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Who’s Afraid of China? Not Hong Kong

February 1, 2012

The early morning of April 10, 2011, was not quiet for long in Hong Kong’s Western District as people began to congregate in front of the police station there. Activists unrolled large green and white banners in Chinese and English. As more people arrived, a member of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China began handing out orange bracelets with the words “Free Ai Weiwei/释放艾未未.” A professor began handing out black and white t-shirts, designed by sympathetic artists with the character “艾,” “未,” or “来” printed on the front and the English words “Free AWW” on the back.

The protest was prompted by the detention of outspoken mainland Chinese artist Ai Weiwei a week earlier in the Beijing airport. The Chinese authorities would keep Ai in custody for 80 days without formally charging him.

The protests in Hong Kong that began that morning and continued every Sunday until June expressed the outrage among Hong Kongers and their concerns about freedom and law-abiding practices in Hong Kong. The protests illuminated a vast gulf between the expectations of the Hong Kong people and the approach of the Chinese authorities with regard to basic rights and due process.

The subsequent protests and grassroot actions all around the world in support of Ai Weiwei’s detention had their heart and center in Hong Kong, a city officially a part of mainland China but is allowed—under the “one country, two systems” policy—until 2046, freedoms and rights that are denied to people on the mainland.

Different segments of society in Hong Kong came together in these protests, in order to raise international attention and keep pressure on the mainland authori- ties to account for their illegal actions.

Protest participants included artists, university students, professors, working professionals, democratic political parties, local citizens, and expatriates. They used their abilities, influence, and talents to write to newspapers, and create protest actions with documentary photography and art installations that defied cen- sorship by mainland authorities.

On April 17, 2011, Hong Kong joined an international protest action entitled, “1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei,” organized by Creative Time, a nonprofit organization that commissions and presents public art projects of all disciplines. Protesters and sympathetic citizens were invited to bring their own chairs and sit outside Chinese embassies and government offices all around the world in an allusion to Ai Weiwei’s own 2007 artwork “Fairytale,” an installation which comprised 1,001 late Ming and Qing Dynasty wooden chairs presented at Documenta 12 (2007) in Kassel, Germany. “1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei” was organized into a large and widely publicized nonviolent protest staged in front of Chinese embassies and consulates around the world.

A young graffiti artist using the tag name “Tangerine” stenciled Ai’s face and the words “Who’s afraid of Ai Weiwei” all around the city, and projected the graffiti directly onto the side of the China Liaison Office building.1

A group of artists and curators formed a collective entitled “Art Citizens,” which launched actions that included “One rock, one person” on May 12, 2011, the 3rd anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake. Supporters were encouraged to write the name of a Sichuan earthquake victim on a rock, photograph, or Google map, and upload the image onto the Art Citizens’ Facebook webpage. White and black protest t-shirts made by local Hong Kong artists with the characters “爱未来” (ai weilai, “love the future”) contextualized the censorship of his name in news media on mainland.

Behind the scenes, journalists, art writers, curators, and academics began a writing campaign, encouraging their contacts to raise their voices and to contact their elected government representatives and members in civic institutions to request official statements about and updates on Ai’s health and whereabouts, and information on those who have been detained in recent weeks. In May 2011, during the Hong Kong International Art Fair (ARTHK), the Hong Kong Art Citizens protest group staged an exhibition entitled “Love the Future,” which was made up of more than fifty artists and poets using Ai’s detention as a starting off point in expressing their concerns about freedom of speech and artistic expression in Hong Kong. The exhibition featured photographs from such established Hong Kong artists as Stanley Wong (a.k.a. Anothermountainman), Birdy Chu, and Luke Ching. Conceptual artist Lee Kit contributed a typed placard that simply stated “I miss my mum, my wife, and my son,” while Nadim Abbas used gold gilt lettering (the same type of bronze lettering used on the outside of the China Liaison Office in Hong Kong) to spell the provocative sentence “SO SORRY, FUCK OFF.” “Fuck Off” is a direct reference to the name of Ai’s own studio company FAKE Design which in Mandarin sound similar to the English expletive. Ai’s own work was also present: one of the ceramic sunflower seeds from his 2010 Tate Turbine Hall exhibition was placed under domed glass, as well as a photograph of a performance entitled “Full Mouth of Silence,” a collaboration between Ai and a twelve-year-old artist Emma Gutierrez, which shows toothpicks, chopsticks, and food articles propped and placed in both artists’ mouths.

In recent decades, the Chinese authorities have promoted the concept of the core “Confucian values” of the Chinese culture to deflect criticism of their poor human rights records, criticism which, they claim, are based on a Western model unsuitable for the Chinese people. But Hong Kong, an Asian city of predominantly Chinese people who have identified with democratic principles and have embraced the identity of a free people, has placed China’s claim at risk.

Hong Kong citizens felt that it was their responsibility to speak out against the detention of Ai. Central to this protest was also the uneasiness that these detentions would become a reality in the future governance of Hong Kong, that the seizure of artists, poets, and writers in China are a foreshadowing of times ahead for Hong Kongers.

Because of the close geographical proximity of Hong Kong to China, Hong Kong citizens felt the particular meaning of the protests would make the Chinese government take notice. These protests culminated on April 23 when over 1,000 artists and citizens congregated in Hong Kong and marched to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui to protest in front of the “Flying Frenchmen” sculpture. The sculpture by Cesar Baldacci (completed in 1990) was originally entitled “The Freedom Fighter,” but was renamed by the Hong Kong Urban Council to avoid political controversy. To China, Hong Kong demonstrates an imperfectly controlled risk. The upcoming Legislative Council elections as well as the search for the next chief executive to replace Donald Tsang will interestingly illuminate the differences between the governing desires of the Hong Kong people and Beijing central government.

In Hong Kong, Ai’s art and influence have not ended with his detention but have come to symbolize the spirit of freedom under authoritarian rule. Ai’s continual struggle to document China’s injustices, advocate for human rights, and defy government oppression while risking his own personal safety, is a resounding testimony to his belief in freedom and liberty. Ai has been quoted before as stating, “Only by encouraging individual freedom, or the individual power of the mind, and by trusting our own feelings, can collective acts be meaningful.”2 In many ways, what Hong Kong citizens did last April was to use Ai’s words as the score in their own advocacy for freedom.

Editors’ Notes

1. The Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong is an organ of the Chinese government, responsible for local implementation of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, as well as facilitation of economic, cultural, educational, and academic exchange and cooperation between Hong Kong and the Mainland. See Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong, http://www.locpg.gov.cn. ^

2. Marko, Daniel and Juliet Bingham. Interview with Ai  Weiwei. Tate Modern Unilever series interview, 2010. http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/unilever-series-ai-weiwei/artists-quotes. ^

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