Hong Kong’s Edgy Artists Confront a Bleak Future

National Security law expected to limit freedom of expression

By: Jay Ganglani 

With uncertainty over a possible additional Covid-19 wave and the release to the public of the stark details of the national security law being foisted onto Hong Kong, the territory’s creative professionals are faced with anxiety and foreboding. Throughout the city’s pro-democracy movement, artistic expression has been a staple for protesters to make their voices heard through artwork, posters, and slogans. But all of this may soon change. 

The chief executive officer of an independent social enterprise that nurtures artistic minds and talent told Asia Sentinel on the basis of anonymity that self-censorship is likely to be on the rise because of the national security law, which came into effect on July 1. 

“Since the start of the [anti-extradition bill] protests in 2019, a lot of artists are afraid to freely express their political views in their work due to the current social climate,” the CEO said. The uncertainty over the law, she said, will only add to their woes because it is impossible to tell how a piece of art may be perceived and interpreted by someone else, referring to an abstract piece that was once pulled from an art exhibition last year due to its resemblance to objects used in pro-democracy protests in the city.

The law is regarded universally as the most draconian example of Beijing’s tightening control over the city. It is aimed at preventing and punishing acts deemed by the central government as endangering national security. 

According to the Hong Kong Economic, Trade, and Cultural Office, as of July 2019, the city continues to be one of the world’s largest art auction markets with top-tier galleries such as Gagosian, a global network of specializing in modern and contemporary art popular among visitors. The city also hosts the annual Art Basel, an exhibition featuring some of the best local and international artistic prowess on display. However, the event was canceled this year because of Covid-19. 

Meanwhile, Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong., a popular YouTube channel with over 45,000 subscribers, is an independent, grassroots, crowdfunded platform that posts videos, which are critical of the Central People’s government’s handling of Hong Kong and its autonomy. It continues to post critical videos in the wake of the law’s implementation.

Over the past 22 years, since the handover of the city from UK control, the website said, “we have witnessed China's erosion of our fundamental freedoms, human rights and rule of law. China's conduct has been in breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration — a legally binding treaty — which also forms the basis of the 1992 US Hong Kong Policy Act. Shocked and heartbroken at the recent events in Hong Kong and the local government’s intransigence, we organized public fundraisers to call on the international community to stand with Hongkongers in our fight for freedom.”

Recently, YouTube’s owner, Google, was among the first of a number of major technology firms to announce that they would be suspending the processing of user data requests from Hong Kong’s law-enforcement agencies due to the law. The move by these large corporations is seen by many as a rare but important move to safeguard user data in the region against Beijing’s wishes. 

A spokesperson for a pro-democracy YouTube channel told Asia Sentinel that they intend to continue making videos regarding the city’s political environment and that the law would not deter them from continuing to do so. 

“The national security law is very ambiguous and it puts everyone in serious fear for arbitrary arrests and detention, a spokesman said in an email response. “The law has suppressed all forms of expression. Art is inseparable from society, and with the national security law, artists may find less space to create work that allows them to freely express their thoughts.”

As of July 8, the channel had posted 17 videos, occasionally with prominent pro-democracy activists including popular Cantopop singer and actor, Denise Ho. It also hopes to reach a wider audience through its videos to help attract international awareness surrounding Hong Kong’s darkening future. 

However, artists in Hong Kong’s film industry remain cautiously optimistic about their freedoms following the implementation of the national security law. 

China, the world’s second-largest film market behind only the United States, is an important one for local Hong Kong films. Cold War II, for instance, one of the city’s most successful films, was a smash hit in the Middle Kingdom and grossed over US$100 million in the region. 

While the city’s film industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus, it is also largely considered one of the most influential in Asia and filmmakers have a strong voice in the city, something that is not found in the Chinese mainland. However, questions remain if this would continue to be the case. 

A casting director and stunt choreographer both told Asia Sentinel anonymously over fears of losing their jobs that the law is unlikely to adversely affect their work in the film industry, but could impact directors, producers and actors in terms of the stories that they end up telling for the big screen.  

“I don’t see the law impacting us. However, it may limit what kinds of stories we see. For instance, we probably won’t see a film displaying Hong Kong’s independence anytime soon because of the newly introduced national [security] law,” they both said. 

Jay Ganglani is a Hong Kong-based undergraduate student and an Asia Sentinel intern.

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