To the Western world, Jackie Chan is a martial arts hero and popular action film star. But in his birthplace of Hong Kong, Chan is deeply unpopular, particularly among the city’s pro-democracy movement.
“The West lauds Jackie Chan but they don’t understand him,” a popular Twitter account called Hong Kong World City that supports the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement told VICE News. “He isn’t this wholesome mascot that he makes himself out to be.”
Known in the cinematic world for his acrobatic fighting style and slapstick comedy, Chan—who also goes by his Chinese name Cheng Long—is easily one of Asia’s most recognizable and influential stars. He started out as a stuntman in the 1970s and worked his way to the top, rising to international superstardom after appearing alongside comedian Chris Tucker in the hit action-comedy franchise Rush Hour.
But Chan’s outspoken support for China’s ruling Communist Party has caused controversy in Hong Kong—he was even recruited to join the party’s political advisory body.
In 2009, Chan questioned the idea of a free press and said that Chinese control was a positive thing.
“I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not,” he said at a conference in 2009. “I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”
Hong Kong World City referenced Chan’s comments in a recent tweet, explaining why people in Hong Kong are not fans of Chan.
“His support among fans in Hong Kong is bone dry because of the controversial beliefs he holds—that people here and in Taiwan belong to mainland China and therefore, do not deserve freedom,” the Twitter page told VICE News. “His words are unfathomable and unforgivable.”
“The recent events in Hong Kong are sad and depressing,” Chan said. “Hong Kong and China are my birthplaces and my home. China is my country and I love my country.”
Most recently, Chan voiced his support for the controversial national security law imposed on Hong Kong by China. The law bans all forms of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with a foreign country, and threatens a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Chan added his signature to a group statement that read: “We fully understand the importance of safeguarding national security for Hong Kong and support the decision of the National People’s Congress on Hong Kong’s national security law.”
In response, Hong Kong and Taiwanese netizens were quick to label him “a two-faced scumbag” and “a deviant traitor”.
“Instead of raising awareness and safeguarding Hong Kong’s security and core values, Cheng Long rides on his political status with mainland China,” Lo Kin-hei, vice-chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, told VICE News.
“He may have been well-liked and respected as an actor in the 1980s and 1990s but things have changed. There is a lot of hatred for him in Hong Kong now and he is no longer in any position to accurately represent our city and its people.”
Chan was also the subject of a political art campaign by popular Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao.
“When you stand with the Chinese government, you stand with violence, censorship, concentration camps and ethnic cleansing,” the political cartoonist told VICE News.
“Jackie Chan is one of Hong Kong’s biggest names. He has a social responsibility to speak out about what’s happening in his home city but instead, he defends Beijing-backed violence and police brutality. Cheng Long may be an idol to many Chinese people but he is misusing his fame and influence by allying with the Communist Party to betray not only Hong Kong but himself.”
The artist added: “Democracy helps artists by giving us the freedom to create work. Jackie Chan is an enemy of democracy.”
The mainland Chinese market is a lucrative one that wields power and influence over Hollywood. To anger China would mean paying the price with one’s career, John Lee, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Studies Center in Sydney, Australia previously told VICE News.
“There are potentially serious commercial consequences for celebrities and entertainment executives who make sensitive comments that are deemed as being critical of China and the Communist Party,” Lee said.
“China’s box office revenue is valued at almost $10 billion, which makes it the second-largest in the world after the United States and there are estimates that this figure will even double,” he added. “Mainland Chinese audiences are also a highly influential market that the U.S. and other regional film industries are all seeking to expand into.”
The turbulent anti-government protests that have roiled Hong Kong for years have also split its entertainment industry.
Celebrity figures like Chan and Ip Man star Donnie Yen, who is featured in the upcoming Disney live-action reboot of Mulan, are rewarded for loyalty in promoting China and the Communist Party. But fellow veteran Hong Kong stars like actor Chow Yun-fat and Cantopop singer Denise Ho, who have thrown their support behind the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, have paid the price with their careers.
“There is a sense of betrayal and hypocrisy, given that Jackie was born in Hong Kong and presumably enjoyed the freedoms that the territory offered,” Lee told VICE News.
“This benefitted his career greatly,” Lee added. “But today he articulates the same propaganda messages as the Chinese government on highly sensitive and political issues, emphasizing the importance of patriotism and stability rather than freedom and democracy.”
Representatives for Chan did not immediately respond to VICE News for this story.