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As Hong Kong Sleepwalks Towards Authoritarianism, Artists Fight for its Political Awakening

With censorship, abductions, banned journalists and threats towards artists, the erosion of freedoms has deepened

In January last year, the CIA released more than twelve million pages of declassified documents online. Amidst the more eye-catching material on UFOs, invisible ink, and the psychic powers of celebrity spoon-bender, Uri Geller, were hundreds of files relating to Hong Kong. They revealed how concerned the Agency was about the territory’s future under Chinese rule. The great unknown, concluded one report from the 1980s, was how much local autonomy Beijing would grant Hong Kong after the British returned it to China in 1997, ‘or even whether its efforts will make much difference given Hong Kong residents’ distrust of Chinese sincerity.’

Under the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement, ratified in 1984 by the Thatcher government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Hong Kong can exercise a ‘high degree of autonomy’ over its executive, legislative, and judicial affairs until 2047. But few Hongkongers trusted the Chinese government to adhere to this timeframe, fearing that local rights, freedoms, and cultural traditions would disappear as the territory became just another spiritless megacity on the Pearl River Delta. These phobias intensified after the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen uprising in June 1989. When people in Hong Kong held rallies denouncing the massacre, the banners they waved read: ‘Today China, Tomorrow Hong Kong!’

Anxieties about Chinese rule were conveyed by the flurry of history and political science books published in the lead-up to the handover in 1997, such as City on the Rocks (1989), The Fall of Hong Kong (1994), and Red Flag over Hong Kong (1996). Local cinema, too, channelled the collective unease into alarming visions of the future. Mak Tai-wai’s The Wicked City (1992) envisaged Hong Kong as a dystopian battleground, where humans (Hongkongers) fought half-human ‘Rapters’ (Chinese communists) who control mankind with a happiness drug. In 1994, the director Wong Kar-wai confronted the prospect of Hong Kong’s political and cultural decline in Chungking Express, with one of the film’s characters forlornly accepting that, ‘everything comes with an expiry date.’

Wong Kar-wai, Chungking Express, 1994, film still. Courtesy: Miramax

Wong Kar-wai, Chungking Express, 1994, film still. Courtesy: Miramax

Wong Kar-wai, Chungking Express, 1994, film still. Courtesy: Miramax

Yet the handover in 1997 occurred without incident. China celebrated the end of what it called ‘a century of humiliation,’ while British plenipotentiaries sailed off on the Royal Yacht Britannia to begin what the poet Blake Morrison once called a ‘post-imperial sleepwalk.’ Hong Kong remained a consumerist wonderland, a neon-flushed city of free speech and the rule of law, where bankers and management consultants lived on supercharged diets of capitalism and cocaine. The travel writer, Pico Iyer, once described it as ‘a dream of Manhattan, arising from the South China Sea.’ And like New York, Hong Kong represented something unbearably alien and un-Chinese to the apparatchiks in Beijing, who, for the most part, left it alone.

But speaking with local artists and political activists today, there is a palpable sense that the old anxieties are re-asserting themselves. Since the Umbrella Movement in 2014, which blossomed out of protests originally dubbed ‘Occupy Central With Love and Peace’, when hundreds of thousands of people occupied the city’s financial district to demand ‘real universal suffrage,’ (the head of the government is elected by a committee of largely pro-Beijing representatives) the territory has witnessed the erosion of its freedoms and legal protections. Democracy activists and politicians have been hounded, and in some cases locked up, on dubious, retroactive, charges of subversion. Booksellers peddling studies critical of the CCP have been abducted and imprisoned on the mainland, and self-censorship has increased. One prominent activist-professor, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, told me that the territory is ‘sliding towards authoritarianism.’

More signs of Hong Kong’s eroding political freedoms came last month, when Victor Mallet, the Asia News Editor for the Financial Times, was effectively thrown out of the city after hosting a speech by a pro-independence activist at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Mallet’s work visa was revoked by authorities. Hong Kong immigration officials later barred him from returning to the city as a visitor – an unprecedented move against a foreign journalist.

