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Your risk in attending Art Basel Hong Kong 2024
whitewashing, censorship and business without freedom of expression

Summary

 

In the making of art, freedom of expression is vital. Censorship should be rare, with debated safeguards, and never used to support oppressive governments or erase collective memory. Unfortunately, this is not the present situation in Hong Kong.

 

Hong Kong has changed significantly since June 2020 when the National Security Law was imposed by the central government in Beijing. Press and art censorship have dramatically increased, while the right to public assembly has been effectively suspended. Over 60 civil society organizations – including political parties, trade unions and media groups – have disbanded, and bounties of HK$1 million (US$ 130,000) have been placed on the heads of former elected legislators, trade unionists and democratic activists who have fled abroad.

 

Conditions are worsening. Artists, academics and journalists have lost positions, are behind bars, or have emigrated. Those who remain practice cautious self-censorship within unclear boundaries. Recent statements by Hong Kong officials indicate that far from promoting an open and vibrant society, they view art with suspicion and only wish to construct a culture that conforms to their narratives.

 

Hong Kong’s trade fairs and global events whitewash the current wave of repression, while showing that international business partners are willing to overlook the persecuted.

 

Do you want to be a part of this?

 

 

1. Art and media censorship: Chinese authorities and the Hong Kong government view culture as a tool for promoting their ideologies

 

Censorship in Hong Kong enforces ideological positions and erases events in local and national history. The relevant laws are vague, the uses are unpredictable and the enforcers are many. The processes are hidden from public view and there is no appeal. This creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear.

President XI Jinping holds that art should serve a “nationalistic purpose” by promoting “correct viewpoints of history, nationality, statehood and culture”.  This was echoed In Hong Kong in April 2023 by Secretary for Security Chris TANG when he stressed the need to stay vigilant in the face of “attempts of external forces and their agents in Hong Kong” to bring hatred against the central authorities and the special administrative region government through media, culture and arts, and other means of “soft resistance”. He further stated In August 2023 that “It is a common modus operandi of those seeking to endanger national security to engage in such acts and activities under the pretexts of ‘peaceful advocacy,’ ‘artistic creations’ and so forth.”

The Hong Kong government increasingly requires that publicly funded cultural activities should protect national security by prohibiting the expression of views contrary to those of the authorities. In defending the 2023 purge of hundreds of volumes from public libraries, Chief Executive John LEE —who was formerly head of the police force — stated that the Hong Kong government has a duty to remove books with “bad ideologies”. A new film censorship law in 2021 mandates the removal of images and dialogue deemed to "endorse, support, glorify, encourage and incite activities that might endanger national security."

Last year Art Basel Hong Kong received support from the Hong Kong government’s Mega Arts and Cultural Events Fund. The current funding agreements require recipients to ensure the observance by participants of undefined national security concerns.

Public artworks have been removed. A prominent example is Jens Galschiøt’s ‘Pillar of Shame’ which commemorated the victims of Tiananmen in 1989 and had been on the campus of Hong Kong University for over twenty years. Removed by the university in December 2021, it was seized from storage by police in May 2023 as evidence for a case of subversion of state power. Government-aligned newspapers also reported in August 2023 that Galschiøt himself could be subject to a secret arrest warrant for threatening national security, with transfer of trial to mainland China owing to the severity of the crime. The Hong Kong government will neither confirm nor deny this.

In March 2023 PEN International, the worldwide association of writers, raised the case of imprisoned publisher Jimmy LAI with the United Nations Human Rights Council. And in May 2023 it also issued a statement denouncing the removal of books from Hong Kong’s public libraries.

Media rights group Reporters Without Borders ranked Hong Kong 140th out of 180 in its annual global media freedom index in 2023, down from 73rd before the National Security Law was enacted in 2020. Newspapers increasingly act as government vigilantes, targeting suspicious acts and individuals. A significant part of the public is willing to assist. In the past two years the hotline of the national security police has received 380,000 ‘tips’.

 

2. Artists, curators, and critics in Hong Kong are being silenced through self-censorship

 

The sinologist Perry LINK compares the authority of the Chinese state with “an anaconda in a chandelier”. Everyone knows that the snake is hanging there and that it may drop down any moment to strangle its victim. “Normally, the big snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t need to. It also doesn’t need to be clear about exactly what it forbids. Its continuous silent message is: ‘You make your own decisions’, and then everyone living in its shadow makes large or small adjustments.”

 

Under an atmosphere of intimidation, articles are not written for fear of reprisal, exhibitions are distorted by excluding artists or artworks. Commercial venues refuse leases and pre-emptively remove artworks. Museums withdraw pieces from display on weak claims of rotating collections. Academics and curators are afraid to voice their concerns for fear of losing their positions or funding.

