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For Hong Kong Artists, the Internet Is Freedom’s Last Frontier

By Kelly Go

In 2014, the city-state of Hong Kong was swept up in the Umbrella Revolution.  Its leaders were youth, its medium the internet, and the results were hundreds of thousands of bodies on the street voicing strong political demands including the call for universal suffrage. In Hong Kong, political opinions are commonly discussed online and like many international movements – from Occupy to the Arab Spring to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution — the Internet served as a powerful platform to circulate political opinions and mobilize grassroots movements.

The 2014 revolution also marked the emergence of widespread political “derivative work,” more widely known in North America as ‘memes.’ Rather than reproducing the original, derivative work is “creative art that modifies, appropriates, and/or adapts an earlier work….to parody and comment visually on an event or to caricature a public political figure.” Once created, derivative work is uploaded on social-media platforms like Facebook and Instagram and shared widely. Derivative work is powerful because it is activism framed through images of popular culture, often making previously boring political issues come alive on social media.

The Subversive Politics of Derivative Work in a Climate of Distrust
A collective distrust, characterized by scepticism between generations and suspicion toward the government and its leaders, permeates the current political environment in Hong Kong. Since its handover from the United Kingdom to China in 1997, Hong Kong is supposed to be ruled under the practice of “one country, two systems” meaning that the Chinese government would not intervene in Hong Kong’s  economic and political systems. However, in recent years, there has been increasing intervention from the Chinese government. Hong Kong Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung  is commonly referred to in disparaging terms as “689” due to his low popularity. Out of the 1200 member Election Committee in Beijing, Mr. Leung received a marginal 689 votes. He is also known as “The wolf,” a name intended to criticize his close ties with Beijing. Until a couple of years ago there was no legal way for the Hong Kong government to regulate or curtail derivative art and it became a major means of communication and outlet for political critique.

Clamping Down on Dissent
Screen Shot 2017-01-20 at 4.11.16 PMOn June 18, 2014, the Copyright Bill was introduced into the Legislative Council to ensure Hong Kong’s technological and global relevance. The Bill created widespread concern among artists and citizens because it could legalize the infringement of creative freedom and freedom of speech in the name of copyright protection. It also heightened the fear of “mainlandization” and the increasing involvement of Beijing in Hong Kong politics. The Copyright Bill has been dubbed by dissenters as “Internet Article 23,” a reference to Article 23 in the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China which prohibits “any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government of China”. The HK Basic law Article 23 symbolizes the increasing intervention from Beijing in HK and the dubbing of the Copyright Bill as “Internet Article 23” shows how the Bill is being interpreted as a means for the government to tighten freedom in HK. Many fear that the Copyright Bill will be used to clamp down on derivative works, the last line of defence against the status quo. While supporters of the Copyright Bill claim that the legislation aims to tackle piracy, its vague language has generated suspicion among citizens with many questioning its real intentions. In response to this criticism, the government created a finite list that included six exemptions in the bill: parody, satire, caricature, pastiche, quotation, and commentaries on current events. But citizens and artists argue that because of the vagueness of this language, creative freedom and freedom of speech are still very much under threat. the legality of derivative work is in question, many in Hong Kong are worried that rather than protecting artists, it an attempt to silence artistic political protest and to protect those in power. Their means of dissent? More derivative art! Hong Kong artists ingeniously started to create more derivative arts to challenge and voice their concerns about the Bill and the clampdown of dissent.

  1. Awakening Dubbing is a group of voice actors specialize in discussing current issues in HK by dubbing or creating new voice-overs on existing movies and TV series.  awakening dubThe group aims to “wake up” citizens who are unaware of the prevailing issues in HK. The image above is from a remixed clip of the 2004 movie “Downfall” which depicts Hitler’s last days of ruling Nazi Germany. The remixed version shows disheveled Hitler sitting in a bunker shaking his fist and shouting “The Internet is the last frontier of freedom, the mainstream media has already been captured, do you think you are going to get the truth when you turn on the TV?”In an interview with Radio Television Hong Kong, Kimmy, the voice-over actress of Awakening Dubbing explained, “If the government stopped making unjust decisions, doing bad things, netizens will be less incline to create derivative works and [then] people wouldn’t ‘like’ and ‘share’ them on social media.”
  2. In this drawing posted by @Mercury_painting on Instagram, the man holding a gun is Gregory So, the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development of Hong Kong who pushed for the passage of Internet Article.
    mercury painting
    網絡23條又再來臨。網絡是社會最後的防線,代表自由的防線。若果今天網絡也失守,所有藝術工作者必然難逃一刧。 藝術本無分你我,一次二次也只是個稱呼。 創作的本質總不能完全首創,生活上一切都對創作有所影響。 偉大藝術家畢加索曾說, 好的藝術家懂複製,偉大的藝術家則擅偷取。今天政府是針對網絡地狐假虎威,條例一但通過,我們無一幸免。網絡之所以百花齊放,是因為那裡有自由的空氣。

    Caption translated: “Internet Article 23 is coming. The Internet is society’s last line of defense; the Internet also represents freedom’s last line of defense. If the last line of defense fell, no one will be safe especially artists. No creation can claim to be original because everything happens in our life influence what we create. The great artist Picasso once said that good artists copy, great artists steal. Right now, the government is acting as a bully using Internet Article 23 to threaten us. The reason why the Internet is able to flourish is because of its freedom. We must fight this nightmare.”

