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December 12, 2017
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A netizen's tribute to the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Source: facebook.com/KeyboardFrontline

Since late 2011, the Hong Kong Chief Executive election (held on March 25), was entrenched in scandal surrounding two of its candidates, Henry Tang and C.Y. Leung.

Tang, who was initially embroiled in controversy last October, when details of an extramarital affair were made public, was again caught out in February. Several Chinese and international newspapers reported that Tang's Kowloon Tong home was donning a lavish, but illegal, 2,000 square foot extension in the form of an "underground palace" basement. Although he apologised for the contravention, it wasn't without claiming that it was wholly his wife's idea.

Almost immediately, dozens of edited images began to appear on Facebook newsfeeds and online forums. Many of the images featured photoshopped film posters, with actors' heads mockingly replaced by Tang's. The movie poster for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was transformed into "Kowloon Basement and the Chamber of Secrets," and in another, Tang was transformed into Bruce Wayne, with a Batcave all of his own.

Their message was "second creation is creation," and that derivative and parody works are just as important as the works from which they came.

Likewise, Leung's background was also parodied when he was rumoured to be an underground member of the Communist party - which would make it illegal for him to stand for Chief Executive. The claims surfaced regarding Leung's appointment as Secretary General of the Basic Law Consultative Committee at the age of 34, a position many felt was unattainable for someone so young unless he had been a loyal party supporter. Despite his fervent denial, he was swiftly portrayed in photoshopped images as a dictatorial ruler - such as Hitler and Mao Zedong. A plague of unwanted publicity continues even today, after his election win.  

Unlike political comics in newspapers that are typically drawn by professional artists, most of the images of Tang and Leung were created by avid internet users known as "netizens." As Hong Kongers become more aware of political issues, a growing number of these satirical images are appearing as netizens move beyond the keyboard and onto the use of photoshop.

Long before the photoshopping of Leung and Tang, similar images reflecting Hong Kongers' social frustrations had been created. Topics such as unaffordable housing, inflation and Chinese domestic issues were regularly touched upon. But topical political issues remain at the forefront of the netizen agenda.

The death of a pro-democracy activist Li Wangyang was the most recent example of netizen-created political statements. Li's death has not only raised domestic and international awareness of China's human rights abuses, but has also inspired many images memorialising him. The images are symbolic: they encourage people to take action; to protest and demand freedom of speech and justice against the violence towards pro-democracy social activists.

Li's death was just two days after the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which netizens also documented with photoshop. One image from an unnamed graphic designer was of little chicks - symbolising Hong Kong netizens - standing in front of tanks, with a caption noting that netizens are not afraid of power and can actually do something to contribute. Through the image, the graphic designer encourages people to participate in the candlelight vigil to remember the victims of Tiananmen Square.

Henry Tang Harry Potter
 Kowloon Basement and the Chamber of Secrets

Netizens are not only using graphic design and derivative works to become more expressive of their political views, but also stepping outside the boundaries of the worldwide web to physically engage in social movements. Founded by a group of netizens in 2011, Keyboard Frontline is a social group that opposes an amendment to the Copyright Bill by the Hong Kong government. The amendment would consider all derivative works, such as netizen parodies, as copyright-infringed works. Keyboard Frontline believes that the ordinance may spread "white terror," or literary inquisitions, and would lead to netizens becoming criminally liable for creating or sharing derivative imagery, thereby constraining creativity and limiting freedom of speech. 

What's more, netizens are also taking the streets. On April 22, a street demonstration was held in Mong Kok aimed at countering the statements made by the Director of Intellectual Property, Peter Cheung, who called for netizens to be more creative; to make original works instead of appropriating the works of others. His example: Shrek - an animated film which famously parodies other fairytales. In response, netizens demonstrated using behavioural art, wearing a Shrek mask while lying down on a surgery table. Their message was "second creation is creation," and that derivative and parody works are just as important as the works from which they came.

Not only did the creators of the derivative works voice their objections to the proposed bill amendment, but so did some of the copyright owners themselves. Chet Lam, a local singer who writes his own songs and also creates derivative songs from other works, commented on the benefit of derivative works when he talked to New Monday magazine: "Society needs it. It is because all of us need an 'exit' to voice out our opinion. Life is stressful and these derivative works, especially in Hong Kong, can make us laugh."

Lam welcomes everyone to create derivative works from his creations and share them for non-commercial purposes: "White terror is always more chilling than power pressuring. Laws protect our lives but only a sense of humour makes us live happier."

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