HONG KONG – With its multi-billion dollar award and well-known artists, M +, the emerging museum on Victoria Harbor, was meant to epitomize Hong Kong’s ambitions to become a global cultural hub. It was supposed to be the city’s first world-class art museum, proof that Hong Kong can be both rich in culture and finance.
Instead, it could become a symbol of how the Chinese Communist Party is silencing the Hong Kong art world.
In the past few days, the museum, which is due to open later this year, has been heavily attacked by the city’s pro-Beijing politicians. State newspapers have denounced the museum’s collection, which exhibits important works of contemporary Chinese art, including some by dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Hong Kong’s chief executive has promised to be on “full alert” after lawmakers labeled some works as “an insult to the country.”
The arts sector, by and large, has seen a blizzard of attacks. A government funding agency said last week that it had the power to end grants for artists who advocated the “overthrow” of the authorities. An editorial in a pro-Beijing newspaper accused six art groups of “anti-government” activities.
The artistic spirit of Hong Kong, whose permissive, irreverent demeanor distinguishes it from the metropolises of mainland China, is in danger. Such creative forces have brought cultural vibrancy to a city that has long been shaped by capitalism.
They also irritated Beijing, which is quickly redefining the freedoms that made Hong Kong unique. Since a security law was passed last June to quell anti-government protests, the authorities have arrested opposition politicians and revised elections. They have also pulled books off the shelves of the library and redesigned school curricula.
“Now they’re looking at the arts scene,” said May Fung, filmmaker and founder of Arts and Culture Outreach, a nonprofit. “It’s only natural.”
Fears of censorship have shadowed the Hong Kong art world since the former British colony came under Chinese control again in 1997. A deluge of works of art wrestled whether Hong Kong’s identity could survive communist rule.
An artist projected a Chinese flag on the ground for viewers to walk on. Another used Tibetan script to express fears that Hong Kong might be controlled in a similar way.
Independence concerns deterred M + from its conception more than a decade ago. The museum acquired a number of high-profile works, including a picture of Mr. Ai raising his middle finger in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and photographs of Liu Heung Shing from the 1989 demonstrations for democracy. Officials immediately warned the museum to move away keep out of politics.
In the past ten years, however, the Hong Kong art world has also been optimistic. The government had increased financial support. Art Basel, the international art fair, holds an annual exhibition in Hong Kong.
Aside from high-end auction houses and museums, grass roots and avant-garde art also flourished. Independent galleries and workshops increased. Protest art flourished. In 2014, protesters turned tents that occupied the central business district into canvases. In 2019, they dragged a 13-foot statue of a woman in a gas mask for marches.
Mr Ai said he supported the museum’s acquisition of his works in 2012 by Uli Sigg, a renowned collector, citing Hong Kong’s ambition to become a world-class city of art and the reputation of the M + team.
“I was very positive back then,” said Ai, who left China in 2015. “I felt that I would be very happy if my work could be shown where there were a lot of Chinese people.”
“I thought all of these aspects could ensure that works can be displayed normally,” he added. “I never thought things would happen so suddenly.”
That sudden change was the Security Act. Protest posters disappeared overnight. Booksellers, filmmakers and curators waited in fear.
Then the pro-Beijing camp rushed to the ground with a full barrage this month. On March 15, the Hong Kong Film Critics Society canceled sold-out screenings of a documentary film about the 2019 protests after a pro-Beijing newspaper urged them to be banned. Two days later, another newspaper accused six arts organizations of violating the security law and asked the government to withdraw their funding.
On the same day, an establishment lawmaker accused sections of the M + rally of “hatred” against China. She later selected Mr. Ai’s Tiananmen photo.
“Why are works of art on display that are suspected of violating national security law and that are an insult to the country?” Lawmaker Eunice Yung said during a question-and-answer session with Carrie Lam, the executive director.
The criticism has expanded beyond politics to a kind of moral policing. Some have denounced M + holdings that depict nudity or homosexuality.
“The government should now set up a committee to go through all of these works of art,” Ms. Yung said in an interview to ensure that they adhere to the museum’s “ethical standards”.
In a statement, M + said it would comply with the law while “maintaining the highest level of professional integrity”. It added that the museum will not be able to display all of its collections during its opening and “has no plan” to display Mr. Ai’s Tiananmen photo.
For artists, their long-standing fears have hardened into a more tangible threat.
Even before the Security Act, filmmaker Evans Chan knew that some thought his work was too provocative. In 2016, a Hong Kong venue canceled the showing of a documentary it made about 2014 Protests citing a desire to remain “impartial”. He finished a sequel last year just to cut a scene for the Hong Kong audience that featured China’s national anthem. A new law prohibited disregard for the song.
Still, Mr. Chan said, the security law is a “turning point”. He had planned to make a third film about Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy. But he’s not sure if he could find people to attend or places to show it off – not just in Hong Kong but also overseas, in places with ties to China.
“We come to a point where we wonder what kind of space global capitalism still has.” he said. “Where does China fit in? Where does the artistic expression from and across Hong Kong fit in? “
Others have asked artists to experiment with the remaining space. Clara Cheung, who runs an art education room, said she had promoted projects like murals or a map of Hong Kong’s historic buildings. Although not explicitly political, they could encourage openness and civic engagement.
Still, she admitted that any project required money.
“It is possible that artists, especially those who genuinely criticize society and the political system, may not be able to obtain sufficient resources,” Ms. Cheung said. “You have to go underground.”
Hong Kong already has a vibrant independent arts scene. As Beijing’s influence increased, some artists have stopped seeking government funding or official recognition.
Sampson Wong has focused on small, privately funded projects in recent years after officials shut down his temporary light display in Hong Kong’s tallest building in 2016. It was a countdown to 2047, the year China promised semi-autonomy, and Hong Kong will expire.
“I’m confident we’ve already explored the trails,” said Wong.
Still, he hoped the world would not be completely separated from the more institutional, more popular art sphere.
In this area, authorities may be harder to get around.
Mr Ai said M + staff recently called him to reiterate their commitment to their principles and he was moved by their integrity.
But “with things like that, bottom-up resistance is useless,” he added. “If it is decided from above that such works cannot be exhibited, they cannot do anything.”
Joy Dong contributed to the research.