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Hong Kong’s Contemporary Cultural Scene—public protests and beyond—The Brooklyn Rail

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For the best part of the last decade, Hong Kong has been a major focus for the international news media because of continuing public protests there against the authority of Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed legislature and, more recently, the imposition by China’s central government of the so-called National Security Law (NSL) aimed at suppressing political dissent in the region.

As a colony and dependent territory of the British crown from 1842 to 1997, Hong Kong established itself as a leading hub for international trade and finance as well as a haven for economic migrants and refugees from Mainland China and South East Asia. It was also a site of serial resistances to colonialist authority, including the Canton-Hong Kong Strike of 1925-26 and Maoist-led riots in 1967. During the 1990s, a form of qualified representative democracy was instituted in Hong Kong under the ultimate authority of the region’s colonial governor with the intention that this should continue after the territory’s handover from British colonial rule to the People’s Republic of China in 1997.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration underpinning Hong Kong’s handover guarantees a degree of political autonomy for the region until 2047. This is commensurate with the constitutional principle of “one country, two systems” adopted by Beijing in the run-up to Hong Kong becoming part of the PRC. Various attempted enactments of and proposed changes to Hong Kong’s laws since 1997 have eroded faith in that principle. Among them is the attempted implementation of Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law in 2003 calling for the local enactment of legislation prohibiting “treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government” which provoked a massive and successful public demonstration on July 1 of the same year. They also include proposed reforms to Hong Kong’s electoral system allowing pre-screening and selection of candidates in favor of Beijing which sparked the Occupy Central and Umbrella protest movements of 2014.

In addition to mass public gatherings, occupations and conflicts with local police, the 2014 Hong Kong protests saw the making of public artworks and staging of performances, incorporating some umbrellas as symbolic objects—umbrellas having become internationally recognized signifiers of protest in Hong Kong through their use as protection against tear gas and water cannon.

Further protests in 2019 were initiated by a mass public demonstration on June 12 against the Hong Kong administration’s stated intention to pass a legal amendment allowing extradition of indicted individuals to mainland China known as the Anti-extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement. The 2019 protests were largely characterized by mass public demonstrations as well as often highly violent street battles running between black-shirted pro-democracy/independence protesters, white-shirted supporters of Beijing and the Hong Kong police. The situated use of artworks and performances was less pronounced than in 2014.

In early 2020 direct conflicts with police began to subside with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and tightening government restrictions on public gatherings. On April 17, 2020, Beijing issued a statement asserting that Hong Kong’s autonomous status was assured both by the Hong Kong Basic Law and the PRC’s central government. Civil rights campaigners in Hong Kong responded angrily to this statement as one signaling a perfunctory collapsing of the “one country, two systems” principle. In March 2021, the National People’s Congress of the PRC voted almost unanimously in support of a resolution requiring that those standing for election to Hong Kong’s legislative council only be made up of “patriots” supportive of Beijing. This resolution was adopted by Hong Kong’s legislature in May 2021. During the past two years, numerous supporters of democracy and self-determination in Hong Kong have been arrested and imprisoned. Others have fielded the region.

Crucial to the enfolding of recent events in Hong Kong is the drawing of a border between the region and mainland China as a marker of the limits of British colonialist/imperialist rule. Britain’s acquisition of Hong Kong island “in perpetuity” after the ending of the First Opium War with imperial China in 1842, Kowloon after the ending of the Second Opium War in 1860 and the neighboring New Territories on a 99-year lease from China in 1898 , established a fundamental geopolitical division over which present-day conflicts between mainland China and Hong Kong’s citizens have been joined. Strongly informing Beijing’s exercising of political control over Hong Kong is a desire to re-unify a “Greater China” divided by the combined violence of Western colonialism/imperialism and civil conflict—including a protracted war between the communist People’s Liberation Army and the republican forces of the governing Kuomintang stretching from 1927 until the founding of the PRC in 1949, as well as the subsequent stand-off between mainland China and Taiwan.

Media coverage of protests resistant to government authority in Hong Kong is of undeniable importance, not only in representing localized ideological differences and desires for self-determination but also a wider geopolitical contestation between liberal democratic and authoritarian systems significantly sharpened by a tilting of economic, military , and political power away from the West as an outcome of globalization. The narrowness of that coverage has, however, served to obscure the complexity and diversity of cultural conditions in Hong Kong, as well as their connections to and differences from those in mainland China.

Hong Kong’s identity is made distinctive in part because of its relationship to traditional Guangdong (Cantonese) culture within an ethnically and culturally diverse China. Moreover, Hong Kong supports a localized modern/contemporary arts scene whose assertively liberal outlook contrasts with that of the mainland PRC. It is also important to remember that the Western media’s often starkly dialectical approach to recent circumstances in Hong Kong—liberal dissidents versus a monolithically authoritarian China—is reflective of Euro-American intellectual traditions whose rationalizing tendencies contrast with less starkly drawn conceptions of difference in Asian contexts.

This Critics Page aims to intervene with the media’s myopic treatment of Hong Kong by presenting articles reflecting different aspects of and attitudes toward the current cultural scene in the region. Although varied, the articles presented here are by no means comprehensive in their coverage. Nevertheless it is hoped that they will stimulate a closer look at cultural expression and identity in Hong Kong alongside a necessary attention to continuing political dissent.

Wen Yau’s “An Open Letter to Hong Kong” asks whether to stay or go under current circumstances in the region.

Phoebe Wong’s “Fragments of the Untimeliness in the New Hong Kong” reflects on feelings of dislocation emerging in Hong Kong during continuing COVID-19 isolation and in the wake of the 2014 and 2019 protests.

Frank Vigneron’s “A Few Stories about Art in Hong Kong in 2021,” portrays the art world of Hong Kong during 2021 under the dual impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the National Security Law.

Enid Tsui’s “Does Art Point the Way in a Polarized Hong Kong?” situates the long-awaited opening of Hong Kong’s M+ museum in the context of COVID-19 and the ideological conflicts that continue to divide the region.

Finally, Zheng Bo’s “On Drawing Life,” discusses the direction of his artistic thinking and practice during the COVID-19 lockdown, involving a turning toward nature as a source of meditative calm.

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