HKU to Remove Pillar of Shame, Erasing Memory of June Fourth Massacre

Citing its “latest risk assessment and legal advice,” Hong Kong University’s (HKU) administration ordered the removal from its campus of the Pillar of Shame, a world-famous sculpture memorializing the victims of the Tiananmen massacre. The pillar is an icon of Hong Kong’s resolve to remember what the Chinese mainland was forced to forget, and its impending removal symbolizes the CCP’s relentless erosion of liberties under the National Security Law. Scott Neuman at NPR reported on the HKU administration’s ultimatum

The university set a deadline of Wednesday for the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China — an activist group that was forced to disband last month — to take the memorial down. Representatives of the now-defunct group have asked for more time, due to a typhoon that has battered the territory in recent days, but it’s not clear if the extension would be granted. As of Wednesday evening local time, the memorial appears to remain at the university.

In a letter, the university insisted that if the sculpture wasn’t removed by 5 p.m. on Oct. 13, “it will be deemed abandoned.” [Source]

While the pillar remains standing at the time of publishing, the HKU administration’s removal order ignited a tense legal battle over the pillar’s ownership. HKU claimed that the pillar is under control of the Hong Kong Alliance, most of whose leaders are jailed under the National Security Law. The Alliance deferred to the pillar’s Danish artist, Jens Galschiøt, who was informed of the dispute only through press coverage. Galschiøt then claimed that the pillar still legally belongs to him and that he merely allowed the student group to borrow it on a permanent loan. Both Galschiøt and a member of the Alliance’s standing committee expressed hope that the pillar would remain at HKU or at least in Hong Kong. Jeffie Lam at the South China Morning Post described how, anticipating that HKU would not back down from its demand, Galschiøt made every effort to safeguard his work of art:

Jens Galschiøt said he was talking to politicians from his home country as part of efforts to safely ship the Pillar of Shame out of the city, as he revealed his lawyers had formally requested the University of Hong Kong (HKU) arrange a hearing to review its controversial decision.

[…] The artist also revealed that several members of the Danish parliament he was in contact with were dialling up the pressure on the country’s foreign ministry to intervene in the matter, while demanding the Chinese embassy offer “necessary help to bring the sculpture out of Hong Kong [so it] can be erected in a safe place”.

“I am, of course, deeply concerned that … it will not succeed and that the sculpture will be destroyed in connection with the move. I would like to emphasise that I consider any damage to the sculpture to be the responsibility of the university,” Galschiøt added. [Source]

The pillar was created in 1996 by Galschiøt and first displayed at the 1997 Tiananmen massacre vigil in Victoria Park. Fearful that Chinese government authorities would desecrate the pillar after the British handover of Hong Kong, students managed to move it into the HKU campus, where it has remained for 24 years, apart from brief exhibitions at several nearby universities. Since 2002, the Alliance has held an annual ritual of cleaning the pillar before the anniversary of June 4. In 2008, the Alliance painted the pillar orange for Galschiøt’s campaign to draw attention to the CCP’s human rights abuses in the period leading up to the Beijing Olympics; the orange color remains to this day. This week, crowds gathered to snap pictures and view the pillar one last time before its removal. 

Galschiøt has produced four different pillars of shame, located in Hong Kong, Mexico, Italy, and Brazil. The pillars, eight-meter tall statues of bronze, copper, and concrete, represent shameful events that must never be forgotten. Galschiøt’s original description of the sculpture, published on his website in 1996, explained the pillar’s symbolism and predicted that authorities’ attempts to remove it would only reinforce its symbolism:

In situations where the authorities have committed the atrocity, the sculpture (representing the victims) will be very difficult for them to move. Whatever their reaction might be, it will have a symbolic value. If they hide the Pillar away in a warehouse, they will be insulting the victims by sentencing them to oblivion. They will thus be adding to the power of a symbol that is meant to highlight the struggle of the bereaved for remembrance. If they blow it up, they are displaying brutality when they probably are more interested in keeping a low profile. They risk appearing extremely aggressive if they repeat their atrocities, this time against the symbol of the event. On the other hand, if they accept the sculpture, they accept a monument in memory of events that they probably would prefer to forget.

