follow criticism in Communist Party-backed media or public denunciations, as well as as "tip-offs" by supporters of the government to a police national security hotline.

Hong Kong security chief Chris Tang, who was chief of police at the time of the 2019 protest movement, has warned that art can be "a form of subversion," claiming that the 2014 Occupy Central, or Umbrella, movement, was among a number of protests to be instigated by "hostile foreign forces."

And the ruling Chinese Communist Party's envoy to the city warned graduating police cadets  in September 2023 to remain vigilant for "hostile foreign forces" operating covertly in the city, which will pass a new security law this year that is likely to be more stringent than the last.

In this undated photo, film director Kiwi Chow, whose documentary on the 2019 protest movement "Revolution of our Times" was also never shown in Hong Kong. (Chi Chun Lee/RFA)
In this undated photo, film director Kiwi Chow, whose documentary on the 2019 protest movement "Revolution of our Times" was also never shown in Hong Kong. (Chi Chun Lee/RFA)

In a Dec. 19, 2023 interview with Vogue, Wang said she felt it was "natural" to include the 2014 protest movement in the storyline.

"It was one of the first things that the other writers and I talked about,” she told the magazine, which added that the show was "very purposefully" set during that year.

"I think 2014 was a moment where the city was on the precipice of something transformational," Wang is quoted as saying. "There was a lot of hope, and I think many people still hold onto a lot of hope."

Acting like the CCP

Mason Wong, a research associate at Hong Kong Democracy Council, said the unavailability of the show "may well be an example of self-censorship."

"However, I don't want to rule out the possibility of government censorship," Wong said. "In a dictatorship, policies can change fast, especially around free speech."

Film director Kiwi Chow, whose documentary on the 2019 protest movement "Revolution of our Times" has never been screened in Hong Kong, said it was "sad" that overseas streaming platforms could be influenced in such a way.

"It seems that they allowed Nicole Kidman to come and shoot it on the basis that it was a foreign show that wouldn't be shown in Hong Kong," Chow said. "Maybe that's what this indicates."

The cast of Amazon Prime’s “Expats,” from left to right, Jack Huston, Brian Tee, Nicole Kidman, Lulu Wang and Sarayu Blue attend the premiere at the Museum of Modern Art Jan. 21, 2024, in New York. (Evan Agostini/Invision via AP)
The cast of Amazon Prime’s “Expats,” from left to right, Jack Huston, Brian Tee, Nicole Kidman, Lulu Wang and Sarayu Blue attend the premiere at the Museum of Modern Art Jan. 21, 2024, in New York. (Evan Agostini/Invision via AP)

He said Netflix still doesn't carry a single documentary about the 2019 protest movement, although many have been made.

"This was a major world event -- why don't they have even one documentary about it?" Chow said. "I think it's a shame that in liberal societies, even creative people are subject to such considerations."

A U.S.-based Hong Kong activist who gave only the pseudonym Sun Man for fear of reprisals said government pressure behind the scenes is far more likely, adding that the Hong Kong authorities are acting more and more like ruling Chinese Communist Party officials nowadays.

"In the end, our anger must be directed at the Hong Kong government or the Chinese government," he said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Updated to add comment from Hong Kong government, Sen. Marco Rubio.

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COMMENTS

Wangchuk
Jan 29, 2024 04:25 PM

Censorship of political ideas and opinions is a violation of basic human rights. Shame on any media or govt that engages in such censorship especially to please a one-party dictatorship.