The University of Hong Kong has ordered the removal of a sculpture commemorating the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, the Chinese government’s bloody crackdown on student protesters in 1989. Activists and human rights groups have responded with anger and backlash, viewing the move as the latest attempt by authorities to control the narrative around the notorious act of state-sponsored violence.
Hundreds and possibly thousands of people were killed when troops opened fire on student demonstrators protesting censorship in China after the death of Hu Yaobang, a politician who had attempted to reform the Communist Party. The government has historically downplayed the June 4 massacre, citing a death toll of 200 civilians and characterizing the peaceful protests as “counter-revolutionary riots.” As in mainland China, there is an official ban against the public mourning of Tiananmen Square victims in Hong Kong, and references to the incident are regularly removed from the Internet.
“Pillar of Shame,” Danish artist Jens Galschiøt’s 26-foot-high copper statue of twisting, contorted bodies, was installed in the University of Hong Kong’s campus in 1997 by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. It is the only Tiananmen commemoration that remains on Chinese soil, according to the Washington Post.
The Alliance, which organized annual vigils to memorialize the victims of the massacre, was forced to disband last month amid a government crackdown on political activism. Galschiøt says he fears for the sculpture’s safe removal while some of the group’s members remain detained.
“I am the rightful owner of the sculpture. And I think the Hong Kong University must respect that,” Galschiot told the German media outlet Deutsche Welle. “Because they believe it belongs to the alliance people, the democracy movement, and the students. I have only lent it out permanently for exhibition there.”
Mayer Brown, the US law firm of which the university is a longtime client, said last Friday that it would no longer represent the school on the issue of the sculpture’s removal. The announcement came after 27 nonprofits in Hong Kong, China, and abroad signed an open letter calling for Mayer Brown to “safeguard their reputation and their integrity in defending the right of freedom of expression” by rescinding the agreement.