Self-Censorship a Major Concern for the Art Trade in Hong Kong After New Legislation

While instances of censorship in other arts sectors have been reported, Art Basel said they have never faced issues despite the implementation of new security laws.

The Hong Kong Film Awards Statue stands in the foreground of the Hong Kong skyline. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Artists and critics called for Europe to protect artists and art businesses from China’s intimidation so that they can work normally and freely without having to fear Beijing’s retaliation. They said the country has been tightening its grip especially in Hong Kong, alleging that increasing self-censorship has been occurring following the implementation of new security laws.

The call emerged from a panel discussion held at the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday, March 20, as a part of the exhibition “The Forbidden Art” that opened on Monday. Staged outside the main building of the E.U. Parliament by the Netherlands-based art-activists group Ngo Dei, the show featured protest art by Hong Kong artists in exile and a replica of Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt‘s Pillar of Shame, a sculpture commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown that was seized last year by the local authorities after being exhibited in the city publicly for more than two decades.

The event coincidentally preceded Tuesday’s passing of a new domestic national security law under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, just ahead of Hong Kong Art Week and Art Basel Hong Kong, which opened today.

The image shows an orange statue in a plaza between buildings with many windows. The statue has a plaque with the text "Pillar of Shame: The old cannot kill the young forever." It is located in a town square with pedestrians in the background.

Activists put the Pillar of Shame in front of the E.U. Parliament building on March 20, 2024 in Brussels, Belgium. Photo: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images.

Art historian and critic Eric Wear, who wrote a statement last year on the potential risks of attending Art Basel in Hong Kong, noted that fair organizers may not have to deal with institutional censorships of art because galleries may have already self-censored.

“Galleries in Hong Kong may face direct criticisms from the press, which may be followed up by the police, or by other agencies of the government,” said Wear at the panel discussion. A member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) and formerly the president of the Hong Kong chapter (1999–2001), as well as the former associate head of the School of Design of Hong Kong Polytechnic University (1989–2006), Wear is also listed as a member of the advisory board of Hong Kong-based nonprofit Asia Art Archive as of today.

He added that auction houses are dealing with the issues in a more sophisticated way, but the market that they are dealing with involving Chinese clients has become more complicated.

“Works dealing with the Cultural Revolution or mocking the faces of Mao [Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China] are no longer taken by auction houses in Hong Kong. Previously, there was not a problem at all,” Wear said, citing an anonymous source who wanted to place these works for sale but failed. Chinese contemporary art used to commend high prices in the 2000s during the country’s art market boom.

Wear noted that that some of these works featuring antagonistic views of China are consigned to smaller auction houses in Europe that don’t have connections with Hong Kong. “This suggests that these auction houses’ operations in Europe are influenced by their operations in Hong Kong,” he said.

Muted discussions

The discussion was originally designed as a debate to bring together diverse perspectives from the major auction houses and other key industry figures, yet there were no representatives from any of the houses on the day, leading to a more muted discussion. An invitation from European Parliament member Kira Marie Peter-Hansen to attend the debate at the E.U. Parliament premise, seen by Artnet News, went to Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonhams, and Phillips.

In response to Artnet News’s inquiries, Phillips, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams declined to comment. Christie’s said it “did receive the invite but none of our appropriate executives were available to participate.”

This picture shows a crowded hall way at Art Basel Hong Kong in 2023.

Visitors and collectors attend the Art Basel Hong Kong 2023 show after several years of remote and hybrid events due to Covid-19 restrictions in Hong Kong. Photo: Sebastian Ng/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Organizers also invited Art Basel to attend the debate ahead of the Hong Kong fair. Art Basel did not have a representative attend but instead issued a statement, which was read out in full during the discussion. The statement noted that Art Basel Hong Kong plays an integral role in the art ecosystem in the city and the region since its arrival in 2013. The city has grown into an “unrivaled position as a cultural hub in the heart of Asia” since then and the art fair is committed to the local cultural community.

“At this stage we have no indication that Article 23 will have an impact on the way we operate. We have never faced any censorship issues at our shows, nor have we been asked to do anything differently since the introduction of the National Security Law in 2020,” the statement read. “As with all Art Basel shows, our Selection Committee is responsible for reviewing applications and selects galleries solely based on the quality of their booth proposal.”

Art Basel received HK$15 million ($1.9 million) funding from the Hong Kong government’s Mega Arts and Cultural Events Fund for this year’s Hong Kong fair.

The implementation of Article 23, shelved in 2003 when 500,000 took to the street to protest against the law but passed by a unanimous vote of the local lawmaking body, drew criticisms from the West the past few days.

A debate on Hong Kong art censorship held at EU Parliament, where representatives of auction houses and Art Basel were invited but did not attend.

