A Few Stories about Art in Hong Kong during 2021
This is a very brief and impressionistic portrait of the state of the art field in Hong Kong around October 2021. Limiting this portrait to two specific cases is the only way to do so, considering how fast the situation is changing. The two main instigators of these changes are of course the COVID-19 pandemic and the application of the new National Security Laws (NSL) passed by Beijing in June 2020. Both have had an impact on the art field, but it is obviously the NSL and how they are enforced that has had the greater influence. We will see that the official application of the NSL is not even necessary to exert control; threatening to use it is just enough.
The proverbial “well-informed sources” have floated the idea that the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC) will soon cease to be. A government-funded institution with many members directly elected by representatives of the art and performance sector, HKADC has provided funding to local artists and institutions through a transparent system of selection since 1995. In the last few months, some of its members were accused directly by a pro-Beijing newspaper of encouraging the public to hate the local government, an offense that could translate into life imprisonment under the NSL. Although no official accusations were made, these public denunciations were enough to encourage some members of the public to address anonymous and direct threats to the elected members of HKADC. Several of them decided to resign to protect themselves. The rumor of HKADC’s disappearance was strengthened by the announcement made in September 2021 by the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, that something like a “ministry of culture” would be established. If such an institution were to see the light of day, the democratic elements that made HKADC’s decision-making so transparent and so open to public initiatives would obviously disappear, to be replaced by state-sanctioned ones alone. Control of funding for all arts initiatives does not necessarily mean the end of the art field, in fact the opening of M+ in October 2021 just confirmed that huge sums of money will be poured in the cultural sector, but it certainly ensures that only certain voices will be heard (the decision of an artist like Kacey Wong, who often treated questions of politics in his art practice, to move to Taiwan during the summer of 2021 was a clear indication of the only choice left for certain artists: leaving).
Justin Wong has been famous in Hong Kong for his political cartoons. Drawn with a very clean line on wide open panels, it lampooned the often grotesque statements made by public and political figures in Hong Kong. His understanding of the local culture also led him to write and draw intelligent analysis of the societal changes taking place in the city. His book I would prefer not to (a famous sentence uttered by the character Bartleby, in Herman Melville’s short story “Bartelby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”) was even published in French in France. In a recent cartoon published in a local newspaper, he made light fun of the Junior Police Corps, an association for children overseen by the Hong Kong Police force, through a statement made by the Secretary for Security about fake news. After the publication of this cartoon, the police issued a letter of complaint to the artist, who had no choice but to make a public apology. Justin Wong, being a professor at the Academy for Visual Arts of the Hong Kong Baptist University, this episode was given particular importance as it looked like the beginning of restrictions on academic freedom. In a context where the author of children’s books where Hong Kong citizens were portrayed as sheep and the police as wolves can be accused of secession under the NSL, any accusation, even informal, by official bodies such as police could have dire consequences, and it is clear that this episode happened as a warning to all other creative individuals, even those working in local universities.
No one was naïve enough to believe that the NSL would not have a direct impact on the art field, and these two episodes are probably the first in a list that is bound to lengthen. Some are still hoping that the red lines created by the NSL would be clarified, since the offenses described in this text are extraordinarily vague, but this is very unlikely to happen. It is their very vagueness that makes them an efficient tool in the hands of power. In a sinister reversal of the 1970s’ artists’ motto, initially formulated to indicate the absolute freedom of art, for the forces using the NSL to control Hong Kong society “anything goes.”