  3. Posted by @dollylydraw on FacebookPosted by @dollylydraw on Facebook.Caption translated: “Evil internet article 23, stop screwing me over.”

    Dolly, an artist specializing in derivative work, explained in an interview with the author that the Copyright Bill works to create “white terror” on the Internet. White Terror is a reference to Taiwan, from the 1940s to 1980s, it was a period of martial law during which opposition to the government was suppressed and many were imprisoned. “Politics and art are connected, and art is a message delivering tool,“ Dolly said, “so rather than simply expressing my opinions…it’s more like waking up those who are unaware of the current.”
  4. Posted by @Johnhoho on Instagram.
    Caption translated: “If Internet article 23 was passed, creative freedom and freedom of expression will be tied down. If we want to safeguard the sense of humor of the city, we need to first protect creative freedom.”
    網絡廿三條通過後,創作只有綁手綁腳,要自由發表都驚! 守護這城市還有的幽默感,守護創作自由

    Caption translated: “If Internet article 23 was passed, creative freedom and freedom of expression will be tied down. If we want to safeguard the sense of humor of the city, we need to first protect creative freedom.”

    Local humor which may not resonate elsewhere is often incorporated in the art pieces. Humor is important to grab people’s attention and provide audience an entry into a shared space of mutual understanding of an issue, of getting the social and political context through getting the jokes, and at the same time, to keep other people out. The use of humor is employed in derivative works in strategic ways that not only evoke a laugh, but also a sense of inclusion and local identity that many HK people feel is under threat from the Beijing government.

  5. Posted by Collins Yeung on Facebook. darth vaderIn this piece, Darth Vader represents China. ‘Grandfather’ is a slang referring to the Beijing government. Luke Skywalker represents Hong Kong, trying to hold on to the colonial Hong Kong flag. “Humor and art combining together surely make people more interested in politics,” Collin Yeung explained in an interview with the author. “But it has to be done carefully, most people can easily turn their focus or attention to the humor part and treat it as an (only) entertainment.”
  6. Posted by Daniel Hoi on Facebook.Caption translated: “Citizens = Netizens; Internet article 23, don’t say it’s not going to affect you.” Caption translated: “Citizens = Netizens; Internet article 23, don’t say it’s not going to affect you.”

    This drawing is derived from a scene in the 1998 Japanese horror movie Ring, when the ghost crawls out from the TV. In the movie, there is no way to destroy the ghost and it is a never-ending cycle of avoiding being killed.
  7. Posted by Daniel Hoi on FacebookPosted by Daniel Hoi on Facebook.When the Chinese government directly barred two newly elected pro-independence millennial politicians from the legislative council, this action completely shattered the ‘one county, two systems’ principle’. This illustration depicts the November 6 pro-democracy march against China’s intervention  which led to clashes with police who used pepper spray to stop the crowd. The man holding a clapperboard and megaphone is HK Chief Executive cheering on the police pepper spraying of the protestors.
  8. Posted by acitystory on Facebook.democracyThe top image is the silhouette of Queen Elizabeth the Second holding a cage which represents Hong Kong. Caption translated: “Before, we didn’t have democracy, but had freedom”.The bottom silhouette is of the President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping. Caption translated: “Now, we don’t have democracy nor freedom”.

Internet Article 23 Stalled
When asked if he is worried about imprisonment or repression, Hong Kong artist Collins Yeung explained, “Worrying is a must, but being an artist is a life-time career, all I can and must do is keep going, keep speaking out, keep creating art with my point of view to respond to matters, issues drew my attention, even it is sometimes unfriendly to some parties… Let’s hope the day of police arresting artists with different point of views won’t come to Hong Kong; even [if it] happens, I [will] stand my ground and draw what I am supposed to draw”.

Since March 2016, Internet Article 23 was shelved for the rest of this legislative council term. The withdrawal of the bill was the result of mass opposition including memes and artworks like the ones featured in this essay. Many believe that there is no doubt that the bill will once again return to the political agenda. The 2016 Hong Kong legislative council election on September 4 marked the highest voter turnout since the 1997 handover with 58% of registered voters, over 2.2 million people, participating. However, the ‘invisible hand’ of the Beijing government continues to keep its presence within Hong Kong politics. Prior to the election, six legislative candidates were disqualified due to their pro-independence or ‘localist’ stance. Hong Kong election officials pointed to various Facebook posts of Edward Leung, one of the six candidates who were disqualified, as one of the evidences of his ‘disloyalty’ and election candidates were urged to sign a loyalty declaration accepting Chinese rule and pledging their allegiance to the HK government. Pro-Beijing politicians still hold a majority winning 40 of 70 seats, but the most surprising result was the victory of young pro-democracy activists from the 2014 Umbrella movement. While the threat against freedom of speech and expression still hovers above the Hong Kong people, the result of this election was uplifting because of its high voter turnout and the victory of the pro-democracy activists.

Note: All translations were done by the author.

Kelly Go is a recent graduate from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies. She currently works at SWAN Vancouver, an NGO that provides culturally appropriate and language-specific support for newcomers, immigrant and migrant women. Born in Hong Kong Kelly emigrated to Canada in 2008. She is especially interested in the role of art in relation to human rights and social justice as well as understanding the construction of norms and the interplay of norms and social movements.

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