In the dead of night or in pre-dawn actions, major artworks and memorials commemorating the June 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy student protests in Beijing were removed from three university campuses in Hong Kong in late December.
While the removal of a sculpture known as the Pillar of Shame from the Hong Kong University (HKU) campus on 23 December was not entirely unexpected after its removal had been ordered in October, the seemingly concerted action to remove campus artworks from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and Lingnan University just a day later shocked students and academics in the city.
Students said the removal of memorials that had been on campus for more than a decade – 24 years in the case of the HKU Pillar of Shame – violated freedom of expression, artistic freedoms and university autonomy. But it was also an attempt by the authorities, “to obliterate history” and censor memories and debate surrounding the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen massacre in Beijing which killed hundreds – possibly thousands.
The Tiananmen crackdown is already a taboo subject in mainland China. But annual vigils were held in Hong Kong until they were cancelled in 2020 and 2021 ostensibly due to COVID-19, and vigil organisers were prosecuted under Hong Kong’s national security laws imposed by Beijing since July 2020.
“In a clearly concerted operation timed for when students were away, the Pillar of Shame has been removed from campus. How long before ‘removals’ hit the classroom and Tiananmen can no longer be mentioned in Hong Kong?” said one HKU professor.
But he added that the ruse to move the artworks under cover of darkness had backfired. “It has only emphasised that they [the authorities] wanted to do this secretly and without scrutiny. Their actions also emphasise to the wider world the importance of these memorials to Hong Kong and the erosion of its freedoms that made it different from the mainland.”
Another HKU academic was more optimistic about further erosions such as banning of discussion of Tiananmen in the classroom.
“Any time a statue that had become part of a university campus is removed after almost a quarter-century, there will be strong feelings both ways. I do not think its removal changes the discussion of Tiananmen unless it also advocates something that breaks the national security law,” he said, requesting anonymity.
Academics described the campus memorials as “historically significant” as China, itself, does not allow open commemoration of the massacre. But they said that, while the artworks had “emotive resonance” with young people and students in Hong Kong today, younger generations would know little about the events of 1989.
Bending to China’s will
The removals “are part of a bigger pattern of Hong Kong universities bending to the Chinese government’s will, especially since the imposition of the National Security Law,” Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch told University World News.
“It’s quite astonishing to see these essentially world-class universities, which have as their major responsibility to ensure academic independence and freedom of thought on campus, renege on these principles,” Wang said.
“The significance of these universities’ decisions is much broader than taking down a statue or two but has to do with the Chinese government successfully extending its long and heavy hand to a city which previously – for the last 70 years – was outside its control and was able to maintain freedom of thought.”
Wang noted that there are many ways for universities to respond to very real and very difficult pressures from China.
“They are connected to global international standards, which is a unique aspect of Hong Kong’s universities, so these universities could insist on the academic freedom and freedom of thought that makes them world class, and that insistence could perhaps give them room for manoeuvre,” rather than complying with the authorities in a coordinated manner to take down the works, she said.
Little is known about the way the removal decisions were made although, as Wang pointed out, university councils are partially made up of government appointees.
However, the universities did not make it clear that they were pressured rather than acted willingly, according to Wang.
“The way universities complied with the authorities’ pressure, in a manner that covered up the extent of the censorship, is also part of the problem.”
Removal of the ‘Pillar of Shame’
Just before midnight local time on 22 December, the authorities began the removal of the 8m-tall, two-tonne Pillar of Shame symbolising student protesters who lost their lives in the 4 June massacre. The artwork was ordered to be removed in October with claims that it violated Hong Kong’s National Security Law. It had stood on campus since 1997 when Hong Kong had already ceased to be a British Colony.
“The decision on the aged statue was based on an external legal advice and risk assessment for the best interest of the university,” HKU said in a statement following the removal, saying it followed a decision by the HKU governing council meeting on 22 December.
“No party has ever obtained any approval from the University to display the statue on campus, and the University has the right to take appropriate actions to handle it at any time. The University is also very concerned about the potential safety issues resulting from the fragile statue. Latest legal advice given to the University cautioned that the continued display of the statue would pose legal risks to the University based on the Crimes Ordinance enacted under the Hong Kong colonial government,” the HKU statement said.
However, the university did not clarify the ‘legal risks’. It has said the sculpture will be placed in storage until its legal ownership is determined.
A stalemate ensued over legal issues surrounding ownership of the sculpture, which was created by Danish artist Jens Galschiot who, just days before the removal, said in his newsletter that the situation with HKU was unresolved.
Galschiot wrote: “I fear that 2022 will be the year the sculpture will be destroyed and removed by an increasingly aggressive and brutal Chinese regime.”
In the event, it did not even make it to 2022, with workers on the campus attempting to block views of the dismantling operation with curtains and tall plastic barriers after cordoning off the area during the night.
Lingnan and CUHK artworks
On 24 December, before dawn local time, the authorities at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University blocked off the outdoor area where a relief stood commemorating the Tiananmen Massacre created by Chinese-born New Zealand artist Chen Weiming.
The Lingnan University student union said security guards tried to prevent students filming the removal, including by shining “a strong light” on student lenses overlooking the area during the removal operation. The union said it was the university’s unilateral decision to remove it without communicating with students.
The highly detailed relief is more than 7m wide and 2m high and is titled Tiananmen Massacre. Created in 2009, it vividly depicts scenes including the iconic image of a lone man stopping a column of tanks and had been displayed at several Hong Kong universities before permission from Lingnan University’s administration was granted in 2011 for it to remain there.
