Hong Kong – The construction crane arrived hours after dark, along with tarps, gold-coloured plastic fencing, and a steel shipping container. As electric drills whirred, more than a dozen workers in hard hats dismantled an iconic statute before dawn at the University of Hong Kong.
The eight-metre (26-foot) Pillar of Shame – a thin tower of 50 contorted and frightened faces painted in a vivid hue of earthy rust – depicted the massacre of hundreds of pro-democracy protesters by Chinese troops at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
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To many Hong Kongers, the statue’s removal was a callous and ironic blow and justified with strange excuses amid a continuing crackdown on Hong Kong’s own democracy movement.
The statue’s Danish creator, Jens Galschiot, said he loaned his work permanently to the Chinese-controlled city in 1997. He said the statue was removed without any discussion or notification by the university officials and meant to send a clear message to the residents.
“Don’t do anything. Don’t talk about the crackdown. Don’t say anything about China we don’t like … Don’t talk about the party. Don’t talk about Xinjiang. Don’t talk about Tibet. Don’t talk about anything that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) doesn’t like to hear,” Galschiot told Al Jazeera over the telephone.
“This is a way to oppress the population.”
‘Monument about a crime’
The university, according to the sculptor, made a series of violations. “This is a monument about a crime, a state’s crime against the population,” he said.
“It’s a crime against the democracy movement in Beijing – a peaceful movement. Also, it’s a monument against the decision by the Chinese government to kill all those people … to do an attack against their own young people. Now, it’s a monument about what happened in Hong Kong.”
The University of Hong Kong, known locally as HKU, defended its decision, citing safety and legal risks.
The “latest legal advice given to the University cautioned that the continued display of the statue would pose legal risks to the University,” said a three-paragraph statement posted online by HKU, which also cited an ordinance that contains a colonial-era ban on “seditious material” against the government.
“The destruction of monuments, the eradication of culture … After one or two generations, people forget,” Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong, who recently moved to Taiwan, told Al Jazeera.
He noted that local art institutions or students have not condemned the statue’s removal. “It’s awfully quiet in Hong Kong,” he said. “It’s like it didn’t happen.”
Every year since 1989, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers would gather on June 4 to remember the Tiananmen victims, an event that drove a democracy movement in Hong Kong even before the United Kingdom relinquished the colony to China in 1997.
The demonstrators gathered last year as well, even after the government banned the vigil, citing the coronavirus pandemic. Authorities have also prosecuted key vigil organisers who wanted free speech and expanded voting rights.
In 2019, Hong Kong witnessed mass protests as millions of residents marched and held night-long street battles against Beijing’s move to alter an extradition law that would have allowed the city to transfer fugitives for trial in courts in other jurisdictions, including mainland China.
Soon, the protests expanded to include demands for fair elections and inquiries into accusations of police brutality.
Beijing responded by imposing a harsh national security law in 2020 and dozens of activists, politicians, union officials, news editors, and even lawyers were arrested under the law.
Hong Kong’s determination to remind the world about the Tiananmen massacre clashed with China’s efforts to erase the event’s memory. In mainland China, residents are barred from discussing or even mentioning references to the massacre.
Hong Kong was the only part of the Communist Party-ruled nation where people openly discussed, shared photos and watched films about the event and its aftermath. Many Hong Kongers helped student leaders in China escape the mainland after the 1989 killings.
Under China’s security law, Hong Kong’s educational campuses are devoid of much activism, indeed of much art. Students’ unions at some universities have been disbanded.
After some members of HKU’s students’ union issued a statement in support of a man who stabbed a police officer before killing himself, the police charged the undergraduates with security crimes.
A “democracy wall” at the university that used to display posters and slogans is now empty. Another wall, named after singer John Lennon, that overflowed with drawings and posters depicting scenes from the 2019 protests was also removed by the university last year.
In fact, HKU indicated in October that the Pillar of Shame was next. After hearing about it, sculptor Galschiot told reporters he would fly to Hong Kong to remove the artwork himself. He said the university did not return his calls or reply to his emails.
On Wednesday, when HKU was empty due to a holiday break, the university’s administrative council voted to remove the statue and decided to block journalists and witnesses from recording the incident.
Workers erected tarps and set up a large plastic fence around it as some shooed reporters away. A large metal container was driven in to cart off the statue’s sections.
“To me, it is not the act, but the rhetoric around it,” Sean Tierney, an American film studies lecturer who has taught at HKU for years, told Al Jazeera.
Tierney said a safety concern about the statue was never raised earlier. “As an educator, that’s most galling,” Tierney said. “I am trying to tell these kids that it’s important to be grounded in truth and fact.”
The academic said the people who run the government or the university “are not stating the truth or facts”.
“They don’t need it; they have power. They will say things that are blatantly false and untrue. And they don’t care if you notice.”