Rarely has there been so much riding on an art exhibition. With “Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art”, which opens on Tuesday, the custodians of the future M+ will try to convince a sceptical Hong Kong public that the much-delayed opening of the museum, which is now expected in 2019, will be worth the wait.

They will do so by giving locals a first glimpse of some of the most important contemporary art the city has ever owned. But given the nature of the exhibition – selected highlights from the M+ Sigg collection: 80 pieces by 50 artists presented in chronological order – the curators have a significant additional burden. They must prove they can relate the politically charged history of Chinese contemporary art without interference, that the HK$5 billion Herzog and de Meuron-designed waterfront landmark will be home to uncensored exhibitions and research, and that the West Kowloon Cultural District will not turn out to be a white elephant that confirms Hong Kong is losing its freedom of expression.

Watch: Hong Kong's contemporary art exhibition restores historic moments in China

In 2012, Uli Sigg donated the bulk of his Chinese art collection to M+. The 1,510 pieces, including 47 works that the museum bought separately from the Swiss collector, were valued at a total of HK$1.3 billion, and that figure will have risen since. Sigg’s is widely considered to be an unrivalled collection of Chinese art produced since the 1970s, based on size, quality and temporal span.

“It is a significant collection by somebody who hasn’t tried to amass it in a short space of time, someone with a long connection with China,” says Paul Gladston, director of the Centre for Contemporary East-Asian Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham and an author of several books on Chinese contemporary art. “It probably is the most representative archival collection of its kind.”

The curator of the exhibition, which will be held in ArtisTree, in Quarry Bay, is Pi Li. The internationally respected mainland academic and art critic joined M+ the year Sigg made his donation. He knows the collection well, having contributed to an event held by Sigg in Bern, Switzerland, 11 years ago and curated exhibitions of the collector’s M+ pieces in Sweden’s Bildmuseet, in 2014, and Britain’s Whitworth Art Gallery, last year.

“This show allows people to get a sense of what contemporary Chinese art is about,” says Pi. “We joke that this is the most comprehensive collection of contemporary Chinese art in the universe.”

Superlatives aside, the M+ team needs this show to prove that the ambitious museum project is still on track despite the departure of Lars Nittve, the artworld heavyweight who laid its foundations. Nittve joined the project in 2011 but stepped down as executive director in January, telling the South China Morning Post that one reason for the move was construction delays that had pushed the museum opening back from the target year of 2017. Originally, the government had hoped to have the centrepiece of the West Kowloon Cultural District up and running last year.

M+ is so-called because it was conceived to change the art-museum concept. The intention is to embrace everything that falls under the banner of “visual culture”: paintings, sculptures, moving images, performance art, architecture and design.

To help local audiences grasp the concept, M+ has been producing highly acclaimed public programmes to promote the fact that its collection will be international and cover a variety of genres. Still, every museum has must-sees, and the highlights of the Sigg collection will be sought out at M+ because of the enormous global interest in Chinese contemporary art and the fact that it includes early works, the likes of which are rarely found in the art market.

The roughly four decades of art on display will be grouped into three periods: 1974-1989; 1990-1999 and 2000-2012. (An accompanying exhibition, focusing on the most recent works that Sigg has acquired, is being held in Bern.) For both Sigg and Pi, the ArtisTree event is much more than an art show; it is a telling of China’s dramatic recent history. Each chapter addresses milestones: the end of the Cultural Revolution; the Tiananmen crackdown; China’s full embrace of capitalism in the 1990s; its joining of the World Trade Organisation in 2001.

Sigg, 69, has spent long periods in the mainland since 1979. He has seen more of the country than most locals because of the freedom of movement he enjoyed as a foreign businessman and, between 1995 and 1999, as the Swiss ambassador to Beijing.

“I remember the reaction of Chinese visitors to the ‘Mahjong’ exhibition I held 11 years ago in Bern,” he says. “They were really moved because they found that the art mirrored their own [experiences]. The art mirrored an entire environment of daily life, ambitions, politics, mishaps and human basic conditions. It was a mirror of existence in China.”

In the early years, he says, Sigg thought Chinese art was dull compared with the cutting-edge European work he was collecting, such as that by Gerhard Richter. He certainly wasn’t interested in the official style of socialist realism, and he found works by the underground, experimental artists to be mere derivatives of Western art. As time went by, however, he had more access to the artists, saw more of their work and realised that nobody was seriously collecting Chinese art at a time when the country was experiencing rapid change.

And it is a good thing he did. Much of the art produced in secret in the 1970s has long since been destroyed, or lost, and so the section of the exhibition devoted to the 70s and 80s gives us a rare insight into what was being produced after years of brutal cultural and intellectual suppression in the mainland.

