Disney+ has brought The Simpsons—all 32 seasons of it—to Hong Kong, except for one episode.
The 12th episode of the 16th season, which famously satirizes Beijing’s attempt to erase the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown from public memory, is unavailable to Hong Kong subscribers to the U.S. streaming service, which launched in the city this month.
The omission could be the result of censorship either by local authorities or the company itself, as the space for dissent in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory shrinks under Beijing’s tightening grip.
Disney+ did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The service is not available in mainland China.
The Hong Kong Office of the Communications Authority, which regulates broadcasting services in the city, said it had no comment on the issue.
In the episode, titled Goo Goo Gai Pan, the Simpson family flies to Beijing to help a relative adopt a Chinese baby. On Tiananmen Square, they see a plaque that reads “on this site, in 1989, nothing happened.” The adoption agent, voiced by Lucy Liu, appears in a tank—a reference to the Tank Man, a lone man who sought to block a line of tanks leaving the square on June 5, 1989, hours after a military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in central Beijing that killed hundreds of civilians.
Public discussions about the pro-democracy movement in 1989 are prohibited in mainland China. But in the former British colony of Hong Kong, which was promised freedom of speech when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, people had for decades been able to freely publish books, screen films, and hold massive vigils to document the history and commemorate the victims.
But this freedom has rapidly declined since Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong last year to clamp down on the city’s 2019 protest movement.
For two years in a row, Hong Kong authorities have banned an annual candlelight vigil marking the Tiananmen anniversary, citing COVID-19 contagion risks. The top, government-funded local university has demanded the removal of a prominent monument on campus dedicated to victims of the crackdown. And local groups have canceled screenings of Tiananmen-related films after receiving warnings from the government.
A new film censorship law passed in October has enabled the government to ban films deemed threats to national security, even if the films have been approved for screening in the past.
Art workers have also complained of increasing self-censorship due to a fear of being punished for dissenting views. Before the Beijing-backed local government tightened restrictions on art and publishing, almost the entire political opposition had been arrested or jailed.
In the omitted Simpsons episode, first aired in 2005, Homer also visits the mausoleum of Mao Zedong and calls him “a little angel that killed 50 million people,” an apparent reference to the disastrous outcome of his Great Leap Forward campaign. Estimated death tolls of the famine at the time, from 1958 to 1962, ranged from several to tens of millions.
But it’s unclear exactly which part of the episode prompted its removal. In the 19th episode of the 15th season, a scene featuring the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing considers a separatist and a sensitive topic, is kept intact. In the 14th season, Lisa Simpson can still be heard shouting “Free Tibet” after she wins a spelling bee contest.
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