Storm over M+: is Beijing targeting the Hong Kong museum, or is it just politicians looking to score points?

Kanis Leung
·13-min read

This is the first of a two-part special examining the debate around the flagship of the Kowloon arts hub and what it means for Hong Kong. The second report can be found here.

Former Hong Kong lawmaker Sin Chung-kai remembers the elation that greeted the news that M+, a unique new museum expected to open by the end of the year, would be the permanent home of one of the world’s most extensive collections of Chinese modern art.

More than 1,500 works by over 300 contemporary artists, from a collection amassed by Swiss art collector Uli Sigg, would form the core of the star attraction at the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD).

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Sin recalled that the name of Ai Weiwei, China’s best-known dissident artist, was brought up specifically during a WKCD Authority board discussion, but nobody raised concerns that his artworks – part of the Sigg Collection – might besmirch the reputation of the nation.

The M+ museum has found itself at the centre of a political feud over some of its artworks in recent weeks. Photo: AFP
The M+ museum has found itself at the centre of a political feud over some of its artworks in recent weeks. Photo: AFP

“At that time, the ‘one country, two systems’ principle was seen to uphold the differences between Hong Kong and the mainland. So there was no problem displaying something that could not be exhibited in the mainland,” he said.

That was in 2012, when Sin was on the board alongside then Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, now Hong Kong’s chief executive.

Fast forward nine years and M+, which is finally preparing to open after cost overruns and years of delays, has landed in the thick of a political storm over Ai’s Study of Perspective – Tian’anmen (1997).

The photograph, showing the artist’s upturned middle finger aimed squarely at the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the Chinese capital, is one of a number of artworks in the M+ Sigg Collection that pro-Beijing voices claim may breach the new national security law.

For Sin, what happens at the museum is a crucial litmus test of whether the law imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong last June will seriously erode freedom of expression in the city.

Former Hong Kong lawmaker Sin Chung-kai. Photo: Dickson Lee
Former Hong Kong lawmaker Sin Chung-kai. Photo: Dickson Lee

“M+ carries a symbolic meaning and indicates how far ‘one country, two systems’ is different from ‘one country, one system’,” he said.

There are differing views on why M+ is being targeted now, when highlights from the collection were shown to the public in 2016 without any issue.

The current controversy erupted after a media preview of the recently completed museum building on March 12, when M+ museum director Suhanya Raffel was asked generally if M+ would show works by Ai and others referencing Tiananmen, and replied that there would be “no problem”.

The next day, the first of a number of nationalist media outlets began expressing outrage at her comment.

Four days later, with the wave of attacks picking up momentum, pro-Beijing lawmaker Eunice Yung Hoi-yan raised the issue in the Legislative Council during the chief executive’s question and answer session.

‘No problem’ showing Ai Weiwei’s art in Hong Kong’s M+ museum

Calling works such as Ai’s Perspective “vulgar”, Yung claimed there were pieces in the Sigg Collection that would “spread hatred” towards China, and therefore may break the law.

Then, last week, Edward Lau Kwok-fan of the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, a member of a Legco committee monitoring the development of the arts hub, said he and other lawmakers had met WKCD Authority senior executives at the M+ Building and were led to believe Ai’s work would not be displayed.

He added he had also discussed the issue of “de-accessing” works that might contravene the national security law.

Dark signs or mere debate?

The museum is not the only arts organisation to come under attack recently.

Pro-Beijing media earlier denounced the Arts Development Council for funding the distributor of a documentary portraying fierce clashes at a Hong Kong university during the 2019 anti-government protests. They considered the documentary anti-government and possibly in breach of the national security law.

The question for many is whether these events represent a concerted effort by the central government to bring the arts in line as it tightens its grip on Hong Kong.

Vow to protect freedom of expression in Hong Kong as attacks on new museum mount

To some, the signs are harrowing. Veteran China-watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu compares the attacks on M+ with the Cultural Revolution, during which scholars, writers and artists were among those persecuted on the mainland, and their works were destroyed.

The situation in Hong Kong is nowhere near that on the mainland over that dark decade from 1966, but Lau says: “What we’re experiencing now shows the first signs, tastes and trends of the Cultural Revolution … We have to look at the developing dynamic. The dynamics are dangerous.”

However, multiple sources within the WKCD Authority and pro-establishment politicians are playing down the controversy, saying it does not appear that Beijing gave the order to attack M+.

Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole delegate to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, said as far as he knew, the row was not a campaign waged by the central government.

