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Hong Kong satire forced off air as China clamps down on free speech

'Headliner' poked fun at authorities for 30 years until police force objected

Ng Chi-sum, left, and Tsang Chi-ho play the Dowager Empress and her palace eunuch in a segment of "Headliner," a popular satirical show that has been suspended by the authorities. (Courtesy of RTHK)

HONG KONG -- It was not the first time "Headliner," a popular political satirical show in Hong Kong on the RTHK public broadcasting channel, had pushed the boundaries of taste and political speech.

In one of its first episodes in 1989, the hosts bitterly lampooned the country's leaders for their actions in the recent Tiananmen Square massacre. "Chinese Premier Li Peng said the troops fired on June 4 because the military did not have enough rubber bullets and tear gas." Why is China out of rubber, asked the other host. Because it had all been used up in rubber stamps, said the first -- a jab at China's government unimaginable today.

And in a segment just before the U.K. handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, producers depicted Lu Ping, the Chinese official who oversaw the transition, as an angry mother who pulled down the underwear of colonial governor Chris Patten and spanked his bare buttocks with a table tennis racket.

But this time was different. Amid public uproar over police brutality, the show introduced a new segment, a parody of the police's public affairs program. In the opening, Wong Hei -- a former cop-turned-actor -- jumped out of a rubbish bin with garbage bags around his neck, suggesting the police were trash.

First came an avalanche of 3,300 complaints from the public, shortly after the segment debuted on Feb. 14. Then the police chief himself wrote letters to Leung Ka-wing, RTHK's director of broadcasting, accusing "Headliner" of misleading the audience. On May 19, the Communications Authority issued a warning to the public broadcaster for denigrating the police force, prompting RTHK to apologize and suspend the show.

A screen grab of the "Headliner" sketch parodying the police. Though the segment was a hit among the public, it drew the ire of the authories and led to the show's suspension.

It did not matter that positive feedback exceeded the number of complaints by five times, or that the episode had over a million views on YouTube by the time it was ordered to be taken down.

The suspension of "Headliner" could hardly have come at a tenser time in Hong Kong's recent history. The city is reeling from six months of sometimes violent pro-democracy protests, the coronavirus outbreak and, now, China's decision to impose a national security law. Just as citizens worry Hong Kong's freedoms are under attack, the demise of "Headliner" gives them fuel for their fear.

When he heard the news, Tsang Chi-ho, one of the two main hosts, wrote on his Facebook page: "RIP." The 42-year-old had been recruited to the show 15 years ago. He and his partner, Ng Chi-sum, also a veteran commentator, stage creative skits mocking the city's political elite.

As Ng recalled at the show's 30th anniversary last April, it was said when the program debuted that one could only judge the show based on a single criteria -- if it was funny. "But it's increasingly difficult to outdo the government," Tsang replied.

Tsang, a host of "Headliner," stands next to a graffiti-covered wall that says: "Headliner speaks the truth. Thank you." (Rachel Cheung)

Together, they have played the Monkey King of Chinese legend and a Buddhist monk, a military character called the Generalissimo and his obsequious subordinate, but their most enduring characters remain the Dowager Empress and her eunuch, which allow them to examine current affairs through a historical lens.

While it was the trash-can policeman that started bringing the house down, the episode was examined for other references to the force. One that landed them in hot water was the suggestion that doctors could get their masks from parish constables, who had hoarded surplus stock. "The remark implied the government made an unfair allocation in distributing personal protective equipment among police and medical staff," the media regulator wrote in the ruling.

The authority also concluded that the program did not include a sufficiently broad range of views from the police. "By the same logic, a satirical show cannot roast Trump, unless they give Trump equal airtime," says Tsang. "That is how ridiculous it is."

To Tsang, the decision speaks to the force's unchallengeable position in Hong Kong. In fact, one of the protesters' five demands last year was a commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality following widespread charges of abuse and excessive force.

Riot police use pepper spray on a protester during a demonstration in Hong Kong's Central District in November 2019.   © Reuters

"We have irked the chief executive and representatives of the National People's Congress in the past, but it never ended with such disastrous consequences," says Tsang. "This time it's the police, which since last year have become the department with the biggest power. In other words, we got the ax because we offended Beijing's proxy in Hong Kong."

The decision came as a shock to the production team, including a former senior producer who had meticulously fact-checked each line of the episodes in question and combed through all news footage of the protests, "reliving the trauma," the producer says, to put the segments together.

As soon as the suspension was announced, a group of employees rushed to a conference room, many with tears in their eyes, to confront Leung and other top executives. "This is not just about a single show or our jobs," says the producer. "The fact that the public broadcaster would easily cave in to complaints opens a can of worms. If this is allowed, the bulk of our programs cannot stand for long."

Many loyal audience members are also vehement about the loss of one of the most critical -- and relevant -- voices on television. Courage Chiu, a retired primary schoolteacher, has been archiving each episode since 2019, in the hope that following generations will know what has happened in Hong Kong. "Every episode speaks my heart," he says.

From left, "Headliner" co-hosts Ng, Tsang and Cuson Law Kai-sun. Says Tsang, "[W]e got the ax because we offended Beijing’s proxy in Hong Kong." (Courtesy of RTHK)

Tsang believes the show is a thorn in the side of the authorities precisely because it belongs to the public broadcaster. "If you look at the internet and online media, there are many satirical productions that take a bolder stance. What they cannot tolerate isn't satire, but a voice of opposition within a public broadcaster. We criticize the government from within. That's our biggest strength."

The move to remove the thorn is an obvious sign of Hong Kong's assimilation to mainland China. "We are funded by taxpayers' money. We should speak for the citizens, not the government," says Tsang. "But to them, the media is the state's mouthpiece. You cannot raise criticism. If you embarrass the government, you are threatening their rule."

RTHK is not the only part of the media feeling the threat. The impending national security law, which proscribes subversion of state power -- a charge regularly slapped on journalists in mainland China -- will have wider implications across the media industry. And for Hong Kong, which is losing part of its culture and identity each day, the picture is bleak.

Ng, left, and Tsang play the Generalissimo and his subordinate. (Courtesy of RTHK)

"They can automatically label criticisms of the police -- even when it is based on facts -- as instigating hatred against the force," says Tsang. "We are all exercising our duty to monitor the government, but that can now land us in jail. Freedom of press and many things that were once protected under the 'one country, two systems' framework are disappearing overnight."

An internal review of the show is due, which many believe will effectively neuter its power to criticize, while RTHK stands to lose its editorial independence as the government sets up a task force to scrutinize the broadcaster. The report is due in six months, and in the meantime, a government-appointed board of advisers has instructed the broadcaster to "embrace" the national security legislation and discuss it "positively" in a new program.

It is often said that "Headliner" is the thermometer to measure the temperature of freedom in Hong Kong. So what does its death say about things right now? "Well, to quote 'Game of Thrones,'" says Tsang, "Winter is coming."

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