22 April 2019
Chinese dissident author Ma Jian (inset), who had been scheduled to present his latest novel 'China Dream' during a Hong Kong literary event, suspects a Hong Kong arts hub dropped his events due to political considerations. Pics: HKEJ, Internet
Chinese dissident author Ma Jian (inset), who had been scheduled to present his latest novel 'China Dream' during a Hong Kong literary event, suspects a Hong Kong arts hub dropped his events due to political considerations. Pics: HKEJ, Internet

Author raises free speech issue as HK arts center pulls events

Ma Jian, an exiled Chinese author considered a dissident by Beijing, has apparently become the latest individual to fall victim to suspected political censorship in Hong Kong.

The Qingdao-born Ma, who lived in Hong Kong for many years but is now a UK resident, revealed on Wednesday that he had been informed that two events which he had been scheduled to attend in relation to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival had been cancelled abruptly.

The Tai Kwun arts center which was supposed to host two events featuring Ma has pulled the programs, according to the author.

As per the original schedule, Ma was to participate in the programs this weekend, but now he has been told that the events are no longer on the Tai Kwun calendar.

Tai Kwun, a new center for heritage and arts that is located in Hong Kong’s Central district, has cancelled the talks involving Ma while going ahead with all the other events featuring other personalities.

“Just been told that my two events at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival this week can no longer be held at Tai Kwun, where all the other events are taking place. An alternative venue will have to be found. No reason has been given to me yet,” Ma said in a Twitter post on Wednesday.

As per the statement, the two speaking events were cancelled by Tai Kwun, rather than the festival organizers.

In one of the events that had earlier been on the agenda, Ma was to have presented his latest novel, “China Dream”, a satire on modern China, while the other involved a panel discussion on Hong Kong literature, an event that would also feature local writers Hon Lai-chu and Ng Mei-kwan.

The pulling of the venue came after an art exhibition in the city by a dissident Chinese-Australian cartoonist, Badiucao, was abruptly canceled due to “security concerns” a day before it was set to take place last Saturday, the Hong Kong Economic Journal noted.

Late in the night Thursday, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival provided an updated program calendar on its website. 

According to the new schedule, the two events will now be held in The Annex event and exhibition space at the Nan Fung Place building in Central.

Ma told an RTHK interview from London Thursday night that he was surprised at the developments, given that the events have been planned for half a year.

The author suspects the Chinese government may have something to do with the changes.

A member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, a collective of writers in exile, Ma, who had been recognized as one of the 50 most important writers of the 21st century by the French magazine “Lire”, described the venue withdrawal as a likely case of self-censorship by Tai Kwun.

He slammed the arts center, saying its decision amounts to insulting the literary community in Hong Kong.

In other comments, Ma said he fears he only has a 50/50 chance of being allowed to enter Hong Kong when he lands at the airport on Friday afternoon.

It is possible that he may be denied entry even though he holds a Hong Kong permanent resident card, the author said.

Hong Kong has been gradually losing its atmosphere of freedom since the 1997 handover, Ma said, adding that he is saddened at the situation.

Opened to the public in May this year, Tai Kwun was renovated from the former Central Police Station compound on Hollywood Road, whose history dates back more than 170 years, and turned into a cultural and leisure destination operated by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which had put in several billion Hong Kong dollars for the project.

In a reply to a HKEJ inquiry, Tai Kwun’s director Timothy Calnin said they were working closely with the Hong Kong International Literary Festival to find a suitable alternative venue for the Ma events.

Separately, in a statement issued Thursday, Calnin said that they “do not want Tai Kwun to become a platform to promote the political interests of any individual.”

“Tai Kwun will continue to be a vibrant cultural hub to offer the best heritage and arts experiences to Hong Kong, and to cultivate knowledge and appreciation of contemporary art, performing arts and history in our community,” the statement said.

In a post on his Twitter account, Ma said he wouldn’t have used Tai Kwun as a platform to promote his “political interests”.

Pointing out that he is a novelist, not an activist, Ma said he had planned to attend the Festival only to discuss his new novel.

“I believe in free thought and free speech. Without them, life has no meaning,” Ma said.

In another Twitter post, Ma revealed that he has not been able to find a Hong Kong publisher for the Chinese language version of his novel.

A publisher had earlier agreed to take up the job, with the condition that some minor amendments would be made in the text, but pulled out later on the pretext that no bookstore would dare to sell the title, according to Ma.

Lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching said the Ma-related developments show that one can only expect obstacles if one deals with matters deemed sensitive to China.

If Ma is denied entry into the city, it will mark another international scandal for Hong Kong after authorities recently denied work visa renewal for Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet, Mo said.

In a statement on Thursday, the Hong Kong Journalists Association said the Badiucao and Ma cases will add to fears that freedom of speech and expression is being undermined in Hong Kong.

As of Friday afternoon, doubts began to emerge if the Ma events would be held at all.

That is because the Nan Fung Group, which was expected to provide the alternative venue for the Chinese dissident writer’s talks, had also apparently backed out.

The group, according to media reports, said its Annex event and exhibition space will not serve as the venue for the Ma programs.

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