The debate on Hong Kong art censorship held at the E.U. Parliament in Brussels. Left to right: Samuel Chu, moderator, president of the Campaign for Hong Kong; artist Jens Galschiøt; Nik Williams of Index on Censorship; Loretta Lau, director of Ngo Dei; Lumli Lumlong, exiled Hong Kong artist-painter duo. Auction houses Bonhams, Phillips, Christies, and Sotheby’s, as well as Art Basel were represented by empty chairs as they were invited to the occasion but did not attend. Art Basel’s statement was read out during the panel. Courtesy: Ngo Dei.

The new law criminalizes treason, sabotage, sedition, the theft of state secrets, external interference, and espionage with sentences ranging from several years to life imprisonment. Volker Turk, the United Nations’s high commissioner for human rights, noted that law was worrying and rushed, as concerns about the “incompatibility of many of its provisions with international human rights law” were not thoroughly discussed. The E.U. also said in a statement that the law has cast “potential impact on the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong” and it “also raises questions about Hong Kong’s long-term attractiveness as an international business hub.” Other countries including the U.S., the U.K., Japan, and Australia also joined the chorus of criticisms.

China hit back saying that the law was “legitimate and lawful,” accusing these countries of “slandering and smearing.” The Hong Kong authorities have also been actively rebutting local and international press, accusing them of spreading misleading headlines.

Arts censorship on the rise

Other art sectors have already reported incidents of censorship or self-censorship since the implementation of the National Security Law in 2020. Recently, names of Hong Kong artists and crew members involved in the English version of May 35th—a Hong Kong theater production addressing the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing that will have its global premier in London in May—have changed their names to pseudonyms on the production’s billing for fear of political retaliation for themselves and their families.

Other theater groups in Hong Kong have also been facing censorship and funding cuts. Certain political books have been disappearing from Hong Kong libraries and seizures of books deemed “seditious” have been made. Scrutiny of films has increased as the revised film censorship law included national security elements. Most recently, the title of the 1993 film Beijing Bastards by popular Chinese director Zhang Yuan was censored when it was screened at M+ museum. An image of Ai Weiwei’s Tiananmen Square photograph was also removed from the museum’s website.

While artists engaging in protest art or political works are affected the most, other contemporary artists have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the changing environment. Many artists and cultural workers have left Hong Kong and started building new communities places like the U.K. and Taiwan.

This picture shows a colourful public artwork in Hong Kong, 2024

Kids pose for a photo with art installations during Colorful Public Art Show by French artist Camille Walala at Harbour City on March 20, 2024 in Hong Kong, China. Photo: Li Zhihua/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images.

But living abroad is not trouble-free. Recently, an overseas-based Hong Kong painter had asked a friend to bring a work to the city to be exhibited at Art Central, but the friend refused because the painting depicted the view of Lion Rock, a mountain in Hong Kong that symbolizes the city’s cultural identity and has a rich history of protests.

Political artist duo Lumli Lumlong said at the Brussels panel discussion that they did not feel safe living in the U.K. the past two years. They said they fled Hong Kong after their studio was searched by the police following a report in the pro-Beijing media outlets. But in April 2022, they were harassed by Chinese Communist Party loyalists at an exhibition in the U.K., the duo recounted.

“How can a painting overthrow a government? If a painting can overthrow a government, the government must be fragile,” Lumlong said.

Wear noted that critics in Hong Kong have been silenced and urged critics and scholars to continue to speak up in Europe or other places in Asia in order to maintain transparency and artistic freedoms. Nik Williams of Index on Censorship said at the panel that states need to be more proactive in terms of protecting individuals and institutions’s rights and artistic freedom, rather than letting them make risky and challenging decisions by themselves.

“Process needs to be set up to ensure that Chinese diaspora are protected,” he said.

Local resilience

While artists engaged in political works or protest art have been getting mass media exposure, what has not been widely reported is the resilience of the local art scene despite the political turmoil and changing economic environment.

Hong Kong’s art week has kicked off this week with countless events, local exhibition openings, and parties linked to the Art Basel and Art Central fairs. Gallerists, collectors, and industry players from around the world have descended into the city for the annual gathering. An array of artists who are still living in Hong Kong, established and emerging, are getting star-treatment shows at their homegrown galleries. The past year also saw more new galleries opening, with Christie’s and Sotheby’s also planning to open their own locations later this year.

Meanwhile, museum directors from top international institutions are attending the International Cultural Summit organized by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. China asked the E.U. Parliament to shut down the event twice, which they denied, according to Galschiøt. “And these people are going to Hong Kong talk about developing art there. We are not in the same world,” he added during Wednesday’s panel discussion.

Hong Kong authorities have repeatedly assured that the city will be safer upon the implementation of new National Security Law, which protects the city from being attacked. But on Friday, Australia issued an updated travel advisory, warning its citizens that they may risk breaking the law “without intending to.” Last year, the U.S. issued its own updated travel advisory urging Americans to “exercise increased caution when traveling to the Hong Kong SAR due to the arbitrary enforcement of local laws.” Canada has a similar advisory.

The Hong Kong government condemned Australia and other countries for their “scaremongering and panic-spreading remarks.”

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