RIP, Hong Kong’s “Pillar of Shame” Tiananmen Sculpture – Quartz

For nearly a quarter of a century, the University of Hong Kong has housed a soaring 26-foot tall sculpture. Located next to a university cafeteria, students ate lunch on adjacent benches.

On closer inspection, it was a macabre depiction of bodies – 50 to be precise – fused together in a kind of shared pain. Created by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt, and first introduced to Hong Kong in 1997, the year the UK ceded the city to China, the pillar of shame commemorated the students killed on June 4, 1989, when the Communist Party sent in tanks to end weeks of protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

the pillar of shame was a tangible symbol of the former British territory’s autonomy from Beijing and mainland China, where the party determines which moments and which versions of China’s history can be taught or publicly discussed. Outside of Hong Kong, the Tiananmen protesters and their demands for more freedoms have been heavily censored in China. The “mass amnesiaabout Tiananmen, as journalist Louisa Lim described it, is such that some young censors must be taught about protests to do their job.

But with the passage of Hong Kong’s national security law last year and a crackdown on political activity in the city, the statue’s days were numbered.

Reuters/Bobby Yip

The “pillar of shame” in 2009, just before the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests.

In the early hours of Thursday (December 23), workers came to the university campus, dismantled the statue, wrapped it up and took it away. The area around the statue was barricaded, reminiscent of scenes from mainland China, such as when an impromptu memorial which sprung up in Zhengzhou for the victims of last summer’s floods was hidden in plain sight.

A Brief History of the Pillar of Shame

from Galschiot pillar of shame was not a single statue – it was a series of pillars eight meters high. The first pillar was exhibited in Rome in 1996. But the one in Hong Kong has become the best known.

It was installed in the city’s Victoria Park in time for the Tiananmen Vigil in 1997. The statue’s plinth bears the words “The old cannot kill the young forever”. After the commemoration, he toured Hong Kong universities. In 1998, the University of Hong Kong’s student union voted to give him permanent residence on its campus. The statue did not always have its distinctive orange hue – it was painted this color in 2008to draw attention to human rights abuses in China.

The presence of the statue at the University of Hong Kong has not been officially sanctioned by the university administration—but they accepted his presence in more liberal times. However, political pressure has grown on university officials since the 2019 protests, where students were on the front line. In July, HKU announced that it no longer recognize his student union, and in October he asked for the statue to be removed.

In a press release dated December 23, the university said he made the decision the day before to remove the “aged statue” based on a legal opinion that it posed risks under a colonial-era anti-sedition law. The statue is now in storage, he said.

Reuters/Lam Yik

The students clean the sculpture on June 4, 2021.

China’s repressed souvenirs are now banned in Hong Kong

For a long time, Hong Kong has been the repository of fragments of Chinese history that the Communist Party suppressed. For example, when Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died in custody in China in 2017 and was buried at sea, Hong Kong was the only place in China to mourn him publicly.

Tiananmen was the most notable example of Hong Kong’s role in memory.

The city held its first vigil for slain students – the exact death toll is still not known – in 1990, and it has become an annual event. While young activists have sometimes questioned the significance of the event for Hong Kong and attendance has dwindled over the years, that changed with the 2019 protests, with the vigil itself coming under attack. The last authorized gathering, held in 2019, attracted 180,000 peopleaccording to the estimates of the organizers.

In 2020, authorities did not allow the memorial to be held, citing coronavirus measures, but thousands of people showed up anyway, wearing the usual black and carrying candles. Numerous pro-democracy figures have been arrested, including Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai and journalist-turned-activist Gwyneth Ho, who were sentenced earlier this month for unlawful assembly due to their presence. The authorities have also members prosecuted of Hong Kong Alliance, which was founded in support of the 1989 protesters, and later became the organizer of the annual vigil. The group dissolved in september.

Yet memory hates emptiness, and absence itself has become a powerful symbol among Chinese dissidents and the diaspora.

After major protest slogans were banned in Hong Kong last year, a shop displayed blank post-its, wordlessly evoking the city’s demolished Lennon Walls, where post-its once carried messages of solidarity (the original Lennon Wall is in Prague, where Czechoslovakian youth in the 1980s shared their politics and their love of Beatles lyrics).

And one of Liu Xiangbo’s most iconic images is an empty chair, a reference to his unoccupied seat at the ceremony in Oslo. He is so well known as his replacement that when he died, people using the WeChat messaging app discovered that images of chairs were censored.

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