Funding cut for Hong Kong’s top theatre awards to ‘minimise’ risk of national security law breach, Arts Development Council head says

Funding cut for Hong Kong’s top theatre awards to ‘minimise’ risk of national security law breach, Arts Development Council head says

A decision to cut part of a grant for Hong Kong’s top theatre awards was made to “minimise” the risk of breaking the national security law, the head of the city’s arts funding body said on Thursday, amid calls for greater transparency over the decision.

Arts Development Council chairman Kenneth Fok Kai-kong said “several causes” were behind the move to deduct part of the HK$441,700 (US$56,460) grant for the 31st Hong Kong Drama Awards ceremony held last June.

“[It’s about] whether we can minimise our risks involving potential violations of the law, or even the national security law, when the Arts Development Council allocates sources,” he said, without elaborating on how the ceremony might have breached the law.

Support for Hong Kong theatre awards pulled by Arts Development Council

The council on Wednesday said it had decided to withhold the final instalment of the subsidy because “unusual arrangements” of the show had damaged the funding body’s reputation.

The ceremony, under the theme “courage”, featured guests such as journalist Bao Choy Yuk-ling and political cartoonist Wong Kei-kwan, who uses the pen name Zunzi and whose work had received open complaints from senior government officials.

The Hong Kong Federation of Drama Societies, which organises the awards, considered the most prestigious for the sector, said grants for this year’s ceremony were also refused.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department said it would not sponsor a venue for the event based on the council’s findings.

Fok said the assessment did not mean laws were broken, but the council had a responsibility to watch out for risks.

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The political cartoonist known as Zunzi (centre) at the awards last year. His work has received open complaints from senior government officials. Photo: Hong Kong Federation of Drama Societies

“I would like to emphasise that we are not a law enforcement agency, so we are not saying that a certain person, matter or language has broken the law,” he said.

“We are not making such a judgment. But as an allocator of public resources, we at the council are responsible to minimise such risks.”

He said the council had already outlined its rationale in a letter sent to the federation last week, and he had personally reached out to the organisation on Thursday morning.

The proposal to trim last year’s funding was discussed at the council’s Arts Support Committee before approval from its top decision-making body.

Winton Au Wing-tung, a council member sitting on the committee, said he was unable to disclose the internal deliberations but hoped the body could clarify the decision to stakeholders.

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“I think everyone now wants to know clearly what the reason is, hoping that similar incidents will not occur in the industry in the future. This is most important,” the Chinese University of Hong Kong psychology professor told the Post.

“I believe that it was not the industry’s intention to deliberately do something to violate the objectives of the Arts Development Council.”

He added that funding applications were “competitive” and the decision to not sponsor this year’s award ceremony was “separate” from the cut to last year’s grant.

The federation will hold a press conference on Friday to provide more information about this year’s ceremony, which it said would continue despite the end to funding.

Beijing ‘expressed confidence in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon arts hub’

The arts council had sponsored the awards ceremony for 24 consecutive years before authorities scrapping the funding this year.

Lawmaker Tik Chi-yuen on Thursday said the move was a form of political censorship by “drawing a very deep red line” that would have a chilling effect on performing arts. He said room for expression should be given as long as laws were not broken.

The non-profit Alliance of Theatre Professionals of Hong Kong said it was “extremely shocked” by the authorities’ “joint boycott” of the awards when Hong Kong was being positioned as a hub for arts and cultural exchanges under Beijing’s 14th five-year plan for the nation.

“The move has not only sent a chill through all theatre workers, but could also seriously hinder the development of cultural diversity and creativity in Hong Kong. It also sets an example of trampling on the efforts and dignity of art workers, running counter to supporting local arts developments,” the group said.

Playwright Candace Chong Mui-ngam, a committee member of the federation, shared the alliance’s statement on her Facebook page.

“I expect the Arts Development Council to give a sensible reason for not honouring the payment,” she wrote in the post.

The Hong Kong Theatre Arts Practitioners Union said the move was a “serious blow” to those working and performing in theatres, which not only undermined the value of stage arts, but also dashed the hopes of the industry.

“[In an era of moving] from order to prosperity, we cannot see how prosperous a society will be when it loses the feast of stage art and culture,” the union said on its Facebook page.

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