Authoritarianism, Art, and the Streisand Effect

Expressing oneself is a part of being human. To be deprived of a voice is to be told you are not a participant in society; ultimately it is a denial of humanity.  – Ai Weiwei

On Dec 23, 2021, one of greater China’s most iconic works of modern art was swiftly removed from the University of Hong Kong’s campus— the Pillar of Shamecreated by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt

For over 20 years, Galschiøt’s work not only memorialized those who valiantly lost their lives during the Tiananmen Square massacre, it also served as a stark reminder that Hong Kong was different, that nowhere else in Chinese territory, let alone a university, could such a blatant symbol of resistance stand tall. 

As a student of journalism at the University in 2019, I was immensely proud of my school. Having lived and worked in Mainland China for much of my young adult career, coming to Hong Kong was in every sense of the phrase “a breath of fresh air.” I was enamored by the city’s ethos, history, and culture of activism. I never would have imagined that under the “One Country, Two Systems” model, the HKU administration and Hong Kong authorities would be so cowardly to remove this iconic work from university grounds under a midnight cloak

Yet, one cannot be too surprised by the ordeal. After the passing of Hong Kong’s national security law in 2020, which effectively erodes the 1 country 2 systems model, any open criticism of the government can be construed as a national security breach. And, to put icing on the cake, the law gives itself extraterritorial jurisdiction. Hence, I very well could be breaking Chinese by writing this very article in my unassuming Montreal abode. When you consider these variables, anyone could have predicted the eventual removal of the statue. 

What this humble writer finds so intriguing about this act, however, is how grossly ineffective it is.

The CCP may have nearly wiped the collective memory of the atrocities committed against its own people in 1989 through a tight control of books, media, and education, but can this even be achieved in the digital age?

Just last week, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation reported that Jens Galschiøt has forfeited all copyrights to the sculpture meaning that anyone can replicate it. When interviewed with DR noted his reasons behind relinquishing rights to his own work:

“Normally, artists will not give their art commercially free, but I have done so because the art must come out. And the sculpture is a reminder of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the democracy movement, and human rights.”

Chinese authorities are trying their best to destroy the icon, but by doing so, they’re martyring it.

When HKU announced that it would remove the statue in early 2021, pro-democracy activists had already begun creating 3D modelsof the piece. And, as it appears that just about every major news outlet is reporting on it herehere, and here, it probably would have made more sense to simply leave the statue alone. If we are to assume that the purpose behind the statue’s removal was censorship, then perhaps Chinese authorities have not learned from the Streisand Effect phenomenon- when information is suppressed only to result in making it even more widespread. The term was coined in 2003 when Barbara Streisand attempted to prevent the California Coastal Records project from photographing her Malibu residence to document coastal erosion, only to find that her legal battle led to greater media attention (and more attention on her lavish beachside abode). 

Comically, the Streisand Effect tends to get the best out of authoritarians. When Sony tried to pull the release of the film The Interview after repeated threats from the DPRK, the movie became even more popular across the Western world precisely for its reputation as a “banned movie.” Similarly, as the CCP has tried so desperately to keep Taiwan out of the global spotlight by pushing it out of the World Health Organization (WHO), we see only more headlines about how Taiwan can effectively handle a global pandemic as a responsible, transparent actor. 

The moral of the story? Authoritarians can’t censor a free people. The more you try, the more journalists will write about it, the more negative attention you will receive internationally, and the less friends you will have. 


Brandon Johnson is an Associate Editor at iAffairs Canada. He is currently a student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where he specializes in diplomacy and foreign policy. He completed his undergraduate degree in Hispanic linguistics and Chinese at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and master’s degree in journalism at The University of Hong Kong. His professional experience includes working as an education consultant in Mainland China, staff reporter at Quartz Asia, and freelance journalist in Hong Kong.

Photo Credit: Studio Incendo

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