Freedom of Expression Too Precious to Throw Away

A giant stainless steel sculpture of Lenin’s head with a miniscule feminine Mao balancing acrobatically on top of it has been in public exhibition right in the city centre of Richmond since December. The creators of the brazen piece of artwork, Zhen and Qiang Gao, brothers from Beijing, have certainly chosen the right place for displaying it.

Despite complaints and protests from various quarters, including, not surprisingly, the Chinese Consulate, the organizers of the Vancouver Biennale Public Art Celebration have not bowed to demands to remove the artwork. As the spokesperson put it: “We live in a country where, knock on wood, public art can go beyond the pretty. And it’s not dictated by our politicians. A lot of people get that and embrace that. This is what public art is about.”

According to the sculpture’s artists, the piece depicts how Mao tried to copy the Russian communist revolution sparked by Lenin. Many people have expressed disgust with the artwork, saying that it glorifies two ruthless leaders. Others object to it for political reasons. Still others are repulsed by it because of traumatic personal experiences involving human catastrophes that happened under the reign of those two. There are just as many who are in the art world who fully support the work. Ever since the sculpture was installed, letters just kept raining on the desk of the editors of the two local newspapers.

People have every right to express their regret, displeasure, disgust or whatever negative sentiments they may have over the installation. Others also have an equal right to express support for the piece. Likewise, the Gao brothers have just the same right to freely express themselves in art. In a free society, there will always be more than one single opinion. In a free society, it is accepted that everyone should have an equal right to express his/her opinion without fearing retaliation or persecution.

Mayor Malcolm Brodie said in a letter to the editor of Richmond News: “Public art is meant to provoke discussion – making us stop, think and reflect on the experience. This particular sculpture presents a provocative and unconventional depiction of Mao and Lenin. This piece may remind us that because we have freedom of expression in Canada, we need not fear censorship.”

I am not usually a big fan of the mayor, but on this issue, I am one hundred percent in agreement with him. This is a Canadian value that I find truly wonderful and precious.

By the same token, one cannot but be angry about the recent saga where pro-establishment legislators in Hong Kong, through fiddling with LegCo meeting procedures (by walking out en masse so that the number of attendees is reduced to below the required quorum), deliberately obstructed the five resigning pan-democratic legislators from explaining their position regarding their “by-elections-cum-referendum” plan and caused the LegCo meeting to be abandoned. The pro-establishment camp clearly showed that they don’t have a modicum of respect for others’ right of freedom of expression through such blatant censorship. Neither did they show any respect for LegCo meeting procedures, as the Chairman had already given permission to the resigning legislators to give individual speeches. Their abusive use of meeting procedures is a plain statement that they have little respect for the spirit of the rule of law.

The excuse given by DAB leader Tam Yiu-chung afterwards in a press conference is even more hilarious: that the purpose of their action is to prevent the resigning legislators from using the meeting to promote their referendum plan. One wonders what it is that prevents the pro-establishment camp from opposing that plan through proper channels, i.e. through open debate in the meeting. Isn’t that what LegCo meetings are all about – serving as a platform for legislators to express their stance and viewpoints on issues that concern the public interest, for all to see and hear? Or could it be that the pro-establishment camp couldn’t trust Hong Kong citizens to judge for themselves which camp’s arguments are more reasonable and sound? Have they run out of tactics besides smearing their opponents and using obloquies (such as making a big fuss over a word like “uprising”) to misguide the public?

The Gao brothers were unlucky enough to have to display their satirical artwork outside of their own country, because in their own country they sadly do not enjoy freedom of expression. Under a “one country, two systems” principle, Hong Kong’s traditional core value of freedom of expression could theoretically remain intact. But the more and more overbearing and abusive actions of her pro-Beijing legislators will do nothing but gradually chip away at that core value. Hong Kongers keep silent about this at their own peril.

Alice Poon is an author and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. She is based in Vancouver, Canada.