Fusuijing Building (1975), by Zhang Wei, is the oldest piece in the exhibition. The serenity of this tiny study of the view outside the artist’s studio belies the enormity of the moment: the birth of an organised artistic rebellion against the ban on individual expression during the Cultural Revolution. Zhang’s flat was the venue of the first secret exhibition held by artists belonging to the No Name group, whose members wanted to make art for art’s sake; a simple enough desire that was outlawed in a society for which art was a propaganda tool.

Pi says the mid-70s represented a “very loose” period of the Cultural Revolution, which didn’t officially end until the arrest of the Gang of Four, in 1976.

“By then [former vice-premier] Lin Biao had already been killed. Young people sent down to the countryside had all returned to the towns. Artists like Zhang Wei and Ma Kelu say they had access to Western modern art at that time, and singer-songwriter Cui Jian was listening to The Beatles in the early 1970s,” he says.

Artists began to turn their backs on official, Soviet-style socialist realism – idealised, non-abstract images of the people striving towards a utopia – the only art sanctioned by the state because Mao Zedong had decreed, in the 1942 Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art, that art must only “serve the masses”.

That No Name exhibition would be followed by increasingly public provocations, such as the 1979 acts of protest by the Stars Group, led by the charismatic Ma Desheng.

AMONG THE HIGHLIGHTS of the Hong Kong show is Wang Peng’s 84- ink-5, which he made by rolling naked, covered in ink, on paper. This was the then 19-year-old’s reaction, in 1984, to the “anti-spiritual pollution campaign”, which frowned on anything “vulgar”.

The artists’ attempt to move out from the underground culminated in the February 1989 “No U-Turn” contemporary exhibition, held at the National Art Museum, in Beijing. The group show featured outrageously avant garde work – Wu Shanzhuan selling shrimp to visitors and Xiao Lu firing gunshots at her own installation. Also featured in “No U-Turn” was another highlight of the Hong Kong exhibition: Wang Guangyi’s Mao Zedong: Red Grid No 2 – depicting an impassive Mao behind red bars. The exhibition was temporarily shut down twice in its two-week run, but the mere fact “No U-Turn” happened at all was taken as a sign of a more open-minded government.

Then, on June 4, 1989, everything changed. The Tiananmen Square crackdown drove many avant garde artists abroad while those who stayed had to retreat back underground as Beijing crushed dissent.

Wang Xingwei’s New Beijing must surely resonate with all those who are aware of the violence that occurred that day. The oil painting – a copy of the photo taken by Hong Kong-born photojournalist Liu Heung-shing on June 4 of a tricycle cart driver peddling two men with gunshot wounds to hospital – will be in the Quarry Bay exhibition, Pi says. In Wang’s 2001 painting, the victims have been replaced by two penguins, a species alien to China and an allusion to the government’s successful attempt to whitewash the episode out of the domestic history books.

As Pi points out, the painting may not inflame mainland censors because its meaning is not obvious. Even so, the fact an explicit reference to Tiananmen can be made in the city is one reason Sigg decided to give his collection to Hong Kong.

“There’s more freedom of speech here,” he says. “It’s my hope that it will be maintained. I’d wanted the collection to be in mainland China, and I talked to Beijing and Shanghai and the Ministry of Culture first. Then Hong Kong brought itself into play, suggesting that I consider West Kowloon.”

Sigg says art officials in Beijing and Shanghai – which is today trying to rival Hong Kong and Singapore as an Asian art centre – did not put up much of a fight. In fact, there are powerful forces in the mainland who are wary of a Western-inspired approach to contemporary art.

On October 14, 2014, President Xi Jinping delivered a long speech on the role of the arts in China and referenced the Great Helmsman’s Yan’an directive. Like Mao, he insisted that artists must “serve the people” and be responsible as “patriots” for pushing for the general welfare of the country and how it is perceived abroad. The National Art Museum of China – site of that “No U-turn” show, ironically – launched an exhibition last October called “Report to the People”, to “further implement the spirit of the speech of General Secretary Xi Jinping in the forum on literature and art”. Many of the new works on display were portraits in the style of socialist realism.

“[Beijing] has developed an interest in the use of contemporary art for its own ideological end since the late 1990s, in promoting creative industries and soft power in general,” says Gladston. “While there is a desire to do that, there’s a desire to insist on national cultural values that are resistant to Western influence. It’s a hangover from centuries of struggle. But Xi’s directive is interesting in that it is a throwback to Mao’s Yan’an speech.”

