The future of government funding for Adelaide’s OzAsia Festival is under threat, after claims that Hong Kong’s strict national security laws have extended to Australia’s biggest Asian festival.

Key points:

  • The Hong Kong Cultural Association of SA was booked to host a workshop at the OzAsia Festival
  • The workshop was to be decorated with yellow umbrellas, which were banned by festival organisers
  • The workshop was later scrapped altogether, with Senator Marise Payne calling out the ban 

Department of Foreign Affairs First Assistant Secretary for the East Asia Division Elly Lawson told Senate Estimates on Thursday that it was aware of reports that the festival had censored a show. 

“We have in place agreements with all recipients of our funding, whereby we oblige those recipients to ensure that their programs are not subject to third-party influence,” Ms Lawson said. 

“We have no information from the festival that this was in fact the case.

“They have told us there were some items cancelled in the festival. They have told us that’s about COVID distancing and other measures.

“However, of course if there was any indication that items were cancelled further to third-party influence we would take that very seriously and we will in fact be undertaking some further discussions with the festival organisers.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne has told Senate Estimates that political censorship was “unacceptable” after claims by the Hong Kong Cultural Association of South Australia that it had been censored. 

“I have encouraged the department to contact the organisers of the festival to express that view, as well as to do the follow up that Ms Lawson has referred to, and frankly to seek assurance that interference and censorship is not allowed,” Senator Payne said.

“The government’s position is very clear.

“Any political interference or censorship in arts and cultural events is unacceptable.”

Senator Payne would not speculate on the possible consequences. 

Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne has condemned possible political censorship at the OzAsia festival.(ABC News: Toby Hunt)

Dispute started over yellow umbrellas

Hong Kong Cultural Association of South Australia (HKCASA) chairwoman Janet Leung said it all started with a dispute over yellow umbrellas.

HKCASA was booked to host an interactive workshop and performance at the opening weekend of the festival last week.

“The workshop was supposed to show a historical timeline of how Hong Kong was transformed from a fishing village to an international financial hub,” Ms Leung said.

The performance was locked in by OzAsia organisers in August, but a crucial detail then changed everything.

The workshop stall was to be decorated with yellow umbrellas.

“With regards to the yellow umbrellas, we found this online …” a festival organiser wrote in an email to HKCASA.

The ‘umbrella movement’ took place in Hong Kong in 2014. (Reuters: Bobby Yip)

The organiser pasted a link to a Wikipedia article detailing Hong Kong’s so-called ‘umbrella movement’ of 2014, in which pro-democracy protesters held umbrellas in acts of passive defiance.

Ms Leung said she was “shocked”.

“Obviously the OzAsia organisers linked the yellow umbrellas directly to the 2014 umbrella movement … that was not our intention at all,” she said.

“We respect that the event is meant to be family-friendly, not political.”

Workshops scrapped due to COVID-19

While Ms Leung had considered the ban on yellow umbrellas a setback, she was determined that the show would go on.

But on September 29, OzAsia Festival organisers informed HKCASA that they had been dropped from the festival program altogether.

A Moon Lantern Trail was held as part of the 2021 OzAsia Festival.(Supplied: OzAsia Festival/Tyr Liang)

“Due to COVID-19 restriction requirements for extra cleaning and staffing … we were unable to run any of the six workshops at Lucky Dumpling Market on the same weekend,” an OzAsia spokesperson said.

But Ms Leung rejected that explanation.

“We [South Australia] had no cases on the day they wrote to us, no changes to restrictions,” Ms Leung said.

In a statement to the ABC, an OzAsia spokesperson said while the festival program encourages “divergent social, political, and cultural themes”, the opening weekend performances were promoted as “as inclusive community and family events”.

“As such, activities with political or religious content are not scheduled.

“While OzAsia’s programming team was still in discussions with HKCSA about the content of its proposed workshop, the decision to cancel was not related to the content of its workshop.

“There were six other workshops impacted from Indonesian, Chinese, and Aboriginal Australian groups.”

Calls for federal government to step in

Ms Leung described the experience as an act of censorship and has questioned the role the Hong Kong government may have played in OzAsia’s decision.

“After this incident, we found out the main sponsors are from China and Hong Kong,” Ms Leung said.

The Hong Kong government’s economic and trade office in Sydney is a sponsor of the OzAsia Festival, and the University of Adelaide’s Confucius Institute is also a program partner.

The federal government is listed as an “executive festival partner” on its website. 

“We are quite sure that they felt it is too sensitive for the Hong Kong Cultural Association to be in their event, but that is our guess,” Ms Leung.

OzAsia Festival organisers denied any foreign pressure, stating that “we have many sponsors who support the festival, and they do not make programming decisions”.

Ms Leung said she was very concerned about what impact Hong Kong’s new national security laws, which were enacted in June 2020, will have on free speech in Australia.

“Unfortunately, the national security law passed in Hong Kong has jurisdiction worldwide,” she said.

“This incident is serious, and the Australian government should look into it.

Posted , updated