The sculpture on Tiananmen Square is Hong Kong’s latest democracy struggle

Every spring, activists in Hong Kong wash the “Pillar of Shame” as part of the city’s annual commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre. In the coming year, there may be no more to clean.

University of Hong Kong demanded the removal of the Pillar of Shame, a sculpture commemorating the democratic demonstrators killed in the collapse of the Chinese government on June 4, 1989. The statue, created by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, was installed on campus almost 25 years ago .

Now the university has threatened to “deal with the sculpture at the time and in the way it deems appropriate without further notice”, according to a letter sent by the law firm representing the university, the American American Mayer Brown, to the now disbanded group with responsibility for the statue.

This is not just a small quarrel about a sculpture, but another sign of the pressure Beijing is exerting on Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was a place in China where people could openly honor the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre and continue the legacy of the student-led pro-democracy movement. In mainland China, especially among the younger generations, history is virtually erased from public consciousness.

That is what made the Memorial at Tiananmen Square so powerful. They are a direct challenge to Beijing and why the Chinese government sees memorials like the Star of Shame as a threat. This is about trying to scrub the memories of not only Tiananmen Square, but also the pro-democracy activism it continues to inspire. And it is an attempt by the Chinese Community Party to suppress resistance in Hong Kong and bring it closer and closer into Beijing’s circle until there is little difference with mainland China.

The implementation of the comprehensive national security legislation in 2020 has accelerated this process. In particular, the law – and pandemic restrictions that prohibited mass gatherings – curtailed Hong Kongers’ ability to honor Tiananmen Square and have endangered those who organize or participate in such endeavors. The Hong Kong Alliance, the group to which Galschiøt lent the 26-foot pillar, disbanded in September after its members faced national security charges.

The set deadline for the removal of the sculpture passed, and the statue remains in place, for now, but how long is unclear. (A typhoon has also just struck Hong Kong.) A spokesman for the University of Hong Kong said in an email statement that HKU “is still seeking legal advice and working with related parties to handle the case in a lawful and reasonable manner. “

Galschiøt, the artist, has retained a lawyer; the sculpture still belongs to him. He told Vox that “at the moment, the next few days, it should be safe.”

However, he does not hope the statue remains. “They want to remove it because of pressure from the Chinese government, they are afraid of the Chinese government and they are afraid of the national security law,” he said.

The sculpture, then and now, is about the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong

The Pillar of Shame was first shown in 1997 by candlelight in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to commemorate Tiananmen Square. That was just before the transfer in 1997, when Britain returned Hong Kong to China on July 1, promising that Hong Kong’s fundamental freedoms and rule of law would remain intact for 50 years.

Albert Ho, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which sponsored the statue and organized the annual light from Tiananmen Square, told the Hong Kong Free Press in 2018 that they wanted the statue sent to Hong Kong as it was still under British rule. “At the time, we had good reason to believe that this statue would not be allowed to enter after the transition,” he told the outlet.

After waking up, the students pulled it themselves to the HKU campus, where student protesters faced the police, according to news reports from the time. The students managed to bring the statue onto campus, but the Hong Kong Alliance and supporters of the sculpture struggled to find a permanent place to display it.

The pillar of shame had become an extension of some of the anxiety surrounding Hong Kong’s future under Beijing’s rule and about the fundamental freedoms of the city – state. “In Hong Kong, it sparked a heated debate about the limits of free speech,” Galschiøt reflected on his website.

After being shown at a bunch of universities, the statue was eventually installed at the University of Hong Kong in 1998. In 2008, the statue was painted orange to draw attention to the Chinese government’s human rights violations ahead of the Summer Olympics in Beijing.

The statue remained part of the annual reminiscences of Tiananmen Square massacres, in which volunteers and activists washed the statue and often laid flowers at its base. It was a minor event compared to the Candle Guard in Victoria Park, which tens of thousands attended each year. Perry Link, an expert in Chinese literature and culture at the University of California Riverside who sits on the academic committee of the online Tiananmen Square Museum, said Hong Kong memorials stood out.

“No city in the world has been near as attentive and articulate in its goal of remembering the massacre and learning from it,” he said.

Until at least Beijing began to strike.

How a sculpture fits into Beijing’s democracy attack in Hong Kong

In 2019, on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers took part in a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park, just as the city was erupting in massive protests against a controversial extradition law that would have extended Beijing’s control of the city.

Protesters defeated this bill, but by 2020 pandemic restrictions prevented rallies for several months, including demonstrations against democracy. In June 2020, the Hong Kong authorities denied organizers permission to hold the annual vigil, citing rules on social distance. Democratic protesters defied these orders and still gathered in Victoria Park.

But when this happened, Beijing was preparing to introduce comprehensive national security legislation, the culmination of its attack on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

The comprehensive law addresses crimes of secession, undermining, cooperation with foreign powers and terrorism, all of which are vague and broadly defined and can carry severe penalties. Simple protests or swinging pro-democratic slogans can lead to accusations of encouraging succession. Since the law was passed in June 2020, more than 150 people have been arrested under it, including pro-Democratic lawmakers, activists, journalists and academics. One person has been convicted so far.

This has made Tiananmen Square almost impossible to hold. In June 2021, Hong Kong authorities again denied the group permission to meet and closed Victoria Park. Activists still tried to respect the occasion, urging people to “mourn in their own way” and turn on lights wherever they were. On June 4, the day of the memorial service, Hong Kong authorities arrested one of the organizers of the vigil to promote unauthorized assembly. Since then, she and three other members of the Hong Kong Alliance have been arrested under national security law, and the group was accused of being “an agent of foreign forces.” In September, the group dissolved forever. (The order sent by Mayer Brown was addressed to the Hong Kong Alliance and its former leaders, which increased the confusion.)

But it also showed once again the extreme cooling effect of national security law. A perennial work of art can be framed as a potential challenge. “Beijing has decided to take over the city, crack down on it and label anything that is anti-Beijing as subversive or worse, terrorist,” Link said.

He added that although the allegations are ridiculous, it is still “a club that Beijing can use.” And the people of Hong Kong dare not stand up and say, ‘Wait, it’s ridiculous’ in public, because then they are the next ones, to be clubbed. ”

Galschiøt told Vox that the university’s decision to remove its sculpture is also worrying, as an intellectual institution should worry about the story of Tiananmen Square and “the intellectual right to talk about what happened in history, and that is it. , Hong Kong is destroying now. ”

It fits with a broader clarification of academic freedoms in Hong Kong. Student leaders have been arrested under the National Security Act, and university student unions have also disbanded under pressure; HKU severed ties with its student union in July. Professors are concerned that they may be fired or lose the tenure of their political opinions, which may be against the law.

Although the shame support stands for now, it appears to be a temporary postponement. Galschiøt expects to show the statue elsewhere, and there are sister installations of the Pillar of Shame in Mexico, Brazil and Denmark. If it can not stay in Hong Kong, he hopes at some point that it ends there again.

“It’s still a symbol of the Tiananmen attack, and I hope one day we could go back to Hong Kong and put it there again,” Galschiøt said. “It belongs to Hong Kong and belongs to the territory of China.”

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