Hong Kong arts centre ‘cancels appearance’ by Chinese dissident author

Home / Hong Kong arts centre ‘cancels appearance’ by Chinese dissident author

An arts centre in Hong Kong hosting the city’s annual international literary festival has cancelled appearances by Ma Jian, the exiled Chinese writer said on Thursday, in the latest example of China tightening its control on freedom of expression.

Ma, who now lives in London and whose books are banned in China, was due to promote his latest novel at the festival this weekend.

China Dream is a dark satire inspired by the propaganda catchphrase of Xi Jinping, the president of China.

The writer posted on Twitter that both his festival speaking engagements scheduled for Saturday had been called off by the Tai Kwun Arts Centre, not festival organisers who are trying to find an alternative venue.

"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,” Mr Ma wrote in his tweet. “An alternative venue will have to be found. No reason has been given to me yet.”

The Hong Kong International Literary Festival on Thursday confirmed it had been "asked to change the venue for two events by Tai Kwun,” according to a statement. “We aren’t speculating on the reasons for the move and instead focus on our mission of ensuring our authors are all heard.”

The festival launched last Friday and is scheduled to run through this Sunday.

A spate of recent events have stoked concerns that liberties in Hong Kong are under serious threat from an increasingly aggressive China. The former British colony has long enjoyed freedoms that were negotiated when the city was returned to Beijing by Britain in 1997, but concerns are growing that rights are being eroded by Chinese authorities.

Last week, an art show by dissident Chinese-Australian political cartoonist Badiucao was cancelled by Hong Kong organisers over safety issues after “threats made by Chinese authorities relating to the artist.”

In October, Hong Kong authorities also denied a visa without explanation to a Financial Times journalist who hosted a speech by the leader of a Hong Kong separatist political party at the city’s foreign press club. That group, the Hong Kong National Party, was deemed an illegal organisation in September.

And the city’s publishers have been under intense pressure ever since five booksellers known for printing scurrilous titles about China’s leaders disappeared in 2015 only to turn up a year later  in custody on the mainland.

Tai Kwun or "big station" was known as Victoria Prison in colonial times but is now an arts centreCredit:
Anthony Wallace/AFP

Mr Ma’s newest book “charts the psychological disintegration of a Chinese provincial leader who is haunted by nightmares of his violent past,” wrote its publishers, Penguin. It is “a biting satire of totalitarianism that reveals what happens to a nation when it is blinded by materialism and governed by violence and lies.”

Mr Ma has said he couldn’t find a Hong Kong publisher willing to put out a Chinese translation of China Dream given the book’s political content. The English version of the book was released in Britain last week.

Pen Hong Kong, one chapter of the international writers’ society founded in London, said it was "deeply concerned" that the cancellation was linked to political pressures.

“Pen Hong Kong calls on Tai Kwun to clarify why it cancelled this award-winning author’s events, and to affirm its commitment to freedom of expression in Hong Kong,” said Jason Ng, president of Pen Hong Kong.

“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.” 

A receptionist who answered the phone at Tai Kwun Arts Centre said Mr Ma’s events would be relocated without providing further details.

With assistance by Paula Jin

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