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Asia Insight

Hong Kong's security law sends chill through arts community

Political pressure undermines city's position as regional culture hub

MICHELLE CHAN and DEAN NAPOLITANO, Nikkei staff writers | Hong Kong

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong's national security law had just taken effect last June when the city's film censors examined "Inside the Red Brick Wall" -- a documentary about the siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University during the 2019 protests.

The officials gave the film a green light, though it could only be shown to audiences aged 18 and above. A disclaimer was added at the authorities' request, emphasizing that some of the acts documented "may constitute criminal offenses under prevailing laws."

The film debuted at the Hong Kong Arts Centre last November, and it was selected as the best picture of 2020 by the influential Hong Kong Film Critics Society. Yet, last month, all public screenings were called off after pro-Beijing newspapers slammed the documentary for "spreading messages of police-hating, anti-society and subversion" -- an offense under the new security law.

"The film did not glorify nor vilify the protesters. It is simply a truthful and artful presentation of what actually happened in PolyU," said Vincent Chui, founder and artistic director of Ying E Chi, the distributor of the movie. "If it had crossed the so-called 'red line,' why would the censorship board approve it in the first place?"

The fate of "Inside the Red Brick Wall" epitomizes the reality of the arts and culture industry in Hong Kong. Even the authorities do not know where the lines are drawn. The survival of films and other works of art now depends on whether they catch the attention of pro-Beijing media.

"Any film can be made," said a person familiar with the local movie industry, "but who knows if it can be distributed," adding that cinemas will refuse to screen anything that they consider potentially problematic.

A scene from "Inside the Red Brick Wall," a documentary about the 2019 Hong Kong protests: All public screenings in the city were called off after the film was accused of "spreading messages of police-hating, anti-society and subversion" -- an offense under the new security law. (Courtesy of Ying E Chi)

Even Hollywood's annual Academy Awards have been pulled into the fray. Local media reported last month that TVB Pearl, the English-language station of TVB New Media Group that has aired the Oscars for more than five decades, will not broadcast this year's ceremony on April 25, saying the decision was for "commercial" reasons.

Many speculate the real reason is the political sensitivity of some of this year's nominees. Beijing-born director Chloe Zhao, whose film "Nomadland" is up for best picture, has been scrutinized over a past interview in which she was quoted as saying her homeland was "a place where there are lies everywhere."

A short documentary about the Hong Kong protests, titled "Do Not Split," is also nominated.

The mainland routinely bans the Oscars or censors parts of the ceremony that it objects to, such as winners' condemnations of human rights in China. But this is the first time for Hong Kong viewers to be cut off.

"People build up their values through arts and culture ... it has always been a central feature of all societies," said John Batten, the president of the International Association of Art Critics Hong Kong. "So, for authoritarian government, the control of ideas through arts and culture is very important."

In light of the diminishing freedoms of expression, some young Hong Kong filmmakers and artists are leaving the city, according to industry insiders.

Kurt Chan Yuk-keung, the acting director of Hong Kong Art School, said a friend will relocate to a Western country after an exhibition he organized -- where artworks with political implications were showcased -- became pro-Beijing newspapers' latest target of attack.

Chan declined to name his friend due to the sensitivity of the matter.

"These kinds of attacks are happening more and more frequently," said Chan, who has devoted the past 30 years to art education in Hong Kong. He said political interference has severely hampered the development of the local arts scene, which began to make "some good progress" in the past decade with the rise of promising young talent and cultural infrastructure.

When creating art, "We will have to consider factors that we have never considered before," Chan said. "It is in artists' genes to have independent thinking ... We won't be only drawing flowers. What about things that are more in-depth? The artworks that give people reflection will be greatly reduced."

To be sure, Hong Kong remains one of Asia's most important art hubs and few in the arts community have suggested pulling up stakes, but there clearly is concern over the national security law and its potential impact on creative expression.

People walk in front of the M+ visual culture museum, in Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District, in March.   © Reuters

Galleries and exhibition venues are also fretting about the repercussions of hosting sensitive events. An exhibition featuring the annual World Press Photo winners -- which include pictures of the 2019 pro-democracy protests -- eventually took place in a co-working space after Hong Kong Baptist University pulled out over "safety and security" concerns.

People close to the organizing committee told Nikkei Asia that they were turned away by several other venues before securing a place. "Even though the exhibition itself has no political stance, everyone just wants to prevent troubles," one individual said.

Recently, attention has turned to Swiss businessman Uli Sigg's collection of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's work -- often critical of mainland authorities and the Chinese Communist Party -- following a public objection from pro-Beijing Hong Kong lawmaker Eunice Yung. She claimed that "Study of Perspective: Tian'anmen (1997)," a famous photograph of Ai raising a middle finger at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, would "spread hatred against China" and thus run afoul of the security law.

Sigg donated the majority of his collection to the much-anticipated M+ museum, which opens later this year and is set to become the highest-profile contemporary art museum in the Asia-Pacific region. An M+ spokesperson confirmed that the museum has "no plan" to show the dissident artist's controversial work at its opening exhibition, adding that it will "continue to comply with the laws of Hong Kong [while] maintaining the highest level of integrity."

In a statement that Sigg wrote to M+ on March 23, later leaked to Hong Kong Citizen News, he said that contemporary art requires viewers to "be open to the realities of this world and to have an interest in its analysis and critique."

"Contemporary art may be critical of reality, may even put a finger in the wound," he wrote. "Contemporary art is not your good friend... If you don't work on this openness, you will not appreciate contemporary art."

A person involved in Hong Kong's art ecosystem sees a missed opportunity "for a city that wants to be known for its culture and not just its commerce."

"M+ will be among the top three museums in the world that focus on modern and contemporary art, together with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tate Modern in London, in terms of size and scope and breadth of the collection," he said, adding that its collection of contemporary Asian art will be unrivaled.

"That is what should be talked about, not just Ai Weiwei," whose artwork represents only a small portion of the nearly 8,000 pieces in the museum's permanent collection.

From his home in Lisbon, Ai told Nikkei in an interview in February that it was impossible to separate art and politics. "Any artwork, if it's relevant, is political, or otherwise is just some kind of decoration, or for money-making," he said. "Any art that is meaningful always talks about the human struggle."

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends the opening ceremony of the Art Basel fair in 2018.   © Reuters

Many arts practitioners echo Ai's view. "All good art that stands the test of time has a political element," said a prominent figure in Hong Kong's arts community.

"Over the past year, there's been a fear factor and ups and downs, but I'm not that worried when it comes to arts and culture," said this person, who like several people interviewed for this article requested anonymity due to the topic's sensitive nature. "Hong Kong is still a global city. We are not a banana republic. We are operating on that principle."

"I fear self-censorship more than censorship," this person said. With official censorship "things are black and white," but "self-censorship is a slippery slope."

People in the arts industry are already expecting self-censorship to affect upcoming events, including Art Basel in May. "I believe many exhibitors will have censorship on the theme of artworks, as buyers may run into troubles after purchasing them," said Hong Kong Art School's Chan.

"If Hong Kong's atmosphere becomes just like the mainland's, why would art collectors even come to Hong Kong?"

For Chui, the film producer, the best way to protest against censorship is to forge ahead with business as usual. "I will continue to produce good work and maintain our professionalism, just like how we have been working in the past decades," he said.

"What we need to fear is fear itself."

Additional reporting by Stella Wong.

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