One of the vanishingly few memorials to the crackdown’s victims tolerated on Chinese soil, the statue’s presence at University of Hong Kong (HKU) was long considered a bellwether of artistic censorship in the semi-autonomous city. Its removal last Wednesday night was, for some students, another sign of Beijing’s tightening grip.
“By removing this pillar… we can see that our freedom is being taken away, bit by bit, day by day,” said one student on campus the next morning. “It reminds me that the (Chinese Communist Party) is an illegitimate regime,” another said.
CNN agreed to not disclose the names of students interviewed, as several of them feared retribution from authorities. HKU emeritus professor John Burns, however, was more open in his criticism. Eliminating memorials to the bloody military crackdown — a taboo topic on the mainland — demonstrated “further erosion of the relative autonomy of HKU from the Chinese state,” he said over email.
The “Pillar of Shame” statue, pictured at the HKU campus on October 15, 2021. Credit: Louise Delmotte/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
Workers remove part of the “Pillar of Shame” into a container at University of Hong Kong on December 23, 2021 in Hong Kong. Credit: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
“HKU is not a government department and need not subscribe to official propaganda about the Tiananmen incident,” Burns added. “So far it has not. But removing the statue moves HKU and Hong Kong closer to the official state of amnesia about Tiananmen.”
Like HKU’s governing body, which said it acted “based on external legal advice and risk assessment,” Lingnan University told CNN its decision followed a review into “items on campus that may pose legal and safety risks.” CUHK said in a statement it had “never authorized the display” of the statue on its grounds.
The “Goddess of Democracy” statue, in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, prior to its removal last week. Credit: Daniel Suen/AFP/Getty Images
The same site at the Chinese University of Hong Kong pictured on December 24, 2021. Credit: Bertha Wang/AFP/Getty Images
For three decades, Hong Kong has been the only place on Chinese-controlled soil where an annual mass vigil has been held to mark the events in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
The military crackdown remains one of the most tightly censored topics in mainland China, with discussions of it scrubbed from mass media. Chinese authorities have not released an official death toll, but estimates range from several hundred to thousands.
The removal of the statues comes amid a broader clampdown in Hong Kong, following the enactment of a national security law in 2020 that criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
“It’s still my property… if we get it, then we’ll (bring) it back to Europe, I’ll put it together and it will make a tour,” Galschiøt told CNN. “At the moment, we have a plan to put it in Washington, DC, in front of the Chinese embassy, just to show China that there’s a place in the world where we can talk about what happened in ’89.”
The controversy surrounding the sculpture means that it will, now, be tied to not only the Tiananmen Square massacre but also the erosion of Hong Kong’s artistic freedoms. But it was not the only version created by Galschiøt — nor was it even the first. The original “Pillar of Shame” was erected in Rome to honor those killed worldwide by hunger ahead of a Food and Agriculture Organization summit in 1996. Other versions of the work were subsequently installed in Mexico and Brazil to commemorate the victims of the Acteal massacre and Eldorado dos Carajás massacre, respectively.
Demonstrators gather around the Lady Liberty Hong Kong statue during a rally in the Central district of Hong Kong in September 2019. Credit: Justin Chin/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Beijing University students put the finishing touches on the Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, May 30, 1989. Credit: Jeff Widener/AP
The New School for Democracy, an NGO founded by Wang Dan, a long-exiled student leader of the Tiananmen Square protests, said it is raising funds to build its own version — with Galschiøt’s blessing — in Taiwan. It hopes the sculpture will be completed by June 4 next year, to mark the massacre’s 33rd anniversary.
In a statement responding to last week’s controversy, founder and president of the US-based Campaign for Hong Kong, Samuel Chu, wrote that the “Pillar of Shame” had transformed in meaning from a “touchstone for freedom” to “a tombstone for freedom.”
“Removing the public statues only reveals the statue-shaped hole in the hearts of minds of all of us,” he added.
Top image: Visitors and students take photos of the “Pillar of Shame” statue at the University of Hong Kong on October 11, 2021.