Tear gas fired during the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; photograph: Studio Incendo

Tear gas fired during the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; photograph: Studio Incendo

Tear gas fired during the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; photograph: Studio Incendo

Earlier this month, the Chinese-Australian dissident artist Badiucao, whose cartoons and installations satirize Chinese leaders, draw attention to the brutalities of Communist rule, and poke fun at tech giants like Facebook and Google who are desperate to get access to China, cancelled his first solo exhibition in Hong Kong after apparently receiving ‘threats’ from mainland Chinese authorities. Members of the Russian punk protest group Pussy Riot, who were due to appear alongside Badiucao at the event, said the censure of political art was ‘common practice’ in Russia, and encouraged Hongkongers to show ‘solidarity’ with artistic expression. Later that night, they held an impromptu demonstration outside Tai Kwun, a former police station turned arts and heritage centre. The South China Morning Post reported that only seven people showed up. In a phone interview with Hong Kong Free Press, Badiucao stated grimly: ‘I think we are witnessing the dying of Hong Kong.’

A week later, the Tai Kwun arts centre abruptly cancelled its plans to host events with the exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian, as part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. Ma, who lives in London, recently published China Dream (Penguin, 2018), a novel which its publisher describes as ‘a biting satire of totalitarianism that reveals what happens to a nation when it is blinded by materialism and governed by violence and lies.’ Ma has been barred from entering mainland China since 2011, but has been a regular visitor to Hong Kong (he has permanent resident status here). Now, though, he fears that Hong Kong is no longer the sanctuary for dissidents it once was, telling The New York Times that the era when artists and writers ‘could hide from China and find true freedom of thought […] is slowly disappearing.’ The Tai Kwun centre later backtracked on its original decision to cancel, and reinstated the event. But on Twitter, Ma still lamented the fact that Hong Kong publishers are too afraid to bring out a local translation of China Dream – ‘the first time that’s happened to one of my books.’

As China intervenes in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs, strengthening its grip on the cultural, economic, and political life of the city, themes of entropy and loss, of transformation and death, are once more influencing its most creative minds. For the filmmakers Andrew Choi and Ng Ka-Leung, fears of ‘mainlandization’ that existed prior to 1997 are far more urgent and justified today than they were 20 years ago. ‘Back then,’ Choi said, ‘even though Hong Kong was returned to a communist nation, people still had some hope for ‘one country, two systems.’ But now people are losing that hope, there is more control, and things are tightening up.’

Promotional poster for Badiucao’s Hong Kong exhibition, 2018. Courtesy: Twitter

Promotional poster for Badiucao’s Hong Kong exhibition, 2018. Courtesy: Twitter

Poster for Badiucao’s Hong Kong exhibition, 2018. Courtesy: Twitter

Choi and Ng produced Ten Years in 2015, a dark foretelling of what Hong Kong might look like if China were to annex it more formally. Composed of five short films, it won Best Picture at the 2016 Hong Kong Film Awards, but was pulled from local cinemas and banned on the mainland. Shot in pallets of grey and washed-out ivory that evoke the dreariness of Soviet utilitarianism, there are scenes of children being indoctrinated to spy on adults, of ‘youth guards’ patrolling the streets, and of Chinese officials plotting an assassination to facilitate the establishment of a draconian security law. ‘What’s a terrorist attack without bleeding?’ one of the characters asks, ‘we need to trigger mass panic.’ Choi told me the film reflects an aesthetic decision on the part of young Hong Kong directors to move away from pure entertainment – comedies, crime thrillers, and Kung Fu action – and towards confronting Beijing’s creeping authoritarianism.

As it was in the 1990s, the theme of disappearance runs like a dark skein through the works of Hong Kong filmmakers and novelists. Yet the 2014 pro-democracy protests gave impetus to a new generation of artists who believe their work can offer some resistance to Beijing. This is certainly true of the Add Oil Team, which was founded in the early days of the 2014 protests by Jason Lam and Sampson Wong. Their initial idea was not so much to make art about social issues, but to creatively ‘amplify’ audience participation in protest movements. ‘There is a very conservative protest culture in Hong Kong,’ Wong explained to me recently, ‘and in the case of Occupy, a lot of people were initially wary about participating in any civil disobedience.’ So, Add Oil Team helped to create a low threshold of participation by taking people’s messages of support for the core group of protesters, and projected them on a large LED billboard outside the government headquarters. It enabled the more cautious dissenters to at least be heard if not seen.

This aim of drawing people into a political movement, of transforming humble acts of participation and amplifying them into larger symbols of dissent, represents an aesthetic tradition that the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze defined in the mid-20th century: ‘Art is not a notion but a motion. It’s not important what art is but what it does.’ People usually think of political art as representations of political events. But Wong said he is more inspired by this Deleuzian approach, of performative works such as those of Petr Pavlensky or Pussy Riot in Russia, or of Erdem Gündüz (aka the ‘Standing Man’) in Turkey, who stood motionless for six hours in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in 2013 after police forcibly removed anti-government protesters. Wong also praised the ‘scream at the sky’ events held on the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s election, when thousands gathered in cities across the US for a communal shriek of despair at the political establishment.  

Jason Lam and Sampson Wong, Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now/ Countdown Machine, 2016. Courtesy the artists; photograph: Jason Lam

Jason Lam and Sampson Wong, Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now/ Countdown Machine, 2016. Courtesy the artists; photograph: Jason Lam

Jason Lam and Sampson Wong, Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now/ Countdown Machine, 2016. Courtesy the artists; photograph: Jason Lam

As in Russia and Turkey, where the space for legitimate protest is narrowing, and the consequences for dissent are severe, democracy activists in Hong Kong are having to think creatively about how they can promote their cause for universal suffrage and greater social equality. Wong thinks arts and crafts, including architecture, interior design, and carpentry, will begin to have a greater bearing on how activists engage with the public. Activists and artists are beginning to focus on social work and local neighbourhood initiatives, where groups like Fixing HK, for example, offer free DIY services for those in need, which come with a helping of political agitation on the side. The idea is that a workman fixes a broken socket, hangs some shelves, screws a door in place, or mends a faulty computer, while students or social workers chat politics with the customer. ‘We volunteer to fix their homes, but we also want to fix their hearts,’ Max Leung, the group’s spokesperson has said.

The aim is to connect peoples’s daily hardships to their overall political powerlessness, a form of constructive activism (quite literally) that embeds a vision of a freer, more fraternal political order into the methods of public engagement. Wong is less interested, he said, in ‘how politics infuses art but how art infuses politics,’ and points to the artists of the Paris Commune of 1871, such as Gustave Courbet and Eugène Pottier, who proposed that human flourishing depended on ‘public beauty’ – a society in which art was fully integrated into everyday life and not concealed behind the doors of private salons (as Kristin Ross shows in her excellent 2015 book, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, it was for this reason that the English designer William Morris was greatly influenced by the Commune.) Wong lamented the fact that people often ask him why there is no official gallery or exhibition in Hong Kong displaying contemporary protest art, ‘because you’ll find it in the neighbourhoods instead!’

Wong refused to speculate about Hong Kong’s political future. He suggested, darkly, that if the years leading up to the handover in 1997 were freighted with anxieties about Hong Kong’s disappearance, then the post-Occupy era has been permeated by a sense of failure to stand up successfully to Beijing’s authoritarianism. But he struck a defiant note, nevertheless, about the determination of artists to help trigger a political awakening in people through their community work, even as China become more assertive. ‘Art has a strong role to play in empowering the people. We artists will stay here in Hong Kong to fight the beautiful fight.’

Main image: Author Ma Jian arrives at Hong Kong International Airport, 2018. Courtesy: Getty Images/AFP; photograph: Anthony Wallace

Gavin Jacobson is a writer based in Hong Kong. His writing on politics and intellectual history has been published in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, and elsewhere.

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