A newspaper run by China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) took aim on Wednesday at a high-earning Cantopop star, accusing him of supporting independence for Taiwan and Hong Kong, both of which are hotly opposed by Beijing.
In an editorial targeting Hins Cheung, 35, the PLA-backed Defense Daily accused the singer-songwriter of biting the hand that feeds him.
"Cheung's true self was soon unmasked by netizens," the article said. "This singer ... not only supports Hong Kong independence but has even publicly supported Taiwan independence," it said.
In a Jan. 9 post to his social media account on Sina Weibo, Cheung denied he supports independence for the former British colony, which was promised a "high degree of autonomy" under terms of the 1997 handover to China.
"I am Chinese, I have never been a supporter of Hong Kong independence," Cheung wrote.
"On principle, I stand firm against any acts that divide the country," he wrote, echoing Beijing's official rhetoric on the issue.
But citing a high-ranking military academy vice-principal, the article called Cheung "the rat dropping that fell in the soup," and said he shouldn't be allowed to get off lightly.
"Recently, more and more artists from Taiwan and Hong Kong are turning against mainland China, preferring to develop cultural exchanges between Hong Kong and Taiwan," the article said.
"But the programs of those who insult China with their words and deeds have been boycotted by netizens, or deleted entirely, or removed from programs that cooperate with the advertising industry," it said.
Music deal canceled
Cheung had been due to appear in the fifth season of talent contest I Am A Singer on Hunan TV, but his record company announced last week the deal was off, in spite of an earlier announcement that he would be joining.
Cheung said he had decided not to take part "for personal reasons."
Hong Kong Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting told RFA that Cheung had previous expressed vocal support for the 2014 Occupy Central democracy movement in Hong Kong, as well as campaigns to prevent Beijing's "patriotic education" programs being imposed on the city's schools.
But he said Cheung had never supported independence.
"They are just targeting people they want to attack, without regard for the facts," Lam said. "There's no rhyme or reason to such character assassinations."
"This is a very negative hangover from the political culture of struggle sessions," he said.
He said Beijing's censorship of artists from beyond its immediate borders is an attempt to create a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
"The government of such a powerful country should surely have enough resources at its disposal to tolerate a few dissenting opinions," he said.
Lawmaker Ma Fung-kwok, who represents the cultural and entertainment industry in Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo), said he personally doesn't agree with the idea of independence, which was only publicly debated after the failure of the 2014 protests to bring about fully democratic elections.
"I think we need a basic standpoint as Chinese people to preserve national security and territorial integrity, but everything else comes under the heading of press freedom," Ma said.
He said Beijing cultural officials were likely behind the decision to ditch Cheung.
Making an example
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said the Defense Daily is directly controlled by the PLA, suggesting that the criticism of Cheung was coming from the military.
"I think this means that they take it very seriously," Lui said. "They are making an example of him, so that everyone knows there's a red line that the military will defend at all costs."
Online activist Wang Fazhan said the ban made no sense.
"I don't think that China is the hand that feeds [artists like Cheung], and I don't think he has bitten it, either," Wang said.
"He worked hard to get where he is, and he has a right to say whatever he likes under freedom of expression," he said. "At most, he's just annoying the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party."
Other netizens seemed to agree, at least partially.
"On the one hand, Hins Cheung is definitely anti-communist; he doesn't like the political system on the mainland, but on the other he identifies as a Chinese person," one commented on social media.
"It's important not to confuse the Occupy Central movement with the Hong Kong independence movement."
Guangzhou-based writer Ye Du said he has frequently had his social media accounts shut down in recent years for perceived support for "Hong Kong independence" and "Taiwan independence."
"Their ideological stance has got much more hard-line in the past couple of years, and [the ban on Cheung] is a classic example," Ye said.
He said much of the job of banning people for their views is likely done by lower-ranking officials worried about bringing political trouble down on their own heads.
"They are forced to take the harder line rather than the softer line, because now ideology is enmeshed in everything, even culture and entertainment," he said. "There is an all-pervasive atmosphere of fear."
Last week, party-backed media hit out at recent visits by Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong and Nathan Law to Taiwan, saying that the city's nascent independence movement will never be permitted to make common cause with that of self-ruled Taiwan.
Support for self-rule
While the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan, it regards the democratic island as a province awaiting reunification, and has threatened to invade if its government seeks formal statehood.
Beijing's diplomatic partners are required to cut official ties with the government in Taiwan, which was taken over by the Kuomintang nationalist government after World War II, ending 50 years of Japanese rule there.
Repeated polls have shown that many of Taiwan's 23 million residents identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, and that there is broad political support for de facto self-rule, if not formal independence.
Last year, two former members-elect of LegCo, Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Leung, were stripped of their seats after China's parliament issued a ruling declaring their pro-independence oaths of allegiance were invalid.
Growing talk of independence has coincided with the erosion of Hong Kong's traditional freedoms of speech, publication, and judicial independence in recent years and a stalled timetable for full democracy.
Some 40 percent of young people support the idea, compared with around 70 percent who oppose it across all age groups, according to recent opinion polls.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.