In May of this year, a legislation plan imposing new security laws from mainland China was passed in Hong Kong. The legislation was put in place by China’s National People’s Congress, bypassing Hong Kong’s own Legislative Council to introduce a new set of rules which promise to tighten security, censorship, and freedom of speech in Hong Kong.
Using the claim that Hong Kong didn’t have a stable long-term security law, China stepped in to ensure that Hong Kong would have an acceptable legal framework to cope with any challenges to the government’s authority. The new security laws criminalise:
- Secession (breaking away from the country)
- Subversion (undermining the authority of the central government)
- Terrorism (using violence or intimidation against the public)
- Collusion with foreign or external sources (secret or illegal cooperation deemed deceptive or harmful to the state)
Beijing is set to establish a new security office in Hong Kong that will hold its own law enforcement personnel- both bodies will be autonomous from local authority and have greater jurisdiction in Hong Kong. A cause of anxiety with this situation is that this new security office will have the authority to send some cases to be tried in mainland China, echoing the Extradition Bill which caused massive unrest in Hong Kong in 2019. Additionally, Beijing will have the overriding power to decide how the law should be interpreted in Hong Kong, rather than any Hong Kong judicial or policy body. In other words, Beijing’s laws will take precedence from now on.
Now, why is this causing such a stir here in the UK?
Hong Kong became a British colony in the nineteenth century following the First Opium War, and wasn’t transferred back to Chinese territory until 1997. However, a condition of the handover back to China was that Hong Kong was to operate under a Basic Law of “one country, two systems” for the next fifty years. The Basic Law was intended to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy from mainland China, as well as its rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The new security laws, therefore, are seen to undermine the conditions of the Basic Law.
With the promise of greater censorship, Hong Kong’s freedom of speech will be largely compromised. As it becomes more and more difficult to express political opinion or protest, it should be asked how Hong Kong’s art scene will be affected. As a key player in the Extradition Protests and now campaigns against the new Security Law, the voice of Hong Kong’s artistic community- and therefore that of the public- is at risk of being silenced. This leads to the question: what will be the future of art in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong’s Art in the Past Year
It’s safe to say that Hong Kong’s politics have played a big role in the production of art in recent years. One of the biggest- and messiest- events to encourage a huge artistic response was the proposed Extradition Bill in 2019, with protests starting back in March of that year and continuing to today. Artworks built from collaboration between artists and the public helped to define a visual movement which reflected the anxieties, outrage, and fears of a large portion of Hong Kong’s residents. The artworks produced up to now highlight how various groups have responded to the political climate, becoming a strong voice in the debate over Hong Kong’s future.
Many of these artists were outlined in an article by South China Morning Post, which highlighted the acts of connection and solidarity between artists and the public during the protests. In particular, Kay Wong stood out for a series of black and white sketches she created as a means of protest against the Extradition Bill. Not only did the artist post her sketches on social media to convey her disagreement with the bill, she also later printed her sketches onto postcards and handed them out on the streets of Hong Kong during the larger protests last summer. Additionally, Wong made her postcard designs free to download and print. Dispersed both on the streets of the city and internationally via social media, Wong’s postcards fulfilled the function of educating the wider world of what was happening from the viewpoint of Hong Kong’s people
Similar to Wong, Perry Dino also uses his art to document the experiences of the people in Hong Kong during times of unrest. Taking to the streets of the city, Dino seeks to document through painting the social movements which have shaped Hong Kong’s recent history. By drawing and painting mass rallies, Dino keeps a record of what is happening from the viewpoint of Hong Kong civilians and protesters- those often on the front line of the movement.
As indicated by Reuters, Dino has faced many challenges to his practice. Usually setting up to paint on the streets, the artist has been given warnings by the police to move along and paint elsewhere. Images of his work have also been blocked from reaching mainland China, where they often employ censors which seek to erase and block any depiction of the protests from mainstream media.
With the new Security Laws in place, artists such as Dino and Wong will likely be forced to censor their work or face having them destroyed- and as documents of a critical point in Hong Kong’s history, these artworks become even more valuable in their need to be preserved.
Although the identities of some Hong Kong artists are known, many continue to protest through anonymous demonstrations. An example of this is Lennon Walls, which have been used by the people of Hong Kong since 2014 as a means of safe public expression. Covering every available surface of a public space with sticky notes holding hand-written complaints and protests, Lennon Walls are temporary and fast-paced installation artworks. Lennon Walls are also very delicate, meaning that they are often easily and quickly taken down, destroyed, and painted over by both the police and anti-protesters. As a result, Lennon Walls tend to thrive on their short-lived presence and their ability to be relocated and rebuilt very quickly.
