The M+ Museum under construction and due to open later this year. Photo: Peter Parks/AFP

After successfully muzzling Hong Kong’s democracy protests and opposition, Beijing loyalists are taking aim at the arts as they seek to impose mainland-style orthodoxy on culture and purge the city of dissent.

Newly built on Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, M+ Museum aims to rival Western contemporary heavyweights such as London’s Tate Modern and New York’s MoMA. 

The 60,000 square-metre venue is set to open later this year after multiple delays. But it has already found itself in hot water. 

Ai Weiwei, artist and human rights activist. Photo: Michael Kappeler/DPA/AFP

Last week a group of prominent pro-Beijing local politicians accused the museum of breaching a sweeping national security law that China imposed on Hong Kong last year in response to 2019’s democracy protests.

The cause of the complaint, filed to police on Tuesday, was the content of a media preview, including works by dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

“Many of the pieces are spreading hatred against the country,” pro-Beijing lawmaker Eunice Yung said in a recent question to city leader Carrie Lam in the legislature. 

“Will the government censor the collection? What will the government do to prevent such provocation of anti-China sentiments?” she added.

Lam, a pro-Beijing appointee, replied that Hong Kong “respects the freedom of cultural and artistic expression”.

But she warned authorities would be on “full alert” for any breach of the security law, adding that the red line is clearly recognisable for anyone hosting exhibitions.

Deflated and anxious

The exchange sent a new shudder through the arts scene in a city struggling to hold on to its reputation as an international cultural gateway to China unhindered from the authoritarian mainland’s controls. 

Insiders say self-censorship had been on the rise in recent years.  

But the broad wording of Hong Kong’s national security law and the fervour with which influential pro-Beijing figures wish to see it applied adds more risk. 

“People are just a little deflated and anxious,” one art expert involved in major exhibitions at museums said, asking to remain anonymous.

The law targets anything deemed “secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces” and has quickly criminalized a host of political views.

A map of China made from more than 1,800 cans of baby formula created by Ai Weiwei is displayed in Hong Kong in 2013 reflecting the controversy over mainland demand for milk powder. Photo: Philippe Lopez/AFP)

“Now in the ever-widening definition of things that could undermine national security in Hong Kong, we should add pieces of art,” Peter Lewis, a radio presenter with RTHK wrote on Twitter earlier this week.

China promised Hong Kong could keep a level of autonomy and freedom ahead of its 1997 handover by Britain. 

But it has ramped up control since democracy protests exploded and declared only “staunch patriots” can run Hong Kong.

Shifting sands

M+ is not the only cultural canary to be caught up in this new patriotic drive.

Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao newspapers that answer to Beijing’s Liaison Office have published multiple articles recently attacking “subversive” content in Hong Kong’s arts scene, primarily projects that deal with the democracy movement. 

Earlier this month Wen Wei Po led a successful campaign to halt the first commercial screening of an award-winning documentary on the protests, saying it “spread hatred against our country”.

Meanwhile Ta Kung Pao accused the government-appointed Arts Development Council (ADC) of being led by anti-government figures who approved funding for seditious projects.

The council responded, saying it would review upcoming grants and ensure nothing “deemed offending the current laws of Hong Kong” would receive funding.

Retired journalism professor To Yiu-ming said Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po were like weather vanes for working out where Beijing expects the new cultural red lines to be drawn in Hong Kong. 

“When the papers speak, the government will follow,” he said. 

“Hong Kong is heading down a path where all parts of the society, from political actions to people’s daily life, will be measured by political correctness.”

An ADC member who requested anonymity said the council would use court verdicts, not news reports, to judge the lawfulness of a potential project.

But the member admitted political pressure might increase in the coming years, particularly after a 2022 membership reshuffle.

Back at M+, curators will have to navigate Hong Kong’s rapidly changing cultural sands as opening day approaches. 

It said it hoped its exhibitions will “stimulate discussion, research, learning, knowledge and pleasure”, adding: “We will comply with the laws of Hong Kong whilst maintaining the highest level of professional integrity.”