• gerard van weyenbergh

March 2020, Art Basel Hong Kong, yes or no?

Difficult to predict at five months the situation in the former British colony, where Art Basel Hong Kong, six years old, has become the largest fair in Asia: 242 exhibitors (from 35 countries) and 88,000 visitors in 2019. But Business is Business; their response should be more commercial than political.

Hard to imagine that merchants can show their support for the protesters by announcing their withdrawal from Art Basel Hong Kong unless there is an infamous and dramatic murderous crackdown. It would be illusory to believe that such a decision could influence Beijing. President Xi Jinping is concerned about the growth rate, but the unity of the country matters to him more. If the fair counts for the art market, it is negligible for the economy. And which Western gallerist, even belonging to the seraglio of the powerful, would dare to challenge China, promising collectors?

A gallery of a medium level will have to be even more cautious. It will have to balance its costs (of inscription, transport, stay, reception) compared to a fall of the tourism, a decline in sales of luxury goods, and the risk of blocking the site by the protesters. It will have to consider the medium term, be present even with the fear of a deficit to invest in the future because Hong Kong will remain the first Art Hubin Asia. The third-largest stock market in the world is at the international level for the Christie's and Sotheby's auctions, and the Art Basel organizing company, which is currently refusing to postpone or move the 2020 edition, is keen to point out that last vacations were successful.

In July, however, as the protests followed in Hong Kong, Pace Gallery decided to close its presence in Beijing. "It's impossible now to do business on the continent," noted the American gallery, which had been one of the first to settle there ten years ago. The escalation of the Sino-US commercial tension motivates his decision. But Pace keeps its branch in Hong Kong because the whole island remains a free port without import tax.

The crisis will not allow Singapore to take over: its free port is limited and a 7% tax on imports, a charge that should rise to 9% in 2021. From a political point of view, the city-state has an elected government, but it practices a very authoritarian democracy where debate is restricted and protests prohibited. Those who risk it are severely repressed in a country where two families manage to control the economy. Singapore is not in a good position to give lessons of democracy to China.

Xi Jinping now wants to deflect the claims of Hong Kong youth, who suffer exorbitant rents and can not find a job up to his qualifications, to make it target the six families (the "Tycoons") who monopolize a lot of wealth, as in real estate and finance. The goal: to mutate requests requiring more democracy in social conflict. If the president succeeds, he will regain control of this group of capitalists, to whom his predecessors have, according to him, left too much freedom.

Art Basel remains to offer good attractive commercial conditions and to publish a short manual of the perfect exhibitor in times of crisis.

Le Journal des arts