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Play Pamphlet Sparks Censorship Debate in Hong Kong

FILE - The skyline of the business district is silhouetted at sunset in Hong Kong.
FILE - The skyline of the business district is silhouetted at sunset in Hong Kong.

A debate over censorship of Hong Kong artists has renewed, with a request by the Hong Kong government to omit the word “national” from a pamphlet for a play.

The pamphlet included a biography of a producer at The Nonsensemakers, a local theater group. According to a Facebook post by the group, the Hong Kong government asked that the word “national” be removed from the title of the producer’s alma mater, the Taipei National University of the Arts.

The request sparked controversy over funding for the arts in Hong Kong, and whether arts groups come under pressure from China’s central government.

“It’s becoming quite obvious. I think in the past, since 1997, there is a lot of noticeable censorship through self-censorship, and the kind of censorship through indirect means like funding,” said Oscar Ho, director of the MA program in Cultural Management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Ho says limited resources concentrate funding for arts groups that are closely tied to the government. Nine arts groups in Hong Kong receive a combined $43 million in subsidies every year. Smaller organizations, such as The Nonsensemakers, receive an average $110,000 annually.

An exhibit by a new museum earlier this year also raised questions about artistic freedom. The museum, M+, is under construction and financed entirely by public funds. Hong Kong’s chief secretary, Carrie Lam, is chairwoman of the cultural district committee overseeing it.

The museum opened an exhibit of several works from its collection in February, including those of dissident Ai Wei Wei, but changed the name of the exhibit from one that had been shown overseas. On its European tour the exhibit was titled, “Right is Wrong.” In Hong Kong, the exhibit’s title was changed to “M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art.”

While some in the arts community say this signifies censorship in the city, gallery owner Vincent Chan, co-owner of Hong Kong’s Leo Gallery, said artists remain free to create what they want, and their depictions of the recent pro-democracy protests exemplify that. “They do express their own idea in their artwork, so at the time of Occupy Central there were lots of artists out there participating, and there were quite a few artists doing work about it,” Chan said.

Attacks on artistic freedom are on the rise globally, according to a report issued by Freemuse, an independent organization based in Copenhagen. The study found there were 469 cases of attacks on artistic expression last year, double the count in 2014. China led the list of offenders with 20 serious violations of artistic freedom, including censorship and detention of artists.

Mathias Woo, executive director of the arts group Zuni Icosahedron, said the pressure to censor in Hong Kong is growing, and that censorship is exerted through restricted resources, exhibit spaces and funding.

He said this censorship is tightening the space for intellectual and artistic expression. “If you look at New York, London or major international cities, there are always different platforms where you can express radical ideas, and you can have intellectual debate about social issues. But in Hong Kong there is a lack of such ecology. So that’s why people go to the streets. That’s why young people have to occupy the public space,” said Woo.

But many in Hong Kong hope fairs such as Art Basel, which drew a record 70,000 visitors this year, and the M+ museum, will make the city a cultural destination. M+ will encompass more than 60,000 square meters in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district, and is set to open in 2019.