For the past two nights, amid a dazzling, world famous skyline, the International Commerce Center – Hong Kong’s tallest skyscraper – has glimmered with a secret message.
Appearing on the 118-story facade just after 9:30 p.m. is a seemingly harmless nine-digit number.
A curious Hong Konger or tourist might wonder what the number signifies.
The more politically minded will already know – the digits represent a clock counting down by the second to July 1, 2047.
That’s when Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” arrangement with Beijing – which gives the semi-autonomous city freedoms unseen on the mainland – is set to expire.
And how exactly has the clock managed to sneak its way onto the city’s most prominent public screen, erected by real estate giant Sun Hung Kai Properties?
It was cloaked in a larger artwork as part of a “large-scale public media art exhibition” called “Human Vibrations,” commissioned by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, a government organization.
“Hong Kong is having anxiety – and a political discussion – about its fate after 2047,” Sampson Wong told CNN.
Along with Jason Lam, Wong is a co-creator of the animated installation. “If the Umbrella Movement in 2014 failed to bring democracy, what’s going to happen after 2047?
“Our work explores this question of self-determination.”
The Hong Kong Arts Development Council said the views and opinions expressed by the artists didn’t represent the organization’s stance.
“If there is any hidden message behind, it is solely the personal idea of the creators,” the Hong Kong Arts Development Council said in an email.
“ICC was not involved in the process of selection or curation of the artworks, which was done by HKADC,” a representative of Sun Hung Kai Properties said.
The blinking digits are embedded in a series of looping phrases and appear for a few moments at the end of a nine-minute exhibit called “Our 60-second friendship begins now.”
The phrases preceding the countdown are taken from dialogue in the classic 1990 Hong Kong film, “Days of Being Wild.”
The film’s protagonists – played by Maggie Cheung and the late Leslie Cheung – share a moment while quietly looking at a watch together.
Sampson Wong told CNN the movie is simply an innocent way for carrying a message, but the themes related to time – and running out of time – often found in director Wong Kar-wai’s movies also hold relevance.
Debuting on Tuesday, the animated installation and its subliminal message is scheduled to run every night until June 22.
While the clock displayed on the skyscraper will stay the same throughout the exhibition, a real-time countdown can be found on the installation’s website.
Timing just a coincidence, say creators
The show coincides – though Wong said not deliberately – with the three-day visit of Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, whose arrival to Hong Kong on Tuesday was met with protests.
Zhang is in Hong Kong to discuss China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative that aims to improve economic ties with central Asia.
The countdown would likely have been in the full view of the high-ranking Communist Party official, who was staying in the Grand Hyatt hotel in the neighborhood of Wan Chai.
Overlooking Victoria Harbor, the International Commerce Center is a frequent host of installations including New Year’s Eve countdowns on its facade – effectively a vertical strip of LED displays.
“The ICC made it clear that it wouldn’t tolerate political elements” in its light shows, Wong told CNN.
While authorities from both the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and the ICC had inquired about the number, they didn’t ask further after the artists said the digits were “random,” Wong said.
This isn’t the first time the artists have adorned Hong Kong’s harbor-facing buildings with messages.
They projected motivational messages from around the world onto the government headquarters’ facade during pro-democracy protests in 2014, including one from Russian activist band Pussy Riot.
To make sure the installation doesn’t immediately get axed, the artists placed a media embargo until Wednesday night so that the clock would get to tick for at least two nights.
The HKADC said the light show was shown Thursday night without modification and would be shown again at 9:30 p.m. local time Friday.