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Hong Kong’s Tiananmen Memorial 'Pillar of Shame' Faces Removal

The "Pillar of Shame" statue, a memorial for those killed in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, is displayed at the University of Hong Kong, Oct. 13, 2021.
The "Pillar of Shame" statue, a memorial for those killed in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, is displayed at the University of Hong Kong, Oct. 13, 2021.

The organizer of Hong Kong’s now-banned Tiananmen Massacre vigil has missed a deadline to remove a statue on the campus of the University of Hong Kong that commemorates the victims of a bloody end to China’s 1989 pro-democracy movement.

The university set a Wednesday deadline for the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (HK Alliance) to remove what is reportedly the last artwork on Chinese soil commemorating weeks of events at Tiananmen Square.

Members of the group, which was forced to disband last month rather than face charges under the National Security Law, had requested an extension citing the difficulty of removing the “Pillar of Shame” under typhoon conditions. It remains unclear what will happen next.

Created by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt in 1997, the “Pillar of Shame” was given to the HK Alliance, a pro-democracy organization established in 1989 to support the student protest in Tiananmen Square. The group was perhaps best known for organizing an annual vigil on June 4 until the gathering was banned in 2020.

According to the South China Morning Post, “the university said the move was based on its assessment of legal risks in light of [HK Alliance’s] dissolution.”

Many Hong Kong institutions are taking proactive steps to avoid drawing Beijing’s attention, which is focused on eliminating what it perceives to be challenges to its authority. An artwork commemorating a massacre that provoked international condemnation exemplifies what Beijing and the ruling Chinese Communist Party want to erase from Hong Kong and its memory of pro-democracy protests in 2019.

The HKU order for the artwork’s removal the latest move to limit civil society in Hong Kong under the new security law. The former British colony reverted to China in 1997 under a “One Country, Two Systems” framework meant to ensure that the territory would enjoy a degree of autonomy and basic freedoms for 50 years.

With the removal deadline passed, HKU said Wednesday that the university is still “seeking legal advice and working with related parties to handle the matter in a legal and reasonable manner.”

Legal affair

The international law firm, Mayer Brown LLP, which represented the university, sent out a notice on October 8 to the disbanded HK Alliance, saying the statue needed to be removed before 5 p.m. October 13, 2021, or “it would be deemed abandoned.”

Since the “Pillar of Shame” was ordered removed, nearly 30 NGOs have signed an open letter to the law firm asking Mayer Brown to rescind their agreement to represent the University of Hong Kong in removing the statue.

“The sculpture has been at the University of Hong Kong campus for over 20 years. For the Mayer Brown law firm to demand that it be removed after all these years when there had been no objections from the university officials nor from the student body in the past, shows that Mayer Brown has violated its stated mission to make a positive difference in the lives of citizens in Hong Kong,” said the NGOs’ letter.

Mayer Brown published a statement after George Floyd, a Black man, died on May 25, 2020, while in the custody of a white policeman in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the time, Mayer Brown, which was founded in Chicago, stressed the firm’s social responsibility.

“At Mayer Brown, our core values are grounded in the principle that every individual -- each and every individual -- is equally worthy of respect and appreciation,” the statement said. “We recognize the value that diversity and inclusion bring to our business and to our communities and we have a corresponding responsibility to speak up when our core values are undermined.”

In a statement provided to VOA Mandarin on October 12, Mayer Brown said that they were asked to provide service on a specific real estate matter for its long-term client, the University of Hong Kong.

“Our role as outside counsel is to help our clients understand and comply with current law. Our legal advice is not intended as commentary on current or historical events,” the law firm said.

Campus landmark

The 8-meter-tall statue, which has been an HKU landmark for 24 years, depicts 50 bodies twisted together in agony to commemorate events of June 4, 1989, when the People's Liberation Army cleared pro-democracy protesters from Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Estimates of the number killed range from hundreds to thousands.

Galschiøt said on his website “the torn and twisted bodies of the sculpture symbolize the degradation, devaluation and lack of respect for the individual,” and that the goal of the art project is to “remind us of a shameful event which must never reoccur.”

The artist loaned “Pillar of Shame” to the HK Alliance in part because of its organizing role with the Tiananmen vigil. The group’s onetime secretary, Richard Tsoi, recalled when they received the artwork from the Danish artist in 1997.

“Of course, we didn’t have the space for such a large statue. The students at the University of Hong Kong had a referendum and requested the school authorities to find a space for the statue, and the school had responded positively,” he told VOA in a phone interview, adding that the University of Hong Kong has long been involved with the statue’s upkeep.

Tsoi said the statue is of great significance to the implementation of the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement.

“In the past 20 years, the ‘Pillar of Shame’ has been placed in public areas, which shows that Hong Kong still enjoys a high level of freedom after its return to China in 1997,” he said. “It’s a vital symbol for the ‘One country, Two Systems’ framework.”

Avoiding damage

Galschiøt told VOA Mandarin that he has employed a lawyer to represent his interests. He said he’s happy to see that the University didn’t take any abrupt action before the deadline.

He told VOA via phone on Wednesday that it is not easy to move a sculpture of this size. The artist cautioned that a quick removal could possibly damage the artwork permanently.

If the statue must be removed from Hong Kong, he told VOA Mandarin, he thinks he would need to oversee the dismantling. “If they let someone who doesn't really know how to handle that to take it down, then they would break it,” he said.

Galschiøt told VOA Mandarin that he would prefer to see the statue remain in Hong Kong.

“This is really the story of Hong Kong,” he said. “It’s an example to show that Hong Kong is different from China. It’s a free place where you can talk, you can speak, and you can have a monument about the Tiananmen crackdown.”

“If they take it down and put it away from Hong Kong, it’s a really sad situation because this is a symbol for Hong Kong being the only free part of China,” he added.

Gao Feng contributed to this report.