Hong Kong’s fight for freedom
As an artist, when I look to the protests in Hong Kong, I notice the colour of the movement – how it changes as the situation develops. When the Umbrella Movement first started in 2014, demanding real democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, it was defined by the colourful memo notes used to create a Lennon Wall. Hong Kongers wrote their hopes for their city on Post-it notes, some 10,000 of them, and stuck them outside the Central Government Complex.
Gradually, the colour turned to yellow, as protesters used their yellow umbrellas to shield themselves from the pepper spray and tear gas being used on them by the police. Yellow was a warning sign, the anxiety of a city worried for its future.
When the anti-extradition protests began earlier this year, the colour most commonly used for banners and posters was burning red. The people of Hong Kong had united again, bound together in a new movement defined by its passion and determination.
I think of Sisyphus, the mythological figure and hero to French philosopher Albert Camus. The greatness of Sisyphus is not defined by the expectation of a victory but by the very act of resistance, even in the most desperate conditions.
Hong Kong is the city of Sisyphus. It is my inspiration and my theatre. We both have the same opponent: Beijing. Criticising or challenging the Chinese government comes at great personal risk – the protesters in Hong Kong know this; Yang Hengjun now knows this; I know this.
Faced with protests attended by millions, Beijing has been an immovable object, refusing to compromise even an inch. None of the protesters’ demands have been met – no withdrawal of the controversial extradition bill, no inquiry into alleged police brutality, no retraction of the classification of protesters as “rioters”. The Chinese government has refused to offer amnesty to arrested protesters. It has also refused to offer dual universal suffrage, which would give Hong Kongers the right to directly vote for both the legislative council and the chief executive. Instead, Hong Kongers were met with thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets. Hundreds were arrested for protesting and many were severely injured, due to the brutality of the Hong Kong police.
Now, the colour has turned to black.
Protesters wear dark outfits, an echo of the atmosphere of the resistance at the moment. It is dark, heavy and suffocating. Every young protester is worried about being critically injured by police who use excessive violence. They fear being arrested and charged, of facing a possible 10-year jail sentence for rioting.
But if they choose to remain silent, they may lose this last chance to help Hong Kong maintain its autonomy from Beijing. This is not just about a disagreement on ideology. It is about Hong Kongers’ way of life and rights. They are fighting for tomorrow’s Hong Kong. Ever present is the long black shadow cast by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. People are scared, but they do not have any choice other than continuing to resist.
In November 2018, some seven months before one million people first joined in the anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, a cancelled exhibition tied my life to this city. What was meant to be the first international solo exhibition of my work was shut down after threats from Chinese authorities. In Shanghai, a group of Chinese police rushed to my family and threatened them because my show in Hong Kong levelled criticism at Beijing. At that moment, the right to free speech was not just denied to me, an Australian citizen, but also to Hong Kong, the last place in China with hope and freedom.
In June, when that first large-scale protest broke out in Hong Kong, what I saw was an expression of fear and a rejection of China’s “rule of law”. The protests became the foremost inspiration for my cartoon creations. I posted my work free online and the pieces were recognised and downloaded by Hong Kongers. When I saw my cartoons waved in the protests every weekend, I felt as though we had taken something back from China’s threat – this time, the whole city was a gallery.
As the protests have grown, Beijing has mobilised its machine of propaganda and censorship, which stretches around the world. Australia’s Chinese community is one of its prime targets. Clashes between pro-China nationalists and the Hong Kong community in Australia prove the efficiency of this overseas manipulation. In these encounters, China’s nationalists shout the country’s national anthem, verbally abuse Hong Kong demonstrators and stop them from being able to leave the protest site. In Melbourne, ABC journalist Kristian Silva reported that one protester attacked an ABC TV news crew, tipping a large speaker onto them, before swiping at one of the TV cameras. It was scary and frustrating for me to witness this saga.
As a Chinese person living in Australia who supports freedom for Hong Kong, I have experienced different forms of intimidation. I faced a cyber attack and a possible home invasion, and I have been followed. Receiving death threats on social media, on Instagram and Twitter, has become part of my daily routine. Instagram, which has never dealt with one of these death notes efficiently, was quick to censor and remove my satirical political art – a piece using classic Chinese propaganda style to depict the threat of interference that Beijing poses to Australian society and politics.
Earlier this month, Instagram notified me that my post had been removed for going against its guidelines. My art is censored in China because it advocates for human rights and freedom, and so social media is the most important place for me to send my messages to the people in China. Instagram’s removal of my art was an ugly violation of my free speech as an artist.
I published an open letter to Instagram about the censorship of this piece. A day later, its mother company, Facebook, sent me an email to apologise, stating the work did not violate any guidelines. It was an unfortunate mistake, they said. But the company failed to address the reason behind this “mistake”. It did not provide any plan for preventing this mistake from happening in the future. Many companies have compromised their commitment to free speech in order to open themselves to the Chinese market, and I fear this may be the real reason behind the mistake.
Offline, it’s also increasingly difficult to find spaces where you can criticise Beijing’s actions. Be Water is an artists’ talk about art and resistance in Hong Kong, featuring outspoken Hong Kong musician Denise Ho and myself. The event was rejected by nine venues and institutions in Melbourne, due to the sensitivity of the content and concerns for security.
Among those institutions, I am most disappointed with the National Gallery of Victoria. As a visual artist, I believe it is the responsibility of the public gallery to address the most pressing issues in our society. If artists should be at the frontline of defending free speech against powers that violate human rights, so should the art institutions. Art’s role in society is to offer an opportunity for dialogue and debate, and to present a viewpoint that may be different from our own. The fact that this exhibition supposedly presents a security concern is precisely why it should be supported by a national institution for the arts.
NGV once dared to host a show for Ai Weiwei, regardless of the reaction from Beijing. Now it is comfortable for its flagship show to be the terracotta warriors from China, the symbol of the beginning of a united but authoritarian empire.
Our national institutions should be places to celebrate the richness of Chinese culture, but they also need to give space to those who criticise Beijing – for its treatment of the Uygur population, the police brutality in Hong Kong and the intimidation of dissidents.
There was a time when people saw Hong Kong as the beacon of China’s democratic and free future. Born of “one country, two systems”, the city was based on this promise as well. But the West was blinded, romanticising the myth that the growth of China’s economy would lead to democracy. The history of Communist China did not end in 1989, as Francis Fukuyama predicted; rather, it has made a sharp turn and created a global threat to universal human rights. Hong Kong is the city now paying for this risky bet.
The fight for Hong Kong’s freedom has never been just about Hong Kong. It should be a fight for everyone in the free world. It is cruel and stupid to leave Hong Kong as the city of Sisyphus. Please join Hong Kongers to push the rock.
A National Gallery of Victoria spokesperson responded to Badiucao’s concerns regarding Be Water, stating: “The NGV supports artists’ rights to express a range of artistic and political viewpoints. The NGV was unable to accommodate the security and logistics required to book this event with short notice.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 31, 2019 as "The path of resistance". Subscribe here.