Hong Kong's most prestigious university has dismantled a sculpture commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, stoking fears among academics and students over the greater erosion of academic freedoms in the Chinese territory.
The eight-metre tall "Pillar of Shame", by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, has stood at the University of Hong Kong's campus since 1997, when the former UK colony became a Chinese special administrative region under a "one country, two systems" formula that was supposed to safeguard its civil freedoms for at least 50 years.
During an overnight operation on Wednesday, workers cordoned off the area and set up curtains around the sculpture. The campus was largely empty, with most students and staff away during the university’s winter break.
“It is devastating and gut-wrenching,” said a university lecturer who asked not to be named. “This speaks volumes about how the university will deal with academics who continue to pursue sensitive subjects.”
Chris Fraser, a former University of Hong Kong philosophy professor who left for the University of Toronto in July, said the sudden removal of the sculpture showed that the university "no longer respects free speech or academic freedom when it comes to incidents in Chinese history that Hong Kong's political masters consider sensitive".
In a statement on Thursday, the university said its decision to remove the sculpture was based on “external legal advice [which] cautioned that the continued display of the statue would pose legal risks to the university”. It added that the artwork had been put in storage pending further legal discussions about what to do with it.
Pro-Beijing figures said in October that the sculpture risked violating a sweeping national security law imposed on Hong Kong by China's president Xi Jinping last year. The university agreed to its removal but that was delayed after Mayer Brown, the Chicago-based law firm acting on the university's behalf in the matter, recused itself after coming under fire from US lawmakers and other critics.
Galschiøt, who claims ownership over the sculpture and had offered to bring it to Denmark, said he was "shocked" by its removal and that he would seek compensation for any damage.
The national security law, imposed after mass pro-democracy protests in 2019, has reshaped Hong Kong’s political landscape. An annual candlelight vigil for victims of the Tiananmen massacre was banned by police this year for the second year running, ostensibly because of the pandemic.
Student unions, which were active in the 2019 anti-government protests, have been disbanded at universities across Hong Kong.
Patrick McGrath, another former University of Hong Kong lecturer, said the space for discussing sensitive topics on campus had become “much more limited” since the security law was enacted.
"You could talk about Taiwan, Tiananmen Square and Tibet," said Mr McGrath. "[The pillar] was a powerful symbol on campus about the political culture of Hong Kong ... this is a symbolic tearing down of that." – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021