Outcry as memorial to Tiananmen Square victims removed from Hong Kong University
Site of the Pillar of Shame at city’s oldest university under guard after workmen cut up statue
Tiananmen massacre statue removed from Hong Kong university – video
Hong Kong’s oldest university and the territory’s authorities have been accused of rewriting history after cutting up and removing a statue mourning those killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
The erasure of the memorial from where it had stood for nearly 25 years came as Beijing has intensified its targeting of political dissent in Hong Kong since the Covid pandemic.
The 8-metre-tall (26ft) Pillar of Shame by the Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt was one of the few remaining public monuments in Hong Kong commemorating the bloody crackdown that is a taboo topic in mainland China, where it cannot be publicly marked. It had sat on the University of Hong Kong (HKU) campus since 1997, the year the city was handed back to China from Britain.
According to witnesses, university staff late on Wednesday erected floor-to-ceiling sheets and plastic barriers to shield the statue from view. Loud noises from power tools and chains came from the closed-off area for several hours before workmen were seen carrying out the top half of the statue and winching it on a crane towards a waiting shipping container.
“This is a symbolically important move, which fits in with so many other sad recent ones, such as campus democracy walls being stripped of posters,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, the author of the book Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, and a historian of modern China at the University of California, Irvine.
“There is a recurring theme of disappearances; of objects from campuses and disappearances of people into prisons or exile. What is disappearing in the process – or at least diminishing dramatically, as there are still contrasts – is the sense of Hong Kong universities as radically unlike mainland ones.”
In October, HKU officials ordered the removal of the sculpture, which features 50 anguished faces and tortured bodies piled on one another and commemorates the pro-democracy protesters killed by Chinese troops around Tiananmen Square.
The request was condemned by rights groups, with the international law firm Mayer Brown withdrawing from representing the university on the matter. Security guards have blocked reporters from approaching and tried to stop media outlets from filming.
The statue’s removal came shortly after a decision by HKU’s leadership council on Wednesday. In a statement on Thursday the council said: “The decision on the aged statue was based on external legal advice and risk assessment for the best interest of the university.”
The council said it had received legal advice that the statue risked breaching the city’s crimes ordinance, legislation enacted by the colonial government. HKU did not respond to the Guardian’s questions about which provisions the statue could breach.
The statue will be kept in storage and the university said it would “continue to seek legal advice on any appropriate follow-up action”.
Before Wednesday’s removal, students and activists carried out the annual tradition of cleaning and repainting the statue to commemorate Beijing’s crackdown on protesters. For them, it had been a symbol of Hong Kong’s wider freedoms.
The sculptor, Galschiøt, said he was “shocked and saddened” by the developments. “I’ve asked Hong Kong University to allow me to go and collect it in person, but I received no response,” he said. “If they destroy my work, I’ll seek compensation and demand the remaining pieces to be returned to Europe.
“This is not about the national security law. This is my private property. It’s the Hong Kong law that says the authorities cannot destroy private properties like this.”
Earlier, the artist sent an email to supporters encouraging them to “document everything that happens with the sculpture”. “We have done everything we can to tell [HKU] that we would very much like to pick up the sculpture and bring it to Denmark,” it said.
The sculpture’s removal was also decried by dissidents and activists living overseas. “They have used this despicable act in an attempt to erase this bloodstained chapter of history,” Wang Dan, one of the Tiananmen student leaders who was jailed after the crackdown, and now lives in the US, wrote on Facebook.
Samuel Chu, the president of the Campaign for Hong Kong, said: “Its creation in 1997 was a touchstone for freedom in Hong Kong; its destruction in 2021 would be a tombstone for freedom in Hong Kong.”
Nathan Law, a former Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmaker who fled to Britain last year, said the statue would live on in people’s memories. “The PillarOfShame is removed, while memory lives. We must remember what happened on June 4th, 1989. TiananmenMassacre,” he tweeted.
HKU broke ties with its student union in April and tore down its pro-democracy displays from the campus in July.
Maya Wang, a senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, said removing the statue “signifies Beijing’s ever-growing intolerance of dissent in Hong Kong”. She added: “The Chinese government is rewriting history as part of its broader efforts to dismantle a free society, and transform the city into one compliant to the Chinese Communist party.”
A national security crackdown forced the city’s main activist group for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown to disband in September. The authorities banned annual candlelight vigils commemorating the massacre in 2020. The vigils, which had been held for the past three decades, drew up to tens of thousands of people.
In the past year, scores of opposition figures have been jailed or fled abroad, as authorities stifled dissent to make the city more “patriotic”.
Hong Kong used to be the one place in China where mass remembrance of Tiananmen was tolerated. There is no official death toll from the massacre but activists believe hundreds, possibly thousands, of people were killed.
(c) 2021, The Guardian