Hong Kong’s arts community fears the new national security law imposed by Beijing will threaten the city’s status as an arts hub in Asia, as it could cause a clampdown on freedom of expression. Anxieties were already high in the business sector this week due to a declaration from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on 27 May that Hong Kong was no longer autonomous from China, and did not warrant its special status, which gives the city trading privileges with the US not enjoyed by the rest of the country. Tensions worsened today, when US President Donald Trump announced that his administration will begin the process to revoke Hong Kong's preferential treatment as a separate customs and travel territory, which will affect export controls, technology, and extradition, among other concerns.
"China has replaced its promised formula of one country, two systems with one country, one system," Trump said. "China claims it is protecting national security but the truth is Hong Kong was secure and prosperous as a free society. Beijing's decision [to impose the national security law] reverses all of that." The US will also be revising its travel advisory to Hong Kong, Trump added, and sanctions will be imposed on China and any Hong Kong officials who are directly or indirectly involved in "smothering Hong Kong's freedom".
Arts and cultural workers voiced their concerns at a press conference on Thursday, 28 May—the day when the National People’s Congress approved plans for draconian new law for Hong Kong that prohibits acts and activities of secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference, bypassing the city’s own legislature. The press conference came after a joint statement signed by over 1,500 arts and cultural organisations and workers, including many well-known names such as curators Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero as well as artists Leung Chi-wo, Pak Sheung-chuen, Lee Kit, Samson Young and Tsang Kin-wah.
“[The] national security law will put arts and cultural workers at risk of violating prohibitions and create a climate of fear and self-censorship that harms artistic expression, free speech, cultural exchange and even personal security,” the statement reads. “The consequent damage to the image of Hong Kong as a cultural metropolis and to the economy will be incalculable.”
Chris Chan Kam-shing, an artist and chairman of the visual arts group in the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, points out that contemporary art often deals with political issues or can be critical of authority, and he fears exhibitions and events such as Art Basel might not be able to take place the same way as before. “If Beijing and Shanghai had [the special status] we have, Art Basel would’ve taken place in one of those cities instead of Hong Kong,” Chan says. “The imposition of this law is against the development of a civil society.”
The artist Chow Chun-fai, who also signed the statement, has recently shown paintings of Hong Kong protests at his solo show Portraits from Behind at Gallery Exit. He says he is worried about the future of his hometown but it will not make him censor his own work.
It is also uncertain whether the law, which is still being drafted and is expected to be completed in the next few months, could be imposed retrospectively on previous actions. “If what I said or did in the past will get me into trouble, how I draw the new red line will not matter anymore,” Chow says. “The greater the suppression, the stronger people’s reaction.”
Concerns about how the law will affect the city’s cultural institutions have also been raised, in particularly M+, the visual culture museum set to open in West Kowloon Cultural District. M+ has a major collection of Chinese contemporary art including works by the dissident artist Ai Weiwei and photographs of the Tiananmen Square crackdown by Liu Heung Shing.
“A city can only be a global arts hub if it offers a welcoming environment for art that reflects a wide range of perspectives and views,” the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority said in response to our inquiries. “We are confident that in everything [the museums] do they will maintain the highest level of professional integrity.” The authority added that M+’s “curatorial autonomy and independence are safeguarded by a clear structure of governance and the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority Ordinance”.
Some art dealers have been concerned about Hong Kong retaining its status as the biggest art market in Asia. Reuters has reported that the financial sector worried the new law might lead to the flight of capital and talent.
Art Basel said it was closely monitoring the situation, but it was too early to speculate the implications of the establishment of the national security law and the current US view on Hong Kong’s special status may mean for business operating in the city.”
“We are, of course, extremely mindful of the situation in Hong Kong. We have made Hong Kong our home since 2013, with many members of our team based there, and we firmly believe that despite the current situation, long-term Hong Kong is the best location for our show. The team is working very hard on preparations for a solid show in 2021,” a spokesman for Art Basel says.
“Freedom of speech is one of Hong Kong’s core values,” he adds. “There have not been any censorship issues in our previous Hong Kong shows, and we are currently not expecting this situation to change.”