The International Association of Art Critics (AICA)’s Censorship and Freedom of Expression Committee recognised this, supporting letters of concern on free expression in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020. Since that time, limitations and penalties have grown. Members of Hong Kong AICA are now silent, fearing to question acts of censorship or to publish views critical of government policy in the arts.

I was among the founding members of Hong Kong AICA in 1994. I've been informed that sending you these comments may break Hong Kong laws, and possibly lead to my arrest upon entering Hong Kong. To prevent accusations against my Hong Kong colleagues of ‘conspiracy to collusion with external elements’ I haven't shared this content with them prior to distributing it, and I have left the Hong Kong section to join the AICA Open Section.

 

3. Vague red lines, arbitrary enforcement and disproportionate punishments: calls to repeal the National Security Law from the United Nations and the European Parliament

 

The scope of National Security Law is broad and, along with reinstated colonial sedition laws, can be employed to prevent criticism of local and national governments, the Chinese Communist Party, and erase discussion of collective history.

 

The specific statements, images and acts that are illegal is shifting and undefined. People have been arrested for trivial acts, such as carrying a mobile phone with a sticker of a forbidden slogan or owning ‘seditious’ children’s cartoons. Security forces can conduct searches of any premises or devices, demand information, freeze assets, confiscate passports, intercept communications and conduct covert surveillance to investigate anything perceived to be a threat to national security. This can be done without a court order. Bail is often refused to those arrested and punishments range up to life imprisonment. The conviction rate for National Security Law offences is presently 100% through non-jury trials before hand-picked judges.

 

The Hong Kong government no longer protects freedom of expression, which is a fundamental human right, enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which requires signatories, including China, to “undertake to respect the freedom indispensable for […] creative activity.”

 

In November 2022 the United Nations Human Rights Committee (an independent group of legal experts) reached these conclusions regarding the National Security Law and Hong Kong’s treaty obligations: 

The Committee is concerned about the adverse effect of the overly broad interpretation and arbitrary application of the National Security Law and legislation on sedition, and its impact on the exercise of freedom of expression. This includes: (a) the closure of media outlets, in some cases voluntarily for fear of reprisals, raids on their offices and freezing of their assets; (b) the blocking of websites and media accounts and the removal of online content; (c) the arrest and arbitrary detention of journalists, politicians, academics, students and human rights defenders who have expressed dissenting opinions; (d) intimidation, attacks or threat of attacks against journalists; (e) censorship; (f) interference with the editorial independence of public media outlets such as Radio Television Hong Kong; and (g) difficulties in obtaining or renewing visas for foreign journalists, among others.

 

The United Nations Human Rights Committee advised that the National Security Law be suspended. This advice was rejected by the Hong Kong government. In June 2023, the European Parliament called on the Hong Kong authorities to “restore the freedom of speech and the media freedom, in particular by repealing the National Security Law which is in breach of the international law”.  This was also rejected.

4. Alternatives to Art Basel Hong Kong

 

With repression in Hong Kong and intensified authoritarianism in China, wealthy Chinese and Hong Kong people are immigrating, moving financial assets to safe havens, and placing art collections offshore.

 

While taxes and financial regulations are light, the advantages of doing business in Hong Kong are not irreplaceable. Fairs and events in locations like Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan are facilitating interactions between galleries, collectors, and artists whose creations are unfiltered and freely discussed. In-person fairs are also increasingly complemented by virtual platforms, online viewing rooms, and collectors’ use of advisors to tailor their experiences. In the current Hong Kong climate, the potential harm to your reputation from joining a fair is now greater than the benefits.

 

Finally, the Hong Kong government claims the right to prosecute not only those who commit offences within its own territory, but also anybody, in any country — of any nationality — it deems to have broken its National Security Law. In July 2023, Secretary for Security TANG told media that police would try to trace national security suspects’ “contacts, allies and [people] funding them behind the scenes.” And that “anyone who assists, incites or funds those people to endanger national security in Hong Kong and [mainland China] may breach the law.” When a gallerist exhibits artwork that the Hong Kong government deems to contravene its laws, at any venue, they may potentially risk prosecution if they subsequently enter Hong Kong. While such cases have not yet occurred, there may be situations where your safety and that of your employees cannot be guaranteed.

 

Not participating in Art Basel Hong Kong in 2024 may impact your business. However, essential principles are on the line. Do you want to be part of an art environment lacking freedom of expression? Will you stand with conscientious and critical collectors, curators, and artists?

(Dr) Eric WEAR

Member, International Association of Art Critics (AICA)

eowear888@gmail.com

President of AICA Hong Kong, 1999-2001. Associate Head of the School of Design of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (1989-2006) leading curricula design and critical studies. Other activities in Hong Kong: Asian Art Archive, board of directors; Academy of Visual Arts, advisory committee; Arts Development Council, Visual Arts Committee. Collector and critic in Shanghai 2008-2014. Now living between Lisbon, Paris and Bangkok.                                        

 

September 2023       

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