Plans to boost Hong Kong’s cultural credentials by building a new branch of China’s most famous museum in the territory have sparked protests against what critics say is cultural brainwashing and kowtowing to Beijing.
The backlash comes at a time of heightened sensitivity in the semi-autonomous territory where there is increasing concern that Chinese authorities are tightening their hold.
With its collection of ceramics, calligraphy, paintings, jades, timepieces and other items from multiple Chinese dynasties, Beijing’s Palace Museum is the most visited in the world, with more than 14 million people visiting each year.
Project organizers say a locally managed and curated Hong Kong branch, displaying artifacts on long-term loan from Beijing, would be a stellar attraction for the territory.
However, opponents argue the public should have been consulted before the green light was given to a project they feel has been developed to please Beijing.
Recent demonstrations against the plans have included protesters throwing paper tanks at officials, in a reference to China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown.
The Palace Museum is housed within Beijing’s Forbidden City, just north of the square where tanks rolled in to quash pro-democracy protests in 1989.
“It’s not simply brainwashing — it is cultural whitewashing by introducing more Chinese history and culture that is perceived to be positive,” League of Social Democrats chairman Avery Ng (吳文遠) said.
Ng said the museum disregarded Hong Kong’s identity, “including its own history and the dark side of Chinese history.”
Others say the public may have appreciated the museum if it had been discussed transparently.
“People appreciate museums and art if you do it in a proper way,” said former legislator Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人), who organizes the territory’s annual Tiananmen vigil.
He called the lack of public consultation over whether the museum should go ahead a “dictatorial approach.”
The Hong Kong Palace Museum is to be built in the West Kowloon Cultural District, a sprawling arts project already mired in delay and accusations of political interference. It replaces a performance venue originally slated for the area.
Set to open in 2022, it will be funded by a HK3.5 billion (US$450 million) grant from the city’s Jockey Club, which runs Hong Kong’s horse racing meets, lottery and betting shops.
Hong Kong Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) is chairman of the cultural district authority’s board and critics accuse her of pushing through the museum project to impress Beijing.
Lam is widely expected to run for Hong Kong leader in March, with little hope of succeeding in her election bid without the nod from China.
However, she has defended herself and the project.
“I know that today’s society is full of mistrust, but for this issue, we really do not have any selfish motives and private interests,” she told reporters on Tuesday.
“We should not let this cultural issue be politicized,” she said.
A six-week public consultation into the design, operation and programming for the museum started yesterday, after criticism mounted, but it does not ask whether the project should go ahead. The board already approved plans for the museum in November. Hong Kong residents who spoke with Agence France-Presse said they did not support the project.