For nearly a quarter of a century, the University of Hong Kong was home to a slim sculpture, 26 ft tall. Located next to a university cafeteria, students ate their lunch at adjacent benches.
On closer inspection, it was a macabre depiction of bodies—50 of them to be precise—fused together in a kind of shared pain. Created by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt, and first brought to Hong Kong in 1997, the year the UK handed over 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 what moments and versions of China’s history can be taught or discussed publicly. Other than in Hong Kong, the Tiananmen protesters and their demands for more freedoms have been heavily censored in China. The “mass amnesia” about Tiananmen, as journalist Louisa Lim has described it, is such that some young censors have to be taught about the protests to do their work.
But with the passage of the Hong Kong national security law last year, and the crackdown on political activity in the city, the statue’s days were numbered.
In the early hours of Thursday (Dec. 23), workers came to the university campus, dismantled the statue, shrouded it, and took it away. The area around the statue was barricaded, reminiscent of scenes from mainland China, such as when an impromptu memorial that sprung up in Zhengzhou for victims of the past summer’s floods was hidden from view.
Galschiøt’s Pillar of Shame wasn’t a single statue—it was a series of eight-meter-high pillars. The first pillar was displayed in Rome in 1996. But the Hong Kong one became the best known.
It was installed at the city’s Victoria Park in time for the 1997 Tiananmen vigil. The statue’s plinth bears the words “The old cannot kill the young forever.” After the commemoration it went on a tour of Hong Kong’s universities. In 1998, the University of Hong Kong’s student union voted to give it a permanent home on their campus. The statue didn’t always have its distinctive orange hue—it was painted that color in 2008, to draw attention to China’s human rights violations.
The statue’s presence at the University of Hong Kong wasn’t officially sanctioned by the university administration—but they accepted its presence in more liberal times. However, political pressure has mounted on university officials since the protests of 2019, where students were on the frontlines. In July, HKU said it would no longer recognize its student union, and in October, it called for the statue to be removed.
In a statement on Dec. 23, the university said it made the decision the previous day to remove the “aged statue” based on legal advice that it posed risks under a colonial-era anti-sedition law. The statue is now in storage, it said.
Students clean the sculpture on June 4, 2021.
For a long time, Hong Kong was a repository of the bits of Chinese history that the Communist Party repressed. For example, when Nobel peace prize winer Liu Xiaobo died in custody in China in 2017 and was buried at sea, Hong Kong was the only place in China to publicly mourn him.
Tiananmen was the most noticeable example of Hong Kong’s role in remembering.
The city held its first vigil for the slain students—the exact death toll is still not known—in 1990, and it became an annual event. While younger activists at times questioned the event’s importance for Hong Kong, and attendance waned over the years, that changed with the protests in 2019, as the vigil itself came under attack. The last permitted gathering, held in 2019, drew 180,000 people, according to organizers’ estimates.
In 2020, authorities didn’t permit the memorial to take place, citing coronavirus measures, but thousands turned up anyway, wearing the customary black and carrying candles. Numerous prominent pro-democracy figures were arrested, including Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai and journalist-turned-activist Gwyneth Ho, who were sentenced earlier this month for unlawful assembly for their attendance. Authorities have also pursued members of the Hong Kong Alliance, which was founded in order to support the 1989 protesters, and later became the organizer of the annual vigil. The group disbanded in September.
Still, memory hates a vacuum, and absence itself has become a powerful symbol among Chinese dissidents and the diaspora.
After key protest slogans were banned in Hong Kong last year, one shop put up blank post-its, wordlessly evoking the city’s torn down Lennon walls, where sticky notes once carried messages of solidarity (the original Lennon Wall is in Prague, where Czechoslovakian youth in the 1980s shared their politics and love of Beatles lyrics).
And one of the most iconic images of Liu Xiangbo is an empty chair—a reference to his unoccupied seat at the ceremony in Oslo. It is so well known as his stand-in that when he died, people using messaging app WeChat found that images of chairs were being censored.