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U.S. law firm Mayer Brown to cease work for University of Hong Kong in dispute over Tiananmen memorial’s removal

A woman walks in front of the “Pillar of Shame,” a memorial for those killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, at the University of Hong Kong on Oct. 13. (Kin Cheung/AP)

The U.S. law firm Mayer Brown will no longer represent the University of Hong Kong in seeking the removal of a statue memorializing the Tiananmen Square massacre, the firm confirmed on Friday.

The move comes amid a controversy over the statue, which has stood at Hong Kong’s oldest university for 24 years. The artwork, known as the “Pillar of Shame,” has faced removal as officials clamp down on any acknowledgment in Hong Kong of the 1989 Beijing massacre, just as they have in mainland China.

Going forward, Mayer Brown will not be representing its long-time client in this matter. We have no further comment,” the firm said in a statement.

The firm is withdrawing its representation of the university just on this issue. The University of Hong Kong is “a longstanding client and leading educational institution,” said a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.

Mayer Brown, a Chicago-founded global law firm that has done work on police accountability and other civil rights issues in the United States, was contracted by the university to seek the statue’s removal, placing the firm at the center of a heated geopolitical dispute over the future of Hong Kong.

Last week, more than two dozen nonprofit groups urged Mayer Brown to stop representing the university.

“We therefore expect Mayer Brown law firm to safeguard their reputation and their integrity in defending the right of freedom of expression by rescinding their agreement with the University of Hong Kong,” the groups said in an open letter.

The law firm had also faced pressure from U.S. lawmakers.

“It is even worse American law firms are doing the bidding of the Communist Party to erase the memory of the brave, young Chinese students who gave their lives for freedom in Tiananmen Square,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told the Substack newsletter Common Sense.

The statue, created by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot, depicts naked bodies twisted together in a 26-foot-tall mud-red tower. It is the last remaining Tiananmen commemoration on Chinese soil.

In a campaign to make Hong Kong more like mainland China, authorities have clamped down on commemorations to the 1989 massacre, banning an annual vigil and closing a museum and blocking its online successor.

In a letter sent last week to former leaders of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which received the sculpture on permanent loan in 1997, Mayer Brown had said the statue had to be removed by 5 p.m. this past Wednesday.

In statements, Mayer Brown had described the removal of the statue as a “real estate matter” and said that the firm’s legal advice was not “commentary on current or historical events.”

Mahtani reported from Hong Kong. Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.