China’s last Tiananmen memorial is to be removed

Dhe University of Hong Kong wants to get rid of the most famous work of art on its campus quickly: the “Pillar of Shame” by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt, which commemorates the victims of the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. A week ago, the university’s lawyers gave the suspected owners six days. They should remove the two-ton concrete sculpture from the campus by Wednesday.

Friederike Böge

Political correspondent for China, North Korea and Mongolia.

Otherwise the property will be “considered abandoned” and the university will do what it thinks is right, the law firm Mayer Brown wrote to the “Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China”. The organization has kept the memory of the bloody suppression of the protests in Tiananmen Square alive for decades. She ran a small museum and held an annual vigil attended by hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents before it was banned in 2020.

The eight meter high “Pillar of Shame” was erected on the occasion of the vigil for the eighth anniversary of the 1997 massacre. Since then, Allianz has taken care of maintaining them. On Wednesday, however, the organization announced that it was not owned by itself, but the sculptor Jens Galschiøt.

Sculptors undesirable

Strictly speaking, the alliance no longer exists. The group disbanded in September in the face of the repressive climate in Hong Kong. Its leading members are in custody. They are accused of subversion and illegal cooperation with foreign forces. The museum’s exhibits were confiscated. In their letter, Mayer Brown’s lawyers did not justify why the “pillar of shame” should give way. The university announced on its website that the reason for the step was a “current risk assessment and legal advice”.

The Danish sculptor has now registered his property rights through a lawyer. “We need a few months to ship the sculpture if we can’t find another location in Hong Kong, which I assume,” said Jens Galschiøt of the FAZ. There are already some interested parties in other countries. One possible location is in Washington. But he prefers a place closer to China, for example Taiwan.

In order to move the sculpture unscathed, his presence in Hong Kong is necessary, said the sculptor. “You need me for this.” That could embarrass the Hong Kong authorities. Galschiøt has already been refused entry to Hong Kong twice in the past, once shortly before the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. In the rest of China he is a persona non grata anyway.

3-D scans for replication

If the university refuses to allow Galschiøt the necessary time for the dismantling, he wants to go to court. The dispute over the sculpture has already had a positive effect: it renews the memory of the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen protests. “No matter what you do, we win,” said the Dane. This even applies in the event that the university destroys the pillar. Then the debris could act as a reminder.

In addition, some Hong Kong residents have already made 3-D scans of the sculpture in order to reproduce it on a smaller scale and to photograph it as street art in different places. Galschiøt justified the fact that he did not intervene earlier by saying that his search for a lawyer had taken a few days. “All the people I know in Hong Kong are in jail.”

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The “Pillar of Shame” was erected in 1997 just under a month before the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong was returned to China. It became “the only public monument to the Chinese democracy movement on Chinese soil,” says Sebastian Veg, professor for the history of Chinese ideas in Paris. At the initiative of the University of Hong Kong’s Student Union, the sculpture came onto campus 23 years ago.

The Union created the ritual that the artwork was washed by the students every year shortly before the June 4th vigil. Most recently this year. This is “an expression of the deep connection” of the Hong Kong student associations with the Chinese democracy movement of 1989, says Veg.

The column also had a special meaning for many students from mainland China: It was their first encounter with the massacre, which is hushed up in the rest of China. Since the vigil has not been allowed to take place since 2020, the museum is closed and the pillar is being dismantled, this is the end of the Tiananmen commemoration in China.

Law firm under pressure

Under other circumstances, the student union might have granted ownership of the sculpture. But it too recently stopped its activities due to political repression. Four of its members were temporarily arrested in July. They are accused of calling for terrorism.

The law firm Mayer Brown, which conducts much of its business in the United States, has come under fire there for representing the university in the case. The democracy researcher Andreas Fulda from the University of Nottingham told the FAZ that with the involvement of Mayer Brown “the University of Hong Kong is obviously trying to get rid of its ethical responsibility to defend the freedom of science and expression”.

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