As a public spectacle, Lennon Walls are a clear example of the new Security Law’s description of subversion and secession. Consequently, some places known to frequently display Lennon Walls have begun to remove the handwritten notes, replacing them instead with blank memos. As well as this, public spaces like restaurants and cafés have been forced to remove pro-democracy posters and artworks, as they are seen as highly sensitive content.
Nevertheless, the blank sticky notes are viewed as an understated means of conveying the messages of protesters. Some view this development as protesters evolving their tactics of visual attack- rather than rely on written words which directly call for action, the image of the sticky notes themselves act as a visual reminder of these ideas. As mentioned, Lennon Walls have been used to express discontent in Hong Kong for several years, and so the visual memory of the colourful sticky notes- regardless of whether they show written pleas- still retain this sentiment.
However, whilst the tenacity of the public is apparent, these events also illustrate how the inability to act directly has already begun to shape the ways in which visual media is being used to express the discontent of Hong Kong’s people. As censorship continues to make itself more apparent, artists and the public have been forced to find new avenues to convey the meanings of their protests.
Since the introduction of the Security Law, many artists have found themselves working amongst a global community to better convey the events of the past year in Hong Kong. An online project documenting the one-year anniversary of the anti-government extradition protests (which have since blended into protests over the new law) called Silence is Compliance looks to the international art community for support. The project is largely run by Hong Kong artists who currently live abroad, seeking to raise awareness in the international art community of the new Security Law and how it has and will impact the people of Hong Kong.
Launched in early June, the website delivers live-stream performances and an online art gallery of artworks by Hong Kong artists and creatives. The results of the project are meant to produce a visual essay documenting the city’s protests against the extradition bill and highlight the quickly changing political climate. Using three viewpoints- artist, researcher, and local people- the project provides a space in which artists, researchers, writers, and the general public can show they stand with Hong Kong against the new security laws imposed from mainland China.
Silence is Compliance is led by Young Blood Initiative in collaboration with We Are HKers and Zine Coop. Candy Choi, the founder of Young Blood Initiative, made it clear in an interview with the Art Newspaper that she is aware that due to her affiliation with the project she will likely not be able to return to Hong Kong in the future. Going back could jeopardise the safety of those involved, and Choi’s acknowledgement of this only further solidifies the prospect of real danger that freedom of speech could have on Hong Kong’s creative community.
Historical Examples of Excessive Censorship in the Arts
Censorship is not a foreign concept by any means. Governments and leaderships all over the world throughout history have imposed restrictions on what people can say and create for many years; it is by no means limited to China.
The means of exerting censorship, however, differ from place to place. The way in which governments have launched campaigns against certain types of art vary, from erasure and removal to making a public example of what should not be done.
The latter of these methods was used by the Nazis during the early twentieth century, where Adolf Hitler’s government took the opportunity of using public exhibitions to illustrate the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable art. The two exhibitions, held in separate buildings at the same time in 1936, were named the Great Exhibition of German Art and the Degenerate Art Exhibition. The former was meant to highlight artworks which presented an acceptable reflection of the Aryan ideal, perpetuating classical traditions and motifs through sculptures, portraits, and landscapes depicting heroic and athletic figures. This type of art was a key visual aid for Hitler’s government, as art which was considered suitable for the Nazi regime had the dual purpose of acting as propaganda. In hindsight, however, this outline for what constituted as acceptable became vague; a point which was further proved over the years as Hitler added more modernist artworks to public collections.
Nevertheless, many of the artworks coveted by the Nazi regime were defined by what was NOT acceptable. Those considered unacceptable or degenerate were often non-representational forms of art like expressionism. The Degenerate Art Exhibition, therefore, used the opportunity to gather all these artworks in one space to convey a category of art which should not be treated as high art. The exhibition environment vastly differed from the Great Exhibition, with paintings taken out of frames and attached to walls covered in defamatory slogans. Additionally, the exhibition was made an over-eighteen show, and viewers were encouraged to behave rudely- it is indicated people who visited were seen shouting and laughing at the artworks. By removing the context of an academic institution or gallery, and eradicating the original meanings of the artworks, the Nazis conveyed a narrative which encouraged visitors to dislike and ridicule what was on show. As this exhibition was the last glimpse of these artworks before many of them disappeared from public view, it delivered a clear message that products such as these were not meant to be treated with the same level of respect as those in the Great Exhibition.
The two exhibitions set out a clear decision- one or the other- and the Nazis conveyed the idea that true Germans would be able to see the differences and identify which artworks were the better selection.
