Students at the University of Hong Kong held an “invisible” flash-mob protest on campus on Monday night to oppose the removal of the Pillar of Shame, a statue commemorating the Tiananmen Massacre.

The event was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the site of the now-removed monument but protesters failed to materialise under a heavy security presence. Instead, reporters received tip-offs via AirDrop that pamphlets had been placed elsewhere on the campus in a flash-mob style.

Pillar of Shame flash mob protest
Two pamphlets were left on the ground outside the site where the Pillar of Shame was once erected. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

HKU removed the Pillar of Shame in the middle of the night last month while students were on their winter break. In a statement, the university cited safety issues, legal advice and referenced the Crimes Ordinance “under the Hong Kong colonial government.”

Yellow barricades were set up around the site where the statue once stood and HKU has built what appears to be a seating area with pebble-shaped benches and column-like tables.

HKU built what appears to be a seating area where the Pillar of Shame once stood. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

The Tiananmen Massacre occurred on June 4, 1989, ending months of student-led demonstrations in China. It is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands, died when the People’s Liberation Army cracked down on protesters in Beijing.

Pillar of Shame flash mob protest
Two pamphlets were left on the ground outside the site where the Pillar of Shame was once erected at around 6 p.m. on January 17, 2022. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

When HKFP arrived at the site at about 6 p.m., two pamphlets with the words “The Pillar of Shame – Where does it come from?” and “University of Hong Kong Student Union” had been left on the ground close to the yellow barriers. All seats on the student union’s executive committee remain vacant after the previous cabinet resigned last July. HKUSU Council leaders were charged under the national security law with advocating terrorism after passing a now-withdrawn motion that expressed sadness over the death of a man who stabbed a police officer before taking his own life.

After journalists took pictures of them, the papers were quickly removed.

hku pillar of shame protest
Security guards at the site of the removed Tiananmen Massacre monument. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

A woman who introduced herself as Ms Wan and said she handled media affairs for HKU came forward to ask reporters what they were waiting for. She said she had no knowledge of any scheduled student action and did not directly answer questions about the removed pamphlets.

hku pillar of shame protest
Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

At around 7 p.m., journalists received an image via AirDrop showing papers bearing slogans such as “Shame on HKU” and “Pillar gone, Shame Still”, as well as a bunch of white flowers and a picture of the removed statue, on the ground in front of the HKU emblem in the Centennial Campus courtyard a short walk away.

Reporters received AirDrop messages about the protest. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

When reporters arrived, the objects in the photo were nowhere to be seen and there was no sign of the students who placed them there.

University of Hong Kong
The space in front of the HKU emblem was emptied when reporters arrived. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Thirty minutes later, InMedia reported that reporters received another AirDrop message saying slogans were placed close to the HKU emblem.

When journalists arrived, the protesters had gone but left multiple papers with slogans including “The Old Can Not Kill The Young” and “People Will not Forget,” together with crushed Dragon fruit, white flowers, and crayons.

hku pillar of shame protest
Photo: via CC 2.0.

Security guards followed the reporters to the scene and removed the objects within minutes. After saying they were there to handle “lost property”, the guards later changed their wording to “rubbish” after questioning by InMedia reporters.

hku pillar of shame protest
Photo: via CC 2.0.

A third AirDrop message was sent to reporters, saying: “it has ended, thank you reporters.”

‘Rather anonymous than nothing’

InMedia reported that the protest was mainly planned by a group of HKU students from mainland China.

Unlike the large-scale protests and unrest of 2019, which erupted over a since-axed extradition bill and escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment, demonstrations in the city are rare these days.

When asked about the protest, Jens Galschiøt, the Danish artist who created the Pillar of Shame, told HKFP: “That’s the way you do it when you lose your freedom… Rather anonymous than nothing.”

UK protests

Galschiøt said that a group of students in the UK had used a 3D-printed copy of the Pillar of Shame at protests in Manchester and Sheffield.

“Even though they do not have the opportunity to say anything or meet in Hong Kong, there are still voices from the rest of the world who keep the spirit of HK alive,” Galschiøt said.

The 3D blueprints for the Pillar of Shame were released by the sculptor on the internet last November.

pillar of shame in UK
Photo: Supplied.

The students told the artist that they will exhibit the copy of the artwork in Edinburgh, Newcastle, London and “other cities or towns many Hongkongers live in.”

💡If you are in need of support, please call: The Samaritans 2896 0000 (24-hour, multilingual), Suicide Prevention Centre 2382 0000 or the Social Welfare Department 2343 2255. The Hong Kong Society of Counselling and Psychology provides a WhatsApp hotline in English and Chinese: 6218 1084. See also: HKFP’s comprehensive guide to mental health services in Hong Kong.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.