Authorities in Hong Kong have removed a public sculpture honoring those killed during the 1989 Chinese government crackdown on pro-democracy forces at Tiananmen Square. Created by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt in 1997, the Pillar of Shame depicts human figures in agony, pressed together to form a 26-foot-tall tower.
The removal represents an acceleration of Chinese efforts to quell dissent in the city, which has experienced persistent unrest since protests against a proposed extradition law broke out in 2019, report Shibani Mahtani and David Crawshaw for the Washington Post.
Until Wednesday night, the statue stood on the campus of the University of Hong Kong. Workers removed it while students were on winter break, shutting down the area to keep people away while they dismantled it into two pieces, wrapped it up and took it away.
“This is a symbolically important move, which fits in with so many other sad recent ones, such as campus democracy walls being stripped of posters,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, an expert on modern China at the University of California, Irvine, tells Rhoda Kwan and Vincent Ni of the Guardian. “There is a recurring theme of disappearances, of objects from campuses and disappearances of people into prisons or exile.”
During the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese military forces wounded, killed or arrested an unknown number of protesters; estimates of the death toll range from China’s official count of 200 to student leaders’ claim of up to 3,400. (Documents released in 2017 suggest that as many as 10,000 died during the crackdown.) Media outlets around the world shared images of the events, including Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener’s famous snapshot of an anonymous man facing down tanks.
Students erected the monument at the university in 1997, the year Britain returned its onetime colony to China under a “one country, two systems” of governance agreement. An engraving at the pillar’s base reads “The old cannot kill the young forever.”
“We fought for the statue to be shipped to Hong Kong when it was still under British rule,” Hong Kong politician and human rights activist Albert Ho told the Hong Kong Free Press’ Kris Cheng in 2018. “At that time, we had good reason to believe that this statue would not be allowed to enter after the transition.”
For years, students gathered annually to wash the statue in a ceremony marking the anniversary of the massacre. A group formerly led by Ho, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, organized the vigils. Because Chinese authorities forbade similar activities in the rest of the country, the tradition in Hong Kong represented a litmus test for the special administrative region’s “ongoing autonomy and democratic freedoms, as promised in its de facto constitution,” per CNN. Authorities in Hong Kong have banned the past two Tiananmen vigils, citing restrictions linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In June 2019, pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong began organizing mass demonstrations against new government restrictions. Authorities jailed many politicians and activists following the implementation of a new national security law in 2020 and cracked down on groups such as the Hong Kong Alliance.
The Pillar of Shame is getting demolished right now in Hongkong. The sculpture has been covered and is heavyly guarded so that no students can document what is going on. This is happening in the middle of the night in Hongkong. Im shoked. #Thepillarofshame? pic.twitter.com/eSDjTWql7y— Jens Galschiøt (@Galschiot) December 22, 2021
This October, the university ordered leaders of the defunct alliance to remove the monument, as Vivienne Chow reported for Artnet News at the time. Officials wrote that if they failed to do so by October 17, “the university [would] deal with the sculpture at such time and in such manner as it thinks fit without further notice.”
The activists replied that it was unreasonable to demand the change on such short notice, arguing that the university should support freedom by keeping the sculpture. Meanwhile, Galschiøt requested safe passage to China to assist in dismantling the sculpture—without success, according to Mike Ives of the New York Times. Galschiøt ended up following the statue’s removal remotely, writing on Twitter that he was shocked by the covert nature of the process.
“We encourage everyone to go out to Hong Kong University and document everything that happens with the sculpture,” he added in a statement. “We have done everything we can to tell the University of Hong Kong that we would very much like to pick up the sculpture and bring it to Denmark.”
In response to the removal, the art-activist group Lady Liberty Hong Kong created a virtual 3-D model of the pillar using more than 900 photos.
“The idea is that everyone can print a copy [of] it and place it wherever they want,” Alex Lee, founder of the group, tells CNN. “In the digital age, there’s no limitation of what you can do with virtual or physical objects. [The hope is] for everyone to try to preserve this symbol.”