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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Explained: Why has Hong Kong University ordered removal of Tiananmen Square massacre statue?

What is the Pillar of Shame statue, and why is it being removed from University of Hong Kong?

Written by Sanskriti Falor , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
October 13, 2021 2:12:03 pm
Pillar of Shame statue, Tiananmen Square massacre statue, Tiananmen Square massacre, Indian ExpressThe eight-metre-high "Pillar of Shame" by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot to pay tribute to the victims of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing on June 4, 1989 is seen before it is set to be removed at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) in Hong Kong, China October 12, 2021. (Reuters Photo: Tyrone Siu)

The University of Hong Kong has ordered the removal of the Tiananmen Square massacre statue that commemorates the protestors killed in China’s 1989 crackdown.

Sculptor Jens Galschiøt had gifted the statue to the now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China in 1997.

What is the Pillar of Shame statue?

The Pillar of Shame statue was made in remembrance of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, which is referred to as the June 4 incident by Chinese authorities. The People’s Liberation Army had opened fire on student protestors who had been protesting since mid-April in 1989 against corruption, unemployment, inflation, etc.

The statue shows 50 bodies — with anguish-ridden faces — piled up together commemorating unarmed student protestors who were killed as Chinese troops opened fire on them. The 8-metre high statue has been placed within Haking Wong Building inside the Hong Kong University since 1997.

Pillar of Shame statue, Tiananmen Square massacre statue, Tiananmen Square massacre, Indian Express The “Pillar of Shame” by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot. (Reuters Photo: Tyrone Siu)

According to his website, Galschiøt’s statue is “a series of sculptures which mark grave abuses against humanity. The sculptures remind people of a shameful event which must never recur. The first sculpture was made to mark the Chinese authorities’ bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Hundreds, if not thousands of unarmed student-protesters and civilians were killed.”

The statue was gifted by Galschiøt to the Hong Kong Alliance (HKA). The Alliance that has played a significant role in holding an annual Tiananmen vigil every year, has been facing a serious crackdown by the Hong Kong authorities.

The statue was exhibited in Victoria Park in 1997 at the annual candle vigil of the massacre. It was after the vigil that university students fought for the statue to be moved within the campus premises. Amidst protests, the statue was moved to the Hong Kong University.

The Alliance has been responsible for cleaning and maintaining the statue every year since it was installed. In 2008, the Alliance painted the statue orange during their “The Color Orange” campaign which, according to Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), was “aimed at highlighting China’s human rights violations”. It was painted orange as it “was a mixture of red, representing the dictatorship of China, and yellow, representing freedom and human rights”.

In 2009, when the Alliance invited Galschiøt as the 20th anniversary of the massacre neared, he was denied entry into Hong Kong.

Why is the statue being removed?

Hong Kong’s clampdown on freedom and dissent has been active for a while now. With the new National Security Law — passed by China on June 30 last year before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s transfer from Britain — the Chinese government has heavily come down on dissenters.

The Hong Kong University sent a notice to the Alliance and Richard Tsoi, a former member of HKA’s executive committee. The notice stated that the statue should be “removed from the University’s premises no later than 5:00 pm on 13 October 2021”.

According to the HKFP, the University stated that the statue was being removed for “risk management” purposes.

In April 2021, Hong Kong University also cut all ties with its student union stating there were ‘legal risks’ related to national security.

People and groups linked to the commemoration of the June 4 massacre have been constantly targeted under the National security law.

The now-disbanded Alliance has been banned to hold a vigil for the past two years citing Covid measures. Although many believe this to be another way to silence the group.

Many members of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China including its Chairman Lee Cheuk-yan and vice-chairs Albert Ho and Chow Hang-tung were accused of “inciting subversion of state power”, while some members had been arrested in 2019, others were arrested in September this year.

Pillar of Shame statue, Tiananmen Square massacre statue, Tiananmen Square massacre, Indian Express People photograph the eight-metre-high “Pillar of Shame” by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot. (Reuters Photo: Tyrone Siu)

Earlier this year, the Hong Kong police had investigated several Alliance members and had also raided the Tiananmen massacre museum.

In September last week this year, the Alliance announced that it was disbanding amidst a constant crackdown by Hong Kong authorities and China on dissent.

Were Hong Kong protests linked to this clampdown?

The 2019 Hong Kong protests began against a proposed extradition bill, which would have allowed authorities to extradite citizens to other countries including China.

Although, after the bill was taken back, the protests grew into being against the increasing control of Chinese authorities over Hong Kong and the loss of the city’s autonomy over its functioning.

The protests, which turned extremely violent and went on for months, were against Chinese authorities gaining control over the citizens of Hong Kong and the window of freedom decreasing with bills like extradition law and National Security Law.

Will the statue be removed?

Jens Galschiøt has told HKFP that he remains the owner of the statue and no such order has been received by him from the Hong Kong University. Galschiøt has also threatened to take the university to court if the institution destroys the statue.

As reported by The Guardian, Richard Tsoi, while calling the University’s request unreasonable, said, “As a space with free speech and academic freedom, the University of Hong Kong has the social responsibility and mission to preserve the Pillar of Shame.”

Tsoi has further sought a response from the university asking why the institution was planning to remove the sculpture.

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