As Hong Kong Protests Continue, Stars Get Caught Up in the Vitriol

Rebecca Davis and Vivienne Chow

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As pro-democracy, anti-police-brutality protests in Hong Kong enter their 10th week, the political unrest has begun to make itself felt in the entertainment world, with actors and other performers caught up in an increasingly vituperative battle between those who support the demonstrators and those who back the local government and mainland China’s tough stance.

One popular singer-actress blacklisted by Beijing has live-streamed and live-tweeted herself attending protests and being tear-gassed. Another veteran actor took part in a pro-police rally – and promptly landed a release date in mainland China for his directorial debut film. Worldwide star Jackie Chan has thrown his lot in with the Beijing regime, putting out a video interview in which he expressed his patriotism in terms that echo mainland propaganda. 

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The protests – the biggest in Hong Kong’s history – have raged since early June, at their peak drawing nearly 2 million out of the territory’s 7.4 million people to the streets, despite the crippling summer heat. The movement was sparked by widespread opposition to a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. Police have responded with increasing brutality, beating unarmed protesters with batons and firing tear gas directly at crowds.

Protesters are now demonstrating against that violence, as well as what they say is the death of the political and legal autonomy Hong Kong was promised when the territory was handed back to China from Britain in 1997. The “one country, two systems” model is intended to last through 2047.

Although many Hong Kong celebrities have remained relatively silent on the issue – perhaps for fear of hurting their careers in China, where the ruling Communist Party is quick to retaliate against performers who don’t toe the line – some have spoken out. Among the few who have vocally expressed support for the protesters or even joined them are actor Chapman To and Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Cantopop singer Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, and singer-actresses Denise Ho and Deanie Ip

Ip, 71, won the best actress prize at the Venice Film Festival for her role in the 2011 drama “A Simple Life.” Her attendance at numerous rallies and public criticism of the Hong Kong government’s refusal to formally withdraw the extradition bill, rather than just suspend it, has prompted mainland China’s major music streaming platforms wipe out her songs from top apps like QQ, Xiami, and NetEase Cloud Music. 

“Hong Kong can be saved,” Ip told local media. 

Ho has spoken out in settings such as the Oslo Freedom Forum and the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva — where Chinese diplomats repeatedly interrupted her as she accused China of “preventing our democracy at all costs.” She has live-streamed footage of herself attending the protests. 

She had been a rising star in mainland China back in 2014, having played more than 100 concerts there, but was blacklisted from performing and her songs scrubbed from the airwaves after she took part in similar protests five years ago. 

Hong Kong actress Charmaine Sheh (“Story of Yanxi Palace,” “Line Walker”), who has a large following in the mainland, was attacked on social media by pro-China trolls after she liked an Instagram post depicting the protests, even though the platform is blocked in China. She later apologized on Chinese social media, saying: “I was shocked when I realized what was in the post.”

Other Hong Kong celebs have come out actively in favor of Beijing.

Actor Tony Leung Ka-fai and Cantopop stars Allan Tam and Kenny Bee, who were also former bandmates in the popular 1970s band The Wynners, took part in a pro-police rally on June 30. Bee took to the stage to criticize the young protesters, calling them “ridiculous,” and Leung posed with a sign reading, “Support the Police.” 

Photos and videos of former fans ripping up and smashing Tam’s albums and posters went viral. Tam “really crossed the line” with his show of “support of police brutality against peaceful protesters,” said Chris Ng, a barrister who tweeted a photo of his trashed Tam paraphernalia.

Leung’s film “Chasing the Dragon II” was in mainland theaters at the time, where it grossed $43.6 million (RMB306 million). His directorial debut, “Midnight Diner,” is set to hit mainland theaters on Aug. 30. Online social media users were quick to note that his film, shot in 2017, had not been able to land a screening date, but finally got one after his appearance at the rally. 

And earlier this month, after protesters dumped the Chinese flag into the sea, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV launched a social media campaign around the hashtag “1.4 billion protectors of the national flag.” It has been retweeted by Jackie Chan, director Pang Ho-Cheung, actor Shawn Yue, and Hong Kong-born singer Jackson Wang, member of the K-Pop boyband GOT7, who have declared themselves “flag protectors.”

Hong Kong commenters have been particularly incensed by Pang’s pro-Beijing stance since his films, such as “Love in a Puff,” are seen as quintessentially Hong Kong. Chapman To, a previous collaborator of Pang’s, wrote a furious Facebook message on the director’s page that summed up Hong Kongers’ feelings of betrayal by local celebs issuing such pro-China statements.  

“You’ve already made a lot of money,” To wrote. “Call yourself a ‘national flag protector’? Then why didn’t you jump into the sea to pick up the flag? Stop deceiving Hong Kong people for their money!” 

Chan had previously pleaded ignorance when asked about his stance on the Hong Kong protests in June. But on Tuesday, the “Rush Hour” star told CCTV that he retweeted their hashtag “as soon as I saw it,” declaring his patriotism with the statement: “I am a national flag protector.” 

“Hong Kong is my birthplace and my hometown. China is my country. I love my country and my hometown,” he said. 

Also on Tuesday, Chinese pop singer Lay Zhang Yixing — who rose to stardom as part of the K-pop group Exo — canceled his upcoming Saturday concert in Hong Kong, which was to be held at a venue near the airport, where mass sit-ins by protestors has brought one of Asia’s busiest travel hubs to a standstill. He cited security concerns due to the protests. On Wednesday, he posted on Instagram: “I support the Hong Kong police.” Three years ago, Zhang was named ambassador for central Hunan province’s Communist Youth League. 

Meanwhile, Beijing has launched a misinformation campaign about the protests that seeks to portray demonstrators as violent and paid agitators. 

The febrile climate has led to a crisis of confidence in even local Hong Kong media such as TVB, with protesters calling for a boycott of the station, which they feel is pushing Beijing’s agenda by editing out footage of excessive police force. Many residents have turned to online news sources like HK01 or Stand News that they feel are less biased.

While retail sales have taken a blow during the protests, dropping 6.7% in June from the year before in the biggest decline since February, Hong Kong’s box office has actually risen 11.9% year-on-year since the protests began. The region’s 59 cinemas earned HK$410 million ($52.2 million) in the period between June 12, the day of the first 2-million-strong rally against the extradition bill, and Aug. 11, compared to HK$366 million ($46.6 million) across 54 cinemas during the same period in 2018.

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