He added it was good to discuss such matters openly, and that the debate would end once peoples’ concerns were heard and the authorities agreed to look into the issue.

Noted Hong Kong art collectors make large donation of works to M+

It would be too much to “escalate the issue to a legal level”, he said.

Tam said he believed artists could still create freely in Hong Kong as long as they respected the country and did not infringe the law. However, he could not say what might constitute a violation of the law.

Pro-establishment lawmakers said they did not meet to discuss the M+ collection. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one lawmaker said very few of his colleagues weighed in, because not many were familiar with the arts and attacking M+ was unlikely to “win much applause”.

Eunice Yung said she simply raised the issue after browsing the M+ collection online when she learned the museum was opening soon.

Pro-Beijing heavyweight Tam Yiu-chung said that, as far as he knew, the attacks on M+ weren’t orchestrated by the central government. Photo: Enid Tsui
Pro-Beijing heavyweight Tam Yiu-chung said that, as far as he knew, the attacks on M+ weren’t orchestrated by the central government. Photo: Enid Tsui

‘Common sense will return’

There are some observers who speculate the storm over M+ only shows that Hong Kong politicians are making use of the national security law to jostle for attention ahead of upcoming local elections.

Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said his guess was that the incident was triggered by the radical overhaul of the city’s electoral system, and comments by a mainland scholar that Beijing wanted Hong Kong to be run by competent patriots, not “loyal trash”.

With the biggest share of seats in Legco to be filled by loyalists selected by a newly empowered Election Committee, Choy believes many aspirants are eager to show they are patriots and earn Beijing’s favour.

Also, given city leader Lam’s long involvement in the WKCD Authority, Choy sees the M+ row as part of ongoing efforts by potential rivals to undermine her administration.

“I believe it’s linked to the prelude of the chief executive election in 2022,” he said.

Opinion: Politicising artworks serves only to validate artist’s relevance

To be sure, Lam and her allies appear to be resisting the kind of censorship that critics of M+ have been demanding.

Responding to Yung at Legco, Lam said she was confident M+ would not break the national security law, but added: “I think we can draw a line to separate what is freedom of cultural and artistic creation, and what … [is] endangering national security.”

Then, on March 26, Bernard Chan, a Lam ally who is convenor of the Executive Council and a WKCD Authority board member, wrote a strongly worded opinion piece in the Post titled “Art censorship: why the Hong Kong government has no business playing cultural gatekeeper”.

He highlighted that Beijing had designated Hong Kong a hub for arts and cultural exchange between China and the rest of the world in the 14th five-year plan announced recently, adding that the role would depend on the city’s “image as an open, tolerant and cosmopolitan city”.

In an email to the Post, he said “everything got politicised so easily” and expressed confidence that common sense would return after the upcoming elections.

Questions linger over M+ choices

Others who are less optimistic believe the pressure on M+ and Hong Kong’s art scene will only increase, given Beijing’s determination to promote nationalism in the city.

Kacey Wong Kwok-choi, a veteran of Hong Kong’s art activism movement, who in 2012 showed up at an anti-government rally in a fake “Cultural Bureau” military tank to warn against brainwashing by Beijing, does not think things will cool down after the next round of local elections.

Some worry that the uproar over M+ is a signal of what is to come for the broader local arts scene. Photo: K.Y Cheng
Some worry that the uproar over M+ is a signal of what is to come for the broader local arts scene. Photo: K.Y Cheng

Pointing out that state-backed newspapers recently criticised M+ as well as the Arts Development Council, he said: “This is not just a few politicians pursuing their own agendas.”

Hardliner Zheng Yanxiong, head of the newly established National Security Bureau in Hong Kong, is an art critic and accomplished ink artist whose works were included in a 2016 exhibition in Guangzhou directed by a local branch of the Chinese Community Communist Party Propaganda Department.

Although Zheng has not publicly stepped into the current controversy, Wong was worried that the main enforcer of the national security law in Hong Kong would take a great interest in the local art scene because of his background.

It would be an oversimplification to say the current debate over M+ is divided along ideological lines. In the past, pro-democracy liberals, including artists and lawmakers, have also raised concerns about transparency at the museum.

In fact, Wong and fellow activist-artist Wen Yau have said the current controversy was a reminder there were fundamental issues about the museum’s governance and mission that needed to be addressed.

The idea for M+ was first proposed in 2007 by the government-appointed Consultative Committee on the Core Arts and Cultural Facilities at WKCD.

