“I’m so scared but I don’t have much to lose,” said 28-year-old artist Wong Ka Ying, who was among hundreds of thousands of protestors who took to the streets in Hong Kong on Monday. “I am more afraid of the extradition law than ruining my career by speaking out. It’s a crucial time to show the world what’s happening.”
A member of the 400-strong Hong Kong Artists Union, Wong has been protesting peacefully almost daily for a month.She is among an estimated 2 million people—more than a quarter of Hong Kong’s population of 7.5 million—who have participated in historic demonstrations condemning a proposed law that would allow extraditions to mainland China. If the law is passed, alleged criminals could be spirited across the border and risk arbitrary detention and unfair trial under China’s opaque legal system. Despite the temporary suspension of the bill, tensions flared again in Hong Kong on Monday, the anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule, as protestors demanded the law be scrapped.
“This law will affect our daily life: What you post on social media, what you say to your friends. It’s not only about being an artist. It’s about basic human rights,” said Wong, who was protesting alongside art dealers, critics, and curators. She estimated more than 150 artists had joined her on the streets in recent weeks, including young art students who braved police violence, tear gas, and risks of arrest. “They were afraid that even if they just stand there, the police would catch them,” Wong said. She added that the union paired the students with more established artists who led sketching workshops outside the city government headquarters.
“After the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, we thought making art wasn’t useful, but we won’t say that again,” said mixed-media artist Tang Kwok-hin, who played the drums while marching with other artists on Monday. “We’ve picked up our role. If this law is approved, then Hong Kong and China will be just the same.”
Unlike China, Hong Kong has long enjoyed freedom of speech, with artists encountering relatively little censorship aside from regulations on nudity and indecency. “With this extradition law, however, the firewall protecting our freedom of expression is effectively removed and everybody falls into self-censorship,” said Henry Au-Yeung, the founder and director of Grotto Fine Art, a gallery in the Central neighborhood that focuses on showing Hong Kong artists. “One would worry if their art will be deemed politically charged or in violation of mainland laws.”
International gallerists are also voicing concern. Amanda Hon, the managing director of Ben Brown Fine Arts, said Hong Kong’s art scene has a sword of Damocles hanging over its head because the city’s government has only suspended the bill. “Hong Kong is a ticking time bomb,” she said, noting that collectors’ confidence in the city has been wavering. “Since 1997, the mainland has been putting a lot of pressure on Hong Kong to conform to its standards, which, slowly but surely, it will.”
Hon joined the peaceful protests on Monday alongside William Shung, senior business director at Pearl Lam Galleries, despite both getting caught in tear gas during a major march on June 12th. Ben Brown was among the first international galleries in the city’s longtime gallery hub, the Pedder Building, to announce it would close its doors that day in response to the union’s call for galleries and cultural organizations to strike. The Hong Kong pavilion at the Venice Biennale was also temporarily shut. In all, about 100 spaces closed, including government-funded institutions and other international galleries such as Lehmann Maupin, Rossi & Rossi, Pearl Lam, Massimo De Carlo, and Simon Lee, although most did not overtly state they were participating in the strike.
Hong Kong artist and activist Kacey Wong—who stood on the street amid Monday’s protests waving a black flag of mourning—said self-censorship has been on the rise since the Umbrella Movement. “Art institutions and curators are being affected the most in my opinion,” he said. “The kidnapping of the booksellers [abducted by the Chinese government for selling politically sensitive books] already sent shockwaves through the local intellectual crowd. No one wants to be sent to mainland China for unfair trial and punishment, not for an art show.”
Recent examples of self-censorship include arts and heritage center Tai Kwun’s cancellation of two talks by Chinese dissident author Ma Jian and the cancellation of Chinese political cartoonist Badiucao’s exhibition in the city late last year due to fear of security threats. If the extradition law is passed, it’s not just Chinese nationals and expatriates who would be affected, according to Hon. “Everyone who sets foot in Hong Kong is at stake here,” she said. “I have artists in my roster that are really political and if they fear getting arrested in Hong Kong and getting extradited to China, they are not going to want to do exhibitions here.”
Beyond impeding artistic production, China’s tightened grip on Hong Kong may have repercussions in the art market. “Many transactions in the secondary market will likely be negatively impacted as people will need to be more careful in terms of the legitimacy of their deals and transfer of funds,” Au-yeung said.
While the city’s landscape is no longer as free as it once was, and some local artists have elected to emigrate, others remain optimistic. Choi Yan Chi, a veteran of the Hong Kong scene who is also a curator and the co-founder of the nonprofit 1a space, said the city’s art community has been thriving in the last decade. “I started in the 1970s, and I know how different the environment was,” she said. “I see a positive future for art here. I’m sad [about the current situation], but I’m not hopeless.”
While the extradition bill is still shelved, local artists are continuing to make their voices heard—on the streets, but also in exhibitions. Last Friday, the nonprofit Para Site opened a show titled “Bicycle Thieves,” organized by the young mainland curator Zhang Hanlu,which features sketches illustrating police violence and signs used in the protests. The Hong Kong Artists Union contributed a virtual reality work that features videos shot during the demonstrations, with commentary from various artists.
“We are living in dangerous times. But these are the times that give birth to interesting art,” Au-yeung said. “Good art is a form of protest anyway, whether it is personal, social, or political.”