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Dystopian YouTube animation draws on themes from today’s Hong Kong

Commercial computer networks. (Aleksandar Radovanovic/Dreamstime/TNS)
November 15, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

As a satirical YouTube animation satirizes a dystopian future for China using scenes from the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, the city’s police force has announced that its officers will soon be boarding buses to “fight crime.”

The 11-minute animation uses a long-standing meme used to express empathy – Wojak – as the main character, and takes aim at pervasive surveillance and censorship in Xi Jinping’s China, but also at an ongoing crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, where public criticism of the authorities has been criminalized under the 2020 National Security Law.

As Hong Kongers’ flocked to the Mr. Marmot YouTube channel to say how moved they were by the tribute to their movement, the city’s police force was warning residents to get ready for their bus to be boarded by patrolling police officers in the weeks and months to come.

“If you see the police on the bus – no need to think it’s weird,” the Mong Kok District police division said in a recent Facebook post. “The police will patrol all forms of public transportation to step up protection of citizens’ lives, and property.”

“The police will never tolerate or condone any criminal behavior!” says the post, which was published shortly after claims emerged in a new book that the police had known in advance that mobsters were planning to attack passengers in Yuen Long MTR on July 21, 2019, at the height of the protest movement, and did nothing about it.

It’s 2077

Meanwhile, the animated short film “Cyber Rebels 2077” on the YouTube channel Mr Marmot envisages a world in which the ruling Communist Party’s “social credit” scheme that currently imposes restrictions on individuals who have black marks on their personal record – perhaps for unpaid debts – is expanded and integrated with a nationwide mass surveillance system that already exists across the country.

It’s 2077, and in a fit of frustration at work, Wojak utters a few ill-chosen words that are heard by the system, and immediately receives a text message informing him that he has forfeited 10 credit points, taking him below the 50 minimum points needed to access public transport.

As he walks wearily home from his workplace, Wojak, who wears a shirt bearing the numbers 8964 in a coded reference to the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, meets an old man selling banned movies and other media content, and agrees to buy something from him.

The pair are immediately identified by a patrolling drone, and Wojak is sent to “the world’s largest political prison,” where he is invited along on a long-planned breakout by other inmates. The group are intercepted and arrested by riot police, in scenes based on real-life news photos of police arresting protesters in 2019.

Later, Wojak’s denial that he tried to escape with the help of “American reactionaries” is twisted by deepfake technology into a confession and broadcast on national news.

In a plot twist at the end, the crowd gets angry about having points deducted from their social credit scores en masse, affecting their children’s right to go to school, and challenges riot cops sent to quell the protests to join them instead and make a better world — too late for Wojak, who has by then died of his injuries.

‘I really cried’

The animation, which had garnered more than 420,000 views by 1500 GMT on Monday, ends with a frame showing a smashed portrait of late supreme Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, and struck a chord with many in Hong Kong.

“I am a Hong Konger. I really cried when I saw the memories and pain of those years,” one comment said. “I can never let it go, this kind of injustice continues to this day.” 

“A memory that I will never forget,” read another.

The plot draws on China’s insistence on forcing “confessions” out of the political prisoners, its nationwide “SkyNet” surveillance and facial recognition system, and widespread and often rapid online censorship of banned political keywords.

However, similar themes are already starting to be visible in today’s Hong Kong, with students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong recently warned to keep to the Student Code of Conduct after people turned up on campus with portable “Lennon walls” in the form of blackboards that invited students to leave stick-on messages about their hopes for the future of the university.

The protesters were hauled off by campus security and told off for their behavior, although they were also told they hadn’t broken the law.

U.S. lawmakers are gangsters

Jen-Shuo Hsu, assistant professor at the School of Media Studies at Hokkaido University, said the plan for police patrols on buses would likely achieve little in terms of fighting crime.

“It will have an effect, and it may make some people scared,” Hsu told Radio Free Asia. “Showing up is a kind of police measure that is generally regarded as a light touch.”

“But legally speaking, it also constitutes a kind of restriction on people’s rights.”

Hong Kong officials are also quickly picking up Communist Party rhetoric targeting the United States, with Secretary for Security Chris Tang describing U.S. lawmakers as “gangsters” for trying to impose sanctions on judicial officials and judges tasked with enforcing the National Security Law.

A brief survey by Radio Free Asia on Monday found that the United States has been described as “gangster-like” on at least one radio show, in the pro-China Sing Tao Daily and in the Beijing-backed Ta Kung Pao newspaper.

Current affairs commentator Sang Pu said such language is reminiscent of the political denunciations of the Cultural Revolution under Mao.

“Officials should be tough and enforce the law … instead of saying people are mafia, underworld or running dogs,” Sang said in a reference to recent comments by Tang.

“It’s actually a way to show loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party,” Sang said. “They are all sticking to the Communist Party line.”

He said there is an inherent threat signaled in the ramping up of rhetoric, which uses pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, a British citizen, and other high-profile opposition figures, as bargaining chips, albeit in a coded manner.

“The threat is that if they pass this bill [mandating sanctions] they may not be able to help Jimmy Lai and others,” he said. 

A brief online survey of Tang’s background showed a number of media reports alleging that he protected rural triads in the New Territories during his tenure as police chief in the northern border town of Yuen Long, where the 2019 mob attacks took place.

According to some reports, the stories prompted officials from the Police Public Relations Division to call assignment editors at major news organizations and ask them to “show mercy” over the story. Tang resigned from the Yuen Long post in 2013.