Depicting a pile of screaming faces and a twisted torso, the “pillar of shame” was not just a reminder of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 – it was, for many, an emblem of freedom of expression in Hong Kong.
The statue’s presence at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) is one of the few vanishing memorials to the victims of the tolerated crackdown on Chinese soil, and was long considered a pioneer of artistic censorship in China. Semi-autonomous city. His removal last Wednesday night was, for some students, another sign of Beijing’s tightening grip.
“By removing this column… we can see that our freedom is being taken away little by little, day by day,” said a student on campus the next morning. Another said, “It reminds me that (the Chinese Communist Party) is an illegitimate regime.”
CNN agreed not to reveal the names of the students interviewed, as many of them feared reprisals from the authorities. However, Hong Kong University Professor Emeritus John Burns has been more open in his criticisms. He said by email that the cancellation of memorials for the military’s bloody crackdown on unarmed, mostly student protesters – a taboo subject on the mainland – showed “further erosion of the University of Hong Kong’s relative autonomy from the Chinese state”.
The ‘Pillar of Shame’ statue is pictured on the campus of the University of Hong Kong on October 15, 2021. credit: Louise Delmott/Getty Images Asiapac/Getty Images
Workers remove part of a “column of shame” in a container at the University of Hong Kong on December 23, 2021 in Hong Kong. credit: Anthony Kwan / Getty Images
“Hong Kong is not a government department and does not need to be involved in official propaganda about the Tiananmen incident,” Burns added. “It hasn’t happened yet. But the removal of the statue brings Hong Kong and Hong Kong closer to the official case of Tiananmen amnesia.”
The University of Hong Kong wasn’t the only university that seemed to benefit from a quiet winter break. On Christmas Eve, two other institutions – the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and Lingnan University – removed pictures on campus of a figure known as the “democracy goddess”. Showing a woman holding a flaming torch above her head, the original statue was first erected by students in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 pro-democracy protests and was destroyed by the Chinese military during the crackdown.
Chen Weiming, the Chinese-New Zealand artist behind CUHK’s bronze replica, said its removal signaled the end of “one country, two systems,” a principle that protects freedom of expression in Hong Kong. “Now it is one country, one system,” he declared.
Like the University of Hong Kong’s board of directors, which said it acted “based on outside legal advice and risk assessment,” Lingnan University told CNN that its decision came after reviewing “items on campus that may pose legal and safety risks.” CUHK said in a statement that it had “never authorized the display” of the statue on its basis.
A statue of the “Goddess of Democracy”, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, before it was removed last week. credit: Daniel Swain/AFP/Getty Images
The same location was filmed at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on December 24, 2021. credit: Bertha Wang/AFP/Getty Images
The fate of the fourth statue may also hang in the balance: authorities at the City University of Hong Kong, another institution in the territory, reportedly ordered its student union to remove a replica of the “democracy gods” from its campus. The university told CNN it has only given permission to stand on the statue until March 31, 2021, but has not commented on whether this means it will be forcibly removed.
For three decades, Hong Kong has been the only place on Chinese-controlled territory where an annual mass vigil has been held to celebrate the events in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, when large numbers of pro-democracy demonstrators were brutalized. Crushed by the Chinese armed forces.
The military crackdown remains one of the most closely watched topics in mainland China, with discussions about it being deleted from the media. Chinese authorities have not released an official death toll, but estimates range from several hundreds to thousands.
The removal of the two statues comes amid a broader crackdown in Hong Kong, after the enactment of a national security law in 2020 criminalizing acts of separatism, vandalism, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
The regional government has repeatedly refuted accusations that the legislation stifled liberties, claiming it instead restored order in the city after it had been shaken by mass protests since 2019.
So far, the law has primarily targeted political activists and figures from the pro-democracy media. But it also left those in academia and the arts unsure of what was allowed. The past year has seen instances of censorship and self-censorship, from the passage of a new film censorship law to “protect national security” to prominent artist Casey Wong’s decision to enter self-imposed exile in Taiwan.
The disappearance of the statues may not be the end of the story. The creator of “Pillar of Shame”, Danish artist Jens Galchiot, said he hopes to recover the work and display it elsewhere. The University of Hong Kong did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on the artist’s attempts to restore his creation or the whereabouts of the current statue, which was last seen being placed, in parts, in an enclosure. The university previously said it would stockpile.
“This is still my property … If we get it, we’ll (take it back) to Europe, and I’ll put it together and it’ll tour,” Galchiot told CNN. “Right now, we have a plan to put it in Washington, D.C., in front of the Chinese embassy, just to show China that there is a place in the world where we can talk about what happened in 1989.”
The controversy surrounding the statue means it will now be linked not only to the Tiananmen Square massacre but also to the erosion of artistic freedoms in Hong Kong. But it wasn’t the only version Galschiøt created—and it wasn’t even the first. The original “Column of Shame” was created in Rome to honor those killed around the world by starvation prior to the 1996 FAO Summit. Other copies of the work were later installed in Mexico and Brazil to commemorate the victims of the Actel massacre and the El Dorado dos Carajas massacre respectively .
Protesters gather around a statue of Hong Kong’s Lady Liberty during a rally in Hong Kong’s Central District in September 2019. credit: Justin Chen/Bloomberg/Getty Images
The changing meaning of the artwork is a reminder that destroying images may only enhance their symbolic power. In fact, replicas of a crowdsourcing statue depicting a masked pro-democracy protester, known as “Lady Liberty,” have spread across Hong Kong since the original was pulled down and vandalized by unknown assailants in October 2019. The Chinese military’s decision To overthrow the original “democracy gods” in 1989 means that every year, on June 4, mirrors appear in cities around the world – from Taipei to Toronto – to mark the anniversary of the crackdown.
Peking University students put the final touches to the gods of democracy in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, May 30, 1989. credit: Jeff Widener/AFP
Hong Kong art activist group Lady Liberty hopes the “Pillar of Shame” will have a similar fate. The group used more than 900 images to create an open-source 3D model of the work that can be downloaded and used to reproduce the sculpture with relative ease.
“The idea is that everyone can print a copy of it and put it anywhere they want,” the group’s founder, Alex Lee, said by phone last week. “In the digital age, there are no restrictions on what you can do with virtual or physical things – (hopefully) everyone will try to keep that code.”
The New School for Democracy, a non-governmental organization founded by Wang Dan, a long-exiled student leader in the Tiananmen Square protests, said it was raising money to build its own version – with Galchiot’s blessing – in Taiwan. She hopes that the statue will be completed by June 4 next year, marking the 33rd anniversary of the massacre.
In a statement in response to last week’s controversy, the founder and head of the US Campaign for Hong Kong, Samuel Chu, wrote that the “pillar of shame” has shifted in meaning from “the touchstone of freedom” to “the tombstone of freedom…”
“Removing public statues only exposes a statue-shaped hole in all of our hearts,” he added.
Top photo: Visitors and students take pictures of the “Pillar of Shame” statue at the University of Hong Kong on October 11, 2021.