Walt Disney’s streaming service has been accused of censorship after it dropped an episode of The Simpsons that refers to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre when the US company launched the platform in Hong Kong this month.
The missing episode called Goo Goo Gai Pan features the American cartoon family flying to China to adopt a baby, with a visit to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square showing a large sign standing in the square saying: “On this site, in 1989, nothing happened.”
First aired in 2005, the episode guest starred Lucy Liu and also showed Homer Simpson saying the former Chinese Communist party chair Mao Zedong was a “little angel” who killed millions.
Disney’s dropping of the episode came just one month after Hong Kong passed an amendment to its film censorship law that in effect banned offerings that were deemed “contrary” to the city’s Beijing-imposed national security law.
Kenny Ng, an associate professor at the Academy of Film at Hong Kong Baptist University who specialises in censorship, said other global streaming platforms might follow Disney’s example as “a new ground for negotiations between freedom of expression and censorship” emerges.
The sweeping security law, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, came into effect last year in the wake of the city’s 2019 pro-democracy protests and has already led to many pro-democracy politicians and activists being arrested or jailed.
Hong Kong authorities banned the city’s annual candlelight vigil commemorating the Tiananmen massacre in June for a second consecutive year citing pandemic concerns. The event’s main organisers were detained in September under the security legislation.
Disney’s streaming service, which was launched two years ago and has more than 118m subscribers globally, rolled out its Hong Kong platform on November 16.
A check by the Financial Times on Saturday found that all the episodes of season 16 of The Simpsons were available on Disney Hong Kong except for episode 12, which contained the scenes in question.
Disney did not respond to multiple requests for comment on why the episode was not available and whether the Hong Kong government had made any requests to the company.
The Hong Kong government said the amended film censorship bill “only regulates [the] exhibition of films and does not apply to streaming services”.
Baptist university’s Ng said he believed Disney’s omission of the episode was “largely to do with the business interest of US streaming companies”.
“It is in their best interest not to offend the Chinese government, or simply create complications . . . they have no strong motivation to put on offending materials at this sensitive moment,” he said.
“Hong Kong is still different from the mainland in many aspects [in terms] of freedom of expression,” Ng added. “But in certain cases when it touches upon very thorny political issues . . . there seems little room for companies to manoeuvre.”
As Hong Kong tighten its grip on free speech under the national security law, some films deemed sensitive have gained critical acclaim elsewhere.
Last week, Hong Kong director Kiwi Chow’s documentary Revolution of our Times, which shows the pro-democracy movement in 2019, won best documentary at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards despite having never been shown in his home city commercially.