Hong Kong art dealer Johnson Chang Tsongzung and critic Li Xianting are credited with having done more than anyone else to create an international market for Chinese contemporary art in the 90s. Li came up with the terms “political pop” and “cynical realism” to describe works seen as anti-establishment, piquing international interest in pieces by artists such as Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun – some seen as reactions against the Tiananmen crackdown and a number of which rose in value from thousands of US dollars to millions in less than two decades.

“Some think Chinese art mustn’t have roots in Western contemporary art but contemporary art is from the West so it is hard to separate totally,” says Chang, speaking in his Pedder Building gallery, Hanart. “But I do think Chinese contemporary art is distinct, as it often reflects Chinese experiences from over 100 years.”

The global hunger for Chinese contemporary art has given many artists the financial freedom to ignore official diktats on the role of their work. In fact, Sigg reckons that since artists are now able to express themselves so freely, some of the post-1989 generation find themselves with a problem.

“Post-1989 was an exceptional period with an exceptional tension that was a very fruitful ground for art,” he says. “It sounds cynical but it’s a fact; out of great tension comes great art. But once that tension disappears, the artists creating art out of [it] enter a very problematic phase. They have been used to producing their art against something – a paradigm, dogma, repression. Once [those] disappear, their enemy gets lost. They must redefine themselves and it’s very difficult. Many artists haven’t managed.”

Pi appreciates the curatorial freedom in Hong Kong but he hopes M+ will be a platform from which an open-minded discussion of Chinese art can be held, challenging the over-simplified views held in the West: “First of all, if you want to look at 1989, you really need to see the whole period of 1988 to 1993 and the ongoing cold war. China became the last socialist country to survive the cold war and that was the reason why the West has such an interest in the art of China. While it gave Chinese art an opportunity to be shown outside, such interest was only political and exoticised. They only want to project their imagination of Chinese from their perspective.

“A lot of artists were massively producing art to fit the Western imagination.”

Pi wants to showcase other artists who were active in the 90s. In Beijing East Village, for example, artists such as Zheng Guogu chose to pour their energy into performance art that they could not sell. It will be interesting to see how Pi manages to showcase that kind of work at the M+.

The curator denies there has been any attempt to de-politicise the upcoming Hong Kong show but there are fears it has been watered down from that seen in Sweden, where Pi used the title “Right is Wrong” and Wang’s New Beijing on the catalogue cover. He told The New York Times in an interview in December that M+ committee members had objected to using that title in Hong Kong and the educational material he’d prepared for the show.

Speaking to Post Magazine, now, he chooses to skirt around the decision to adopt a more prosaic title, saying it is merely a practical choice and best explains what the Sigg collection is to Hong Kong people.

“I noticed they changed the title from ‘Right is Wrong’ so I thought they had decided to make the show less political,” says Koon Yee-wan, an art historian and associate professor at the University of Hong Kong. “But when I looked at the list of works to be included in the show I was surprised. There is politics in there. Also, it looks like they want to present a complex view of politics and not treat politics lightly.”

She expresses relief that the show doesn’t ignore Tiananmen, unlike all the public museums in Hong Kong.

“It was an important historic moment that should never be forgotten,” she says. “But it’s just as important to look at the years building up to it and immediately after. In 1986 and 87, things were quiet after the government cracked down on the 1985 movement, but in 1988 and 89, artists were trying to bring back the avant garde movement and there was an amazing energy, culminating in the ‘No U-Turn’ exhibition in 1989. So looking at that period, you’d understand 1989 more. I think Pi Li is very brave to do so. He is pushing a view that’s not mapped on specific instances and is an organic way of looking at history.”

Gladston says this is the kind of big-picture discussion that can make M+, and Hong Kong, a unique place in which to study Chinese contemporary art and culture, assuming the authorities do not show a heavy hand.

“The local context of exhibitions generates different discourses. In the mainland, the context is that it is authoritarian, nationalistic and right-wing. Within that context, cultural events and exhibitions do not contradict it. In the West, a different set of values dominate and Western artists are complicit in promoting neo-liberalism, for example. Hong Kong is a borderland, a point of intersection. So this is where liberalism persists, but [curators] need to negotiate that with the prevailing authority,” he says.

“My guess is that it’s difficult directing a museum under such circumstances. Negotiating this border is potentially interesting and potentially very hard work.”

Says Koon, warming to the idea of a third way of looking at Chinese art, “I am looking forward to seeing the exhibition, but I’m even more eager to see how M+ is going to build on the Sigg collection.”

M+ Sigg Collection: “Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art” will be shown at ArtisTree, 1/F, Cornwall House, Taikoo Place, 979 King’s Road, Quarry Bay, from Tuesday until April 5. Entrance is free.