Artists fear Hong Kong ‘cultural purge’ is next as Carrie Lam issues ominous warning to new museum

The museum’s collection is set to include works of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei

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Artists in Hong Kong fear a cultural “purge” could be the next step in China’s suppression of the pro-democracy movement, after the city’s leader Carrie Lam warned the curator of the city’s brand new modern art museum against crossing an unspecified “red line” and violating the national security law.

Ms Lam said that her government respects the “freedom of artistic and cultural expression,” but noted that all Hong Kong compatriots are required to safeguard national security, while pointing towards the strict national security legislation passed last year.

Responding to a question about M+ from a pro-Beijing lawmaker, she emphasised that she recognises concerns that the exhibits may cross an unspecified “red line”.

Ms Lam asked officials to be “extra cautious” that exhibitions at the new art museum, M+, scheduled to open later this year are not in breach of the national security law.

Artists fear the discussions about the museum in the context of national security signal a shift in censorship in the former British colony, which was handed back to China in 1997 on the promise that its relative autonomy would be maintained.

Artist Kacey Wong, who is known to favour Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, told CNN that “(Carrie Lam’s) so-called red line is so flexible that it’s open for the government or its agents to use it to prosecute anybody they don’t like.”

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“Hong Kong is going through this cultural politicisation process right now,” he said, adding that it’s proving Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s comment that “everything is art, everything is politics”.

Ms Lam’s remarks come after the director of M+, Suhanya Raffel, expressed confidence that they would be free to show politically sensitive works including those of Ai Weiwei, who now lives in Europe.

In a statement to CNN, the museum said it would “comply with the laws of Hong Kong” while also “maintaining the highest level of professional integrity”.

“(The museum’s) exhibition and collection development is based on research and academic rigour. Like any museum, it is the role of M+ to ensure that our collections and exhibitions are presented in a relevant and appropriate manner to stimulate discussion, research, learning, knowledge and pleasure,” the statement said.

Among the museum’s collection of over 8,000 items are more than 1,500 donated by Swiss collector Uli Sigg, which among other things include several works by Ai Weiwei wherein he holds up a middle finger to Tiananmen Square or images by the Hong Kong-born photographer Liu Heung Shing from the 1989 crackdown.

So far, it has not been revealed which works will be on display in the museum. However, considering the number of strict steps that have been taken to ensure Hong Kong’s loyalty towards China in recent months, the exhibition of such controversial artworks appears increasingly challenging.

Only last week, a local cinema was reportedly forced to cancel the screening of a documentary about the Hong Kong protests. Mainland China has banned live coverage of this year’s Oscars ceremony, meanwhile, after a film about the Hong Kong protests was nominated.

Mr Wong stated these controversies together point to a wider squeeze on artistic expression and said: “All these events are linked together… So it’s not just (about) Uli Sigg’s collection -- it’s almost a purge within the government systems of arts and culture."

A news report by The Diplomat quoted Bona, who is a local artist and scriptwriter, stating that some of her colleagues have already moved to Taiwan, the UK and other countries following the imposition of the national security law.

“Everyone has to choose what they want to do. If you can keep a low profile and wait (for the situation to change), then you should. If you can’t, and you feel hopeless, you should go. We don’t want to see artists going to prison,” Bona said.

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