Amazon series filmed in Hong Kong is blocked from streaming there

HONG KONG — “Expats,” a new Amazon Prime series set and partly filmed in Hong Kong, appears to be blocked in the Chinese territory amid growing concerns about censorship under Beijing’s tightening control.

The first two episodes of the six-part series, which stars Nicole Kidman, were released worldwide on Friday. But in Hong Kong, they are listed as “currently unavailable to watch in your location” and can only be accessed using a VPN.

Neither Amazon nor the Hong Kong government immediately replied to emailed requests for comment from NBC News on Monday.

The series, directed by Chinese-born American filmmaker Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”) and based on the 2016 novel “The Expatriates” by Janice Y.K. Lee, tells the stories of three American women living in Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

It is set in 2014, and at least one later episode of the show is said to include scenes depicting pro-democracy protests held that year that lasted for months.

A different set of mass pro-democracy protests roiled Hong Kong in 2019 and at times turned violent. Beijing responded the following year by imposing a sweeping national security law that it says was necessary to restore stability but that critics say has eroded freedom of expression and other civil liberties that Hong Kong was promised would stay untouched for its first 50 years under Chinese sovereignty.

The national security law criminalizes subversion, succession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces and is punishable by life in prison. In 2021, the Hong Kong legislature passed a censorship law aimed at films that might “endanger national security,” and since then there have been a number of instances where movies or short films were required to cut scenes or were blocked from release.

Though the censorship law does not apply to streaming services, they are still subject to the national security law overall. At least two episodes of “The Simpsons” — one that refers to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing, and one that refers to “forced labor” in China — remain unavailable on the Hong Kong version of the Disney+ streaming service.

Kenny Ng, a film censorship expert at Hong Kong Baptist University, said it was most likely that Amazon had made the decision on its own out of an abundance of caution.

Given the potentially sensitive 2014 protest content, he told NBC News, refraining from releasing the show in Hong Kong is “a very safe gesture to pre-empt any future potential business risk” in mainland China, which is “a very big market for streaming” and one where Amazon Prime is not currently available.

Hong Kong residents were enraged in 2021 when Kidman was exempted from strict Covid-19 quarantine requirements in order to film parts of “Expats” in the city, a longtime moviemaking hub. Without naming Kidman, the Hong Kong government said at the time that the exemption had been granted “for the purpose of performing designated professional work, taking into account that it is conducive to maintaining the necessary operation and development of Hong Kong’s economy.”

Government officials, businesspeople and other high-profile figures had also been allowed to avoid the quarantine regime, which required travelers arriving from overseas to spend up to three weeks confined to a hotel, at a cost of thousands of dollars, until it was ended in September 2022.

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