The former vice-chair of the group behind annual commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre has urged the University of Hong Kong (HKU) not to remove the Pillar of Shame, an artwork which pays tribute to victims of Beijing’s bloody crackdown, from its campus.

pillar of shame 2020 jens (11)
Photo: May James/HKFP.

Richard Tsoi, who was vice-chair of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China from 2008 to 2019, said he “strongly opposed” any plans to remove the statue, which would be seen as an attempt to erase the memory of the massacre.

Rumours have swirled in recent days that university authorities plan to remove the statue but the university declined to comment.

“Many of the Hong Kong people treat the Pillar of Shame as a symbol or image about June 4,” Tsoi told HKFP on Sunday. “Any removal of the Pillar of Shame will definitely give the impression that the university authorities are trying to erase all the ideas and also the image [of] June 4 in Hong Kong.”

The Tiananmen Massacre on June 4, 1989 ended months of student-led demonstrations in China. It is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died when the People’s Liberation Army was deployed to crack down on protesters in Beijing.

pillar of shame 2021 Tiananmen Massacre
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Tsoi, who has also served as vice-chair of the Democratic Party, urged the university to listen to the opinions of the student body and alumni before making any decision.

The Alliance, which received the artwork in 1997 as a gift, voted last month to disband after a crackdown under the national security law saw its leadership arrested and charged, and its property frozen.

Tiananmen Square Massacre Pillar of Shame HKUSU
Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The Pillar of Shame, an eight-metre tall statue of twisted bodies created by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, has stood at the university for 24 years. Students and activists traditionally carried out an annual washing of the monument to pay tribute to those who lost their lives during Beijing’s crackdown.

See also: The Pillar of Shame: The history of Hong Kong’s harrowing tribute to the Tiananmen massacre victims

Richard Tsoi
Richard Tsoi voted to hold the special general meeting of the Alliance on September 25, 2021. Photo: Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China

Tsoi said that, although the ownership of the artwork is unclear, the university had sought the Alliance’s permission and consulted with the group when the pillar was relocated within the campus ten years ago.

“The university authorities in the past basically treated the Hong Kong Alliance [as] still retaining ownership of the Pillar of Shame,” he said.

‘Speculative reports’

HKU declined to comment on the rumours on Monday, nor did it respond when asked if it would guarantee that the sculpture would remain on campus.

YouTube video
Washing of the Pillar of Shame in 2020.

“The University will review risk management measures and facility usage on campus from time to time, and will not respond to speculative reports, ” a statement to HKFP read.

Earlier this year, the university cut ties with its student union, which supported the 2019 pro-democracy protests, citing “legal risks.” It has since pulled down pro-democracy displays from its campus, and urged its students not to tarnish the school’s reputation.

HKU University of Hong Kong
The University of Hong Kong. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Four of its students have been arrested and charged with “advocating terrorism” under the national security law after the union passed a declaration expressing sympathy with a man who committed suicide after stabbing a police officer. The union retracted the motion and its leadership stepped down shortly afterwards, but it still sparked anger.

HKFP has reached out to Galschiøt for comment.

Additional reporting: Tom Grundy.

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Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.