Hong Kong’s statues are disappearing, but their symbolism may prove harder to erase

Composed by Oscar Holland, CNNHong Kong

Factors Teele Rebane, Lizzy YeeCheryl Ho

Portraying a stack of shrieking faces and bent upper bodies, the “Pillar of Shame” was not simply a tip of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre — it was, for lots of, a symbol of totally free speech in Hong Kong.
Among the vanishingly couple of memorials to the crackdown’s victims endured on Chinese soil, the statue’s existence at University of Hong Kong (HKU) was long thought about a bellwether of creative censorship in the semi-autonomous city. Its elimination last Wednesday night was, for some trainees, another indication of Beijing’s tightening up grip.

“By removing this pillar… we can see that our freedom is being taken away, bit by bit, day by day,” stated one trainee on school the next early morning. “It reminds me that the (Chinese Communist Party) is an illegitimate regime,” another stated.

CNN accepted not divulge the names of trainees talked to, as numerous of them feared retribution from authorities. HKU emeritus teacher John Burns, nevertheless, was more open in his criticism. Getting rid of memorials to the bloody military crackdown on unarmed mainly trainee protesters — a taboo subject on the mainland — showed “further erosion of the relative autonomy of HKU from the Chinese state,” he stated over e-mail.
The "Pillar of Shame" statue, pictured at the HKU campus on October 15, 2021.

The “Pillar of Shame” statue, visualized at the HKU school on October 15, 2021. Credit: Louise Delmotte/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images

Workers remove part of the "Pillar of Shame" into a container at University of Hong Kong on December 23, 2021 in Hong Kong.

Employees get rid of part of the “Pillar of Shame” into a container at University of Hong Kong on December 23, 2021 in Hong Kong. Credit: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

“HKU is not a government department and need not subscribe to official propaganda about the Tiananmen incident,” Burns included. “So far it has not. But removing the statue moves HKU and Hong Kong closer to the official state of amnesia about Tiananmen.”

HKU was not the only university to apparently make the most of the peaceful winter season vacations. On Christmas Eve, 2 other organizations — the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and Lingnan University — got rid of on-campus representations of a figure called the “Goddess of Democracy.” Revealing a female clutching a flaming torch above her head, the initial statue was very first put up by trainees in Tiananmen Square throughout the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations and damaged by the Chinese armed force throughout the crackdown.
Chen Weiming, the Chinese-New Zealander artist behind the bronze reproduction at CUHK, stated its elimination showed completion of “one country, two systems,” the concept that secures Hong Kong’s liberty of expression. “Now it’s one country, one system,” he stated.

Like HKU’s governing body, which stated it acted “based on external legal advice and risk assessment,” Lingnan University informed CNN its choice followed an evaluation into “items on campus that may pose legal and safety risks.” CUHK stated in a declaration it had “never authorized the display” of the statue on its premises.

The "Goddess of Democracy" statue, in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, prior to its removal last week.

The “Goddess of Democracy” statue, in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, prior to its elimination recently. Credit: Daniel Suen/AFP/Getty Images

The same site at the Chinese University of Hong Kong pictured on December 24, 2021.

The exact same website at the Chinese University of Hong Kong visualized on December 24, 2021. Credit: Bertha Wang/AFP/Getty Images

The fate of a 4th sculpture might likewise hang in the balance: Authorities at City University of Hong Kong, another organization in the area, apparently purchased its trainee union to get rid of a “Goddess of Democracy” reproduction from its school. The university informed CNN it had actually just ever approved consent for the statue to stand till March 31, 2021, however did not talk about whether this indicated it would be by force eliminated.

Long-lasting traditions

For 3 years, Hong Kong has actually been the only put on Chinese-controlled soil where a yearly mass vigil has actually been held to mark the occasions around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, throughout which massive pro-democracy demonstrations were completely squashed by armed Chinese soldiers.

The military crackdown stays among the most securely censored subjects in mainland China, with conversations of it scrubbed from mass media. Chinese authorities have actually not launched a main death toll, however approximates variety from numerous hundred to thousands.

The elimination of the statues comes in the middle of a more comprehensive clampdown in Hong Kong, following the enactment of a nationwide security law in 2020 that criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

The area’s federal government has actually consistently refuted allegations that the legislation has actually suppressed liberties, declaring it has actually rather brought back order in the city after it was shaken by mass demonstrations from 2019.
Up until now, the law has actually mostly targeted political activists and figures from pro-democracy media outlets. However it has actually likewise left those in academic community and the arts unsure about what is allowable. The past year has actually seen instances of both censorship and self-censorship, from the passage of a new film censorship law to “safeguard national security” to prominent artist Kacey Wong’s decision to enter self-imposed exile in Taiwan.
The statues’ disappearance may not be the end of the story. Creator of the “Pillar of Shame,” Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, said he hopes to reclaim the work and exhibit it elsewhere. HKU did not respond to CNN’s request for comment about the artist’s attempts to recover his creation or the current whereabouts of the statue, which was last seen being placed, in parts, into a container. The university earlier said it will be held in storage.

“It’s still my property… if we get it, then we’ll (bring) it back to Europe, I’ll put it together and it will make a tour,” Galschiøt told CNN. “At the moment, we have a plan to put it in Washington, DC, in front of the Chinese embassy, just to show China that there’s a place in the world where we can talk about what happened in ’89.”

The controversy surrounding the sculpture means that it will, now, be tied to not only the Tiananmen Square massacre but likewise the erosion of Hong Kong’s artistic freedoms. But it was not the only version created by Galschiøt — nor was it even the first. The original “Pillar of Shame” was erected in Rome to honor those killed worldwide by hunger ahead of a Food and Agriculture Organization summit in 1996. Other versions of the work were subsequently installed in Mexico and Brazil to commemorate the victims of the Acteal massacre and Eldorado dos Carajás massacre, respectively.

Demonstrators gather around the Lady Liberty Hong Kong statue during a rally in the Central district of Hong Kong in September 2019.

Demonstrators gather around the Lady Liberty Hong Kong statue during a rally in the Central district of Hong Kong in September 2019. Credit: Justin Chin/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The artwork’s shifting meaning is a reminder that destroying images may only serve to strengthen their symbolic power. Indeed, replicas of a crowdsource-designed statue depicting a masked pro-democracy demonstrator, known as “Lady Liberty,” have cropped up across Hong Kong since the original was pulled down and vandalized by unidentified assailants in October 2019. And the Chinese military’s decision to topple the original “Goddess of Democracy” in 1989 means that every year, on June 4, identical versions appear in cities around the world — from Taipei to Toronto — to mark the crackdown’s anniversary.
Beijing University students put the finishing touches on the Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, May 30, 1989.

Beijing University students put the finishing touches on the Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, May 30, 1989. Credit: Jeff Widener/AP

Art-activist group Lady Liberty Hong Kong is hoping the “Pillar of Shame” will have a similar fate. The group has actually used more than 900 photos to create an open source 3D model of the work that can be downloaded and used to reproduce the statue with relative ease.
“The idea is that everyone can print a copy (of) it and place it wherever they want,” the group’s founder, Alex Lee, stated over the phone last week. “In the digital age, there’s no limitation of what you can do with virtual or physical objects — (the hope is) for everyone to try to preserve this symbol.”

The New School for Democracy, an NGO founded by Wang Dan, a long-exiled student leader of the Tiananmen Square protests, stated it is raising funds to build its own version — with Galschiøt’s blessing — in Taiwan. It hopes the sculpture will be completed by June 4 next year, to mark the massacre’s 33rd anniversary.

In a statement responding to last week’s debate, founder and president of the US-based Campaign for Hong Kong, Samuel Chu, wrote that the “Pillar of Shame” had transformed in significance from a “touchstone for freedom” to “a tombstone for freedom.”

“Removing the public statues only reveals the statue-shaped hole in the hearts of minds of all of us,” he added.

Top image: Visitors and students take images of the “Pillar of Shame” statue at the University of Hong Kong on October 11, 2021.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long included to this report.