Exclusive: Hong Kong people are on the right side of history, says artist Ai Weiwei – “I’m proud, very proud of them”
Hong Kong artists can still find ways to express themselves despite the challenges posed by growing political censorship, says dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
After years of delay, the city is preparing to open its M + Museum, billed as Asia’s first world museum of contemporary visual culture, on November 12 as part of the government’s bid to become a world center for the arts and of the culture.
But fears of growing censorship under the National Security Act cast a shadow over the launch. Already, pro-Beijing voices have called for checks on any artwork that could endanger national security, and artists have left the city, citing the need for greater freedom.
The museum’s online collection currently includes 28 works by Ai, donated by Swiss collector Uli Sigg. A photograph from his âStudy in Perspectivesâ series, which shows the artist pointing his middle finger at cultural monuments around the world, is currently under âgovernment reviewâ. It shows the artist’s middle finger pointed at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
“Censorship of works of art is nothing new,” the artist told HKFP in a broad email interview in which he also expressed strong support for the imprisoned activists. âIt’s more common under an authoritarian regimeâ¦[but] it is important to remember that political censorship does not occur exclusively under authoritarian regimes.
“It is not only in China and Hong Kong that my works encounter restrictions, but also in mainstream film festivals or exhibitions in the West.”
“M + Museum has no other alternative than [to make] such an adjustment because as an artistic institution of Hong Kong, they must operate under the Hong Kong government and comply with the spirit of the National Security Law. If they didn’t, M + Museum wouldn’t even exist.
“Precious efforts of the human spirit”
The nervousness of the Hong Kong arts community over the security law, which critics say has stifled political dissent, has prompted at least one high-profile artist to leave the city. Almost a third of the directly elected committee members of the government-funded Arts Development Council have resigned.
Ai said he still believes Hong Kong artists can rise to the challenge and find a way to create amid the uncertainty and new obstacles.
âFreedom of expression must appear in the midst of struggles. I believe that the condition of Hong Kong today gives Hong Kong artists and their artistic expression a new challenge. Artists who can take on this kind of challenge would be real artists, âhe told HKFP.
âWhen contemporary Hong Kong artists in the midst of today’s struggles find their own language, it [be] the emergence of their artistic expression.
Freedom of expression, vital for artists, must continue to find new ways to exist under increased control, Ai said. âFreedom of expression is the first condition for art to be art, but freedom of expression itself consists of seeking an outlet in the midst of struggles. “
âArt would not be art if it cannot be faced with tyrannyâ¦ Those who cannot be made will die. We can clearly see that the works of art that strive for freedom are precious efforts of the human mind.
“Those works of art that cannot fight for freedom, take responsibility with courage or discover their own language are just mediocre decorations.”
When mass protests against the extradition bill erupted in mid-2019, Ai hailed the protests as “beautiful” and the many young protesters as “smart and courageous.” He then documented the citywide pro-democracy protests in his film Cockroach, in reference to the police’s derogatory nickname used for protesters dressed in black.
In response to the protests, Beijing in June 2020 imposed a sweeping national security law that authorities said was necessary to restore stability. The law has since been used to arrest and charge dozens of pro-democracy politicians and activists, dozens of whom have been denied bail pending trial.
Ai’s film, which captured key scenes and characters from the street protests, is described as “a visual recording of the last moments of an independent and democratic Hong Kong.”
âIf the 2019 protests in Hong Kong are a testament to people’s awakening, the consequences demonstrate the extreme irrationality of authoritarianism and the rejection of any negotiation or discussion,â Ai told HKFP.
He nevertheless continues to believe that those who demanded democracy in the face of what he calls tyranny have already won.
âThey have pushed this historic progression and these political demands to a very high position. The citizens of Hong Kong and their movement have won, but authoritarianism is unscrupulous, the response of which has proven Hong Kong scares them. “
âIn fact, Hong Kong’s glory and true victory will be defined by history and not by the regime,â Ai wrote. âHistorically, people will not forget the price Hong Kong people paid for Hong Kong’s own independent and free spirit, and the price they pay for democracy, dignity and freedom in the world. “
When asked how Hong Kong people can continue to fight for democracy in a climate of fear, Ai described the cause as an “eternal struggle”.
âIt is precisely because of the existence of the Chinese government, or any authoritarian regime, that individual or collective struggle becomes a significant act. These are inseparable. By fighting for democracy and freedom, no one wins straight away. It is an eternal struggle, democracy against authoritarianism and individuals against power.
More than 10,250 people have been arrested since the protests began in June 2019. The artist and activist had a message of hope for those behind bars.
âI want to tell those who are falsely and unjustly accused that they are standing on the right side of history. The authoritarian regime will not be able to erase their glory. All their efforts have defended the principles of justice and fairness, not only for themselves, but also for the weak and forgotten, whom they do not know in person. I am very proud of them.
“Ability to endure”
The âeternal struggleâ between democracy and authoritarianism continues to illuminate the life and work of the artist in exile. Ai, who fled China for Germany in 2015, four years after being held incommunicado for 81 days without charge and having his passport confiscated by Chinese authorities, is still under Beijing influence.
Last week, he said Swiss bank Credit Suisse decided to close his foundation’s accounts because of his “criminal record.” Earlier this year, the bank’s chief financial officer noted it would increase its onshore presence in mainland China.
Commenting on the sudden closure of his accounts, Ai shared an anecdote from his time in detention in China.
âWhen the Chinese government questioned me, it created false accusations such as tax evasion, and among these accusations, the most important was ‘incitement to subversion of state power’. But they were unwilling to talk about this accusation. They wanted to use other bogus accusations to hide this one.
âThey also made it clear to me that they were going to ruin my reputation. I asked them, how do you ruin my reputation? They looked at me and answered seriously, “Is tax evasion a very serious crime in Western countries?” I said that, in my experience, tax evasion is akin to embezzlement of public resources, which of course is a crime and a moral wrong. In fact, they had thought about it; they must have accused me of a crime that the West would recognize as a crimeâ¦ So they decided on tax evasion.
âI don’t find it weird because since you are dealing with people like that, you have to have the capacity to endure it,â he said of the Chinese Communist Party.
âWhat surprised me is that a supposedly neutral bank in Switzerland closed my account that I have had for a very long time, under the pretext of this false accusation. It was very surprising to me. We all know that Switzerland wants to be neutral. At the same time, they did not give us the opportunity to explain ourselves although we maintained that I had never been legally arrested or prosecuted in China. Even my arrest was illegal. It was secret detention.
While in detention, Ai began to work on a memoir of her life and her father, the revered poet Ai Qing, during the Cultural Revolution. The book, 1000 years of joy and pain, should be released in November.
For Ai, the oppression of the party led him to become the artist he is today.
âThe policemen who interrogated me in China also asked me just before the end of my 81 days of detentionâ¦ ‘Ai Weiwei, without us, would you become so famous today?’ “
âMy response to them was that a fighter is only considered a fighter when facing a disaster or a monster. In fact, it was the politics of this country that created me. Without them, it is very likely that I would be a good-for-nothing.
1000 years of joy and pain is available on Book Depository for pre-order for HK $ 144 with free delivery in Hong Kong. 5% goes to HKFP if you use this link.