The Danish sculptor behind a monument to those who died in the Tiananmen crackdown has considered taking legal action against the University of Hong Kong (HKU), which the artist said has repeatedly ignored his requests to retrieve the statue.

pillar of shame removed
The former site of the Pillar of Shame at the University of Hong Kong is now a seating area. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

The eight-metre-tall Pillar of Shame stood on the main HKU campus for 24 years before being torn down in the middle of the night in December 2021, with the university citing safety reasons and “legal risks” under the city’s colonial-era Crimes Ordinance. That October, HKU’s law firm had written to the the organiser of Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen crackdown vigil to demand removal of the monument by 5 p.m. on October 13. However, the group had disbanded the previous month.

According to correspondence seen by HKFP, lawyers acting on behalf of Jens Galschiøt contacted HKU on October 12, saying that the artist was the rightful owner of the sculpture and was “willing and… prepared” to remove it from HKU. An extension of three months was requested to arrange its retrieval.

Galschiøt’s representatives did not hear back from HKU’s legal team until December 24, the day after the monument had been taken down and placed into a steel storage container.

“If your client maintains his claim to be the rightful owner of the Statue, please liaise with us for the arrangement to collect it from our client’s storage as soon as practicable,” solicitors representing HKU said in the letter to Galschiøt’s lawyers, seen by HKFP.

That was the last time Galschiøt heard from HKU, he said.

Jens Galschiøt
Jens Galschiøt. File photo: Jens Galschiøt.

In the months since, Galschiøt said he has made repeated attempts to communicate with the university regarding retrieving the Pillar of Shame. In mid-January, he sent a representative, Loretta Lau, to hand deliver a written request to three HKU premises: the Kadoorie Centre, where the pillar is now stored; the Estates Office; and the President’s Office.

On February 7, Lau said she received a response from the President’s Office saying that “the matter is receiving attention.” As of Wednesday, she has not heard from the other HKU offices.

Responding to an enquiry from HKFP, HKU said: “The University’s legal representative is handling the matter which involves the claimant of an item being stored on University premises by an outside party.”

When asked about his next steps, Galschiøt told HKFP via video call from his studio in Denmark that he had virtually met with his lawyers in Hong Kong to discuss the possibility of pursuing legal action against the university to retrieve the statue.

The artist did not give HKFP a rigid deadline, saying he hoped to get the matter resolved before taking it to court.

Tiananmen Square Massacre Pillar of Shame HKUSU
The University of Hong Kong Student’ Union had cleaned the Pillar of Shame every year before the statue was torn down in December 2021. File Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Galschiøt said a law suit would be costly for both him and HKU, but that he would “of course” take legal action if necessary. “They have no rights,” he told HKFP. “It’s not legal to steal art in Hong Kong, or in any parts of China,” he added.

Additionally, the sculptor said he had also discussed the possibility of visiting Hong Kong with a Danish lawmaker. But Galschiøt said he was afraid that he might be arrested under the Beijing-implemented national security legislation.

The removal of the Pillar of Shame occurred amid efforts to halt commemorations of the 1989 crackdown in Hong Kong. The day after the statue was removed, two other universities tore down monuments to those killed when the People’s Liberation Army cracked down on protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989.

Galschiøt told HKFP that he was “confused” by HKU’s unresponsiveness. “I thought they would be glad to get rid of [the sculpture]. It was a big problem for them,” he added.

Direct visits

During her visit to HKU’s Kadoorie Centre, Lau said staff there had told her the storage unit containing the Pillar of Shame had been placed under 24-hour camera surveillance.

She was also told that the centre had no say over the monument, with the staff saying they “only act on orders.”

While Lau was told that her letter would be passed to someone familiar with the matter, she said the staff had refused to disclose that person’s name or direct contact.

Loretta Lau Estates Office University of Hong Kong
Loretta Lau, Jens Galshiot’s representative, delivered the sculptor’s written request to the University of Hong Kong’s Estates Office on January 18. Photo: Supplied.

Lau said the university’s Estates Office also told her matters concerning the Pillar of Shame were outside their domain.

She told HKFP she had no idea who at the university was in charge of the sculpture. “It feels to me that no one wants to take up the responsibility,” she added.

‘The story of Hong Kong inside’

Although Galschiøt said he could easily make 3D-printed replicas of the Pillar of Shame, he still thought it was “really important” to retrieve his artwork from Hong Kong.

“This Pillar of Shame has the story of Hong Kong inside,” he said, adding that people in Hong Kong had laid flowers by it to commemorate the Tiananmen crackdown every year since it was first exhibited at HKU.

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

The artist said while his artwork was initially supposed to remind the Chinese people of the 1989 crackdown, it now has a second meaning as “a monument of what happened in Hong Kong’s democracy movements.”

Galschiøt said when he and Hong Kong pro-democracy activists first erected the Pillar of Shame in Hong Kong, “we believed that China will change and one day [the statue] will stay in the Tiananmen Square.”

But he said that dream had “end[ed] like a nightmare for me, the sculpture, Hong Kong, and students in the university.”

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.