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A monumental loss

Hong Kong universities once displayed memorials to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre; now they are gone


The Pillar of Shame statue at the Hong Kong University campus Louise Delmotte/Getty Images

A monumental loss
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The Pillar of Shame—a 26-foot orange sculpture of twisted bodies and faces in agony—stood on the campus of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) for 24 years. It commemorated the victims of China’s 1989 crackdown on peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square. But on the morning of Dec. 23, the monument was nowhere to be seen: Workers in yellow hardhats had dismantled it overnight and transported it to storage.

The next morning, the 21-foot Goddess of Democracy statue also vanished from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) after 11 years on campus. In another middle-of-the-night operation, the college removed the bronze replica of the papier-mâché original which activists had erected in Beijing during the 1989 protests. Lingnan University similarly took down a relief sculpture and painted over an image, both of which depicted the Goddess of Democracy.

While HKU and Lingnan University cited safety and legal concerns for the removals, CUHK said it had never authorized the display. The disappearances occurred amid authorities’ efforts to scrub the Tiananmen massacre from collective memory. Beginning in April 1989, students held pro-democracy demonstrations at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which Chinese authorities ended on June 4, 1989, by sending tanks to clear the site. The troops killed hundreds and possibly thousands of civilians. To this day, the Chinese government refuses to acknowledge the massacre and attempts to censor references to it in mainland China.

The monuments on Hong Kong campuses once reminded Jeffrey Wasserstrom of the city’s freedom of political expression. Visiting Hong Kong, the Chinese history professor at the University of California, Irvine, noted its “night-and-day difference” from mainland China. That the colleges have cleared the memorials shows “just how far the slide toward authoritarianism has gone,” he said.

As China’s increasing control criminalizes dissent in Hong Kong, the city’s authorities banned the annual Tiananmen candlelight vigil the past two years, jailed pro-democracy activists, shut down the museum dedicated to the 1989 massacre, and pulled books from libraries.

Mourning the loss of the Goddess of Democracy, CUHK students held a vigil on Christmas Eve at the spot where the monument had been. Some participants arranged lit candles in the outline of the statue and in the Chinese characters for “democracy.” Others played songs, including “Bloodstained Glory,” the anthem of the 1989 protests.

Wang Dan, along with 39 other survivors of the Tiananmen massacre, condemned the removal of the Pillar of Shame, holding the Hong Kong and Chinese governments responsible. Long exiled in the United States, the former student leader of the 1989 demonstrations released a statement that reads: “The survivors’ mission is to preserve and strengthen memory. … They can dismantle one monument, but we will surely build more!”

Not only reminders of this inconvenient history, the Tiananmen monuments were also an integral part of university life, according to a joint statement issued by 14 college student groups. University administrators’ unilateral decision to remove them is an erosion of academic freedom, the organizations said. They called on administrators to include the wider college communities in deciding the fate of the sculptures.

Although the City University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University have not removed Goddess of Democracy statues on their campuses, they have contacted the respective student unions about relocating them.

Censorship of the Tiananmen massacre extends to Disney+, which launched in Hong Kong in November. The streaming service offers The Simpsons, except for the 12th episode of its 16th season: The cartoon family visits Beijing and sees a satirical sign in Tiananmen Square that reads, “On this site, in 1989, nothing happened.” It is not clear if Disney+ pulled that episode of its own accord or was following orders from Hong Kong authorities.

Jens Galschiøt, who created the Pillar of Shame, is determined to keep the memory of the massacre alive. The Danish artist dropped the copyright to his statue and encouraged others to print 3D copies of it using the digital model offered by the art-activist group Lady Liberty Hong Kong.

At HKU, where the iconic pillar once stood are now several benches shaped like gray oblong stones forming a seating area. Driven out of Hong Kong, the memorials are finding homes elsewhere. The New School for Democracy, which Wang founded, is planning to rebuild the Pillar of Shame in Taiwan. Wang is also preparing to open a Tiananmen museum in New York.

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