When China regained official control over Hong Kong from Great Britain in 1997, it pledged to respect the city’s unique political “system” that encourages democratic participation and respects civil liberties for at least 50 years. Well, 2047 is now coming into focus as a pair of artists have broadcast a countdown to the ominous moment on the tallest building in Hong Kong. The display by artists Sampson Wong and Jason Lam was quickly removed from the side of the International Commerce Center (ICC) after the duo revealed the “subversive” message.

Hidden at the end of a nine-minute performance of words and texts on the side of the ICC, the message may never have come to light if the artists had not clarified the political undertones. The countdown is an apparent response to growing tensions between Hong Kong and China over the coming reunion.

Though the “two systems” will only officially become one in 2047, the year 2017 does mark an important moment in the legal process of unification. China recently spelled out terms for the city’s governance, which, though it allows Hong Kong a degree of autonomy, does grant Beijing a significant degree of oversight. The initial proposal launched Hong Kong’s “Umbrella” protest movement, attracting hundreds of thousands of protesters in 2014.

China has one of the worst human rights track records in the world, and many in Hong Kong believe that the Communist Party is already chipping away at the city’s sovereignty. The quick renunciation of the display on the side of the ICC would appear to validate concerns about civil liberties under China, though the officials in charge of removing it claimed the artists’ “disrespect” had forced their hand.

“The disrespect demonstrated by Mr. Sampson Wong and Mr. Jason Lam against the original agreement and understanding made with the curator and H.K.A.D.C. is jeopardizing our profession and put at risk any future possibility to work further in the public space,” reads a statement from Ellen Pau, chairwoman of the film and media art group at the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, and Caroline Ha Thuc, curator of the “Fifth Large-Scale Public Media Art Exhibition: Human Vibrations.”

The artists contend that they simply didn’t change the artwork, which they had developed in advance of its use on the ICC.

“We don’t agree with the statement, the facts portrayed and the argument,” Wong told The New York Times today. “We did not change our artwork ‘Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now.’ ”

The release of a plan to give Chinese authorities the power to veto candidates for election in Hong Kong triggered the 2014 Umbrella movement, which drew hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets. 

The first day of the display coincided with a three-day visit to Hong Kong by Zhang Dejiang a member of the governing Politburo Standing Committee. While Wong and Lam are not under arrest, seven activists who displayed banners reading “I Want Genuine Universal Suffrage” and “End Chinese Communist Party Dictatorship” on the path of Dejiang’s motorcade have been taken into custody.

The display on the side of the ICC opens with what is now clearly a taunt to Chinese authorities: “60 Seconds of Friendship Begins Now.”

With arrests of activists and suppression of protest art, that friendship is looking more and more strained by the day.

Photos via Pasu Au Yeung; Wikimedia Commons, The New York Times