TIME Hong Kong

No Matter What Beijing Says, Hong Kong Is Ready for Full Democracy

Occupy Central Protesters Rally Against China Vote On Hong Kong Universal Suffrage
Pro-democracy activists gather during a rally organized by activist group Occupy Central With Love and Peace (OCLP) outside the offices of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in Hong Kong, China, on Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

A sophisticated, vibrant metropolis of over 7 million people deserves the right to nominate candidates for its top job

In the crowd that gathered on July 1, 2014, to celebrate the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, Nicholas stood out. The group at government headquarters that day was heavy on umbrella-wielding old-timers; they moved in packs and wore matching T-shirts, like visitors from out of town. Nicholas, meanwhile, was 24 years old. He was standing with friends and wearing a yellow football jersey.

The young sports fan and the older attendees shared at least one thing in common: a distrust for Hong Kong’s democracy movement. While hundreds of thousands gathered across town to denounce the diktats of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), these folks assembled to show their support for the central government in Beijing. Nicholas compared the link between Beijing and Hong Kong to the bond between mother and child. Hong Kong was “throwing a tantrum,” he said, but it would not get its way.

In the weeks that followed, his words stuck with me. It is unusual to meet a young person at staid, pro-establishment events, and rarer still to hear one speak with reverence for Beijing. Hong Kong’s under-25 set is much more visible in the opposition. The main reason I kept thinking back to Nicholas, though, was that his reasoning, and his choice of language, was quickly gaining currency; it echoed all summer through the state-backed press.

Take a read, and you will see what I mean. Recent editorials in the mainland’s major dailies cast the central government as rational and mature, and pro-democracy campaigners as emotional, reckless and adolescent. In one Global Times piece, Hong Kong’s well-planned, peaceful, pro-democracy protests were dismissed as an ineffective and dangerous “clamor.” The central government’s decisions are “legal, fair and reasonable,” according to state news-wire Xinhua; those who oppose their rules are “troublemakers” bent on “sabotage.”

Academics are also in on it. Speaking in Hong Kong on the eve of Beijing’s most recent announcement on political reform, Wang Zhenmin, dean of the law school at Tsinghua University in Beijing, urged Hong Kong to accept a “less perfect” democracy over none at all, according to an account by the New York Times. Calling for patience and trust, he likened Beijing to mother and Hong Kong to child. “The mother always acts in the best interests of her children,” he said. “Her intentions are pure.”

For Beijing, the parent-child metaphor is a rhetorical home run. In one quick, emotionally charged turn, it manages to both intimidate and undercut opponents. We, the parent, have the power, it warns. And that’s a good thing, little one, since you cannot be trusted on your own. The argument is circular, sure. But by the party’s logic, it justifies the decision to keep full democracy from Hong Kong.

Some now wonder if that was the plan all along. When the Union Jack was lowered 17 years ago, the erstwhile British colony was told it would be governed according to a political conceit called “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong would retain its way of life and certain freedoms, but would be beholden, on matters of security, to Beijing. It was never an ideal arrangement, but the city’s democrats believed the “two systems” provision left room for political development.

That space is shrinking year by year, critics say, as the CCP moves to influence politicians, the press and the judiciary. In June more than 800,000 Hong Kong people voted in an unofficial, civil society-backed plebiscite seen as a referendum on reform. Beijing dismissed it. On Sunday, Aug. 31, after months of rallies and debate, China’s legislature ruled out open nominations for the city’s top job. In 2017 the Chief Executive will be elected by Hong Kong voters, but they will be choosing from a list of candidates vetted by Beijing.

To sell the scheme, the central government sent Li Fei, an official from China’s National People’s Congress, to Hong Kong. Li insisted the government’s decision was reasonable, drawing jeers from pro-democracy campaigners in the crowd. He also took a swipe at those who chide Beijing for installing a system at odds with international standards: “The central government is implementing democracy in Hong Kong 17 years after the handover, much faster than what Britain did in its 150 years of rule here,” he said.

