For Shame: Hong Kong’s “Pillar of Shame” Dismantled Under Shroud of Darkness

Following months of legal wrangling by University of Hong Kong (HKU) administrators, Hong Kong’s “Pillar of Shame”—artist Jens Galschiøt’s powerful memorial to the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre—was stealthily dismantled and carted away in the middle of the night on Wednesday. Observers first reported that the area surrounding the pillar was fenced off to obscure it from view, and that a cargo container was brought in by crane

As the work was taking place, there was a heavy security presence, entry to the area was strictly prohibited, and journalists were discouraged from filming or taking photos. A report from SCMP described the scene:

Workers in safety helmets were seen around the sculpture, while a mobile crane stood by. Shovelling and digging noises could be heard coming from behind the curtains.

About a dozen security guards stopped people from approaching the sealed-off area, but they did not reply to questions on the work being carried out or the reasons for the cordon. When asked if the pillar was being dismantled, one of the guards, however, replied: “Yes, working on it.” [Source]

Workers were later seen carting away rubble, and the statue appears to have been dismantled into at least two pieces and transported away from the campus. Photographers from numerous media outlets (most notably Tyrone Siu of Reuters) captured stirring, funereal images of workers in yellow construction helmets moving portions of the white-shrouded sculpture.

A bitter irony of the removal is that the artwork itself was conceptualized to thwart any attempts to remove it or to erase the history it memorializes. As artist Jens Galschiøt explained in his statement on the project:

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. [Source]

In an interview with the BBC Newshour, the sculptor expounded on the symbolism of removing an object that pays such respectful homage to the dead:

The artwork – which features dozens of twisted bodies and anguished faces – was one of Hong Kong’s few remaining public memorials to the Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing.

[…] Mr Galschiot said removing the statue was “really brutal” and likened it to the destruction of gravestones.

“This is a sculpture about dead people and [to] remember the dead people in Beijing in ’89. So when you destroy that in this way then it’s like going to a graveyard and destroying all the gravestones,” he told the BBC’s Newshour programme. [Source]

Hong Kong’s Pillar of Shame is but one of several artworks in a series created by Galschiøt to remind citizens around the world of certain shameful historical events which must never be allowed to recur. In an article about Beijing’s attempts to rewrite history, The Atlantic’s Timothy McLaughlin described past commemorations in Hong Kong, which has been home to this particular sculpture since 1997:

An orange cenotaph of pained, contorted bodies constructed as a memorial to protesters killed in the massacre, it was put on permanent public display to serve, as its creator, Jens Galschiøt, wrote in 1997, as a test of the authorities’ “guarantees for human rights and freedom of expression in Hong Kong.” The pillar was staged at the University of Hong Kong, the city’s oldest and most prestigious institute of higher learning, in 1998, after being displayed at other campuses.

[…] Students and activists gathered every spring to ceremonially wash the structure, which across its base reads, “The old cannot kill the young forever.” The ritual was the first in a sequence of events held every year in Hong Kong to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre culminating with the candlelight vigil. Now, though, the pillar is caught in a sort of purgatory—unwanted by the university, which has tried to remove it but faced fierce resistance, and Galschiøt’s attempts to retrieve it have gone unanswered. The awkward situation is representative of the city itself, not entirely subjugated by Beijing but not as free, open, or vibrant as it once was.

“Many things in the past in Hong Kong that were treated as normal and being a kind of symbol that Hong Kong is still enjoying freedom and a high degree of autonomy … are now facing challenges,” Richard Tsoi, the secretary of the now-dissolved alliance [the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China], told me. [Source]

Several days before the statue was removed, The Standard reported on ongoing efforts by the artist to retrieve his statue:

On a newsletter shared on Twitter, Galschiøt said the situation is “completely unresolved”.

“I have offered to take it to Denmark, but they will not respond to my inquiries and my request that I, and those who are going to help, will not be arrested, if I come to Hong Kong to pick up the sculpture,” he wrote.

The sculptor said he feared that 2022 will be the year that the sculpture will be destroyed and removed by “an increasingly aggressive and brutal Chinese regime”.

He said thousands of Pillar of Shames are being 3D printed around the world and are being used for creative actions, such as protests against the Winter Olympics in China in February, he said. [Source]

The secretive removal is but the latest in a long string of attempts, driven by the Chinese government in Beijing as well as local officials, to roll back Hong Kong’s civil liberties and curtail democratic participation, academic independence, journalistic freedom, and the ability to commemorate historical events in ways that challenge CCP dominance over the historical narrative. Katie Tam and Zen Soo of the Associated Press delved into the backdrop to these recent events

The dispute over the Pillar of Shame comes as Hong Kong authorities crack down on political dissent in the city, following the implementation of a national security law that appeared to target much of the pro-democracy movement.

The security law, which outlaws secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion to intervene in the city’s affairs, was imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong following months of anti-government protests in 2019.

Over 100 pro-democracy figures and activists have been arrested under the national security law, which has been criticized as rolling back freedoms promised to Hong Kong when it was handed over to China by the British. [Source]

In a November 2021 opinion piece for The New York Times, Shui-yin Sharon Yam and Alex Chow drew a parallel between efforts to remove the pillar and the broader destruction of academic freedom and civil society in Hong Kong, cautioning that “Hong Kong’s universities have fallen”:

Now university administrations in Hong Kong are punishing students for voicing dissenting views on campus. By abandoning their neutral role and dedication to free speech, the universities have gone from realms of political enlightenment to theaters of state surveillance and policing.

Taken together, the removal of the pillar and the incapacitation of the student unions amount to effectively uprooting Hong Kong’s civil society. Both academic and political freedoms suffer with their forced absence. [Source]

Following the pillar’s removal, the Council of the University of Hong Kong issued a statement claiming that the decision to remove the iconic sculpture was based on a combination of external legal advice and potential safety/liability risks due to the “fragile” condition of the statue. 


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