It was always going to be a matter of time before the new Cultural Revolution surge sweeping through Hong Kong would focus on the arts. This is, after all, intrinsic to the idea of a revolution described as being cultural.

What was less expected was that this new attack on Hong Kong’s way of life should so closely echo the depths of the Mao era on the Mainland.

A Cultural Revolution poster of Mao Zedong. Photo: Flickr/Jornny Liu.

However it is fully in line with what Mao Zedong said back in 1942, “there is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.”

This sentiment was revived in 2014 by President Xi Jinping when he addressed an audience from the entertainment sector. “Socialist culture and art is, in essence, the culture and art of the people,” he told them, adding that serving the people and the socialist cause is what the ruling Communist Party demands, and was fundamental to the future development of the country’s cultural and artistic sectors.

Fast forward again to 2021 and we see Hong Kong’s Communist Party-controlled newspapers directing the battle to bring the local arts scene firmly under control. It took no more than a blast from these papers to force the rapid cancellation of a documentary film showing about the siege of the PolyU in 2019.

The same papers previously led the battle to ban books from public libraries that they considered to be offering ‘incorrect’ versions of history. The government withdrew the offending books with the kind of speed rarely seen in the bureaucracy. Their objections to the depiction of the Hong Kong story in the museum of history provoked a similarly rapid response.

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Now their attention is focused on the M+ art gallery, part of the slowly emerging West Kowloon Cultural Complex. First up they want the works of dissident and world renowned artist Ai Weiwei to be removed. Special objection was made to a work depicting a finger pointed in an offensive manner towards Tiananmen Square and, hey presto, it has been removed.

There is no question that works of this kind are political and critical in nature. Hitherto this was tolerated under the protection of freedom of expression which is guaranteed under Article 27 of the Basic Law.

However as the born again Maoist Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive in Name Only (CENO), constantly reminds us, freedoms are not absolute and they come with several layers of qualification.

Enthused by their rapid success in curbing the more obvious political areas of free speech, the new Red Guards, like their idols from the 1960s, have gone further, turning their attention to the wider canopy of artistic expression.

Ai Weiwei. Photo: Ai Weiwei Studio.

Most recently the Communist Ta Kung Pao newspaper lambasted M+ for spending HK$15m on a work by the Japanese artist Shiro Kuramata. In so doing it approvingly reported remarks by an anonymous local artist who said, ‘the Hong Kong public has no interest in such creations’. Kuramata’s principal offense appears to be that he is foreign and, er, it’s not clear what else.

The paper also hit out at works containing nudity and has pointed out to the severe error made by M+ in accepting a collection donated by the Swiss collector Uli Sigg. At the time this generous donation was bestowed on the gallery M+ described his collection as being ‘universally recognised as the largest, most comprehensive and important collection in the world of Chinese contemporary art from the 1970s to the present.’

Again the main objection to these works appears to be that the donor is a foreigner. ‘M+ needs to reflect deeply’ warned Ta Kung, adding that ‘art must be in service to the public’.

Ah yes, here it is again, one of the most prominent slogans of the Cultural Revolution – ‘serve the people!’.

Xi Jinping. File photo: China Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In his 2014 speech President Xi amplified what this means in the modern era. He said: “socialist culture and art is, in essence, the culture and art of the people,” adding that serving the people and the socialist cause is what the ruling Communist Party demands and is fundamental to the future development of the country’s cultural and artistic sectors.

So, it appears that we are back in the infamous ‘struggle mood’ of the Cultural Revolution where correct ideas are demanded and a correct understanding of the arts comes only from the Party.

Hong Kong is ‘fortunate’ to have a willing band of Quislings straining to scramble aboard the fast moving wagon of Socialist Realism reforms. As ever they take their lead from the Party’s organs and vie with each other to see who can jump highest in echoing their master’s voice. Inevitably in the front line is the CENO who said last Tuesday “If there is any cultural work that is in conflict with the national security law or violates its provisions, then of course we must deal with it seriously.”


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Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist, writer and broadcaster and runs companies in the food sector. He was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent. Vines is the author of several books, including: Hong Kong: China’s New Colony, The Years of Living Dangerously - Asia from Crisis to the New Millennium and Market Panic and most recently, Food Gurus. He hosts a weekly television current affairs programme: The Pulse. Vines’ latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published in 2021 by Hurst Publishers, London