The comparison did little to ease the anger of those outside chanting “Shame on the central government.” The former head of Hong Kong’s civil service, Anson Chan, says the decision shows a lack of trust. “For the Hong Kong public there is a deep sense of betrayal and a sense of no more hope,” she told Bloomberg in a television interview. “And from Beijing’s point of view, I think it should be worried because the clear message they’re sending to the Hong Kong people is that ‘We don’t trust you, therefore we must prescreen all the candidates standing for election.'”

The fact is, the people of Hong Kong are absolutely able to chart their own political course. They are witty and well educated, voracious consumers of media and extremely vocal on issues that concern them, from education to conservation to national-security legislation. Hong Kong is not a child, in other words. It is stuck with a priggish parent with no idea how to cope.

TIME Malaysia

Malaysia Airlines Asked for Travelers’ ‘Bucket Lists’ in Ill-Advised Contest

A member of ground crew works on a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 737-800 airplane on the runway at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang
A member of ground crew works on a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 737-800 airplane on the runway at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on July 25, 2014 Olivia Harris—Reuters

Would-be passengers in Australia and New Zealand were invited to share their bucket lists in hopes of winning a free ticket

Malaysia Airlines (MAS) launched a competition in Australia and New Zealand four days ago, according to media reports, in which it said it was giving away free economy-class tickets and free iPads.

The marketing ploy was to be expected from an airline still reeling from the twin tragedies of MH17 and MH370, but the competition name was bizarre: My Ultimate Bucket List.

Contestants had to explain “What and where would you like to tick off on your bucket list?”

The Merriam-Webster definition of bucket list is “a list of things that one has not done before but wants to do before dying.” The association is horrific, given that 537 people lost their lives flying on the airline this year.

The contest appears to have since been withdrawn, with the original competition link now leading to a 404 error page. A PDF of the competition terms and conditions could be found here at time of publication, but besides that there no longer appear to be details of the competition on the MAS site.

The launch of the competition was picked up in the Australian travel-industry press and even name-checked in British tabloid the Daily Mail. But perhaps MAS has since realized that asking prospective passengers to think up a bucket list before accepting a free ticket on one of its planes might be construed as macabre.

The airline can at least be grateful that online gaffes can be deleted. In 2003, the Hong Kong Tourism Board ran an ad promising would-be visitors that “Hong Kong will take your breath away.” At the time, SARS — severe acute respiratory syndrome — had killed about 100 people, mostly in Hong Kong and China. But the ad ran in British and European print magazines — and there was no time to change the slogan before the presses started to roll.

TIME Hong Kong

China Rules Out Open Election in Hong Kong, Setting Stage for ‘Occupy’ Protest

Pro-democracy protesters switch on their mobile phones during a campaign to kick off the Occupy Central civil disobedience event in Hong Kong
Pro-democracy protesters switch on their mobile phones during a campaign to kick off the Occupy Central civil-disobedience event near the Central financial district in Hong Kong at Aug. 31, 2014 Bobby Yip—Reuters

Demonstrators vow to paralyze Hong Kong's financial district after Beijing refused to allow unfettered nominations for the territory's top job

On democracy, there will be no compromise. That’s the message Beijing sent the city of Hong Kong on Sunday. After months of rallies calling for free and fair elections, China’s legislature effectively shut the door on full democracy, ruling out open nominations for the planned 2017 election of the city’s Chief Executive, the local government’s top leader.

Since Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, the Chief Executive has been chosen by an electoral commission dominated by establishment figures. In 2017, the Chief Executive will be elected by Hong Kong voters. But the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing has now confirmed that it will retain its gatekeeper role, making sure candidates are first vetted by a committee to gauge whether they demonstrate, among others things, sufficient “love for country.”

The announcement sets the stage for renewed conflict in the city of 7 million. On Sunday evening, local time, several thousand people gathered at government offices to protest. On an open-air stage framed by the People’s Liberation Army’s Hong Kong headquarters and lighted by the city’s skyscrapers, democracy campaigners denounced the CCP and vowed to push ahead with plans to shut down the city’s financial district. The group behind the push for civil disobedience, Occupy Central With Love and Peace, did not say when, or how, the “occupation” would start.

“We’re telling Beijing this is the start of a movement,” said Joseph Cheng, professor at City University and convener of the Alliance for True Democracy, an umbrella group advocating an open nomination process. “We don’t want to be just another Chinese city.” Beijing warned that if democratic legislators did not support its 2017 plan, the territory would revert to the current system of the choosing the Chief Executive, which has been criticized by many in Hong Kong as unrepresentative and undemocratic.

Becoming “just another Chinese city” is at the heart of the activism, and counteractivism, currently shaking Hong Kong. It has been 17 years since the territory was returned to Chinese sovereignty. Under a political conceit called “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong retained certain freedoms, but was to be beholden, on matters of security, to Beijing. Over the years, however, many Hong Kong citizens say their relative autonomy has been eroded with Beijing pressuring the city’s politicians, businesspeople, journalists and even judges to get its way.

Fears about Hong Kong’s status as a Special Administrative Region of China have brought together wide swaths of Hong Kong society to either oppose, or support, the diktats of the CCP. In late June, some 800,000 people voted on a civil-society-backed monthlong plebiscite on electoral reform that Beijing deemed illegal. Shortly afterward, on the July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, tens of thousands of people (estimates ranged from under 100,000 to more than 500,000) marched to show their support for democratic reform. The pro-Beijing camp held their own hundreds-strong counterprotest and issued a petition signed by 1.3 million supporters of their own.

The latest ruling will only deepen divisions, further widening the gap between those who welcome China’s influence (or believe there is no practical choice but to accept it), and those who see it as a threat. It may also lead to polarization within the pro-democracy camp, as the movement wrestles with how to move forward. For some, the civil disobedience spearheaded by Occupy Central is looking more attractive. “We have to stand up for ourselves,” says Bobby Chan, a 50-year-old private investor who attended Sunday’s protest. “Enough is enough.”

Other self-styled democrats are wary of plans to paralyze Central, the city’s financial district and lifeblood. They worry that blocking a vital part of the economy, and disobeying Beijing, will hurt, not help, Hong Kong’s cause. In a much discussed editorial for the South China Morning Post, titled “The Logic of Beijing’s Vision for 2017 Chief Executive Election,” lawmaker Regina Ip argues that the Chinese plan was based on international law and left room for democratic reform in the future. Progress will come with time and trust in the authorities, she reasons. In a telephone interview with TIME, Ip says Occupy Central’s “damage” to the city would depend on how many people take part and how many participants represent the “hard-core element.”

“Hard-core,” or, to use Beijing’s language, “extremist” elements, figure heavily in the CCP’s opposition to Hong Kong protest movements. In recent weeks, state-backed media have stepped up their rhetorical battle, claiming the democracy movement was a threat to the stability of the territory and the country. Citing an unnamed government source, state media also warned against foreign interference, saying central authorities will not allow anyone to use Hong Kong “as a bridgehead” to subvert, or infiltrate the mainland. “The Chinese government is convinced that there are forces in Hong Kong that want to undermine China,” says David Zweig, director of the Center on China’s Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Many activists are unbowed. “We fought for democracy for over three decades,” said Lam Cheuk-ting, chief executive of the Democratic Party, at Sunday’s demonstration in Hong Kong. “We have tolerated an undemocratic government for more than 15 years.” The people, he said, are “extremely angry.”

As heavy rain soaked Lam and his fellow protesters, some of whom were in tears, an advertisement flashed above them. From the heights of a tower bearing the name of a Chinese state-owned investment company, CITIC, beamed a fluorescent slogan, in English and Chinese; it read: “A New Chapter.” Not for Hong Kong.

— With reporting by Zoher Abdoolcarim, Charlie Campbell and David Stout / Hong Kong

TIME Hong Kong

China: No Open Nominations for Hong Kong Leader

Activists Take To The Streets As China Votes On Hong Kong Election Process
Protesters take part in a rally during the beginning of the Occupy Central movement outside the Central Government Offices in Hong Kong on Aug. 31, 2014. Lam Yik Fei—Getty Images

China's legislature on Sunday ruled against allowing open nominations in elections for Hong Kong's leader, a decision that promises to ignite political tensions in the Asian financial hub

Updated: Aug. 31, 2014, 8:40 a.m. E.T.

(BEIJING) — China’s legislature on Sunday ruled out allowing open nominations in inaugural elections for Hong Kong’s leader, saying they would create a “chaotic society.” Democracy activists in the Asian financial hub responded by saying that a long-threatened mass occupation of the heart of the city “will definitely happen.”

The legislature’s powerful Standing Committee said all candidates should be approved by more than half of a special nominating body in order to go before voters. That’s at odds with demands from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, which staged a massive protest in July to press for genuine democracy in the Chinese territory over fears candidates would continue to be screened to assess their loyalty to Beijing.

Following the committee’s widely expected decision, pro-democracy supporters rallied in a park in front of Hong Kong government headquarters.

Hong Kong has enjoyed substantial political autonomy since returning from British to Chinese rule in 1997, when China’s communist leaders pledged to allow the city’s leader, known as the chief executive, to be eventually elected through “universal suffrage” rather than by the current committee of mostly pro-Beijing tycoons. But China’s growing influence in the city’s affairs has sparked fears that Beijing won’t hold up its end of the bargain.

Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the National People’s Congress’ Standing Committee, told a news conference that openly nominating candidates would create a “chaotic society.”

“These rights come from laws, they don’t come from the sky,” he said. “Many Hong Kong people have wasted a lot of time discussing things that are not appropriate and aren’t discussing things that are appropriate.”

Hong Kong’s most high-profile democracy group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, immediately announced that a plan to “occupy” the city’s Central business district would go ahead, without specifying a date.

“OCLP has considered occupying Central only as the last resort, an action to be taken only if all chances of dialogue have been exhausted and there is no other choice,” the group said in a statement. “We are very sorry to say that today all chances of dialogue have been exhausted and the occupation of Central will definitely happen.”

Occupy Central has vowed to rally at least 10,000 people for the massive sit-in, which could still be months away because Hong Kong’s government must hold more consultations on Beijing’s guidelines and then formulate a bill to be passed by the city’s legislature. The group urged legislators to vote against it and “start the constitutional reform process all over again.”

Making clear that Chinese leaders intend to tightly control politics in Hong Kong, Li reiterated that candidates for chief executive should be loyal to China’s ruling Communist Party.

“He has to be responsible to Hong Kong and to the central government,” Li said. “If Hong Kong’s chief executive doesn’t love the country and love the party, then that can’t work in one country.”

Under Sunday’s guidelines, Hong Kong’s 5 million eligible voters will be able to vote in 2017 for two to three candidates selected by the 1,200-member nominating committee. Then, the chief executive-elect “will have to be appointed by the Central People’s Government,” the Standing Committee said.

“Since the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and the sovereignty, security and development interests of the country are at stake, there is a need to proceed in a prudent and steady manner,” it said.

Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the requirement that a candidate is supported by more than half of the nomination committee “will rule out a pan-democratic candidate.”

“Only if it’s lowered to 20 percent can a pan-democratic candidate get in,” as there could be enough political diversity in the committee to back a more democratically minded person, Lam said.

Beijing’s announcement comes after a summer of protests and counter-protests that have gripped Hong Kong, including a rally two weeks ago by pro-Beijing activists to denounce Occupy Central as threatening the city’s stability.

Political tensions spiked in June when Chinese officials released a policy “white paper” declaring that Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy … comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership.”

Many read the policy paper as asserting Beijing’s dominance of Hong Kong’s affairs and hit the streets and the Internet in protest. Occupy Central drew Beijing’s rebuke by organizing an online referendum that received nearly 800,000 votes on how to pick the city’s chief executive.

On Sunday, organizers of a similar referendum in the neighboring Chinese-controlled city of Macau said 95 percent of 8,688 people had voted in favor of its leader being elected by universal suffrage in 2019. Macau’s incumbent leader, Fernando Chui, was elected to a second five-year term by a Beijing-friendly committee on Sunday.

___

Associated Press writer Louise Watt contributed to this report.

TIME Hong Kong

Prominent Hong Kong Democracy Campaigners Raided by Antigraft Officers

Jimmy Lai, chairman and founder of Next Media, speaks during an exclusive interview with Reuters in Taipei
Jimmy Lai, chairman and founder of Next Media, speaks during an interview in Taipei on Nov. 29, 2010 Nicky Loh—Reuters

The swoop comes just as the city prepares for long-threatened Occupy Central protests

Updated: 8:38 a.m. EST on Thursday.

Hong Kong anticorruption officers raided the home of media mogul and outspoken democracy advocate Jimmy Lai early Thursday morning, just days before Occupy Central protests are slated to commence in the city’s financial heart.

“ICAC [Independent Commission Against Corruption] was here,” Lai told reporters outside his home, according to the South China Morning Post. “They’ve all gone now and there is no further comment.”

According to documents leaked in July, Lai, who runs Next Media and founded the hugely popular Apple Daily newspaper, has donated more than $1.2 million to pan-democratic causes over the past year.

Pan-democrat lawmaker and Labour Party leader Lee Cheuk-yan had earlier admitted that he received a total of $190,000 from Lai, which allegedly stayed in his personal account for a short time before being moved to that of his party.

Under Hong Kong law, donations to political parties are lawful and do not even have to be disclosed, but payments to individuals holding political posts are prohibited.

ICAC officers also swooped on Lee’s home on Thursday and banking documents were seized, reports the Post.

The ICAC said in a statement that it launched the raids after receiving a complaint. “The Commission investigates every case impartially, without fear or favour and in strict accordance with the law,” it said. “The ICAC, as always, has no political consideration in enforcing the law.”

Nevertheless, the raids come at a time of high political tension in Hong Kong. Authorities in Beijing are meeting this week to discuss how to administer the Special Administrative Region’s next leadership election in 2017.

Hong Kong residents have been promised the right to elect their own Chief Executive, the territory’s highest post, by that year, but the Chinese Communist Party wants a veto over which candidates can stand.

Democracy activists claim this will ensure a Beijing proxy controls the city of 7 million, and have organized the Occupy Central protests to press their demand for freer nominations. A July 1 pro-democracy rally drew as many as 172,000 people, according the University of Hong Kong.

Sources told local media that Beijing is mandating a 1,200-member nomination committee that will then approve two or three candidates for Chief Executive. Hong Kong’s pan-democrats have indicated such a system would be unacceptable, and so Occupy Central may commence as early as Sunday, when a separate though aligned pro-democracy rally has also been planned.

This leaves the possibility open for violent confrontations, as police have indicated they would forcibly remove anyone seeking to block the city’s teeming business district.

TIME Travel

10 Things To Do Wherever You Are

Businesswoman with suitcase in airport
Getty Images

Traveling this holiday weekend? Whether you’re headed to New York or San Francisco, Singapore or Tokyo, we’ve put together a list of your destination’s must-see attractions and activities. So if you want to hit the tourist hotspots, or if you prefer to see how the locals live, these ideas will make your Labor Day planning a bit less laborious:

TIME Photos

Feel Good Friday: 14 Fun Photos to Start Your Weekend

From inflatable toads to Taiwanese "frog men," here's a handful of photos to get your weekend started right

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong, China’s Freest City, Grapples With Political Reform

HONG KONG-CHINA-DEMOCRACY
Demonstrators rally against the Occupy Central movement to show their support to the Hong Kong government in Hong Kong on July 15, 2014. Hong Kong's government has unveiled its vision for electoral reform as public pressure for democracy grows and activists pledge to take over the city if their demands are not met Philippe Lopez—AFP/Getty Images

An official, 100-plus-page report to Beijing on Hong Kong's political development is unlikely to satisfy the city's increasingly frustrated democracy activists, but Hong Kongers are beginning to tire of confrontation

Two weeks ago, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers — perhaps even hundreds of thousands, depending on whose estimates you believe — marched for the right to nominate candidates for the city’s top job. Civil nomination, as it’s locally known, would make Hong Kong the only place on Chinese soil with such a free and open manner of choosing its leader.

