Hong Kong and Ukraine – 8,000 kilometers apart, but aligned in their fight for freedom.
An exhibition that recently took place at Kyiv’s Kurenivka Cultural Center aimed to spread awareness about the ongoing protest movement in Hong Kong against the Beijing-aligned government, and draw parallels with a simmilar uprising still fresh in the memories of many Ukrainians.
The current protests in Hong Kong – called a revolution by some – began after the government there prepared to introduce a bill allowing Hongkongers to be extradited to mainland China.
The artist who started the exhibition told the Kyiv Post by phone that they want to remain anonymous due to concerns for their personal security. They have even declined to come to Ukraine for the same reason.
Staged between Jan. 11 and 17 in Kyiv, the exhibition displayed a combination of artworks, including timelines and a collection of photos from Hong Kong and Ukraine taken by multiple photographers to show the parallel between the situation in Hong Kong and Ukraine’s 2014 EuroMaidan Revolution, which overthrew corrupt pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych.
The installation also displays items used by protesters from both revolutions – for example, bricks, umbrellas and traffic cones and water bottles. To neutralize tear gas cannisters, Hong Kong protesters place traffic cones over them and then pour water from bottles through the hole of the cone.
During the week-long show, the exhibition has also held several events, including a video chat with Hong Kong protesters. The exhibition may move on to other Ukrainian cities after it closes in Kyiv, organizers said.
In the last few months, the initially non-violent protests in Hong Kong have drastically escalated. There have been regular reports of police brutality, some of sexual harassment, and allegations of false imprisonment of protesters.
Some have even been sent to an “abandoned detention center on the Chinese border,” a friend of the Hong Kong artist, who also asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told the Kyiv Post.
Hong Kong has also been struck by a wave of suspicious suicides. Suicide rates for people under 19 years old in Hong Kong have risen by 50% in the past year. Previously, rates were among the lowest in the world. A viral video of a man, who had reportedly ended his life by suicide, being pushed out of a window, has added to suspicion that not all these deaths were the result of suicide.
The artist behind the exhibition specifically points to the “suicidal drowning” case of 15-year-old Chan-Rin Iam. Evidence from CCTV footage and interviews with her close friends suggest that her death was likely not a suicide.
The failure of police to investigate the suicides and the government’s decision to deny Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, entry into Hong Kong to hold a press conference and release the nonprofit’s annual report has also provoked suspicion.
British artist Dominic, who declined to give his surname due to security concerns, first noticed the exhibition in Germany.
When he saw images of police brutality and Molotov cocktails in Hong Kong, he was immediately reminded of EuroMaidan and Ukrainians’ rebellion against corruption and in support of their country’s integration with Europe.
The Hongkonger artist and Dominic decided to combine the two revolutions into an exhibition in Kyiv to bring awareness to both places’ struggle for democracy in the non-profit art space Kurenivka.
It wasn’t the first time the Hongkonger artist heard about the EuroMaidan Revolution. They said that they had seen it on the news and that “everyone knows Winter on Fire,” a Netflix documentary by Evgeny Afineevsky about EuroMaidan.
“Glory to Ukraine,” a famous slogan used during EuroMaidan, is “just like the ‘Glory to Hong Kong (slogan),’” the artist explained.
Both Hong Kong and Ukraine have a long history of oppression. Ukraine was controlled by the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then the Soviet Union before gaining independence in 1991. Now, it is defending itself in a war against Russia and the Kremlin’s proxies on its own territory.
Hong Kong was a British colony, occupied by Japan during World War II, and then was ceded to China in 1997 to then have to fight against a government controlled by the Chinese. Hong Kong was supposed to be ruled in a format known as “one country, two systems,” but China has frequently infringed upon that autonomy, many Hongkongers believe.
Both are fighting for democracy and against the authoritarian forces that surround them. And both are struggling for autonomy from more powerful neighbors.
Ukraine and Hong Kong are not just united by historical parallels. For pro-Hong Kong activists in the country, it also appears that some Ukrainians are dangerously close to the Chinese government, and that Beijing may have some Ukrainian activists in their crosshairs.
That is one of the reasons why the artist made the last minute decision not to come to Ukraine.
“The whole exhibition is already monitored by the (Chinese Communist Party) government and (we) worry we and our families and friends would be threatened by the Chinese agents,” the Hong Kong artist said.
Both the artist and other organizers grew concerned after the event space received a threatening letter from the Chinese embassy.
“The purpose of this exhibition is obvious. Its inappropriate nature is pure brazen interference in the internal affairs of China,” the letter stated. “The Chinese side strongly objects to the holding of this exhibition.
“Otherwise, it can bring serious consequences.”
Additionally, some of the artist’s works, which were sent to Kyiv for the exhibition, were returned to the artist damaged. But they weren’t returned to the address from which the artist sent them. Rather, they came to the artist’s office address, information that they did not disclose when sending the artworks for delivery.
Pro-Hong Kong activism in Ukraine is always twisted into something that it is not, Arthur Kharyatonov, the main coordinator of the Free Hong Kong Center, told the Kyiv Post.
“This has happened before,” he said. “They call me a terrorist, too!”
South China’s newspapers have reported stories that “far-right fascists” from Ukraine visited the island. In fact, some members of the Ukrainian far-right did visit.
However, some supporters of the protest doubt that such Ukrainian extremists actually did visit, viewing the Chinese media reports as propaganda “typical of the Chinese government,” the friend of the artist told the Kyiv Post.
“They describe the protesters as ‘rioters’ and portray them to be violent, without showing the police brutality.”
The friend also gave another example: how a video of a Ukrainian woman declaring, “Listen to the voice of the Ukrainian people! Homes are destroyed and people’s livelihood is depressed. Is this the democracy and freedom you want?” That video had gone viral, and Hong Kong activists believe it was intended to spread fear amongst Hongkongers.
There are also other official connections between Ukraine and Chinese officials, Kharyatonov said.
He highlighted a agreement under which a state-owned Chinese corporation would purchase a majority share of Motor Sich, a Ukrainian aerospace company. The United States, a number of G7 diplomats and some Ukrainian politicians have said they strongly oppose the agreement, and some fear it could lead to technology being transferred to Russia.
The Anti-Monopoly Committee of Ukraine is currently reviewing the deal.
“We have so many connections, tragic ones between Ukraine and Hong Kong. Hongkongers see us as a brother nation…” Kharytonov said. “I am very happy to be part of this history, this clear line between Ukrainians and Hongkongers in the 21st century.”