HONG KONG — With its multibillion-dollar price tag and big-name artists, M+, the museum rising on Victoria Harbor, was meant to embody Hong Kong’s ambitions of becoming a global cultural hub. It was to be the city’s first world-class art museum, proof that Hong Kong could do high culture just as well as finance.
It may instead become the symbol of how the Chinese Communist Party is muzzling Hong Kong’s art world.
In recent days, the museum, which is scheduled to open later this year, has come under fierce attack from the city’s pro-Beijing politicians. State-owned newspapers have denounced the museum’s collection, which houses important works of contemporary Chinese art, including some by the dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Hong Kong’s chief executive has promised to be on “full alert” after a lawmaker called some works an “insult to the country.”
The arts sector broadly has endured a blizzard of attacks. A government funding body said last week that it has the power to end grants to artists who promoted “overthrowing” the authorities. A front-page editorial in a pro-Beijing newspaper accused six art groups of “anti-government” activities.
Under threat is the artistic spirit of Hong Kong, whose freewheeling, irreverent attitudes have distinguished it from the metropolises of mainland China. Such creative forces have infused cultural vibrancy into a city long defined by capitalism.
They have also irritated Beijing, which is quickly redefining the freedoms that made Hong Kong unique. Since enacting a security law last June to quash anti-government protests, the authorities have arrested opposition politicians and moved to overhaul elections. They have also pulled books from library shelves and reshaped school curriculums.
“Now they are looking at the arts community,” said May Fung, a filmmaker and the founder of Arts and Culture Outreach, a nonprofit. “It’s only natural.”
Censorship fears have shadowed Hong Kong’s art world since the former British colony returned to Chinese control in 1997. A flurry of artwork wrestled with whether Hong Kong’s identity could survive Communist rule.
Concerns about independence have dogged M+ from its conception more than a decade ago . The museum acquired a number of high-profile works, including an image of Mr. Ai raising his middle finger in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and photographs by Liu Heung Shing of the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations there. Immediately, officials warned the museum to steer clear of politics.
But optimism also coursed through Hong Kong’s art world over the past decade. The government had increased financial support. Art Basel, the international arts fair, hosts an annual show in Hong Kong.
Away from high-end auction houses and museums, grass roots, avant-garde art blossomed too. Independent galleries and workshops proliferated. Protest art thrived. In 2014, demonstrators turned tents used to occupy the central business district into canvases. In 2019, they hauled a 13-foot statue of a woman in a gas mask to marches.
Mr. Ai said he supported the museum’s 2012 acquisition of his works from Uli Sigg, a renowned collector, noting Hong Kong’s ambition to become a world-class art city and the M+ team’s reputation.
“I was very positive at the time,” said Mr. Ai, who left China in 2015. “I felt that if my work could be displayed where there were many Chinese people, I’d be very happy.”
“I thought all these aspects could ensure that works could be exhibited normally,” he added. “I never thought that things would happen so suddenly.”
That sudden change was the security law. Protest posters disappeared overnight. Booksellers, filmmakers and curators waited in fearful anticipation.
Then the pro-Beijing camp pounced this month with a full-out barrage. On Mar. 15, the Hong Kong Film Critics Society canceled sold-out screenings of a documentary about the 2019 protests, after a pro-Beijing newspaper urged banning it. Two days later, another paper accused six arts organizations of violating the security law and called on the government to revoke their funding.
That same day, an establishment lawmaker accused parts of the M+ collection of spreading “hatred” against China. She later singled out Mr. Ai’s Tiananmen photo.
“Why will art pieces be displayed that are suspected to have breached the national security law and are an insult to the country?” the lawmaker, Eunice Yung, said during a question-and-answer session with Carrie Lam, the chief executive.
The criticisms have extended beyond politics to a sort of moral policing. Some have denounced M+ holdings that depict nudity or homosexuality.
“The government now should form a committee to go through all these art pieces,” Ms. Yung said in an interview, to ensure that they adhered to the museum’s “ethical standards.”
In a statement, M+ said it would comply with the law while “maintaining the highest level of professional integrity.” It added that the museum could not exhibit all of its collections during its opening, and “has no plan” to show Mr. Ai’s Tiananmen photograph then.
For artists, their long-lingering fears have hardened into a more tangible threat.
Even before the security law, the filmmaker Evans Chan knew some considered his work too provocative. A Hong Kong venue in 2016 canceled a screening of a documentary he made about the 2014 protests, citing a desire to remain “nonpartisan.” Last year, he finished a sequel, only to cut a scene for Hong Kong audiences that featured China’s national anthem; a new law forbade disrespecting the song.
Still, Mr. Chan said, the security law was a “watershed moment.” He had planned to make a third film about Hong Kong’s fight for democracy. But he is unsure if he could find people to participate or places to show it — not just in Hong Kong but overseas, in venues with ties to China.
“We are coming to a point to ask, what kind of space is left by global capitalism?” he said. “Where does China fit in? Where does artistic expression from and about Hong Kong fit in?”
Others have urged artists to experiment with the space that remains. Clara Cheung, who runs an arts education space, said she had promoted projects like community murals or a map of Hong Kong’s heritage buildings. Though not explicitly political, they could encourage open-mindedness and civic engagement.
Still, she acknowledged that any project required money.
“It is possible that artists, especially those who are really critical of society and the political system, won’t be able to get enough resources,” Ms. Cheung said. “They’ll have to go underground.”
Hong Kong already has a vibrant independent arts scene. As Beijing’s influence has grown, some artists have stopped seeking government funding or official recognition.
Sampson Wong has focused on small-scale, privately funded projects for the past few years, after officials suspended his temporary lights display at Hong Kong’s tallest building in 2016. It featured a countdown to 2047, the year that China’s promise of semi-autonomy to Hong Kong expires.
“I’m confident that we have already explored the ways” to keep operating independently, Mr. Wong said.
Still, he said he hoped that world would not become entirely siloed from the more institutional, popular art sphere.
In that space, the authorities may be harder to sidestep.
Mr. Ai said staff at M+ had recently called him to affirm their commitment to their principles, and he had been moved by their integrity.
But “with these kinds of things, bottom-up resistance is useless,” he added. “If it is decided from the top that such works can’t be exhibited, then there is nothing they can do.”
Joy Dong contributed research.