Frontier issues – Cultural security

Editor’s note: The following are remarks by Richard Cullen at a legal forum held on May 28, 2022

When I spoke at a NSL Review Forum organized by the DOJ almost a year ago I observed that in an ideal world, there would be no need for National Security Laws. We do not, however live in such a world. The extended insurrection that commenced in Hong Kong in mid-2019 confirmed this and we have seen further verification since.

Today I will address the relationship between art and culture and National Security.  It is a challenging area.  What is artistic or cultural can still provide a means to disrupt and subvert a given political order.  Yet we want art and culture to flourish, especially in Hong Kong, where the remarkable, world-class, West Kowloon Cultural District is now taking on its final, multi-venue shape after some 20 years of intense preparation. 

I will use my time:

  • To look, first, at the impact of a famous case where art and politics met;

  • To discuss, briefly, the essential nature of artistic and cultural expression;

  • To consider some primary contextual matters;

  • To review how individual radicalization can often unfold today; and

  • To discuss how we can best respond to National Security risks that may crystalize within artistic or cultural presentations.


Arguments Made

Leni Riefenstahl was an extraordinarily gifted German film-maker. She was born in 1902 and died in 2003, aged 101.  She was most famous – indeed infamous – for the work she did documenting the rise and rule of the Nazi Regime in Germany in the 1930s.  Most notorious was her rivetting film of a huge Nazi Rally in Nuremberg in 1934, called “Triumph of the Will”.  Riefenstahl was also in charge of the superbly filmed, 1936 Berlin Olympics, during the Nazi era, employing new techniques still used today.

The Long Shadow

Such was the draw of her exceptional artistic skill that Henry Ford, the creator of the Ford Motor Company greeted her warmly just before the war, in Detroit in the USA, in 1938.  After the war, that same magnetic artistic appeal charmed a number of leading Rock Music personalities.

Riefenstahl’s work provides an exceptional demonstration of how an artistic production can:

  • Powerfully shape political perceptions;

  • And amplify the acceptance of an extreme political ideology;

  • While still maintaining compelling artistic standards.


One definition says that artistic expression is: the conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects intended to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful or engaging. 

There is a clear overlap with cultural expression which is said to comprise those expressions that result from the creativity of individuals, groups and societies that have cultural content.

Anyone making artistic or cultural statements is expressing a point of view.  Whether this is a conventional view – or far more controversial – the aim is usually to persuade or at least to arouse attention.  Where there is political content, it may be designed to stimulate debate, confirm the value of the status quo, urge reform – and in extreme cases, drive destabilization to subvert an existing constitutional or social order.

One way to give solid form to these rather abstract definitions is to return to the case of Leni Riefenstahl.  Her remarkable filmic work was, individually, highly creative and was meant to be contemplated for its artistic qualities, in her firm view.  Her work also powerfully emphasized a particular, adamant German cultural identity, which, in turn, gravely subverted the standing and acceptance of other specific denounced, identities.

When commercial television was first introduced into the UK, after the war, in the 1950s, all paid political and religious advertising on the new commercial television stations was absolutely prohibited.  It was recognized as a fundamental political reality that video images on television possessed a power to persuade unequalled using any other medium.  When the law applying this basic, content control was challenged many decades later, the House of Lords in the UK found, unanimously, in 2008, that this reasoning was still correct – the democratic institutions of government had to be protected from the risks to basic order which could arise from partisan, inflammatory politicking on television.

It remains the case that the potential for harm to arise from within cultural or artistic articulation is greatest where video forms of expression are used. 


We need to pay attention to certain wider aspects which apply, within which national security concerns arise.  Some of these factors may directly amplify national security risks and others may point to special vulnerabilities.  I want to speak briefly about a key example of each.

Professor John Mearsheimer is a leading US, International Relations academic.  He is one of a number of prominent American commentators who say that the US is now engaged in a New Cold War with China – and this is a good thing.  Other commentators argue there is a severe Trade and Technology War but not a Cold War.

Whatever the true position may be, what is beyond doubt, is that US is now engaged in a comprehensive project, using unconcealed, political, economic, media and military means to contain the rise of China.  The massive effort put into this grim venture has intensified since 2017, with no let-up since President Biden took power in 2021.

The multi-month insurrection which engulfed Hong Kong from June 2019 unfolded within this crucially adverse environment.  The US role in assisting and maintaining that immensely destructive political upheaval was fundamentally significant.

This geopolitical context mattered greatly in 2019.  It very likely matters even more today.  As the former CFA Judge, Henry Litton noted a year ago, an attempt was made, with that insurrection, to overthrow the SAR Government.  By any measure, geopolitical envy, anxiety, frustration and truculence levels continue to intensify in the US.

Next, let us consider susceptibility.  Aristotle is commonly quoted as having said, well over 2,000 years ago: Give me the child until seven and I will give you the man.   During these formative years and indeed during school years, children and teenagers are particularly disposed towards being readily influenced as they work-out what their place is, within the world: they are continually exploring for fresh clarification, explanation and vindication.  A primary lesson to be taken from 2019 is that many younger Hong Kong residents were swayed by distorted and dangerous narratives – the more so because they were naturally restless and curious.


The keynote address presented, in Paris, in 2008, at the Aspen Cultural Dialogue Event argued persuasively how the relationship between culture and security had changed.  The emphasis in this paper was on the radicalization of younger people of Islamic origin. However, the presenter, Professor Azeem Ibrahim, aptly noted that his structured argument applied to radicalization associated with any ideology.

So how are radical beliefs typically disseminated?  When this paper was presented, it was already clear to Professor Ibrahim that offshore influences had become fundamentally important in augmenting local stimuli and modern technology had had a transformative effect in providing ready access to such influences. 

The typology Ibrahim provided said that radicalization normally happened in four stages:

  1. A sense of individual moral outrage based on a given understanding (for example pivoting on stories of Muslim suffering – or an indignant perception of denied political rights) develops;

  2. Explanations are then accessed which intensify this indignation by placing it within a wider, inflammatory context;

  3. Any subsequent adverse personal experiences can now feed into this sense of resentment;

  4. The individual is then far more ready to join a violent radical movement.

Professor Ibrahim concluded that the unfolding of this process depends, fundamentally, on an individual’s interpretation of reality.  It is their core ideas and beliefs that most shape this interpretation of how the world appears.  The power of technology (especially in the form of Social Media) to amplify radical influencing is even more profound today compared to 2008.  The modes of mass communication have never been more extensive and low-cost.  And they can be readily rendered clandestine.


Artistic and cultural creations, in the vast majority of cases, involve the conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects intended to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful or deeply engaging.  Such creations can also, though, be used to propagate radical, domineering ideas which can fundamentally distort understanding and fuel violent extremism.

So, how can we fairly, yet robustly, ensure that the arts can flourish whilst safeguarding national security?  This is a central challenge – and there are no stress-free or easy answers.  We need to find a balance.  Extreme cases may be clear enough.  But aptly striking this balance is bound to be an ongoing process where we learn from experience and refine and adapt the norms we use to separate out the measurably dangerous cultural or artistic creations.  Meanwhile, Winston Churchill has reminded us to be mindful of the limitations of using excessive legal drafting to try and control every eventuality: If you have 10,000 regulations, he said, you destroy all respect for the law.

Still, some basic initial tests suggest themselves, when reviewing creative output:

  • Who is the target audience and, in particular, how young is that audience?

  • What is the dominant motivation behind the creation?

  • Is there any measurable evidence about the origins and funding of a creation that gives prima facie cause for concern?

  • Does the creation satisfy a “Loyal Opposition” test: that is, though it may be politically critical – is it plain that the work and its creator maintain a clear commitment to preserving fundamental social order?

Context is also of vital importance.   As noted earlier, the US is now engaged in a comprehensive project, drawing in as many allies as it can, using brazenly conspicuous, political, economic, military – and media – means to contain the rise of China.  These circumstances look set to endure for some years and they may well become more intense.  Creating serious disorder in Hong Kong, on balance, plainly benefits the prosecution of this colossal, US-led, Sino-obstruction project. 

Generally, we need to decide if an artistic or cultural creation evidently supports a real tolerance and fostering of lawlessness – within the context just noted.  As the famed Latin American revolutionary, Simon Bolivar said around 200 years ago: Anarchy is the worst enemy of freedom.

Richard Cullen is a visiting professor with the Law Faculty of the University of Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.