“Welcome to Cowardly Police News!” booms Zung Jung-ngai. Dressed in a crisp white shirt, black tie and bin bags that cover his neck and hands, Zung beams at his audience of prospective recruits to the Hong Kong Police Force. Want a job that guarantees good health? Where you can get “protective biohazard suits’’ quicker than front-line medics fighting coronavirus? Where you can obtain AR-15s, water cannons and gas masks? Zung looks into the camera: all you need to do, he says, is join the police.
Zung is not a real cop. Dressed in his plastic regalia, he is lampooning the city’s police force as “rubbish” in “Headliner”, Hong Kong’s leading satirical television programme. “Headliner” has been ridiculing Hong Kong’s political elite for the past 30 years. Now the elite seems to have lost its sense of humour and the show’s future is in jeopardy. After Hong Kong’s police chief complained to the city’s media regulator in February that “Headliner” was inaccurate and had denigrated the force, the watchdog duly warned the show against “insulting” the police. On May 19th Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the territory’s official broadcaster which produces the programme, said it would suspend the show after the series ends in mid-June. Previously it was one of the most viewed of RTHK programmes on YouTube; now many of the current season’s episodes can no longer be watched.
The TV programme is no stranger to controversy. Only months after the show first aired in 1989 it tackled the bloody crackdown on demonstrations in Tiananmen Square; every side got a grilling when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations, which erupted again in June 2019, have been a recurring theme. As violence between protesters and police flared in recent months, “Headliner” has used clips of shattered shopfronts and bloody confrontations, then made sharp observations in its gags and skits. Fans express their gratitude on social media. “You guys represent the real Hong Kong!” read one. “I cried after watching this, thank you ‘Headliner’!” said another. “We’re a pressure valve for Hong Kongers disillusioned with the political system,” says Tsang Chi-ho, who writes and performs in the show.
Ng Chi-sam, another of the show’s stars, recalls one of his favourite jokes from an episode aired in 1989. “Why did China use real bullets instead of rubber bullets against the students at Tiananmen Square?” the host asked. “It’s because they used up all the rubber for that rubber-stamp parliament of theirs!” his co-host replied. Such ridicule of the rulers would immediately be quashed on the mainland. Even Hong Kong’s elite has not always enjoyed the attention. In 2001 the territory’s then chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, referred to the programme as “vulgar” (an insult that “Headliner” now proudly features as part of its official description online).
The show has become a symbol of the free expression that has long distinguished Hong Kong from mainland China. “Headliner” bashes the very government that funds its broadcaster, RTHK. So its suspension represents more than a disruption to the TV schedule. Many see the demise as a reflection of the fate of Hong Kong.
The decision to suspend “Headliner” came at a particularly tense time for Hong Kong. Just days later the Chinese government announced plans to impose a new security bill on Hong Kong, prohibiting acts of “treason, secession, sedition [or] subversion” against the central government. Many Hong Kongers fear the Communist Party will use this to strip them of existing rights, including freedom of expression. Such a law could make a satirical show like “Headliner” seditious.
Although “Headliner” is broadcast in Cantonese, it often incorporates gags in English and Mandarin, reflecting the territory’s trilingual heritage. The show’s writers remember watching it during the twilight of colonial rule. “Britain was on the way out, China hadn’t arrived yet, and so there was no such thing as political correctness. You could say whatever you wanted,” says Tsang. When “Headliner” interviewed Chris Patten in 2012, Hong Kong’s last British governor chuckled when shown his caricature in an episode from 1993. “Dialogue, not censorship, was the essence of the Nineties,” Ng says.
Tsang joined in 2005, introducing scenes set in early 20th-century China, during the final years of imperial rule and the early Republican period. Even those with only basic knowledge of Chinese history could easily guess which contemporary figure the show was taking a pop at. In 2017 a character called “The Generalissimo” was introduced just after Xi Jinping, China’s president, changed the Chinese constitution to allow himself to remain in power indefinitely. The role was inspired by a real-life Chinese general, Yuan Shikai, who made himself president of China’s fledgling republic in 1914 before appointing himself emperor.
Much of the output of “Headliner” remains focused on Hong Kong’s government and the Communist Party leadership in Beijing, but increasingly it has turned its scorn towards Hong Kong’s police too. Rule of law in Hong Kong is one of the things that distinguishes the territory from the mainland – and for a long time the force was seen as an emblem of justice. But over the past year officers have routinely deployed tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons on protesters. Despite repeated allegations of police brutality against demonstrators, these complaints have rarely been followed up.
“Headliner” had its own response. In February it recruited a former cop turned popular actor with the stage name Wong Hei, which sounds like a popular Cantonese slang expression for the colonial Hong Kong police force, in which Wong served until 1992. His debut episode as the character Zung Jung-ngai, in which he jokingly insinuated that the police could get hold of personal protective equipment more easily than the health professionals treating covid-19, drew the ire of the current force. The force’s complaints, says Wong Hei, reflect its growing influence within the territory’s government. “We have always been a fishbone in the throat of Hong Kong’s powerful. If you could pluck it out, wouldn’t you?”
It is not clear who will carry out the planned review of the content and production process of “Headliner”, or what that may involve. Even if the programme is allowed to broadcast a new series, the show’s creators fear that it would have to tone things down or risk being taken off air. Already there is some disagreement as to how the writers should proceed. Tsang favours “dancing with shackles and pushing for change from within”, but Ng thinks any form of censorship or self-censorship would render their work “meaningless”. Some actors already have other outlets on YouTube; Wong Hei has his own online TV channel. But without the funding, facilities and production team provided by the territory’s broadcaster, Ng reckons the programme can’t continue. “‘Headliner’ witnessed every momentous political event in this city,” says Tsang. “We are an archive of Hong Kong’s past, and a funny one at that.” Now, though, it looks as if the Chinese Communist Party may have the last laugh.•