CDT Weekly, April 10-23

Censorship around Oscars and “Screen Emperor” Wen Jiabao; serving vs. wielding the law in Hong Kong

CDT Weekly, April 10-23

Censorship around Oscars and “Screen Emperor” Wen Jiabao; serving vs. wielding the law in Hong Kong

Welcome to CDT’s (mostly) weekly email newsletter. With these updates, we aim to provide an overview of new content across CDT’s English and Chinese sites, as well as the bilingual China Digital Space wiki, and related content elsewhere.

Today’s entry on CDT’s Sensitive Words calendar is 影帝 yǐngdì, or “King of the Silver Screen,” a nickname for former Premier Wen Jiabao referring to his notorious public “performances” at disaster zones and elsewhere. 溫家寶+母親 Wēn Jiābǎo + mǔqīn “Wen Jiabao + mother” previously featured on the calendar on April 18. Wen recently published an essay about his late mother, in which he credited her with giving him a vision of China as “a country of justice and fairness. There’s eternal respect for human hearts, human morality and humanity, and there’s always an air of youth, freedom and hard work. I cried over it and I fought for it.” This was widely read as criticism of Xi Jinping, and the essay was censored. As CDT Chinese editors discussed in Monday’s weekly roundup, despite the implicit accusation of insincerity in labeling Wen an “actor,” many have become nostalgic for his and Hu Jintao’s rule as the political climate continues to chill under Xi. CDT founder Xiao Qiang told The Financial Times that “it is Xi Jinping’s own insecurity about his authority and image within Chinese society that leads to such censorship.” (This newsletter’s April 9 edition noted several other manifestations of insecurity about his image.)

Wen is not among the nominees for the 93rd Academy Awards on Sunday. As previously noted, speculation that the Oscars ceremony would be censored in China has itself become a target of censorship. Media have reportedly been instructed to keep coverage low-key and time-delayed. Beijing-born Chloé Zhao, the recent subject of first patriotic pride then nationalistic backlash, is up for the best director award for “Nomadland,” while a Norwegian film on the 2019 Hong Kong protests has been nominated for best documentary. Anders Hammer, the director of “Do Not Split,” recently commented that “Beijing is actually at this point promoting our documentary” with its heavy-handed efforts to suppress it. The Financial Times’ Anna Nicolau, Alex Barker, and Christian Shepherd this week placed these sensitivities in the context of China’s continued ascendancy in the global film market, citing a comprehensive report on Hollywood’s resulting accommodation of Beijing from PEN America last year.

Other calendar entries since our last installment include: 

In Hong Kong, National Security Education Day saw the sale of $60 teddy bears wearing riot gear, displays of grateful messages from schoolchildren to the authorities, and other festivities. The following day, on April 16, 12 veteran activists received sentences of up to 18 months for organizing and participating in the massive public rally on August 18, 2019. These events came soon after still further consolidation of the government’s stranglehold on the city’s political system.

On Thursday, Hong Kong journalist Bao Choy was convicted and fined for failing to declare her journalistic intent while searching a public vehicle registration database while investigating the infamous gang attack on protesters and others at the Yuen Long train station in July 2019. At Quartz, Mary Hui noted that such use of public information is common among reporters, and commented that “the Hong Kong government has sent yet another chill through the embattled press corps, further restricting the reporting landscape by telling the media industry in no uncertain terms that even routine acts of reporting bring a risk of criminal prosecution.” Regarding Choy’s alleged omission, Hui pointed out that “the form was changed in October 2019, leaving no suitable option that Choy could have selected. In effect, this now criminalizes all journalists’ license plate searches in Hong Kong.”

Another female reporter closely associated with the Yuen Long attack is Gwyneth Ho Kwai-lam, who drew widespread attention by continuing her livestream coverage for Stand News even as she was herself beaten and knocked to the ground. Ho, who later left journalism for politics, is among 47 pro-democrats now facing potential life sentences for running in an unofficial primary election last year. Last week, CDT translated one of her letters from prison, in which she described her departure from journalism and the politicized legal maze in which she now finds herself.

This is just my personal observation, and I don’t know if I’m just misunderstanding, but in countless political cases, we’ve all witnessed one defendant after another get sucked into some strange space spun out of thin air by legal jargon, entirely unrelated to the reality that we perceive. It is obedience to a set of logic that is totally inapplicable to reality, and every attempt to bring it back to reality is “immaterial to the case.” […]

[… T]he above situation is so serious that the prosecution objects to the professional legal opinion of many barristers as "political opinions that have nothing to do with the case and which cause unwanted emotional reactions."

I felt utterly lost amid this language, and I don’t understand why my fate is to be decided by it. […]

An apt companion for Ho’s letter is the statement by lawyer and former editor and Legislative Council member Margaret Ng, who was among those sentenced last week. While Hong Kong and mainland authorities have insistently appealed to the rule of law in response to the protests, Ng argued that “the defence of the rule of law is a two-way street”:

There is no right so precious to the people of Hong Kong as the freedom of expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly. Not only is the freedom to speak the truth the core of human dignity, it is also the last safety valve in a democratic society, as remarked by our illustrious judges repeatedly. Respecting those rights is also part and parcel of defending the rule of law.

I had learned that the rule of law not only has to be defended in court, or in Legco, but also in the streets and in the community. […] When the people, in the last resort, had to give collective expression to their anguish and urge the government to respond, protected only by their expectation that the government will respect their rights, I must be prepared to stand with them, stand by them and stand up for them. Otherwise, all my pledges and promises would be just empty words.

[…] Your  honour, I came late to the law. I have grown old in the service of the rule of law. I understand Sir Thomas More is the patron saint of the legal profession. He was tried for treason because he would not bend the law to the King’s will. His famous last words were well authenticated. I beg to slightly adapt and adopt them: I stand the law’s good servant but the people’s first. For the law must serve the people, not the people the law.

Other posts at CDT English covered: