On the night of May 10, 2023, publishers of Ming Pao axed Zunzi’s political cartoons, which they had published daily since 1983. Governance and civil society in Hong Kong are worse off for this move.

Zunzi's comic strip on Ming Pao published on May 11, 2023.
Zunzi’s comic strip on Ming Pao published on May 11, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Ming Pao reacted to government pressure. Our government officials complained that Zunzi’s cartoons ignored and twisted facts, misled and deceived the public, and slandered officials “to incite citizens to vilify the government” or “to arouse public dissatisfaction with the government” or “to incite hatred against the government.” At least six government departments have criticised Zunzi’s creations since October 2022.

Officials also stressed that authorities were willing to accept criticism, but criticism must be “‘based on the truth.” Said Alice Mak: “As a government [we] will humbly accept different opinions, but false statements or things that do not match the facts must be clarified so that the residents can know the truth.”

Let’s step back. First, political cartoons, a form of political satire, use “humour or exaggeration to mock someone or something with the goal of revealing an underlying truth or injustice.” Political cartoons are a mirror on society. Satire critiques the real world; it forces us to critically examine the world with the purpose of improving it. “By its very nature, it rarely offers a constructive view in itself; when it is used as part of protest or dissent, it tends to simply establish the error of matters rather than provide solutions.” This is also true of political cartoons. 

Political cartoons are not designed to present all “the facts” or a balanced account of anything. Facts are always selectively presented, everywhere, by everyone. Secretaries Alice Mak and Chris Tang are concerned that citizens in Hong Kong should know the facts, that is, “the truth.” Just as there are many lenses through which to view current affairs, there are many truths.

I agree that these truths should be based on facts, but ambiguous, non-transparent government policies and processes (e.g., criteria for appointment to the three committees [area, fire, crime] and the revamped District Councils) provide room for interpretation based on various truths. Various truths abound in Hong Kong’s deeply divided politics. They reflect our fragile stability and cannot be wished away or suppressed by cancelling political cartoons as the authorities seem to think. 

Ming Pao
Ming Pao. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Officials say, trust us. We will appoint the right people. But the problem is that most Hongkongers do not trust the government (less than a third are trusting, according to one survey). Low levels of trust and ambiguous, non-transparent criteria provide space for satirists to lampoon the government. Rather than attacking the messenger, why not clarify the criteria, and try rebuilding trust?

Second, our political system is authoritarian, a feature of politics in Hong Kong since ancient times. Authoritarianism presents special challenges for political satire. Communist parties in power have tolerated political cartoons from time to time. According to Freedman (2012), Lenin tolerated “making fun of problems of everyday life, corrupt party officials, [and] the bungling of the lesser bureaucracy…”

In the Hong Kong context, does that not include our Hong Kong government officials? Authorities tolerated neither satire that brought the Soviet system into disrepute nor criticism of the leaders themselves. Surely satirising the criteria for appointing people to the three committees and local District Councils, not even part of the government machinery, does not bring “the system,” our constitutional order, into disrepute. 

Alice Mak
Secretary for Home and Youth Affairs Alice Mak. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

On the mainland the fate of political satire has ebbed and flowed under Mao, Deng and their successors, sometimes driven mostly underground. Cockroach-like, political satire survives in the darkest, most inhospitable places, whispered, but always there in people’s jokes, cynicism, and sometimes derision. 

Third, political cartoons as a form of political satire have been aimed at Hong Kong authorities, allowing citizens to speak to officials. Our officials spend 24/7 preaching to us, and cartoons are one form of reply. They are representative of a truth, worthy of official consideration.

CY Leung has recommended that our cartoonists (are there any left?) turn their pens to lampooning foreigners and other countries (Zunzi has very occasionally done this, too). Then, however, they become nationalist tools of the state, speaking for officials, not to them. This robs citizens of a voice and of an opportunity to better understand government and civil society. Civil society is poorer for their absence. 

Research shows that “exposure to some kinds of satire encourages viewers to express more cynical attitudes towards politicians, the media, and government institutions” that can mobilise political participation. Perhaps that is what our government officials worry about. But a defining characteristic of citizenship is participation. For citizens, however, satire can stimulate feelings of political efficacy or empowerment. That’s not a bad thing, especially in our system that has so quickly and sharply restricted formal public participation via the Legislative Council and District Councils.  

Government must present “the facts” to citizens and has a duty to correct misunderstandings. It should also listen to citizens and satire is one form of communication. The government is eager for our love and respect, but these are earned – not simply wished into existence by cancelling political cartoons.

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John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU's Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.