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Outcry as Hong Kong University memorial to Tiananmen Square victims is removed

Site of the Pillar of Shame at the city’s oldest university is under guard after workmen dismantled statue

Rhoda Kwan in Taipei

Thu 23 Dec 2021 05.10 GMT

Tiananmen massacre statue removed from Hong Kong university

Hong Kong’s oldest university has removed a statue mourning those killed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 and posted guards at the site where it has stood for more than 20 years.

The move prompted criticism of the university and the Hong Kong authorities, with academics and experts saying the removal of the sculpture was an attempt at “rewriting history”.

The 8-metre-tall (26ft) Pillar of Shame by the Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt was one of the few remaining public memorials in the territory 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.

Late on Wednesday, university staff used floor-to-ceiling sheets and plastic barriers to shield the statue from view, according to witnesses at the scene. Loud noises from power tools and chains emanated from the closed-off area for several hours before workmen were seen carrying out the top half of the statue and winching it up on a crane towards a waiting shipping container.

The Pillar of Shame statue, a memorial for those killed in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

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 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 made by HKU’s leadership council on Wednesday, it said in a statement.

“The decision on the aged statue was based on external legal advice and risk assessment for the best interest of the university,” a HKU council statement read on Thursday.

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 risked breaching.

The statue will be kept in storage and the university will “continue to seek legal advice on any appropriate follow-up action”.

Students and activists had carried out annual traditions of cleaning and repainting the statue to commemorate Beijing’s crackdown on protesters. It had been a symbol of Hong Kong’s wider freedoms.

Galschiøt told the Guardian 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.

“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,” Samuel Chu, the president of the Campaign for Hong Kong, said.

Maya Wang, a senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, said the move “signifies Beijing’s ever growing intolerance of dissent in Hong Kong”. “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,” she said.

“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,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of modern China at the University of California, Irvine, said.

“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.”

The sculpture’s removal was also decried by dissidents living overseas.

“They have used this despicable act in an attempt to erase this blood-stained chapter of history,” Wang Dan, one of the Tiananmen student leaders who was jailed in the aftermath of the crackdown and now lives in the United States, wrote on Facebook.

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 wrote on Twitter.

HKU broke ties with its student union in April and tore down its pro-democracy displays from the campus in July.

The statue’s removal is the latest development in the government’s efforts to rewrite the history of the massacre. A national security crackdown forced the city’s main activist group for massacre victims to disband in September, while authorities have banned annual candlelight vigils commemorating the massacre since 2020. The vigils, which have been held for the past three decades, had drawn up to tens of thousands.

In the past year, scores of opposition figures have been jailed or fled overseas, as authorities crack down on dissent in efforts to make the city more “patriotic”.

Hong Kong used to be the one place in China where mass remembrance of Tiananmen was still tolerated. There is no official death toll from the massacre but activists believe hundreds, possibly thousands, were killed.


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