Hong Kong’s RTHK pulls radio show for ‘review of contentious content’

After spending 15 months inviting overseas museum experts to share their views and making publicly funded study trips to no fewer than 10 museums and cultural institutions overseas, the committee came up with the plan for a unique museum featuring not only traditional visual arts but also moving images, architecture and design.

The museum’s unusual mandate, as well as delays and cost overruns for it and the rest of the 40-hectare cultural district, have resulted in frequent criticism by lawmakers over the years.

In 2014, lawmakers and WKCD Authority committee members across the political divide objected to M+ spending HK$15 million to buy The Kiyotomo Sushi Bar, a restaurant space by Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata, citing it as a clear example of the lack of transparency in its acquisition process.

A recurring criticism has been that M+ did not have enough local curators who understood Hong Kong culture and was not purchasing enough works by Hongkongers. Currently, about a quarter of its 8,000 pieces are by local artists.

In fact, much of the language used recently by nationalist media outlets Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, calling the M+ Collection “fake art”, a waste of taxpayers’ money and “too Western”, echoed the rhetoric of critics in the past.

For example, theatre producer Mathias Woo Yan-wai has for years led the charge of local cultural artists who objected to the Sigg Collection being made the flagship attraction of M+ instead of Hong Kong art.

Head of arts hub insists embattled museum never planned to show controversial photo

The difference now is that new critics are viewing the museum’s collection through the lens of the national security law and picking through the artworks for evidence of what they consider “insults to China”.

No such criticism surfaced in 2016 when more than 80 pieces from the Sigg Collection went on display at ArtisTree, including photographs by Hong Kong-born photographer Liu Heung-shing taken in Beijing during the Tiananmen protest and crackdown in June 1989.

Privately, an M+ employee told the Post that museum staff were rattled by recent events and had not been informed if changes would need to be made to comply with the law.

All eyes are now on whether the opening exhibitions adhere to their original plans. Last November, the WKCD Authority board was given a presentation on the launch exhibitions, with one slide titled “M+ Sigg Collection: From Revolution to Globalisation”.

It included a computer-generated image of a gallery dominated by Ai’s Whitewash (1995-2000), featuring 126 large white and earth-tone jars arranged in rows. The walls of the gallery had works by cynical realist artists such as Zeng Fanzhi, whose reflections of Chinese society are often still banned on the mainland.

WKCD Authority chairman Henry Tang Ying-yen told reporters last week that he believed national security officers would approach the museum if any exhibits, available to the public online, violated the law. It had received no inquiries so far.

Pro-Beijing forces step up pressure on Hong Kong arts body and museum

He did not say whether opening exhibitions were being changed to appease critics, but added that Ai’s Perspective had not been intended for the inaugural exhibition.

However, the museum has already made changes to its website, following criticism that its collection had works that were not only anti-China but also “immoral” and “vulgar” for portraying full or partial nudity.

Tang said the museum has blurred potentially offensive artworks included in its online preview pages. Ai’s Perspective did not receive such treatment as of Monday, though a photograph showing the artist in the nude in his New York flat has been blurred.

In an interview with local media, Ai criticised lawmaker Eunice Yung for her “Nazi-style move” in using extreme politicised viewpoints to censor the arts.

Ai said Sigg, the collector, had hoped to donate his artworks to Shanghai and Beijing, but he opposed that because the mainland’s censorship system could make the art “disappear”.

Kacey Wong criticised artists as well as curators at M+ and outside the museum for failing to speak up against the recent attacks.

“They have a responsibility to defend themselves,” he said.

Some have criticised the WKCD Authority for not standing up to the recent attacks more firmly. Photo: K. Y. Cheng
Some have criticised the WKCD Authority for not standing up to the recent attacks more firmly. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

But people close to WKCD Authority, including board members and M+ employees, told the Post the dominant view was that the museum director and curators should remain above the political fray.

“The museum should not be a political arena. Curators should not feel they have to do anything to prove that Hong Kong is free,” said one person, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Multiple board members confirmed that a board meeting chaired by Tang on March 19 – days after the first criticisms against M+ – did not mention the brewing political storm at all.

Hong Kong Arts Development Council member Chris Chan Kam-shing said that when the national security law was passed last June, the art sector already felt it was likely to be affected.

“Now perhaps M+, a big organisation, is facing the first strike,” he said. “This situation will go on, but maybe high-profile attacks are no longer necessary because a self-censorship sentiment has already been created.”

Additional Reporting by Lilian Cheng

In part two of this series, we will examine M+’s governance and how it could navigate Hong Kong’s new political landscape.

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