Palace Museum row highlights Hong Kong-Beijing tensions

by Ben Bland / January 3, 2017 / Financial Times

The decision to build a $450m branch of Beijing’s famed Palace Museum in Hong Kong was meant to celebrate this year’s 20th anniversary of the return of the former British colony to Chinese control and boost its struggling tourist industry.

But the highly symbolic project has run into angry opposition from democracy activists, who have attacked the Hong Kong government for failing to consult the public and promoting a political scheme that undermines the autonomy of the territory.

The dispute over the museum underlines the growing tensions between pro- and anti-Beijing forces in Hong Kong, where the civic freedoms guaranteed by the Chinese government have come under increasing threat.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s top civil servant, announced the plan for the museum, which will feature items loaned from the ancient imperial collections in the Forbidden City, on a trip to Beijing at the end of last year.

Ms Lam, who is gauging Beijing’s support for a possible bid to be Hong Kong’s next leader, said that a public consultation would have been “embarrassing” if there was criticism of such an important project backed by the Chinese government. She insisted the government had followed all the relevant procedures.

The museum will be funded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which has a lucrative government-granted monopoly on horse-race betting, thereby circumventing the need for approval from Hong Kong’s legislative council.

James To, an opposition member of the legislature, said the government’s efforts to bypass debate and oversight were “absolutely inappropriate” and would further undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy.

“Ms Lam said that we want to avoid embarrassing the Palace Museum in Beijing but in a pluralistic society, there are those for and against,” he said. “It’s a disaster if we no longer have a free society in Hong Kong.”

Beijing’s Palace Museum is the world’s most visited, with 16m people passing through the Forbidden City, where it is located, last year. Although China’s Communist leaders have had an ambivalent attitude to their imperial history, President Xi Jinping has tried to promote the glories of the past as part of his “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

Camille Lam, a town planner, said the Hong Kong government should consult the public because it is changing the plans for the West Kowloon Cultural District, where the museum will be built in place of a proposed performance venue. Read more…

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