Yang.

Courage ... Yang's project has been closely monitored. Photo: Yang Weidong

BEIJING: It is a work in progress but the 20-minute documentary film that the artist Yang Weidong released in Hong Kong yesterday has already produced some definite results.

The film, titled Need in Chinese and Signal in English, asked a cross-section of China's leading creative professionals - 151 so far - a simple question: what do Chinese people need?

''Freedom,'' says the leading film director Jia Zhangke.

''I need freedom of speech,'' says Mao Yushi, a public intellectual who has mentored many of China's leading economists.

''More free space for creative work,'' says the composer Zhang Xiaofu, a central figure in Chinese electronic music.

''In particular it's freedom of speech and freedom of press, in general it's democracy. In detail, it's multi-party elections,'' says Ye Fu, a fiction writer.

Yang interviewed retired senior officials, too.

''I need government to respect the rule of law and human rights,'' says Cai Dingjian, formerly of the legal affairs committee of the National People's Congress.

Yang plans to interview 500 leading figures in all and to roll out more documentaries based on Chinese aspirations.

Already, however, his portrait of what Chinese people really want is at odds with the priorities of development, stability and national power that Chinese leaders are pursuing.

Yang's interviewees are not confined to those with known liberal leanings and he asks no leading questions.

Most answers to his first question - what do you need? - revolve around the ideals of freedom, democracy, rule of law and morality. But some are more prosaic. ''Like everybody, I need money,'' says rock musician He Yong.

''I don't want for anything,'' says Chen Ershou, a leading geologist.

The riddle at the centre of Yang's documentary, which is centred on China's thirst for freedom, is the fact that he was able to make it in Beijing and to travel to Hong Kong to release it.

It shows a measure of intellectual freedom in China can exist for those with the courage - and strategic cunning - to create it.

The preface in his accompanying book hints at how he carved out his own small space. Yang describes himself as coming from a ''red family'', as his grandfather was a revolutionary martyr who joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1925.

His mother was a doctor who headed the national sports medical team when China was just beginning its mighty rise to the top of the gold medal tables. While Yang's grandfather has been honoured for his political ideals, the rest of his family has been punished for them.

''Since the 1970s my mother resolutely opposed and resisted using performance drugs and so she has been persecuted by the training bureau of the Sports Commission,'' he writes in his book's preface. ''In 2007, my father passed away during a vicious attack by relevant people from the General Administration of Sport.''

It was this that led Yang to begin his project. Yang describes how China's security apparatus has taken a keen interest in his work.

''From 9pm November 15, 2010, until 6am the second morning, national security protection department of the Beijing Public Security Bureau summoned and talked to me and searched my house,'' he writes.

''After this, they summoned me many times for my interviewing many 'sensitive people' and threatening the state's political stability and security; and they attempted to stop my regular work.''

They could have stopped Yang's project at any time - but they never did. Perhaps they never found whatever they were looking for. Perhaps an account of Yang's family history, if it were ever to come to light, would be more politically threatening than his documentary.