The University of Hong Kong (HKU) has requested the now-disbanded organiser of Hong Kong’s Tiananmen Massacre vigil to remove the Pillar of Shame, an artwork which pays tribute to victims of Beijing’s bloody 1989 crackdown, from its campus.

See also: The Pillar of Shame: History of the harrowing tribute to the Tiananmen victims

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China and its liquidators Richard Tsoi and Elizabeth Tang said they received a letter from the university issued on Thursday, asking the defunct group to remove the statue by next Wednesday at 5:00 p.m.

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

According to the letter, if the Alliance fails to remove the sculpture before the deadline, “the Sculpture will be deemed abandoned and the University will not consider any future request from you in respect of the Sculpture, and the University will deal with the Sculpture at such time and in such manner as it thinks fit without further notice.”

The eight-metre tall harrowing monument to those killed by the military during the crackdown has stood on the campus for 24 years.

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

The Tiananmen massacre occurred on June 4, 1989 ending 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.

‘Unreasonable’ demand

Tsoi, who resigned as a member of the Alliance’s executive committee earlier this year, said that the university’s request was “unreasonable.”

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

“Institutes of higher education not only answer to [their] students and other stakeholders in the institute, universities also have their social mission and historical responsibility,” Tsoi wrote in a letter to HKU in response to their request.

“Continue letting the Pillar of Shame to stand in the HKU campus [demonstrates] exactly the University of Hong Kong’s persistence to values such as freedom and justice.”

Tsoi also asked HKU to clarify whether the university was planning to remove the sculpture, and the reasoning behind such a decision.

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

The now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China received the artwork in 1997 as a gift. It voted last month to disband after a crackdown under the national security law saw its leadership arrested and charged, and its property frozen.

Legal action

The Danish artist who created the pillar, Jens Galschiøt, told HKFP that he was “shocked” by the news about the sculpture’s potential removal.

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

He remains the owner of the artwork despite lending it to the Alliance for a permanent exhibition and will assert his ownership, he said.

“It is really difficult to remove it. It is really not fair to remove it in a week while it’s been there for 24 years,” he said, adding that it would normally take two to three months – with cranes and containers – to properly move a sculpture of such size.

A hasty removal would destroy the sculpture, he said. “I can take them to court if they destroy it”

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He added that HKU never contacted him about the removal: “Nobody talked to me. I just hear about it from the press.”

Amnesty International Demark decried HKU’s move in a statement: “The request to remove The Pillar of Shame from Hong Kong University shows how fear and self-censorship have spread in the wake of the crack down on civil rights in Hong Kong. China wants to erase the deaths of hundreds of peaceful students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 from the history books. But the world will not forget what happened when China crushed peaceful protest. Neither will the world forget how freedom of expression and other rights are being crushed in Hong Kong,” said Dan Hindsgaul, interim director at Amnesty.

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

In a media statement, HKU said the statue belonged to an “external organisation” which publicly announced their disbandment: “Based on the latest risk assessment and legal advice, the University has written to the said organisation requesting it to remove the exhibit from the university campus. The University will continue to liaise with various stakeholders to handle the incident in a legal and reasonable manner.”

Additional reporting: Selina Cheng and Tom Grundy.

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.