Ai Wei Wei has become a cause célèbre in Hong Kong since his arrest by mainland Chinese authorities on April 3rd. In the week since I wrote about “Chin Tangerine“, who covered the city with “Who’s Afraid of Ai Wei Wei?” graffiti, artists have rallied to Ai’s support with a blizzard of interventions, homages and protests. Their efforts have ensured that Ai’s plight has remained on the front page for weeks.
You could see that effect at work on Saturday afternoon, when a group of artists organized a protest march in support of Ai. Hong Kong is a city with an engrained protest culture — people here observe the July 1st handover holiday by taking to the streets — but most protests are a mishmash of interest groups, each with its own cause or grievance. Saturday’s march, by contrast, was clear in its message: Ai Wei Wei has been unjustly detained and he should be freed. Even though its attendance was less than 2,000 — a somewhat small protest by Hong Kong standards — it was the biggest story of the weekend.
The march was more spectacular than any Hong Kong protest I have seen. Installation artist Kacey Wong built a large “grass mud horse” out of wood and wool, a reference to a popular meme that mocks government censorship in mainland China. (A grass mud horse is a mythical creature whose name sounds like “fuck your mother” in Mandarin.) River crabs — another swipe at Chinese censorship — made an appearance. Somebody made a large paper worm called the White Terror Bug.
When I asked Chin Tangerine why Hong Kong people should care about Ai, she answered with eloquence: “Hong Kong is part of China, but because we have a fair judicial system and the right to freedom of speech, it’s our responsibility to speak out about what happened to Ai Wei Wei.” Others hinted at more urgent reasons to march. “This kind of disappearance could be a foreshadowing of what is to come,” Kacey Wong said to me. “This could happen to Hong Kong. Look at what’s happening to [Chin], who is being chased by police. It’s a warning sign of censorship.”
While there is no state censorship in Hong Kong, there is certainly a problem of self-censorship by people who feel that it would be politically incorrect to be overly critical of China. As if to underscore this point, the march on Saturday weaved through the streets of Kowloon to César Baldaccini’s sculpture on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, “The Flying Frenchman.” The piece is a reaction to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and when it was donated to Hong Kong by the Cartier Foundation in 1992, it was originally named “The Freedom Fighter,” but the name was changed to make its political message less overt.
Related on maisonneuve.org: