In Hong Kong, a classification scheme based on the experience of New Zealand was introduced in 1987 when the COIAO was enacted (Halsbury’s Laws of Hong Kong 2003: 482). This marks the biggest difference between mainland China and Hong Kong in their regulatory practices. The ruling CCP has until now exerted all-embracing control over media content and has steadfastly refused to introduce any classification scheme in mainland China, whether catering to films, videos or online content.

The COIAO has set up an Obscene Articles Tribunal (OAT, or the Tribunal). Any author, printer, manufacturer, publisher, importer, or distributor may voluntarily submit an article to the OAT for classification prior to public release (COIAO, section 13). Articles may be classified into Class I, II, or III (COIAO, section 8). Class I articles are neither obscene nor indecent and may be published without restriction. Class II articles are indecent, and the OAT may impose conditions relating to their publication (COIAO, sections 8 and 27). In most cases, this means the sealing of articles in wrappers and the display of a warning notice stating that these articles must not be shown or sold to persons under the age of 18. Class III are obscene articles, which are prohibited from publication (COIAO, section 26).

Since pre-publication classifications are optional, they do not act as compulsory censorship but provide a relatively convenient means of ascertaining the nature of an article before publication. This classification scheme, already put in place in the pre-Internet era, mainly targets adult publications and videos. In practice, mainstream newspapers and news magazines do not submit their articles for classification, due to the belief in media freedom and to time constraints in the production process. Instead, reporters and editors exercise editorial judgment in assessing whether their publications would contravene the ordinance. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies and the relevant government departments, including the Secretary for Justice, may also submit any articles suspected to have violated the COIAO to the OAT for post-publication classification. Although originally designed for the print media, films and videos, the classification scheme has also been applied to online photos and videos.