Dissident Chinese writer Ma Jian lands in Hong Kong as Tai Kwun cultural centre reverses decision not to host his talks
- Arts venue in Central has rethink and offers to host novelist for Hong Kong International Literary Festival events
- Stand-in venue The Annex had earlier said it would not host the talks
One of two venues which had refused to host talks by Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian did a U-turn on Friday night, saying management had changed their minds because the author had “clarified” that his events were not intended to promote his political interests.
The about-face by Tai Kwun was made about two hours after Ma, 65, flew in from London on a British Airways flight at 5.40pm.
Timothy Calnin, director of the arts centre, had previously said he “did not want Tai Kwun to become a platform to promote the political interests of any individual”.
But on Friday he said Ma had clarified he had no intention of using the event to promote his political interests, so Tai Kwun was reversing its earlier decision.
“With this in mind, as director of Tai Kwun, I have decided to offer our venue for the two talks so that the events may continue to take place as planned. I would like to thank Tai Kwun’s supporters for their valuable opinions over the past few days and I would like to apologise for any inconvenience caused,” Calnin said.
Ma is set to appear on Saturday at a panel discussion with two Hong Kong writers and introduce his new novel China Dream – both events part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.
A British citizen and Hong Kong permanent resident, Ma presented his passport rather than Hong Kong ID card to immigration officers at the airport, and was permitted to stay until next Monday as planned.
“The process was smooth. The officers were nice,” he said.
Ma was informed after landing that The Annex at Nan Fung Place, which had been lined up as a replacement venue after Tai Kwun’s initial cancellation, had also refused to host his two talks.
The Annex is owned by property developer Nan Fung.
“I was sad to learn this first thing after I landed and turned on my phone,” Ma said. “But I will continue to find a place – maybe right outside Tai Kwun – to give my talks, for even an audience of just one.”
He said Tai Kwun had known the content of his talks at least six months ago, “but they called off only days before the event”.
He also said he had not received any threat or warning from any authority, but he believed Tai Kwun’s decision had been made by a higher power than the arts centre and its parent group the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
He feared he might no longer be welcome in Hong Kong, which he referred to as his “second hometown”.
“This might be my last time setting foot in Hong Kong. I might not be able to come in like this any more,” Ma said.
Ng Mei-kwan, one of two Hong Kong writers due to appear with Ma at Saturday’s panel discussion, confirmed with the Post that the talks would not take place at The Annex, and said the event organiser had changed the time to 8.30pm.
The festival’s organisers announced on Thursday that the two talks would be moved to The Annex.
But on Friday afternoon the backup venue denied it would be playing host.
“The Annex will not be the hosting venue for the event and we have no affiliation with the event nor the author,” the space said.
Nan Fung chairman Antony Leung Kam-chung did not immediately respond to inquiries regarding what had triggered the decision.
By 10.40pm on Friday, the festival had removed all mention of The Annex from its press release online, and reinstated “F Hall, Tai Kwun” as the venue for the three authors’ talk from 5pm to 6pm on Saturday. The venue for Ma to introduce his new novel had yet to be announced.
The cancellations came a week after Ma revealed on Twitter that China Dream – a satirical novel critical of Beijing and published in English last week in Britain – still had no publisher for its Chinese-language version, having been turned down by several Hong Kong publishing houses.
However, on Thursday night, Bei Ling, dissident author and co-founder of Taiwan-based independent publishing company Tendency, said the firm would produce a Chinese version next year.
Seven local media unions, including the Hong Kong Journalists Association, the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association, and the Independent Commentators Association, said it had been a “dark week for freedom of expression” in light of Ma’s troubles and veteran British journalist Victor Mallet being denied entry to Hong Kong, as well as the cancellation of a show by dissident artist Badiucao.
In a joint statement, the press groups lamented that critics of the Chinese central government could no longer freely express their opinions in Hong Kong as in the past.
“Authorities have been expanding the no-go areas of what may be said,” the groups said.
“If people can no longer speak their mind, what place is there for press freedom? If voices critical of Beijing’s policies cannot be tolerated today, who is to say when a report forecasting a devaluation of the yuan will be disappeared?”
They urged the Chinese and Hong Kong governments to cherish the city’s open space for free speech, which they said would in turn protect Hong Kong’s economic status.
Joseph Wong Wing-ping, a former secretary for the civil service in Hong Kong, said Tai Kwun’s decision-making process was chaotic and ridiculous.
“The director has been contradicting himself,” Wong said. “Ma’s talks are part of an international literary event, and authors should be free to criticise governments in Hong Kong, so how could the director at the beginning accuse Ma of promoting political interests?”
According to Wong, the initial cancellation was more likely a result of external influences rather than self-censorship.
“Judging from the Tai Kwun director’s background, the line on preventing promotion of political interests doesn’t look like his genuine idea,” he said. “Had he been exercising self-censorship, the talks would have been cancelled much earlier.”
That thought was shared by Ray Yep Kin-man, associate head of the public policy department at City University.
“I believe the management of the Jockey Club was involved in deciding on the cancellation. But it seems the club forgot that Tai Kwun is not a private clubhouse, but a public venue,” Yep said.
“They chose overkill before the Hong Kong government, the central government’s liaison office or the office of the foreign ministry’s commissioner had even sounded any concern.”
Yep said the strong critics from the public and the literati played an important role in pushing the Tai Kwun and the Jockey Club to back down.
“Though it’s sad to see some Hong Kong orgainsations bended by fear of political risks, it’s fortunate that we still have a robust civil society.”
Yep added venue managements must clarify going forward what criteria they had for filtering events.
“If ‘promotion of political interests’ is equal to holding or displaying certain political beliefs, the consequences could be very damaging for free expression,” he said.