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Hong Kong and Tiananmen: Erasing Memory in the Name of National Security

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Hong Kong and Tiananmen: Erasing Memory in the Name of National Security

Hong Kong’s vague and ambiguous concept of “national security,” imported from the mainland, is applied to arts and culture.

Hong Kong and Tiananmen: Erasing Memory in the Name of National Security
Credit: Depositphotos

On June 3, in the busy shopping district of Causeway Bay, performance artist Sanmu Chan wrote the Chinese characters for “8964” (八九六四)with his finger in the air. He then mimed pouring wine onto the ground, to symbolize mourning those massacred in the military crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

Hong Kong police officers watched the entire performance, then moved in and took Chan away. This was the latest instance of zero tolerance for remembrance of what the authorities called an “upcoming sensitive date” – without naming the date or place referred to.

Other individuals have recently been arrested for sedition in Hong Kong in respect to referencing the Tiananmen Square Massacre on social media, accused of inciting hatred against the central and Hong Kong authorities.

Despite being behind bars since 2021, the organizer of the annual Tiananmen Massacre vigil Chow Hang-tung was re-arrested last week under the new Safeguarding National Security Ordinance. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called for her release and reparations.

Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, also faces a charge for lighting a candle at the 2021 Tiananmen Square Massacre vigil. He is currently on trial for a number of national security charges related to his peaceful pro-democracy activism. He faces up to life in prison.

Jens Galschiøt’s Tiananmen Massacre-themed artwork, the Pillar of Shame, which stood on the Hong Kong University campus for over 20 years, was removed in the dark of night in December 2021, and is now held by police as evidence in an unspecified case of subversion of state power.

Government-aligned newspapers reported in August 2023 that Galschiøt himself could be subject to a secret arrest warrant, with transfer of trial to mainland China owing to the severity of the threat to national security. Ahead of this year’s upcoming “sensitive date,” church leaders were cautioned not to lead prayers.

Few places in the world police collective memory and art with this degree of rigor. How has this occurred in Hong Kong, which until recently ranked high for free expression?

During public consultation prior to the March 2024 passage of the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance, under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong officials made great efforts to highlight that all countries protect their national security.

The Article 23 legislation complements the 2020 National Security Law, which Beijing imposed on Hong Kong and which has been used to arrest hundreds of persons. The 2020 law was criticized by the U.N. Human Rights Committee (among others), which recommended its repeal. Hong Kong not only rebutted this but introduced new legislation to extend and strengthen the government’s reach.

A significant aspect of these rounds of legislation has been the introduction into Hong Kong law of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s “holistic” concept of national security.

The concept defines national security as “the status in which the state’s political regime, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, the welfare of the people, sustainable economic and social development, and other major interests of the state are relatively free from danger and internal or external threats,” as well as encompassing “the capability to maintain a sustained status of security.” It derives from Xi’s call for “comprehensive national security” (总体国家安全), introduced in 2014 and added to the Communist Party Constitution in 2017.

Included among 16 dimensions of security, “cultural security” targets ideological opposition and discourses that diverge from those of the party.

This is an extremely vague and ambiguous concept of “national security,” which can be applied to arts and culture without any of the safeguards necessary to ensure that a state is in compliance with international human rights standards.

Hong Kong Secretary for Security Chris Tang spoke of art as “soft resistance” and called artistic expression a  “common modus operandi of those seeking to endanger national security.” Similarly, Chief Executive John Lee asked everyone to tell a “good story” of Hong Kong and has defended purging the city’s libraries of books containing “bad ideologies.”

Vague and ambiguous statements such as these encourage de-platforming and freelance censorship in the private sector. Creative artists protect themselves by self-censoring, steering away from politics and social reflection.

Aside from its place in a comprehensive scheme of control, the Hong Kong national security apparatus’ focus on arts and culture is a means of signaling control and boundaries without undue disruption of Hong Kong’s economic and professional life.

By snipping off any buds of reflective discourse or “wrong” memory, society is channeled into narrowly productive ends. Those who can’t come to terms with this will either flee or find themselves harassed or in custody, as people in Hong Kong who seek to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre have experienced.

The broadening scope and arbitrary interpretation of cultural security by the local and national government and their allies is a challenge for all sides. While the “sensitive date” is certainly to be avoided, it is unclear what other expressions or reflections on history may be interpreted as seditious or subversive.

Individual officials reassure that sincere and constructive criticisms are welcome, although this clearly is not the case. There is also no process for clarification or appeal.

In a recent conversation with a Hong Kong artist, he lamented that there are no red lines – Everything is red.

Finally, this sets an alarming precedent for like-minded regimes, which will be inspired to use a broader concept of “national security” to police the arts, culture, memory, and more. Condemnation and outcry toward each instance of these human rights violations in Hong Kong is vital to protect cultural rights in Hong Kong and around the world.