A Hong Kong university has said it would only return a now-removed statue commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown to its creator if he agrees to bear any legal consequences and costs that may arise from its transfer and years-long display on campus.

Legal documents obtained by HKFP showed that a law firm representing the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) told Chen Weiming, the sculptor behind the Goddess of Democracy statue, that it would arrange for the artwork’s return “subject to conditions.”

CUHK Goddess of Democracy
The CUHK Goddess of Democracy. Photo: HKFP.

In the February 28 letter, Chen was asked to provide a deed of indemnity – an agreement protecting a party against unforeseen repercussions – confirming that he would be “solely responsible” for the “risks, liabilities and costs” involved in transporting the statue from Hong Kong to the US, where he lives.

The Los Angeles-based artist must also secure CUHK “from and against all… damages, expenses… actions and proceedings” related to the statue’s years-long display on the university’s campus. Chen would also have to agree not to “commence any action, litigation or proceedings” against CUHK in order to get the statue back.

No ‘real urgency’

Calling the display of the artwork “unauthorised,” CUHK removed the six-metre tall sculpture – which had stood on its campus for over a decade – in the early hours of December 24 last year, a day after the Pillar of Shame statue was cleared from the University of Hong Kong campus.

Halfway across the city, students at Lingnan University woke up on Christmas Eve to news that a relief sculpture commemorating the Tiananmen crackdown, also by Chen, has been taken down, too.

The Tiananmen crackdown 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.

Lingnan University Students' Union Press Bureau (2)
The relief sculpture in Lingnan University campus commemorating the Tiananmen Massacre. Photo: Lingnan University Student Union Press Bureau.

Speaking to HKFP after the removals, Chen described the low key, middle-of-the-night operations as “shady.”

“It is a major regret. I am concerned about whether the monuments are damaged and where they are placed currently,” the artist said, adding that he planned to explore legal action.

He engaged a law firm, which wrote to CUHK on January 13 regarding the statue. In a letter to Chen’s lawyers dated January 19, the university’s legal representative said it did not “observe any real urgency in the matter as the [statue] is at the moment safely stored.”

“I feel very upset. This is my artwork,” Chen told HKFP on Wednesday.

Chen Weiming
Artist Chen Weiming. Photo: Screenshot, via CHENWEIMING2017/Twitter.

The Goddess of Democracy, which depicted a woman holding up a torch, was a replica of a sculpture erected by pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

In 2010, it was transported to the university courtesy of its students’ union. Although CUHK said it “could not accede” to the union’s request to permanently display the statue, it was allowed to remain in a prominent spot – outside an MTR station exit and near a bus stop – on the campus.

See also: Hong Kong’s 48-hour campus crackdown on the memory of the Tiananmen Massacre

The February 28 letter from the university’s law firm stated that CUHK had never “acted as a bailee” for the statue; in other words, it was never its official custodian. An alleged agreement was made between Chen and the students’ union, “which was never authorised to act for and on behalf of, or to represent, our client,” the law firm added.

Chen, however, maintained that CUHK had “accepted” the statue. “I think they changed [their] mind because now [there is] the Hong Kong security law making trouble.”

National security law
Photo: GovHK.

Since Beijing enacted the national security law in June 2020, events and artworks that commemorate victims of the Tiananmen crackdown have disappeared across the city. For the first time in 32 years, Victoria Park – where mourners gathered annually for a vigil – was empty during last year’s anniversary as police surrounded the area.

goddess of democracy chinese university political prisonersCUHK after the Goddess of Democracy
The Goddess of Democracy on CUHK campus – before and after. Use your mouse to slide horizontally. Photo: HKFP.

The since-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the pro-democracy group that organised the yearly vigil, has also been accused of violating national security legislation.

Political chill

With statues removed and student unions no longer recognised by university authorities, a political chill now hangs over the Hong Kong’s campuses, which were once known for their student activism.

In a statement to HKFP, a CUHK spokesperson repeated that the university had never permitted the statue’s display, and that it has commissioned external legal counsel to “ascertain appropriate next steps.”

Chinese University of Hong Kong CUHK
Photo: CUHK.

“Its legal representatives are corresponding with a law firm claiming to represent Mr Chen Weiming,” the spokesperson said, adding that the university “will not confirm or deny” reports on the contents of correspondences.

See also: Potted plants replace Tiananmen tribute on University of Hong Kong bridge

Meanwhile, Chen said he still did not know where the Goddess of Democracy statue is. As CUHK’s conditions state that Chen must financially cover the transportation of the bronze sculpture, he is also concerned about the cost.

“They did not just clear two sculptures. What they cleared was freedom of speech and academic freedom,” Chen tweeted on the day that the universities removed his pieces.

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.