An indoor wall painting by the same artist, of the ‘Goddess of Democracy’ – a woman holding aloft a flaming torch, a symbol of the Beijing student protests in 1989 – that was in the main hall of the student union was painted over with grey paint by Lingnan workers on the same day.
Lingnan University said in a statement that it had recently “reviewed and assessed items on campus that may pose legal and safety risks” and had “removed [them] … in the best interest of the University”.
On the same day, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), without any prior warning, removed its 6.4-metre bronze ‘Goddess of Democracy’, saying the action followed an “internal assessment”.
“The University never authorised the display of the statue on its campus, and no organisation has claimed responsibility for its maintenance and management,” CUHK said in a 24 December statement.
The statue, also created by Chen, had stood on the CUHK campus for more than a decade.
The two groups responsible for the statue had ceased to exist. The CUHK student union was formally dissolved in October, after the university administration cut ties with the union in February saying it had been ‘exploiting’ the campus for its own political agenda, while the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, set up after June 1989, which organised the annual Tiananmen vigils, was disbanded in September following a Hong Kong police investigation and arrests of alliance members.
In October, nine pro-democracy Hong Kong activists were sentenced to between six and 10 months in prison for taking part in the vigil.
While the student voice has been silenced since the union was disbanded, the CUHK Employees General Union said in a 24 December statement that it was deeply shocked by the sudden removal of the statue.
“The statue of the ‘Goddess of Democracy’ was brought into the University Station Plaza by thousands of staff, students and citizens in 2010, and stood there for 11 years without interference from the University’s management. It represented the spirit of the freedom of speech, collective governance by staff and students, and mutual respect in the campus,” the employees union said.
“Today, the University removed the statue suddenly during a school holiday when [few] people are [present] – no prior effort was made to seek a consensus among staff and students – and without announcing the statue’s whereabouts. This showed deep disrespect for the staff and students,” it said.
Focus of student life
Former CUHK student union leader Owen Au, who was president of the union in 2018-19, said the ‘Goddess of Democracy’ statue was a focus of student life, and had blended into the lives of Hong Kong people. “It is our collective memory,” he said.
Another former CUHK student leader, Eric Lai, said via social media that the statue had become a campus landmark and its removal represented the “further kowtowing” of university authorities to the national security regime.
Lai, who was head of the CUHK student union in 2010 when the statue was brought to campus, told University World News: “All the statements they (CUHK administration) made when the statue was removed in December saying it was because they had not authorised it, were not reasonable, because they could have removed it immediately, back in 2010, but they did not do it. So, in a way, they gave the space for the statue to be exhibited on the premises.
“After a decade, if they really want to change that convention, they should first consult the stakeholders in the universities and inform the owner of the statue,” said Lai, who is now a Law Fellow at Georgetown University in the United States.
The artist, Chen, has already stated that he owns the statue but, as in the case of the HKU Pillar of Shame, of which Galschiot asserted ownership, this was ignored and the artwork removed without consent, noted Lai, describing the removal as “sneaky”.
A joint declaration on 24 December by student unions and other student groups from seven Hong Kong institutions said HKU and CUHK “did not consult the wishes of students, alumni and even [the] creators to arbitrarily remove the sculpture(s),” adding that, over the years, “these memorial sculptures have gone beyond their original meaning.”
They accused university administrations of being unable to tolerate works that commemorate history. “They not only go against artistic creativity, but also trample on historical facts and destroy the memories of numerous students,” the statement said.
“It is clear that the CUHK administration followed what Hong Kong University did one day before to remove the Pillar of Shame but it is all part of a grand scheme after the fact that, in 2021, all commemorating events, organisations and exhibitions about the Tiananmen crackdown were either criminalised or to be removed,” said Lai.
“The Tiananmen vigil was banned and the organisers of the vigil are now charged with inciting subversion under the National Security Law. Books on the 4 June incident were removed from public libraries, and now it is the statue(s). So, this is well planned. Beijing wants to clean up the memory of the Tiananmen crackdown in Hong Kong.
“They are doing this step by step by removing all the hardware and tangible items that relate to the Tiananmen crackdown. At the same time, they are introducing national security education in universities, and patriotic education in schools,” Lai said.
Other Tiananmen artworks
Another ‘Goddess of Democracy’ statue at Hong Kong’s City University (CityU) made by art students at several Hong Kong institutions and gifted to the CityU student Union in 2012 by the now defunct Alliance, was still standing near the university’s main entrance this week.
However, students said they had received orders to remove it in an e-mail on 24 December from the university administration.
The university authorities stated the “temporary display” of the item “expired” on 31 March 2021, and ordered the student group to remove it the same day. The CityU student union said it had requested talks with the university administration, but said they would relocate the statue to prevent it from being damaged.
The CityU student union said on social media that “the authorities have put pressure on education institutions in an attempt to silence academia and whitewash history”.
A ‘Goddess of Democracy’ statue at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University (PolyU) was removed by the university’s student union in October for repairs after a crack was found, with the union saying it was originally intended to be re-erected. It said the situation was now complicated by the removal of artworks from other campuses and needed to be reassessed to prevent the statue from being confiscated.
A ‘Goddess of Democracy’ statue at Hong Kong Baptist University is stored on campus but is not on display.
China’s nationalistic state-run newspaper, Global Times, said HKU made an “independent decision in accordance with the local law and campus regulation”.
It referred to Pro-Beijing lawyers saying the message of the Pillar of Shame and other monuments was to support the overthrow of Communist Party rule in China which goes against the National Security Law.
The decision to remove them was “widely applauded by a number of students of HKU according to dozens of posts published on the in-campus network”, Global Times claimed.
But students at HKU and CUHK were filmed in the following days lighting candles in the spaces where the artworks had been, in a symbol of mourning.