While Central Europe is well aware of the situation in China-occupied Tibet, it is less familiar with abuses of human rights and freedom of expression in Hong Kong. But one Hong Kong
“artivist” and performer is determined to change this.
Loretta Lau is a performance artist, art curator, and activist originally from British Hong Kong who relocated to Prague in 2018 to pursue her master's degree. She is the director of the non-profit NGO DEI which promotes artivism. Lau's performances and works have been seen and exhibited across Europe. Global Voices interviewed her to understand how her work is taking root in Central Europe and how local audiences are becoming more aware of Hong Kong and China in relation to political freedoms.
The interview took place in English over email and has been edited for style and length.
Filip Noubel (FN): More and more Hong-Kongers find themselves forced to live outside of Hong-Kong, mostly because of censorship, threats, and loss of jobs. Some, like Photon Media, regroup in Taiwan and continue their work. What are the main challenges of remaining an activist while being unable to return to Hong Kong?
Loretta Lau (LL): As an exile political performer, I have dedicated four years to support the Hong Kong protest movement. This immersive experience has granted me a profound insight into the challenges faced by activists who are unable to return to Hong Kong. During my recent three-month visit to submit a letter for the #ReturnThePillar [symbol of the June 4th 1989 massacre of students on Tiananmen Square in Beijing] campaign at Hong Kong University, I personally witnessed the condemnation and scrutiny from the Hong Kong SAR Government.
One of the major hurdles I encounter is the deepening division and erosion of trust between individuals in Hong Kong and Hongkongers residing abroad. The physical separation has exacerbated this divide, making it increasingly arduous to bridge the gap and foster unity within the movement. Without the opportunity for face-to-face interactions and shared experiences, misunderstandings and disagreements regarding strategies and priorities became more prevalent.
The implementation of the National Security Law further exacerbated this division. The law instilled an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, with concerns of collusion with foreign forces being leveraged to suppress dissent. This atmosphere of mistrust deepened the divide, as Hong Kong residents questioned the motives and intentions of activists abroad, apprehensive that their actions might inadvertently harm those who still reside in the city.
The trust deficit and division within the Hong Kong community significantly impact activism, impeding the formation of cohesive fronts and coordinated efforts. Rebuilding trust through open dialogue, empathy, and a shared vision becomes paramount for exile activists.
FN: Central Europe is opening up to dissident art from China and Hong Kong — as with the cartoonist Badiucao in Prague and now the latest issue with his exhibition in Warsaw. In what way is political artivism by Chinese and Hong Kong artists making a difference in reshaping narratives about those places in Central Europe?
LL: Having personally witnessed the Badiucao exhibition at DOX [private modern art museum in Prague] last year, I feel an immense sense of pride in being part of a movement that harnesses the power of political artivism to challenge oppressive narratives. These remarkable artistic endeavors not only illuminate human rights abuses but also serve as a catalyst for cultural diplomacy, fostering understanding and promoting dialogue between Central Europe and China/Hong Kong.
Through their thought-provoking artworks, artists like Badiucao fearlessly confront sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, the plight of Uyghurs, the erosion of freedom in Hong Kong, and China's aggressive foreign policies. By skillfully depicting these issues in their art, they courageously challenge prevailing narratives and ignite discussions on human rights and political freedoms. This form of artistic activism acts as a potent vehicle for cultural diplomacy, raising awareness and inspiring cross-cultural dialogue on pressing global concerns.
Furthermore, these exhibitions facilitate meaningful cultural exchange and nurture mutual understanding. They provide a unique opportunity for audiences in Central Europe to delve deeply into the struggles faced by dissident artists in China and Hong Kong. This engagement not only fosters cultural understanding but also cultivates empathy and solidarity that transcend geographical boundaries.
Ironically, the attempts to censor and impede these exhibitions inadvertently underscore their significance and the transformative power of art as a form of resistance. The actions taken by the Chinese authorities, such as appealing to the Polish culture ministry and blocking the museum's website, draw attention to the profound impact of these exhibitions in challenging oppressive regimes.
Here are some of Badiucao's art exhibited in Warsaw:
— 巴丢草 Bad ї ucao (@badiucao) June 21, 2023
For more on Badiucao, read: Chinese-Australian cartoonist Badiucao walks a fine line to avoid being politically hijacked
Badiucao has also tweeted extensively about the threats to his show in Warsaw following an aggressive campaign orchestrated by Beijing:
— Colombe Cahen-Salvador (@ColombeCS) June 19, 2023
FN: NGO DEI launched a petition about the future fate of the Pillar of Shame. Can you tell us more about your organization and how the petition is going? What are you hoping to achieve through this petition, as obviously, the Hong Kong security police are very unlikely to return the pillar?
LL: NGO DEI is a dynamic and youthful organization that has made a tremendous impact in just over two years since its inception. Our focus on arts and culture has allowed us to advocate for a free Hong Kong through more than 90 events, awe also assist over 80 Ukrainian migrants in settling in Europe.
Our petition aims to raise awareness about the seizure of the Pillar of Shame by the Hong Kong authorities on May 5, 2023. As a potent symbol of the Tiananmen Square massacre, we believe it should be returned to its rightful owners and publicly displayed in suitable venues. Though the petition currently has only close to 900 signatures, we believe its impact has extended beyond mere numbers. In fact, the most significant impact of our petition was the condemnation published by the Hong Kong government on May 6, indicating that our petition successfully compelled them to face our demand.
FN: How would you describe people’s awareness of what is happening in Hong Kong, in the Czech Republic, and perhaps in Central Europe?
LL: The level of awareness about what's happening in Hong Kong may vary among different people and communities in the Czech Republic and Central Europe. Some are highly informed and deeply concerned, while others may have limited knowledge due to their interests, sources of information, and engagement with global affairs. However, with the increasing international attention on issues in Hong Kong, more people are becoming aware of the importance of human rights and democracy. NGO DEI aims to unite HongKongers in Central Europe with the broader community by organizing events like the “Human Rights Festival 2022 (Prague)” and engaging in face-to-face discussions to demonstrate that we are not aliens fighting for freedom on Mars. We aspire to build connections and support each other's voices in our respective countries.