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Simpsons episode that mocks Chinese censorship disappears from Hong Kong's Disney+

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) – An episode of The Simpsons that ridicules Chinese government censorship appears to have been censored on Disney’s newly launched streaming service in Hong Kong, adding to fears about the shrinking space for free expression and criticism in this city.

Other episodes of the show are available on Disney+, which made its much-anticipated debut in Hong Kong this month.

But in season 16, the archive skips directly from episode 11 to episode 13, omitting episode 12, Goo Goo Gai Pan, in which the Simpson family travels to Beijing.

There, they visit the embalmed body of Mao Zedong, who Homer Simpson calls “a little angel that killed 50 million people”.

In another scene, the family passes through Tiananmen Square, where a plaque says “On this site, in 1989, nothing happened” – a jab at the Chinese government’s attempts to suppress public memory of the massacre, in which the army opened fire on students and other pro-democracy protesters.

Concerns about censorship have grown rapidly in Hong Kong since June, when Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, was promised at least 50 years of civil liberties after its return to Chinese control in 1997. But critics assert that under the law, many of those liberties have vanished, with news outlets muzzled, songs banned and museums closely regulated.

The government this year also expanded its film censorship powers, enabling it to block distribution of films, domestic or foreign, that it deemed to undermine national security.

It was not clear whether Disney chose to omit the Simpsons episode, which first aired in 2005, or if it was asked to do so by government regulators.

Disney did not respond to an inquiry, and Hong Kong’s communications authority declined to comment.

But the bureau of commerce and economic development said in a statement that the film censorship ordinance applies only to movies, not streaming services.

That suggests that Disney preemptively censored itself, said Dr Grace Leung, an expert in media regulation at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“Disney obviously sent out a clear signal to the local audience that it will remove controversial programmes in order to please” the Chinese government, Dr Leung said. “Their credibility will definitely be hurt.”

Still, she acknowledged that any potential loss in Hong Kong would most likely be far offset by the benefits of appeasing the mainland authorities.

“The population is not so big,” she said of the city. “They are ready to sacrifice Hong Kong’s market.”

Disney, and Hollywood more broadly, have made no secret of their appetite for the enormous mainland Chinese market. Disney in particular has frequently drawn criticism for its perceived willingness to make capitulations in order to reach it.

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Its live-action remake of Mulan, released last year, faced widespread calls for boycotts because its credits thanked eight government entities in Xinjiang, the far western region in China where the West has alleged that the government is suppressing the Uyghur ethnic minority. Parts of the movie had been filmed there.

In 1998, then Disney chief executive Michael Eisner apologised to the Chinese premier for producing Martin Scorsese film Kundun, about Chinese oppression of the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama; Mr Eisner called the movie a “stupid mistake”.

In 2016, film-makers on Doctor Strange rewrote a Tibetan character as Celtic – in part to avoid offending the Chinese government, according to a screenwriter.

Disney+ is not yet available in mainland China, although the company has said it plans to launch in “all major countries”.

Other streaming services have also been accused of censorship. Netflix has altered versions of some offerings in response to political considerations in overseas markets.

In Hong Kong, the Simpsons episode is not the only creative work to come under scrutiny for touching on Tiananmen Square.

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Ahead of the opening this month of M+, a major new art museum in Hong Kong, lawmakers called for a ban on a photograph by Mr Ai Weiwei, perhaps China’s most famous artist, who is now living in exile.

In the photograph, which the museum has since removed from its online archive, Mr Ai is raising his middle finger in front of Tiananmen Square.

The University of Hong Kong has ordered the removal of Pillar Of Shame, a sculpture commemorating the massacre that has stood on campus for over 20 years.

The Simpsons episode is viewable on Disney+ in Taiwan. People in Hong Kong can also still watch it if they use a virtual private network.

As news of the perceived censorship spread, interest in accessing the episode by alternative means might increase, Dr Leung said.

“If they didn’t do anything, then people may not be aware of the existence of that episode,” she added.

“But if you do it so obviously, then it arouses people’s interest.”

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