The Pillar of Shame represents a good deal of money: the only symbol which commands global respect. Monuments of this calibre are normally set up in memory of ‘heroic’ deeds. However, here the sculpture is mounted to serve as a continual reminder of a shameful act which must never reoccur. The Pillar of Shame is impossible to ignore as a symbol of an atrocity and its victims. It is a kind of Nobel Prize of Injustice.

[…] Set up now, ahead of the reunification with China, the Pillar of Shame is a litmus test of the new and old authorities’ guarantees for human rights and freedom of expression in Hong Kong.

No infringement, not even the destruction of the sculpture can obliterate the symbolism of the Pillar of Shame. No more than ruthless oppression has managed to stifle the spirit of Tiananmen. [Source]

The National Security Law, however, has severely restrained Hong Kong civil society and its ability to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre. In June, authorities banned the Tiananmen vigil in Victoria Park and arrested those who attempted to defy the ban. In September, authorities arrested leaders of the Alliance, which organized the annual vigil, and charged them with inciting subversion against state power; authorities also raided the Alliance’s iconic June 4 museum and blocked its new online website. Hong Kong’s university “democracy walls” have been sterilized or stripped bare. Teachers have cancelled lessons on the Tiananmen massacre, and schools are forced to use new textbooks that promote “patriotic education” and censor images of the Tiananmen Square protests. In a recent article in the Hong Kong Free Press, Louisa Lim argued that HKU’s acquiescence to the National Security Law is a shameful betrayal of its principles of academic freedom:

Viewed in this light, these most recent moves can be seen as a purge rolling out that culture of abasement to Hong Kong. In requesting the removal of the Pillar of Shame, Hong Kong University is bowing down to the post-National Security Law reality and signalling that it will sacrifice its century-old tradition of academic freedom and critical inquiry in the interests of self-preservation. 

It has already repudiated its legacy of student activism by shutting down the Student Union, barring student leaders from campus and sitting on its hands as four student leaders were arrested for terrorism. The Chinese University is following suit, as the Global Times warns “there is increasingly no room for anti-government and trouble-making groups or organisations in the education sector to abuse academic freedom.”

For the Alliance leaders, protecting the memory of Tiananmen has always been the first line of defence. “We have to use this moment to say Hong Kong people will not submit to your rewriting of history,” jailed lawyer Chow Hang-Tung told the Washington Post in June. The acquiescence of HKU in urging the removal of the Pillar of Shame signals its submission, not just to the rewriting of history, but to the reorienting of its educational purpose in this new era of national security. [Source]

To help it navigate the conflicting legal interests and avoid further reputational damage, HKU hired American law firm Mayer Brown, which sent the removal letter to the Alliance on behalf of the university. However, many criticized the fact that an American law firm would be willing to facilitate CCP-led censorship in Hong Kong. Galschiøt stated: “They are connected to an attack on art, an attack on democracy in Hong Kong.” The firm also drew scorn for its hypocrisy, having touted its “solidarity with all those who lawfully seek justice for those who have been denied their civil liberties and human rights,” after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. David Thomas from Reuters reported on the global backlash to Mayer Brown’s involvement in the Pillar of Shame affair:

“American firms should be ashamed to be complicit” in the statue’s removal, [U.S. Senator Ted] Cruz told journalist Eli Lake in a Substack column published Wednesday. [U.S. Senator Lindsey] Graham in the article lamented that “American law firms are doing the bidding of the Communist Party.” A spokesperson for Graham declined to comment further. Cruz’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Separately, a group of 28 non-governmental organizations called on Mayer Brown to end its relationship with the university in an open letter, saying the firm’s demand “shows that Mayer Brown has violated its stated mission to make a positive difference in the lives of citizens in Hong Kong.”

[…] Samuel Chu, a founder and former managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, said in a email that it’s “unacceptable” that Mayer Brown has touted its commitment to human rights in the context of George Floyd’s death “while acting in the exact opposite way in Hong Kong.” [Source]


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