A monument at a Hong Kong university that was the most well-known public remembrance of the Tiananmen Square massacre on Chinese soil was demolished early Thursday, erasing the city’s last public commemoration of the bloody 1989 crackdown.
The move, according to some at the University of Hong Kong, reflected the erosion of the relative freedoms they had enjoyed in comparison to mainland China.
Danish sculptor Jens Galschioet created the 8-meter (26-foot)-tall Pillar of Shame, which depicts 50 torn and twisted bodies piled on top of each other, to commemorate the lives lost during the military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
Many students at the University of Hong Kong, according to Billy Kwok, have treated the Pillar of Shame as if it were a part of the university. It had been there for more than two decades at the university. “It’s the symbol of whether (there is still) … freedom of speech in Hong Kong,” he said after the sculpture was taken away.
The university stated that it had requested that the sculpture be stored because it posed “legal risks.”
“No party has ever obtained permission from the university to display the statue on campus, and the university reserves the right to take appropriate actions to handle it at any time,” it said in a statement following its removal.
Members of the now-defunct student union would wash the statue every year on June 4 to commemorate the massacre. The city, along with Macao, were the only places in China where commemorations of the crackdown were permitted.
For the second year in a row, authorities have banned annual Tiananmen Square candlelight vigils and shut down a private museum documenting the crackdown. The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organized the annual vigil and ran the museum, has since disbanded, with some of its key members imprisoned. The sculpture was demolished just days after pro-Beijing candidates won a landslide victory in Hong Kong legislative elections, thanks to changes in election laws that allow candidates to be vetted to ensure they are “patriots” loyal to Beijing.
Carrie Lam, the leader of Hong Kong, visited Beijing this week to report on developments in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, where authorities have silenced dissent in the aftermath of Beijing’s imposition of a sweeping national security law that appeared to target much of the pro-democracy movement following mass protests in 2019.
The Pillar of Shame became a point of contention in October, when activists and civil rights organizations opposed a university demand that it be removed based on “the most recent risk assessment and legal advice.” Galschioet has offered to return it to Denmark if he is not prosecuted under the national security law, but has so far been unsuccessful. Galschioet said he was promised a spot for the sculpture in a park across from the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., and that he had also been offered spots in Norway, Canada, and Taiwan.
He compared removing the sculpture to “driving a tank through Arlington Cemetery,” a cemetery for American war veterans.
“In China, grave desecration is also frowned upon, but that’s exactly what it is. “It’s almost like a sacred monument,” he says. “It’s a memorial to those who have passed away.”
According to Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod, its removal is yet another worrying development in Hong Kong.
“The Danish government has no say over which art is displayed in the universities of other countries.” However, for me and the government, the right to peacefully express oneself — whether through speech, art, or other means — is a completely fundamental right for all people. “This is also true in Hong Kong,” he explained. An employee at the university, Morgan Chan, said removal of the Pillar of Shame “doesn’t mean that history will be erased, and removing the pillar doesn’t mean people won’t learn about the history.”