The West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), which is supposed to be Hong Kong’s pride and joy as an international showcase for arts and a cultural hub, may ironically end up becoming a perfect case study of mismanagement of mammoth public works and cultural projects! This project was launched in 1998 on 40 hectares of prime reclaimed land by a scenic waterfront and yet after more than 20 years, and with the government’s upfront endowment of HK$21.6 billion (US$2.8 billion), all that ordinary citizens could enjoy most is just a vast piece of waterfront area for cycling on weekends. The mammoth project is also marred by scandal after scandal, fickle changes in design and construction hiccups, serial resignations of its chief executive officers, major project delays and budget overruns, and currently saddled with an estimated HK$16 billion budget shortfall!
Unsurprisingly, there is a collective sigh of relief following reports that its flagship museum of contemporary visual culture, M+ Museum, will finally be opened at the end of this year, missing its original opening date of 2017 by a long shot. But marring this good news is the recent media revelation that the museum will be exhibiting the artwork of Ai Weiwei, a well-known anti-China activist once imprisoned by the Chinese authorities. It is said that one of his most controversial pictures that will be displayed in the museum is the one with Ai Weiwei pointing his middle finger in a vulgar gesture towards Tiananmen!
The immediate reaction of many Hongkongers is one of puzzlement and disapproval: “How ridiculous!”; “Who in WKCD is responsible for the acquisition?” and “How much did it cost?” Evidently, a picture displaying such a rude gesture against the Central Government is intolerable, even under the pretence of freedom of artistic expression. They may even breach the National Security Law. Although Hong Kong has robust freedom of speech, it does not tolerate incendiary expressions that literally incite people to commit illegal actions. As has been stated numerous times by various senior HKSARG officials, our freedoms are not absolute, neither are those in the West. One needs to observe a red line; otherwise there would be anarchy. Artistic incitement of violence cannot be camouflaged under freedom of artistic expression. For example, one would not conceivably accept a painting, irrespective of its attributed artistic value, if it portrays Hitler stomping on Jews, or a Japanese soldier beheading a Chinese in the Nanjing massacre! Because this would constitute an unacceptable outrage against basic human decency!
ICAC agents should now look behind its veil and see if there is any corruption, conflict of interest, collusion with foreign agents, inflated price fixing, kickbacks and nepotism involved in its many procurements. Another acquisition scandal revealed recently is the purchase of a closed-down structure of a Japanese sushi bar which is reconstructed in the M+ Museum. The purchase of the useless bar structure costs HK$15 million
According to media reports, the said picture is part of an acquisition deal in July 2012 with Swiss collector Uli Sigg, owner of a collection of Chinese contemporary art, including his “donation” of 1,463 art objects with an estimated value of HK$1.3 billion and the purchase of 47 pieces for HK$177 million. On the face of it, it looked like a bargain deal, but those who are smart buyers fully appreciate the doctrine “there is no free lunch in this world” and thus expect some serious hidden agenda unspecified in the deal! The fact remains that our taxpayers have to foot this massive bill for what may turn out to be artistic trash from Ai Weiwei, whose fame was built up mainly by the anti-China Western media! The public deserves an honest accounting of this whole sordid affair. Was there a rigorous independent vetting procedure in WKCD’s various acquisitions including professional and credible assessments done in advance, who represented WKCD in its negotiations with Sigg, and are there any undeclared conflicts of interest? And most importantly, what are the strings attached to his “donation”?
An article by Vivienne Chow, “A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Past and Present of West Kowloon Cultural District” published in Cultural Vision, May 2013, also described this particular acquisition as most controversial. Local elder statesman Ronald Arculli was appointed as a member of the Board of Directors of WKCD and chairman of its Development Committee. He was, in his private capacity, also a non-executive director of Asia Art Archive (AAA), which was founded by his stepdaughter Claire Hsu. Hsu was a member of the M+ Interim Acquisition Committee, which oversees the acquisition of collections for M+. If she was indeed the go-between in this deal with Sigg, the perceived conflict of interest seems obvious. Was there any allowance made for this fact by the WKCD management at the time? Was there any record of declaration of conflict of interest and the subject’s subsequent avoidance from the involvement? We should not forget that Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, the former Chief Executive, was prosecuted precisely for failing to declare his conflict of interest in an Executive Council meeting on a seemingly minor issue.
On the other hand, this Swiss collector, Uli Sigg, is no ordinary person. He was the Swiss ambassador to China in the 1990s and had apparently taken the opportunity to purchase many Chinese contemporary art objects in Beijing. After serving his ambassadorship, he returned to Switzerland and became an art agent before launching Chinese Contemporary Arts Awards and using it to promote Chinese artists, many of them harsh critics of China, such as Ai Weiwei. This seemed a clever way of promoting their status which in turn enhances the value of their artworks in his possession.
It was said that part of Sigg’s condition attached to his donation requires M+ Museum to dedicate at least 5,000 sq m of its museum space to stage two presentations of his collection during the first three years of its operation. This means that M+ Museum is now legally bound to display his controversial art pieces produced by Ai Weiwei. Based on the known facts, it’s clear that the donations did have strings attached, which may prove embarrassing, to put it mildly! The unsavory fact is that WKCD management has allowed itself to be tricked into being legally bound to display the works of anti-China artists so as to provoke hatred amongst Hong Kong residents against the Central People’s Government, an offense under Article 29 (5) of the National Security Law. This prima facie violation of the NSL should be investigated by the National Security Branch of Hong Kong police to see if it constitutes a conspiracy with a foreign agent to harm our national interest.
One disquieting fact revealed in my international anti-corruption consultancy in 26 countries was that most countries’ costliest problem is traceable to public procurement. In most countries, this amounted in average to 10% of their public finance budget! This should not happen in Hong Kong in view of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC)’s rigorous anti-corruption enforcement. It is thus absolutely essential for ICAC to leave no stone unturned in reviewing every aspect of WKCD’s procurement program and contracts with foreign agents. The ICAC’s Operations Department should be mindful of WKCD’s management’s notoriety for operating within a black box. ICAC agents should now look behind its veil and see if there is any corruption, conflict of interest, collusion with foreign agents, inflated price fixing, kickbacks and nepotism involved in its many procurements. Another acquisition scandal revealed recently is the purchase of a closed-down structure of a Japanese sushi bar which is reconstructed in the M+ Museum. The purchase of the useless bar structure costs HK$15 million! It should also be noted that many members of the board and committees of WKCD are social elites and therefore it should not come as a surprise to find that many of them are art collectors. One cannot help but wonder if there might be a conflict of interest in many of WKCD’s acquisitions.
The art world has always been subject to allegations and accusations of unethical patronage. One classic example is the rumor in pre-ICAC days about a very senior British colonial official profiting through the sales of his wife’s paintings. It is also worth noting that art work transaction has long been a common tool for money laundering!
If one looks deeply into this case and another recent public scandal involving the Arts Development Council using government funds to sponsor the making of films which turned out to be critical of China and Hong Kong, one cannot help but worry about the infiltration of anti-establishment elements into the body politic of statutory bodies. They should be the target for a housecleaning of subversive elements operating in the open under the guise of public service!
The author is an Adjunct Professor of HKU Space and an international anti-corruption consultant. He is a former Deputy Commissioner of ICAC.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS