One of the world’s great global cities has lost its identity

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Hong Kong: It is 11am on a balmy Saturday morning at M+, and there is a trickle of people entering Hong Kong’s answer to London’s Tate Modern.

This world-class gallery towers over Hong Kong Harbour. It is also treading a fine line.

Inside, Zhou Tao’s video loop of factory staff doing their morning rounds welcomes visitors. China’s brand of socialism is “a highly effective governing tactic for modern corporations”, the gallery’s blurb says.

The M+ Gallery in Hong KongCredit: Virgile Simon Bertrand

Nearby, Liu Wei’s painting Born 1989 in Beijing is filled with the dismembered limbs of a generation. The 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square that caused their disfiguration is implied but unidentified.

One of Ai Weiwei’s most controversial pieces has been censored too. Visitors will not be able to see the exiled Chinese artist putting his finger up in Beijing’s most famous square.

Instead, his entire contribution has been reduced to a giant block of black tea leaves.

It is a paradoxically muted and brave decision by M+’s curators, including former Art Gallery of NSW director Suhanya Raffel, to include the Chinese dissident at all, given protesters holding up blank pieces of paper have been detained for threatening the security of the Chinese state.

Hongkongers are increasingly scared of discussing politics publicly. Credit: Daniel Ceng

None of this was in the plan when M+ was commissioned a decade ago with a grand vision to become Asia’s largest gallery. Since then, the city’s artistic, literary and academic scenes have been decimated by national security laws imposed by Beijing.

Now the billion-dollar gallery faces competition not just from other modern art institutions in the region, but from its neighbour next door in West Kowloon, where hundreds of tourists from the mainland are piling out of buses each day.

“Come and visit a place that belongs to the Chinese people,” Chinese tour guides yell as large groups follow their coloured flags through the golden cauldron of the Hong Kong Palace Museum.

Within a year, this treasure trove of ancient Chinese art that stretches back 4000 years has become a magnet for tourists from the mainland.

Wu Ke-Ni, a Chinese medicine student, visiting Hong Kong.Credit: Daniel Ceng

“It’s fun to see the gravity of history,” says Wu Ke-Ni, a 21-year-old Chinese medicine student from Guangdong in southern China. “It’s not like before. Now Hong Kong and the mainland are close. The separation is no longer there.”

Egyptian in scale, the palace takes visitors through the world of the ancient Shu in Sichuan province, with hundreds of intricate bronze, jade and gold statues.

The museum now also hosts the largest display of Forbidden City ornaments outside Beijing and a barrage of early modern Chinese artefacts, which “prospered long before the European notion of design emerged”.

President Xi Jinping has made remoulding Chinese history – and by extension Hong Kong’s – a national priority. The Palace Museum is the golden global face of an ancient civilisation dating back to 4000 BC.

Ian Johnson, a fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that more than any other modern Chinese leader, Xi has sought to change history.

Visitors at the Palace Museum in Hong Kong. Credit: Daniel Ceng

“Alternative interpretations are forbidden; textbooks and school curricula are being refashioned to tell a new, glorious history for a new, nationalistic superpower,” he says.

At the Museum of Coastal Defence on Hong Kong Island’s eastern edge the paint is still drying on some of its newest exhibits.

Here “anti-Japanese martyrs and heroic groups” are lauded, unequal treaties that have never had “any international legal standing” by the British are condemned, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army maintain public order across the city, and videos loop of Xi rallying troops: “Greetings, comrades!”

“History is not about the dusty past,” Adam Ni and Yun Jiang, of the research group China Neican, said in 2021 as Xi prepared his own historical resolution. “It’s about the power to decide the future.”

In Tsim Sha Tsui, that future is being renovated in real-time. The Hong Kong Story exhibit at the Hong Kong Museum has been closed since pro-democracy protests over Beijing’s growing influence rocked the city in 2019. In its place is a pop-up celebrating the city’s links with ancient China and its “return to the motherland”. Britain’s colonial rule – both in its brutality and its legacy of systems such as common law – has been largely reduced to the moment of the handover in 1997.

This is China’s Hong Kong now.

On a loop: Xi Jinping rallies the troops at Hong Kong’s Museum of Coastal Defence. Credit: Daniel Ceng

“I think the goal is to do to Hong Kong what the party has done in mainland China, which is to impose its version of history,” says Johnson. “The national security law was the first step towards that.”

The laws, which criminalise dissent with up to life in prison, are so vague that they have terrified teachers into leaving the profession. Nearly 12,000 teachers have quit since 2021, according to data from the Education Bureau in April.

In primary schools, new supervisor positions have been created to make sure schools are sufficiently patriotic.

“Every Friday morning we have to sing the national anthem,” says a teacher of 17 years who asked only to be known as Lam because education is politically sensitive in Hong Kong.

Primary school students are expected to sing the national anthem every morning.Credit: Daniel Ceng

“When you look at students, you can see that the students from year 4 to year 6 are not very keen on singing the national anthem. But if you pay close attention, you can see the students in year 1 and year 2 are very enthusiastic. So it becomes something quite natural.”

This cleave has rippled right across Hong Kong. The city can be divided into those who knew Hong Kong before 2019 when millions marched on the streets in protest, and those now living in a city where any form of dissent has been outlawed.

“It happened so fast,” says Lam.

MJ, a student who finished high school in 2021, said in four years the liberal identity of one of the world’s great global cities has been wiped out. “And the rest of the world has just sort of shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘Oh well.’

“For kids who were born and raised here, we grew up learning you have freedom of speech, and then all of a sudden, you can’t talk any more.

“The only choice you have left to decide is whether you want to stay or whether you want to go.”

Of the five teachers at Lam’s wedding five years ago, four have left. Inside the staffroom, politics is off-limits. “You don’t want other teachers to hear what you say,” Lam says.

Newspapers including the Apple Daily, marking the day Hong Kong was handed over by Britain to China on display at the Hong Kong Museum of History. Credit: Daniel Ceng

Increasingly, it is out of bounds at home, too. Within a few months of the national security laws being enacted, families went from speaking freely at the dinner table to being suspicious of each other and everyone around them.

“I don’t talk about politics any more with my family. The sharing of WeChat and Weibo has turbocharged misinformation among the elderly,” says Lam, referring to the social media sites used widely across the country.

“The information war has been won in Hong Kong. You have to accept that the Chinese Communist Party is really good at these things, no matter how much you hate it.”

At the Hong Kong Museum, a copy of the Apple Daily still hangs in the Hong Kong story exhibit.

“The beginning of a great era,” its headline reads on July 2, 1997, marking the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. “Hong Kong believes in tomorrow.”

In August 2020, the Apple Daily newsroom was raided by 200 police on national security charges of colluding with foreign forces.

Its founder, Jimmy Lai, is now in jail.

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