On Tuesday, they were flatly told by their current leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (or “C.Y.,” in the Cantonese fashion for abbreviation), that future Chief Executives would not be elected that way. Instead, there would be incremental changes of the existing system, under which candidates are put forward by a nominating committee and then voted on by an electoral college (which presently consists of just 1,200 establishment types but could be expanded). This method of doing things, Leung said, represented “mainstream opinion” in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s democratic camp was livid. “We’re pretty disappointed — we’re pretty angry,” Johnson Yeung, an activist with the Civil Human Rights Front, which organizes the annual July 1 protest march, told TIME on Tuesday night. “The Chief Executive is telling lies about the majority of society. The majority of people support civil nomination.”

Leung was speaking on the release of the findings, which will be submitted to Beijing, of a five-month public consultation on the city’s constitutional development. The process was made up of town-hall meetings — between nervous officials and often fractious members of the public — and a review of written submissions from individuals and groups, of which nearly 125,000 were received. As a view-gathering exercise, it was undeniably thorough and when Leung says that it has “truthfully collected views of the people of Hong Kong,” he isn’t just politicking.

At the same time, reformists claim — also with some justification — that their voices deserve more prominence. Besides the support for civil nomination expressed on the July 1 march, they also point to an unofficial, civil-society-backed referendum in June in which nearly 800,000 people voted on their preferred methods of choosing their leader, with civil nomination being involved in each of those methods. Leung only indirectly referred to the march and the referendum in his report — referring to views other than those that have been officially gathered is a rookie political error when dealing with Beijing, and yet they remain glaring lacunae in the eyes of many.

The truth about what Hong Kong people want is, of course, more nuanced. There can be little doubt that Hong Kong’s well educated, sophisticated and forward-looking population would like as much say as possible in determining how the territory is governed. But at the same time, the number of those who have the appetite for a protracted political confrontation with Beijing must be very few. And confrontation it will be, for the simple fact that civil nomination is not permitted under Hong Kong’s miniconstitution, known as the Basic Law, which came into effect when Britain returned sovereignty of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Say what you like about China, but it is a scrupulous observer of formal agreements.

Hong Kongers — sober, decent, pragmatic and hardworking — are mostly not the sort of people who gravitate to the barricades and the streets. Neither do they need to be made aware of the political realities of having China as a sovereign power, for the simple fact that postwar Hong Kong has only ever existed with China’s permission. In the 1960s, the local joke was that Mao Zedong could send the British packing with a mere phone call.

With that vast, brooding power lying just over the Kowloon hills, tiny Hong Kong’s style has always been to play China cleverly — to push where it can (in matters such as education and national-security legislation, where it has won important battles) and to back off where it cannot. When establishment figures talk of having, as Chief Executive, “a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong” it is coded speech, referring to somebody who is a master of that game and who is not like, say, Leung Kwok-hung (no relation to C.Y. Leung) — a radical legislator who hurls objects around the debating chamber and who once set fire to the Chinese flag. The election of somebody like Leung Kwok-hung to the position of Chief Executive would be the only excuse Beijing needs to employ repressive machinery far beyond anything Hong Kongers have imagined. The threat of the Occupy Central movement to bring Hong Kong’s financial district to a standstill if its demands for civil nomination are not met will also play beautifully into Beijing’s hands.

A compromise is being offered. Within the constitutional report’s prose are certain suggestions that, while subtle, would mark unprecedented concessions on China’s part, should the National People’s Congress approve them. Namely, C.Y. Leung calls for some amendments to the structure of the controversial nomination committee, which vets potential candidates for the Chief Executive election, that may render it a more democratic grouping.

“I see that as a concession. I see that as a position that allows for a democrat to get through to the election,” says David Zweig, a professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “General public nomination — it’s not going to happen. It can’t comply with the Basic Law.”

And that, in the end, is the peculiar agony of Hong Kong — to be a city of politically mature individuals that was simply handed back from one sovereign power to another, without any consultation, unable to determine its fate. Today, it is culturally, legally, historically and linguistically distinct from the rest of China, but it will never be able to parlay that into greater autonomy than what it presently enjoys. It will always be a subject territory.

It turns out that many Hong Kong people only want to get on with their busy metropolitan lives and are O.K. with that. They do not want to choose between democracy or death, and that political realism is itself an important milestone. In that sense, when C.Y. Leung said, “Today is a historical moment in the constitutional development of Hong Kong, we will be able to leave our differences behind in a rational and pragmatic way,” he was absolutely right.

