Arts center gag hits free-speech dream

Local | Amy Nip and Phoenix Un 9 Nov 2018

The Tai Kwun arts complex in Central has come under attack for canceling talks by mainland dissident Ma Jian during the Hong Kong International Literary Festival this week.

Tai Kwun director Timothy Calnin said the complex, formerly the Central police station, was refurbished by the Hong Kong Jockey Club in partnership with the government and should not become "a platform to promote the political interests of any individual."

Ma is the author of China Dream, a novel whose title mocks the rhetoric of President Xi Jinping. His writings are banned in the mainland, and no Hong Kong publisher wants to publish a Chinese-language version of his latest novel, which is already out in English.

Ma, now in London, was told that his two events scheduled for tomorrow, could no longer be held at Tai Kwun, where all the other festival events are taking place.

"An alternative venue will have to be found," he wrote.

"No reason has been given to me yet. I wouldn't use Tai Kwun as a platform to promote 'political interests.' I'm a novelist, not an activist, and am attending the festival to discuss my new novel, China Dream. My 'politics' are simple: I believe in free thought and free speech. Without them, life has no meaning."

Festival organizer Phillipa Milne said Tai Kwun requested a change of venue for Ma's events: "We aren't speculating on the reasons for the move and we instead focus on our mission of ensuring our authors are all heard."

Calnin said Tai Kwun is designed to be a cultural hub for the entire community to enjoy, and its management holds itself responsible for offering diverse programs that take into account the many needs of the community.

"We do not want Tai Kwun to become a platform to promote the political interests of any individual," he said. "We have therefore worked closely with the festival to find a more suitable alternative venue. We are very grateful to it for their cooperation in reaching this solution."

Claudia Mo Man-ching, convener of Democracy Camp Meetings, questioned if there had been pressure from the government or from Beijing to cancel the event. "Hongkongers find it very scary that the government repeatedly strangles freedom of speech and the press," she said. "This is another example after that of Badiucao of the cultural sector clearly being muzzled by the government."

Badiucao, a Chinese political cartoonist who resides in Australia, was supposed to hold an exhibition of his works in Hong Kong starting from last Saturday. It was canceled after the organizer claimed to have received threats from Beijing.

While the literary festival organizer is still looking for a new venue, Mo expressed concern that the Immigration Department might bar Ma from entering Hong Kong.

Pen Hong Kong also expressed concern with the cancellation.

"We are concerned that political pressure may be a factor in Tai Kwun's decision, given that Hong Kong has faced increasing pressure from Beijing to silence dissent," it said.

"The cancellation appears to be at the very least an act of self-censorship, which would add to a growing list of incidents of suppression of free expression in Hong Kong.

"It is all the more jarring that the decision was made by a publicly-funded venue that claims to celebrate and support the arts and creativity."

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