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Hong Kong artists under attack: "Freedom of expression is eroding"

November 20, 2021
topic:Freedom of Expression
tags:#Hong Kong, #art, #Ai Wei Wei, #censorship
by:Sasha Kong
Stacking a dozen umbrellas into a vehicle for the upcoming art performance in Hong Kong was enough to throw the artist V and her colleagues into panic amidst invisible red lines that risk haunting them. 

“It’s true that many people hold umbrellas on the street. But who knows when yours can get you into trouble?” the Hong Kong artist told FairPlanet. 

After the Umbrella Movement in 2014 in which young people in Hong Kong protested for three consecutive months for democracy and universal suffrage, umbrellas have been seen as a symbol of defiance - one many in the city are cautious about after the national security law implemented last year.  

The national security law criminalises any acts Beijing considers successive, subversive, terrorist and colluding with foreign forces. It was seen as Beijing’s intervention in the supposedly autonomous city resulted from the anti-government protests that started in 2019. 

The first person convicted under the law, a 24-year-old driver, was sentenced to nine years in jail for showcasing a flag with a protest slogan on his motorcycle that eventually crashed into a group of police officers. 

As protests waned, the fear of the government’s heavy-handed crackdown on opposition voices has expanded into the art scene in Hong Kong. The debate became heated after the recent grand opening of the city’s government-funded art gallery, M+. The gallery promised to showcase anti-Chinese-government artist Ai Wei Wei’s artwork, but has put two of his pieces “under review” since March this year. 

In the same month, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam said officials will be “on full alert” to make sure that museum exhibitions will not undermine national security, according to public broadcaster RTHK

As critics are concerned with a potential clampdown on artworks that Beijing considers anti-government, artists in the city have been watching over their shoulders. 

"After the national security law took effect, certainly the space for creativity has become more limited," V said. "At first we still wanted to test the water and see where the boundary lies, but then we realised it’s nearly impossible to know what it might be […] that can be whatever they [the authorities] think it is." 

“[The law’s] impact is growing […] we can see how heavy a price you have to pay for speaking up, or expressing [opposition views],"  V added. "We are trying to soften some ways of expression [...] there’s certainly self-censorship."

V said that artists now have to consider how any expression that might touch on the government’s red lines can potentially put their colleagues and the venue of the art shows in danger. 

"You have to start thinking about your responsibility for the audience who will be watching, and the venue staff. It’s definitely discouraging sometimes when the other parties don’t want to take the risks, and you have to adjust your art."

High-profile pro-democracy singer Denise Ho had to call off her in-person concert in September, as the government-sponsored venue cancelled her booking, citing "relevant contractual provisions, social conditions and the related laws."

Ho’s music presence has been largely effaced in mainland China after she became an outspoken figure at the 2014 Umbrella Movement for her support of democracy. 

Just a month before that, another singer, Anthony Wong, was also arrested for singing songs at a political election campaign for a pro-democracy candidate in 2018. 

In October, Hong Kong’s oldest university ordered the removal of a sculpture, Pillar of Shame, which features and commemorates the killed activists in the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre that saw Chinese soldiers shoot and run their tanks on thousands of students fighting for democracy in Beijing. 

The university said in a statement that it made the request "based on the latest risk assessment and legal advice."

In November, a new film censorship law to "safeguard national security" went into effect, which critics fear will further limit artists’ space of creativity in the city. Offenders are subject to a maximum three years of imprisonment and HK$1 million in fines. 

The new law came after the Cannes Film Festival screened the documentary Revolution of Our Times about the 2019 protests in July under wraps. 

Asked about how the future of Hong Kong’s art scene holds, V said it remains murky. 

"A lot of artists feel powerless and depressed right now […] No one can say for sure how the future will be. The freedom of expression is eroding. Maybe it’s possible to be more creative in underground art, but it will take time and courage for anyone to do such a thing, and so far I haven’t seen any. But I hope in the future we can come together and do that."

Image by wikimedia commons.

Article written by:
Sasha Kong
Embed from Getty Images
A pro-democracy protester holds an umbrella during a rally ahead of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam's annual policy speech outside of Central Government Complex on 16 October, 2019 in Hong Kong, China.
© Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
Denise Ho, singer and pro-democracy activist, pauses while speaking during the Stand with Hong Kong, Power To The People Rally at Chater Garden in Hong Kong, China.
© Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
The "Pillar of Shame" statue is seen through a puddle at the Hong Kong University campus in Hong Kong, China.
© Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
M+ gallery promised to showcase anti-Chinese-government artist Ai Wei Wei’s artwork, but has put two of his pieces “under review” since March this year.
M+ gallery promised to showcase anti-Chinese-government artist Ai Wei Wei’s artwork, but has put two of his pieces “under review” since March this year.
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