With reporting by P. Nash Jenkins / Hong Kong

TIME China

How Transformers 4 Became the No. 1 Film in Chinese History

A 21-foot tall model of the Transformers character Optimus Prime is displayed on the red carpet before the world premiere of the film "Transformers: Age of Extinction" in Hong Kong
A model of the character Optimus Prime is displayed on the red carpet before the world premiere of Transformers: Age of Extinction in Hong Kong on June 19, 2014 Siu Chiu—Reuters

It's not as simple as a national appreciation for universally scorned movies

The latest film in Michael Bay’s Transformers series was largely set in China, had its premiere in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong and is now the highest-grossing film in the country’s history, having earned $222.74 million in ticket sales in less than two weeks.

It dethrones James Cameron’s Avatar, which made slightly less when it premiered in early 2010.

Given that critical reaction to Transformers: Age of Extinction has been almost conspiratorially negative across the board — Richard Roeper called it “relentless,” and not as a compliment; Peter Travers at Rolling Stone refused to give it even one star — much of the coverage of its success in China has been, well, pretty darn condescending: “Chinese people are dazzled by anything Hollywood, etc.”

The reality is more complex. If the bar of cinematic quality is indeed set lower in China, the tastes of its 1.3 billion people aren’t necessarily to blame. The Chinese Communist Party is exceedingly picky about the films screened in the country, especially in the case of foreign cinema; so if a movie does well, one can ultimately thank the government.

The long and the short of it: Bay made a movie set and filmed in China, starring Chinese actors, using Chinese resources and pushing Chinese products, and in exchange, the movie gets a timely premiere across the country’s 18,000-plus movie screens.

And timely is the operative word here. According to a diligently researched report from Quartz, Transformers: Age of Extinction is one of the few Western blockbusters to arrive in China contemporaneously with its premiere in the U.S. and elsewhere — thereby minimizing the market opportunity typically seized by bootleggers hawking pirated copies and so boosting box-office sales.

Some critics have scoffed at the outcome of the necessary negotiations, though, calling it at best clumsy — one overt product placement features a man in the middle of Texas withdrawing cash from a China Construction Bank ATM — and at worst just plain shameless — as car robots terrorize semiautonomous Hong Kong, one policeman insists on “[calling] the central government for help.” But as China’s box-office market is the largest outside of North America, and expected to usurp the U.S. as the biggest in the world by the end of the decade, Mr. Bay, we can assume, is laughing all the way to the bank.

TIME movies

Transformers Is Making More in China Than in the U.S.

TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, humans, from left: Bingbing Li, Stanley Tucci, Jack Reynor, Nicola
Transformers: Age of Extinction Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

The film made $134.5 million in China in its first five days

Hollywood’s appeal to foreign markets has officially paid off.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is more popular in China than it is in the United States, Variety reports. China Movie Media Group, a partner in the production, said Tuesday the film has made $134.5 million in China during its first five days of release, compared with $121 million in the first five days.

The film brought in $10.5 million in the U.S. on Monday and $10.4 million on Tuesday, so it’s unlikely it will match China’s figures after Wednesday’s grosses are tallied.

But the film isn’t only popular in China compared to its U.S. sales. It also destroyed the record for a China-Hong Kong production in half the time of the previous movie, The Monkey King, which grossed $133 million over 11 days. Transformers: Age of Extinction is even on track to surpass Avatar’s record $217.7 million in China, according to China Move Media Group.

Hollywood movies rarely perform better in foreign countries than they do domestically. It’s especially rare in a protectionist market like China, the No. 2 film market, which often takes great pains to protect local productions.

But in this case the success doesn’t seem so surprising. Paramount Pictures went to great lengths to appeal to a Chinese audience. The company shot parts of the film there, cast Chinese star Li Bingbing in a lead role and partnered with local companies to help promote the film.

This was the first time China Movie Media Group, the country’s largest distributor and film promoter, partnered with a U.S. studio.

Previous Transformers films brought in about $165 million in China.

[Variety]

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