Thousands gathered in Hong Kong to see the day tear down a monument commemorating those killed during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The decision was made after multiple student groups pressured school officials and called for an apology from Beijing, which claimed that its actions were justified.
HONG KONG, China— A statue honoring the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre was desecrated by the governing body of the city’s oldest university, one of the most visible memorials to the atrocity on Chinese territory.
In a statement released Thursday, the University of Hong Kong Council said the decision was based on legal and risk analyses. It claimed that no one had ever gotten permission from the university to put the monument up on campus.
The “Pillar of Shame,” a distortion of 50 ripped corpses and faces, stood on the university’s campus for more than two decades until being dismantled early Thursday. Jens Galschit, a Danish artist, made the sculpture to commemorate those who died in China’s 1989 crackdown on student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. The words “The aged cannot kill the young forever” are etched on its base.
Mr. Galschit, who has claimed ownership of the statue in recent months and has asked the university to collect it, said he was taken aback by the institution’s actions.
More than a year after the installation of a comprehensive national-security statute, which has also put a chill over the local academic environment, the removal comes amid an assault on civil liberties. In Hong Kong, commemorations of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4 are progressively dying out.
For the last two years, a 30-year-old yearly vigil in the city has been outlawed, claiming public-health concerns, while police officials stormed a museum in September displaying items from the massacre, removing displays and sealing up the facility.
The monument has been put in storage, according to the institution. Late Wednesday, security personnel were spotted erecting barriers around the 26-foot-tall monument. Workmen with hard helmets were spotted early Thursday carrying the statue—wrapped in plastic sheeting—into a shipping container, hours later.
“The monument has always been a measure of how free the institution was,” Julia Bowes, a University of Melbourne U.S. history professor who taught at HKU from 2018 to 2021, said. “It served as a daily reminder that Hong Kong was intellectually distinct from the mainland.”
Ms. Bowes, who left the university as the political climate in the city changed, said the monument served as a reminder to students that being in Hong Kong meant they possessed political liberties not enjoyed by mainland residents. She said that removing it would be an erasing of history and would affect the university’s reputation as a site of open intellectual research.
The pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily in Hong Kong published its last issue before ceasing operations due to China’s crackdown on dissent. Elaine Yu of the Wall Street Journal discusses why the shutdown means increased uncertainty for the city’s journalistic liberties. Photo credit: EPA/Shutterstock/Jerome Favre
The removal of the monument, according to three other university professors and lecturers, served as a harsh reminder of how dramatically the teaching and learning atmosphere has changed on campus.
Beyond the statement issued on Thursday, the institution refused to comment.
The statue was transported to the institution over a winding path. It was a highlight during Hong Kong’s candlelight memorial commemorating those who perished at the Tiananmen Square protest in 1997, roughly a month before the handover from Britain to China. Activists then disobeyed campus security personnel to deliver the monument to the institution. It sat there, horizontally, until a student-union vote in 1998 resulted in the monument’s placement in a famous campus plaza.
Richard Tsoi, who led negotiations on behalf of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China at the time, said in October that when construction disrupted that spot in 2010, campus officials worked with activists to move the statue to another part of the square, where it has remained since.
The alliance chose to split in September, with its leaders facing further charges under national security law for refusing to give over the organization’s information to the authorities. Mr. Tsoi was among the leaders of the alliance who were sentenced to months in prison this month for their roles in a prohibited 2020 vigil.
In October, the ‘Pillar of Shame’ monument was on exhibit at the University of Hong Kong.
Kin Cheung/Associated Press photo
The university responded to the Alliance in October, requesting that the display be removed off campus. The request came after it said it would no longer recognize its student union after the organization showed support for a suspect who stabbed a police officer before stabbing himself in the heart on July 1.
Mr. Tsoi wrote to the university’s vice chancellor, pleading with him to preserve the monument on campus. He said that the ownership was ambiguous since none of the parties had ever signed an official agreement.
The sculptor, Mr. Galschit, claimed that it still belonged to him since there had never been a formal sale or giving arrangement. Mr. Galschit stated in October that it was impossible to place a precise value on the monument because of how well-known it is across the globe, but he estimated it to be around 1.2 million Euros, or $1.36 million.
Mr. Galschit said, “This specific Hong Kong sculpture has a really fantastic history that will be lost if I construct a new sculpture, thus that makes it precious.”
Natasha Khan can be reached at [email protected]
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