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Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen

Funding cuts, cancelled shows leave Hong Kong arts groups guessing about ‘red lines’ caused by national security law

  • Arts Development Council pulls support from annual awards show, Education Bureau blocks venue for theatre productions
  • Arts practitioners worry about creative freedom and lack of opportunities to appeal authorities’ decisions

Hong Kong theatre veteran Octavian Chan has started work on his next drama production and said he took more care than usual to ensure it would go without a hitch.

The director admitted he was concerned about the Arts Development Council’s recent decision to pull funding for the Hong Kong Federation of Drama Societies’ annual awards ceremony.

“I simply don’t want to give others the opportunity to accuse me of treading on a red line,” Chan said.

After 15 years in the arts scene and a reputation as one of the city’s leading theatre professionals, Chan said there had always been “some taboos in the industry”, such as references to Beijing’s crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the 2019 social unrest in Hong Kong and present Chinese politics.

“But after this funding-cut saga, I will be even more careful in handling my creative works, in particular the form of expression and choice of words used in drama,” he said.

Octavian Chan, a theatre director, says he has vowed to take care not to tread “on a red line” with his productions to avoid losing government financial support. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

He emphasised that his passion for exploring a variety of life situations remained undiminished, but said controversy over the arts council’s action left him concerned about his own applications for funding.

“My creations are all related to life and it’s inevitable to touch on some grey areas,” Chan said.

“To avoid being wrongly accused, I will explain the theme and plot of my production and the messages behind it more clearly when I submit my proposal.”

The arts world was shocked by news last month that the city’s funding body had decided to retain about HK$88,000 (US$11,253) of its HK$441,700 (US$56,460) grant for the drama federation’s awards ceremony last June.

The council said at first that “unusual arrangements” at the event had damaged its reputation.

It made clear later that its unhappiness was caused by the presence of political cartoonist Wong Kei-kwan, better known by his pen name Zunzi, and journalist Bao Choy Yuk-ling at the awards show.

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Zunzi’s cartoons, regularly criticised by senior government officials, were dropped by Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao last May.

Choy was the first journalist in Hong Kong to be found guilty of a breach of the law by using the search system of the government’s vehicle registry. Her conviction was quashed on appeal last year.

The council said its members and government representatives were also concerned about the event’s theme of “courage” and parts of the hosts’ script, which included puns about “red bridges” and “red lines”, which it said “implied a hidden meaning”.

But Luther Fung Luk-tak, the federation president, objected and accused the council of drawing red lines for the arts.

Kenneth Fok, chairman of the Arts Development Council, says the body cannot risk breaches on national security legislation. Photo: Dickson Lee
Council chairman Kenneth Fok Kai-kong, however, said the decision to halt support was made to minimise the risk of flouting the national security law.

The council also decided, after backing the annual event for 20 years, not to support this year’s ceremony.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department afterwards said it would not sponsor a venue for the 2024 Hong Kong Drama Awards.

Chan said the episode had sent a clear message to everyone in the arts who needed government funding.

“This is a warning to the industry that if they are disobedient, they will be punished and see their funding axed,” he added.

Hong Kong has almost 40,000 cultural and creative industry-related groups, involving about 200,000 people.

These include more than 1,000 performing arts groups which stage as many as 8,000 shows and draw audiences of more than 3 million a year.

The council gave total funding of HK$100.5 million, including annual grants to 50 arts groups and project grants to 286 projects, in 2022-23.

Government spending on arts and culture in that financial year totalled more than HK$5.9 billion, almost 40 per cent more than five years earlier.

Support for Hong Kong theatre awards pulled by Arts Development Council

More self-censorship in the arts now?

Culture critic Kuh Fei said the council’s action had dealt a severe blow to the industry as the city’s small and medium-sized arts groups depended on it for almost 90 per cent of their subsidies.

“Any reduction of funding has a big detrimental effect on a group’s survival,” he said.

He added that the council’s concerns over the national security law had sent a chill through the arts community.

“Arts practitioners have already been very nervous about their work, with some even resorting to self-censorship,” Fei said.

“Now they will start asking themselves if they have crossed the red lines imposed by the authorities.”

He said the climate could stifle creativity, but that there were also fears that private sponsors such as the Jockey Club might follow the council’s lead and cut back on donations to the arts.

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Fei appealed to the authorities not to be excessive with the imposition of curbs on funding and added that might run against Beijing’s goal to turn Hong Kong into an East-meets-West centre for international cultural exchanges under the national 14th five-year plan.

“The authorities should keep their focus on facilitating the industry’s growth and development,” he said. “The council has left an impression that it didn’t handle the matter in a fair manner as it did not give the federation a chance to explain itself or appeal.”

Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong, Zheng Yanxiong, emphasised the importance of developing the city into an international cultural exchange hub when he spoke at a Lunar New Year reception last week.

“We need to vigorously develop the cultural industry, meet the growing needs of the public, and reinvigorate the city’s cultural creativity that has, in times past, led to numerous classic martial arts novels, movies and pop music,” he said.

“Alongside horse racing, dancing and stock trading, we need to come up with more creative and entertaining offerings to light up the city’s cultural scene.”