In contrast, Soviet Russia operated on the premise of eradicating all dissenting forms of art. Following the 1917 Revolution which placed Lenin as leader of the new Soviet state, artists were put to the service of the dictatorship of the proletariat- meaning they were to make art which abolished all concepts of class elitism and promoted the new vision of the government. Whilst initially attracting the interests of the Russian Avant Garde (who worked in the likes of impressionism, cubism, and other abstract forms), the government eventually enforced a focus on Socialist Realism.
Socialist Realism became the officially approved art form of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, bringing an end to post-revolutionary art and defining a period in which a lot of the art produced heroized the new Russian leader, Joseph Stalin, and his government. Artworks continued to glorify communist values and idealise working life, conveying a narrative which highlighted the achievements of the communist regime. With all material goods now seen as belonging to the wider community, art production was considered a very valuable asset in terms of propaganda and state promotion. However, this meant that the content of artwork was limited by the need to project a positive and secular image of the Soviet Union, with the likes of erotic, religious, abstract, surrealist, and expressionist art being strictly forbidden.
This tight hold on personal artistic expression was made all the more apparent during the Great Terror, a campaign of purges in the late 1930s which saw Stalin repress and even eliminate those suspected to be saboteurs or dissidents- from government officials and ethnic minorities, to athletes and artists. Additionally, artists like Alexander Rodchenko were forced to remove these figures from public images and photographs, eliminating them from history and presenting an ‘unblemished’ image of the state.
This wasn’t the last time freedom of speech was inhibited either. In 1974, an unofficial art exhibition in a field near Moscow was forcefully broken up by a large-scale police force. The show and its artworks were completely destroyed by water cannons and bulldozers, giving the event its namesake: The Bulldozer Exhibition.
Whilst such cases of censorship have somewhat relaxed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, its history still provides examples of the kinds of censorship which have been enforced by governments in the past.
Whether public humiliation or complete eradication, censorship of the arts has always been looked back upon with fear and disapproval. The inability to allow the voice of the people to be heard undermines the trust a government should have in its people. Repression leads to frustration, which will eventually explode in the faces of those who caused it.
But what does this mean for the Future of Hong Kong’s Artists?
Whilst the precise method by which China will censor Hong Kong’s citizens and institutions still remains uncertain, the imposition of the Security Law is a clear sign that Hong Kong will no longer have the level of autonomy it had in the past. People will likely experience a more prominent lack of freedom when making, producing, buying, and selling artworks, as restrictions will be more greatly placed on expression. Ultimately, artists will need to be more careful in what they say and do.
It should be remembered that many protesters and artists who were already in trouble with the law in China sought asylum in Hong Kong. After the imposition of these new laws, many will be forced once again to relocate or face the authorities. As with the creators of Silence is Compliance, those who speak out are beginning to accept a future where they cannot return home.
The experiences of artists in mainland China could provide further ideas of how those in Hong Kong will be affected in the future. Ai Weiwei, a prominent artist and activist, has experienced a rocky relationship with the Chinese government for several years. As the son of a prominent poet, Ai spent the majority of his early life in exile until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Ai’s interactions with the Chinese government further soured in 2011, after he was arrested for suspected tax evasion. He was detained for eighty-one days and his passport was confiscated, making Ai unable to leave China for several years.
Despite leaving China in 2015, Ai kept studios there which housed his projects. In 2018, however, Chinese authorities were reported to have demolished his Beijing studio without any warning to Ai or his assistants. Videos on Ai’s Instagram show bulldozers tearing down the studio as people watch on, destroying some of the work that was left inside. This wasn’t the first time one of Ai’s studios had been destroyed either; in 2011, his studio in Shanghai was also taken down without warning.
Another example of censorship in China was the case of the photojournalist Li Zhensheng, who photographed China during the height of the Maoist regime. As a newspaper photographer and posing under the title of a Red News Soldier, Li was able to amass over 20,000 negatives depicting China which he hid under the floorboards of his flat. Despite being accused of counter-revolutionary activities and sentenced to two years of hard labour in 1968, the negatives were never found. The photographs were eventually published in the 1980s, but they weren’t printed with Chinese text until 2018- and even then, this was in Hong Kong, not mainland China.
With this in mind, it can be expected that Hong Kong will also face attempts to erase artworks which call into question mainland authority, imposing a rewritten version of history whilst repressing artistic expression. China is known for often trying to sweep the darker events in their history under the proverbial rug, just look at their narrative concerning Coronavirus.
Is it right to think Hong Kong could be on the path to following in mainland’s China’s footsteps? Do you think the new Security Law will have a drastic impact on the future of Hong Kong’s creative community? Let us know in the comments below.