No Oscars for Hong Kong this year, Beijing said, to close the month of March, also known as Hong Kong Arts Month, with a final cringeworthy moment. This last blow comes after Golden Scene Cinema and the Hong Kong Film Critics Society announced the cancellation of the showing of Inside the Red Brick Wall, a documentary about the 2019 protests. Fear of the national security law rendered it un-showable in Hong Kong, despite tickets for it selling out in record time. Instead, it will be the centerpiece of the Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival. Also in March, papers loyal to Beijing publicly attacked the soon-to-be opened M+ museum for “spreading hatred,” and raised specific objections about work from the Sigg Collection.
“Why will art pieces be displayed that are suspected to have breached the national security law and are an insult to the country?” the lawmaker, Eunice Yung, asked during a question-and-answer session with Carrie Lam, the chief executive.
“I’m sure staff are able to tell what is freedom of artistic expression and whether certain pieces are really meant to incite hatred or to destroy relations between two places and undermine national security,” Lam said, before adding: “We will be on full alert in watching such matters.”
Henry Tang Ying-yen, chief of the West Kowloon Cultural District invited the Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People’s Government to “browse all of our collections online, and if they think any work is illegal, they [can] approach us, and we will cooperate on how to deal with the illegal work.”
Having studied and lived in Hong Kong, I’ve got huge respect for its people and I’ve been around the art world for a long time. I know that when in 2012, Lars Nittve, the museum’s then creative director persuaded Uli Sigg, a Swiss businessman who lived and worked in China for much of his life (part of it running Schindler China, its first joint-venture with a foreign company and then as Switzerland’s ambassador) and amassed arguably the world’s most significant collection of Chinese contemporary art, to offer 1,500 works to M+ as the foundation of its holdings, there was much rejoicing. Many of these works are strongly political. It was a credit to Hong Kong that Mr Sigg, who always wanted the collection to return to China, chose Hong Kong specifically so the work would be shown freely, without censorship.
My question is, how do the next generation of Hong Kong’s leaders feel about this turn of events? The city has garnered a fair amount of praise for its plans for M+. It would complement its status as the region’s largest auction market, the site of Art Basel, and home to many blue chip galleries. These things were thought to make the city attractive to the best-and-brightest. Like a New York or London, but with its own special sauce.
Now, this vision is being called into question. Given the cosmopolitan sophistication of Hong Kong, this is galling for many, and, I suspect, it’s at the very least a little embarrassing, even for the best-positioned (read Beijing loyalists). Of course now with the national security law, it’s hard to get anyone to admit it. Friends have started looking over their shoulder before speaking, and self-censorship is a survival skill. But doesn’t all of this seem rather clunky? Xi Jinping told us what he thinks art should be. But it sounds so outdated and derivative of Mao circa 1942. Do young leaders today seriously believe “literature and art should be subordinate to politics?”
Xi said art works should radiate “positive energy,” or zhengnengliang (正能量), a term that is often associated with “public opinion guidance,” China’s reigning control term. “The most fundamental thing for writers and artists is to create and produce outstanding works worthy of our great nation,” Mr. Xi said, exhorting writers and artists to “guide the people to establish and adhere to correct views of history, the nation, the country and culture.”
It’s really kind of awkward, isn’t it? I hope censorship of the arts doesn’t come up over champagne with international friends in the VIP lounge at Art Basel. They might argue that art is witness. And that art functions as a long term memory of culture and cultural space. It is important to show this vast collection of work from China to as many Chinese people as possible. That is why Sigg donated it to Hong Kong after all. (By the way, Uli Sigg gave 1,450 works to M+ and sold the remaining 50 to the museum for $20 million dollars. That is extremely generous, and far, far less than what he could have realized at auction. If you are curious, check out the documentary, The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg to learn more about him and the artists in his collection.)
Then again, maybe nobody cares. With its free port status, Hong Kong has no excise tax for exporting or importing art. It’s a beautiful transactional city. Dealers can fly in with their private jet filled with art in the morning and buyers can crate it and fly it out on their own private jets that same day. Auction houses, blue chip galleries, and Art Basel may continue to ring the register for Hong Kong. But where does that leave the soul of the city ten years or more down the road?
I’d close by paraphrasing Uli Sigg in an interview he gave in June of 2020. It is a reminder that art builds bridges, and creates understanding. He said, “But I do hope that all sides involved will take a step towards each other because the future of Hong Kong as an arts hub is at stake. People will still have to want to travel to Hong Kong, and the restrictions on that will really inhibit it. The free movement of people, art, and freedom of speech are all very important. That’s what made Hong Kong the place it is now.” That is what I hope, too. Let’s use art to come together, not to push us further apart.
(Jill R. Baker is a business writer and independent financial analyst )
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