China pressures Hong Kong in dispute over Tiananmen sculpture | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 16.10.2021

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Culture

China pressures Hong Kong in dispute over Tiananmen sculpture

Voices critical of the Chinese government are increasingly being silenced in Hong Kong. The city's university wants to remove Pillar of Shame, a monument to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.

A close-up of Pillar of Shame

The sculpture represents the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre

Nightmarish, with images of dozens of bodies and faces contorted in pain, Pillar of Shame towers some 8 meters (26 feet) over the campus of the University of Hong Kong. The less-than-subtle monument, like a scene from Tartarus, is meant to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, in which hundreds, and by some estimates more than a thousand, pro-democracy protesters were killed by Chinese military violence.

Now, after more than 20 years, the university wants the statue removed. The sculpture's Danish artist, Jens Galschiot, is shocked by the decision.

A view of Pillar of Shame, surrounded by buildings, before its removal

Pillar of Shame has been on display at the university campus since the late 1990s

"I am the rightful owner of the sculpture. And I think the Hong Kong University must respect that. Because they believe it belongs to the alliance people, the democracy movement, and the students. I have only lent it out permanently for exhibition there," Galschiot told DW.

Pressure from mainland China 

The statue was erected in 1997 in Hong Kong's central Victoria Park. Since 1990, tens of thousands of people have gathered there every year for a vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4.

After students moved the sculpture to the university campus, commemorations continued. But in 2020, authorities banned the event for the first time— with Beijing citing COVID-19 measures as an excuse to further restrict any mass remembrance of the massacre.

Protestors in Victoria Park holding posters and candles and wearing masks.

Despite an official ban, Hong Kongers gathered at Victoria Park in 2020 to remember the Tiananmen victims

"The university administration has basically always just tolerated the sculpture. Now it has come under so much pressure from the mainland that it can no longer tolerate it," said Klaus Mühlhahn, a China expert and president of Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, southern Germany.

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) has said it was ordered to remove the sculpture on "legal advice." Until recently, it was represented by the Chicago-based law firm Mayer Brown, which is known in the United States for its civil rights work. But after numerous NGOs criticized the firm for contradicting its mission to "make a positive difference in the lives of others," Mayer Brown has since withdrawn, according to a report in The Washington Post on Friday.

Removal postponed, for now

Initially, the university said the sculpture would be removed by 5 p.m. (local time) on October 13. But after the deadline came and went, HKU told the Hong Kong Free Press that it is "still seeking legal advice and working with related parties to handle the matter in a legal and reasonable manner."

Watch video 02:55

Policing collective memory in China

Beijing has been cracking down on dissent in the former British colony for months. Just recently, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which is critical of the Beijing government, disbanded in response to growing pressure from the authorities. 

Sculptor Galschiot was close to the alliance. "I put up the sculpture in 1997 together with these people — with Albert Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan, and Szeto Wah, who is dead now. There were a lot of good people there. And these people are now being arrested. Most of the people I know are in jail."

'Important that the history of Tiananmen is kept alive'

If his sculpture is damaged while it is being dismantled, Galschiot has threatened to seek compensation from the university. At the moment, however, he is working on getting the statue out of Hong Kong, a process that may take several more months.

"I have hired a lawyer. My previous lawyer was put in jail because he was a member of the democracy movement," said Galschiot.

Artist Jens Galschiot in front of a replica of the Pillar of Shame in Denmark.

Galschiot, who has supported the democracy movement from afar, also created a replica of Pillar of Shame in Denmark

He hopes his memorial can stay in Hong Kong, but the outlook isn't very promising. Few countries around the world have been able to come to terms with their past. Germany, he said, is an exception in that regard.

"There are four Pillars of Shame — one in Hong Kong, one in Mexico and one in Brazil. And I have another one in my workshop," he said. "All the sculptures are about a shame to be overcome. They are about massacres, about people that got killed — in the fight for democracy, in the fight for their lives. Shames that no one wants to or can talk about."

That's precisely why his sculpture belongs in China, he said. If it's not allowed to stay in Hong Kong, Galschiot at least wants to try to have it placed in Taiwan. "It's really important that the history of Tiananmen is kept alive. If you don't have this kind of memorial, the memories of it will be forgotten."

Critical voices gradually fall silent

Mühlhahn, who is currently writing a book on the history of Hong Kong, told DW that China has been increasingly cracking down on Hong Kong. "China is integrating the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region more and more, and thus also transferring its own political system, its own legal system to the former [UK] colony," he said. "The special status of Hong Kong is more and more in danger and slowly disappearing."

Due to these worrying developments, thousands of Hong Kongers have already turned their backs on the city and emigrated. "In the art and culture world in Hong Kong, it is becoming increasingly difficult to still articulate critical positions. Many have decided to keep a low profile now, not to go public anymore. This is true for writers. This is true for artists. It's also true of scientists and intellectuals," said Mühlhahn.

The university had always tolerated Pillar of Shame because the administration sympathized with the positions of the democracy movement. But there has always been a pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong as well, he said, and for the past decade or so Beijing has been deliberately strengthening that camp.

"And that also means that they put people who are loyal to the system in important positions, such as in universities," said Mühlhahn.

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