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Tiananmen Square Massacre commemoration bans rattle Hong Kong

F dS, Y
topics: Democracy
by: Sasha Kong
located in: China
tags: China, democracy, freedom of speech, Hong Kong, Tiananmen Square Massacre

The University of Hong Kong had ordered the removal of a statue honouring the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. The move, along with a series of other crackdowns on institutions and arrests of activists commemorating the 4 June event, is viewed by many as yet another testament to Hong Kong's rapidly eroding democracy under china's rule.

For three years in a row, Eunice was part of the student body that helped clean a blood-red, 8-meter-tall (26-foot-tall) statue on Hong Kong University's campus, which features the twisted, pain-filled faces of the pro-democracy activists slain in and around China's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Alas, the tradition was forced to be broken this year, as the statue commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre's victims was removed in late 2021. 

“It’s part of the collective memory of Hong Kong, and on our campus, a part of University of Hong Kong,” Eunice, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, told FairPlanet. 

The monument, named Pillar of Shame, has been widely seen as a symbol of China’s fight for democracy and had been displayed on University of Hong Kong's campus for over two decades.

In 1989, thousands of student activists rallied at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square for democracy and were either shot to death or run over by military tanks of the Communist government. Any mention of the topic has been prohibited in mainland China. 

Hong Kong has been holding the world's largest vigil for the event each year on 4 June to pay tribute to the victims, until the event was completely banned this year in the latest act of suppression by the authorities. 

It followed over a year of the implementation of the draconian National Security Law that seeks to criminalise what Beijing considers acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. 

“Legal risks”

Now, a vast space of emptiness has been left on HKU’s campus and the construction cordon surrounding the area of the dismantled statue.

“The decision on the aged statue was based on external legal advice and risk assessment for the best interest of the University,” the council of Hong Kong said in a statement

“Latest legal advice given to the University cautioned that the continued display of the statue would pose legal risks to the University based on the Crimes Ordinance enacted under the Hong Kong colonial government.”

Back in early October, HKU ordered the removal of the statue - made and lent to the university by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt - through a letter from its lawyer to the vigil organiser who sent over the statue. 

US law firm Mayer Brown soon withdrew from its role of assisting the university after facing a backlash by human rights groups and American politicians. 

Galschiøt sent an open letter to HKU requesting to pick up his sculpture, but he said the council refused to talk with him. 

“It is completely unreasonable and a self-immolation against private property in Hong Kong […] I will claim compensation for any damage to the sculpture,” the artist said in a statement

“It is a disgrace and an abuse and shows that Hong Kong has become a brutal place without laws and regulations such as protecting the population, the arts and private property,” he continued. 

The timing of the removal was “dodgy and shameless,” Eunice, the HKU student, added. “The removal was very saddening, especially when they did it in the middle of the night just around Christmas when everyone has gone home for the holidays.”

On Christmas Eve, two other Hong Kong universities removed public monuments to the Tiananmen Massacre in Beijing. The Goddess of Democracy statue at the Chinese University of Hong Kong that stood on the campus for over a decade was removed. It was modelled on a similar foam statue by students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Lingnan University of Hong Kong took down a wall relief sculpture about the June fourth event and a red drawing of the Goddess of Democracy. 

Both universities said the move came after an “internal assessment” of how the monuments might pose “legal” risks. 

Ban on Tiananmen Massacre commemoration

China’s suppression of public display or discussions of the 1989 event has expanded to Hong Kong. Two days before the vigil, authorities forced the June 4th Museum to shutter, citing a “licensing investigation” - a tactic the government frequently uses to crack down on organisations. 

On the official day, the police arrested the vigil organizer’s vice chairperson, Chow Hang-Tung, for promoting an unauthorised assembly after she urged the public via social media to commemorate the massacre's victims on their own. 

In September, the online version of the June 4th Museum - launched after the physical exhibition was forced to close - has been blocked in Hong Kong. In the same month, the police once again arrested Chow, along with three other organisers of the vigil, and accused the Hong Kong Alliance of being "an agent of foreign forces." 

Considering recent developments, any future commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Hong Kong seems impossible. 

“Obviously, in the past you also could attend the vigil, but seeing how things have changed I feel like commemoration has affectively become illegal,” Eunice said. 

Image by Zachary Keimig

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'Pillar of Shame' has been widely seen as a symbol of China’s fight for democracy and had been displayed on the University of Hong Kong's campus for over two decades.
© Louise Delmotte/Getty Images
Flowers and photographs of the Goddess of Democracy statue are placed by students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong after the removal of the Goddess of Democracy statue by school authorities.
© Anthony Kwan/Getty Images