Artists in exile continue to fight for Hong Kong’s freedom

H ow far does China’s censorship reach? The answer, according to a new exhibition at Saan1 Gallery in Manchester, is 24,901 miles (40,074km), or the length of the equator. That is to say that the long arm of the Chinese Community Party stretches around the world. “The 24901-mile-wide Red Line | 24901哩紅線” uses multimedia art to explore the ramifications of Hong Kong’s national-security law, imposed on the territory in 2020 in response to huge protests the previous year.

The legislation aims to crush dissent; it criminalises subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces—all crimes so vaguely defined that it amounts to a gag on free expression. The national-security law specifically forbids “subverting” the rule of China, which pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong fear amounts to a ban on criticising the party. China now controls the territory through John Lee, a puppet leader who was “elected” on May 8th. (He was the only candidate.) One of the most chilling aspects of the draconian law is that it can be wielded against people thousands of miles away, including citizens of other countries. Some have already been targeted.

It was in this context that Clara Cheung and Gum Cheng, the owners of C&G Artpartment, a gallery in Hong Kong, decided to curate a show in response to Chinese censorship. The couple knows how it feels to have the walls close in. After 15 years of running their small but provocative gallery, last year they shut shop and moved to Sheffield, a city in northern England (the owner of Saan1 Gallery is also a Hong Konger who relocated to Britain three years ago). “We may not be arrested today, but we didn’t know about tomorrow,” says Ms Cheung, who in 2019 was elected as a pro-democracy councillor in Wan Chai, a district on the north coast of the island. Some of her friends are already in prison for their activism.

Many of the artworks in the show attest to the spirit of resistance in Hong Kong in the months before the party clamped down. “The Memos” by Chow Chun Fai, an artist who still works in Hong Kong, depicts a schoolboy and girl from behind so as to hide their identities. The sketch is composed of dozens of Post-it notes. These nod to the “Lennon Walls”: collaborative artworks that appeared across Hong Kong during the upheaval. Protesters covered government buildings with sticky notes bearing messages of support for freedom and democracy. The colourful, defiant squares fleetingly took over the city before, like the demonstrations, they were made to disappear.

The question of who owns Hong Kong, a place with a history of being handed from one power to another, is a central theme in much of the art that has emerged from the protest movement. “Public-space graffiti has always been a medium, not just for artists, but also for people,” says Ms Cheung. On display are photographs of Giraffe Leung Lok Hei’s stealthily created series, “Paper Over the Cracks”, which mocked the government’s attempts to assert control. Officials were often so desperate to hide any evidence of slogans scrawled throughout the city, such as “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times”, that they would hastily paint over them in incongruous colours. Mr Leung framed the resulting mess in bright yellow tape (see above)—the colour of the protest movement—and added a tongue-in-cheek label detailing the size and date of the work, and of course the artist—the government.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests resonated around the world, but particularly in parts of South-East Asia that were grappling with similar struggles. Ms Cheung and Mr Cheng chose to exhibit work by artists from Myanmar and Thailand. Activists in both countries form part of the #MilkTeaAlliance, a movement that spread online in 2020 to represent pan-Asian solidarity against dictatorship. One portrait by a Burmese artist known as Sai (whose work also appears at the Venice Biennale) is particularly poignant. It shows the artist’s father, Linn Htut, the chief minister of Shan state in eastern Myanmar, dressing himself in preparation for the election of November 2020—only the second since the end of military rule in 2015. His head is bowed, almost in prayer, as he puts on a magnolia-coloured silk gaung baung, a traditional head-wrap worn by many ethnic groups in Myanmar.

The pose obscures his face; anonymity haunts much of the art in the exhibition. As the brutal junta doubles down in Myanmar, Sai’s photo preserves the memory of his country’s twilight days as a democracy. It also tells of heartbreak: Mr Linn Htut was arrested in the coup of February 2021, and is now a political prisoner, sentenced to 16 years of hard labour.

The exhibition is full of urgency. Sai, like many of the artists in the show, now lives in exile. Yet his British visa expires in May and he may be forced to return to Myanmar, where he risks the same fate as his father. Even though the stakes are perilously high, however, some of these artists yearn to return to their home countries. Kacey Wong, an artist from Hong Kong who now lives in Taiwan, made a passport from his homeland for the exhibition. It is embossed with pro-democracy slogans, imagining an identity for the millions of Hong Kongers who do not see themselves as citizens of China. Oppressed at home, Mr Wong moved to Taiwan in search of artistic freedom. “I didn’t leave Hong Kong,” he laments. “Hong Kong left me.” ■

“The 24901-mile-wide Red Line | 24901哩紅線” is on show at the Saan1 gallery in Manchester from May 7th to May 22nd, and then will be on show at Bloc Projects’ meanwhile space in Sheffield from May 28th to June 25th