Bao Choy, a former RTHK producer convicted but cleared on appeal of a breach of law in using the government’s vehicle registry, was a guest at the 2023 Hong Kong Federation of Drama Societies’ awards. Photo: Dickson Lee

Two plays cancelled at eleventh hour

A senior industry executive said that even before the council’s recent action, arts groups had started to feel the impact of the national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020.

The legislation banned acts of secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

The insider, who asked not to be named, said the council had toughened up the approval process for drama funding applications.

“In the past, it only scrutinised a project proposal outlining the theme, plot, artists and budget for a production,” the insider said.

“But, after the law was in place, it began requiring applicants to submit the script for scrutiny. The council tightened its grip on the operation of arts groups and projects.”

The council withdrew a grant of more than HK$700,000 to Ying E Chi Cinema, distributor of the documentary Inside the Red Brick Wall, in July 2021.

The council said the documentary, which chronicled the 13-day stand-off between police and protesters at Polytechnic University during the 2019 anti-government protests, had “beautified riots and expressed dissatisfaction against the current regime”.

It also updated the terms for its funding schemes and underlined it had the right to suspend, adjust or stop grants for projects that advocated Hong Kong independence or the overthrow of the government.

The Education Bureau instructed arts school HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity to terminate its venue rental agreement with the drama group Fire Makes Us Human last week, on national security grounds, in what was seen as another blow to the creative professions.

The HKICC Lee Shau Kee School Of Creativity in Lok Fu, which was told to withdraw a venue rental agreement with a drama group on national security grounds. Photo: Handout

The order came only days before two original plays by Jim Hui were scheduled to open. The five performances, deprived of a venue, had to be cancelled.

Founder Alex Tong Ho-cheung revealed on February 1 that someone at the private school told him the bureau’s action might have been related to “sensitive comments” he made online during the 2019 anti-government protests.

He said he had no clue what those comments were, but added that he was given no opportunity to hear from the bureau or explain.

He added he was saddened that all the efforts of the six-year-old group had come to this. The cancelled productions involved 22 young performers.

The bureau’s action left Tong so shaken that he announced that the theatre company was to disband.

The Federation of Drama Societies and the Hong Kong Theatre Arts Practitioners Union expressed regret about the termination of the venue lease in a joint statement issued on Thursday.

They appealed to the authorities to reconsider, and to allow the drama group to clarify any misunderstandings as both plays did not touch on any sensitive or controversial matters.

The two groups added that the incident had raised concerns among arts practitioners. “They really feel baffled about the future of creative freedom and creativity safeguards. It all seems hazy to us now,” they said.

Support for Hong Kong theatre awards pulled by Arts Development Council

‘Arts groups should aim for self-reliance’

Benny Lim Kok-wai, an associate professor of practice in cultural management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said if the authorities had any red lines in the arts, they should be defined clearly and communicated to avoid problems.

“I’m saddened by the situation. It’s disheartening,” he added.

“If we want to see a thriving arts ecosystem, we really need to see collaboration between policymakers, funding bodies and the arts community.

“These three parties should not view each other as adversaries.”

But he said he felt that arts groups also had to look at ways to be self-reliant if they wanted to ensure their survival and creative freedom.

“Government funding is always influenced by what is deemed to be in the public interest from the authorities’ viewpoint,” Lim added. “It is really up to the artists or arts organisations to decide what conditions they are willing to accept.”

He said a bigger question was whether arts organisations should rely so heavily on government funding.

Lim suggested that the government should devote extra resources to the development of policies that encouraged more public support for the industry.

“If there are policies to get people to understand, enjoy and support the arts, including encouraging corporate donations, audience development and arts education, it will help arts groups to become more self-reliant,” he said.

Lim added he was confident that the city’s arts community would get past the clash between the council and the arts federation.

“Our artists or arts community can, of course, be very concerned and upset about this situation … but they will move on, in the name of resilience and creativity,” he said.

“There are always ways to work around the issues.”

Indy Lee Chun-leung, a theatre director, agreed that the industry should seek more non-governmental funding to achieve self-reliance and space for creative autonomy.

(From left) Hong Kong Federation of Drama Societies’ Dominic Cheung and president Luther Fung respond to to the Arts Development Council’s allegations about controversial guests at its 2023 drama awards. Photo Jonathan Wong

“It was very unusual for the council to cut funding and it has already prompted more self-censorship as people don’t want to see a funding cut for their operations,” he said.

“To achieve greater room for development, they should create more channels to raise funds or expand sources of income to sustain their survival.”

Chan Kin-man, 34, a stage actor, said recent developments had only resulted in more uncertainty for people in the industry.

He added most artists already had to take on other jobs, including teaching, running events in schools, and even low-paid work.

“Arts practitioners usually earn very little with a very unstable income,” Chan said. “I'll be starving if I rely only on my meagre income from acting.”

He added he had taken jobs as a cashier and wall painter, and spent two years as a cleaner during the Covid-19 pandemic when theatres and schools were closed for long stretches.

Chan added he was pessimistic about the city’s drama scene, which was affected by the invisible “red lines” and had also lost audiences because of the wave of emigration that followed the introduction of the national security legislation.

He added the arts council’s recent action had added to the industry’s worries about their livelihoods.

“We have no clue where the red lines lie, but the many different forms of expression in the arts are left to be interpreted by the authorities,” Chan said.