HONG KONG — Under the cover of darkness early Thursday, authorities in Hong Kong tore down a public sculpture dedicated to the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre, accelerating a campaign to erase the crackdown from public recollection and stamp out dissent in a city that until recently was one of Asia’s freest.
The 26-foot-tall artwork, known as the “Pillar of Shame,” had stood at the University of Hong Kong for nearly a quarter-century and honored the hundreds, if not thousands, of students and others killed on June 4, 1989, when the Chinese military crushed pro-democracy protests.
The sculpture, depicting naked bodies twisted together, some in mid-scream, was created by Danish artist Jens Galschiot and was one of the last remaining Tiananmen commemorations on Chinese soil. Each year on the anniversary of the massacre, students would scrub and clean the memorial.
With students away on Christmas break, workers erected yellow barriers and large white curtains around the site of the sculpture on the university campus, while security guards kept onlookers away. Overnight, the artwork was dismantled into two pieces, wrapped up and taken away.
The sculpture’s removal underscored the dramatic political changes in Hong Kong, where authorities have sharply curtailed freedom of expression since China imposed a harsh security law last year and rescinded freedoms it had promised the former British colony until 2047. The ability to commemorate Tiananmen in Hong Kong long differentiated the city from the Chinese mainland, where authorities have scrubbed the massacre from official history.
But since last year, officials in Hong Kong have banned an annual Tiananmen vigil and arrested activists. A museum documenting the crackdown has been shuttered and its online successor blocked in Hong Kong.
On Friday, two other universities in the city removed Tiananmen artworks. The Goddess of Democracy statue, installed in 2010 by students and pro-democracy activists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was never authorized to be displayed on campus, authorities said, while Lingnan University took down a relief depicting the slaughter in Beijing, citing legal and safety concerns.
Chen Weiming, creator of the Goddess of Democracy, called the move “a ripple” in the process of dismantling Hong Kong’s freedom and rule of law. “Hong Kong, as Asia’s once most active civil society, has already quickly collapsed,” he said.
Earlier, Samuel Chu, president of the Campaign for Hong Kong, an advocacy group, condemned the Pillar of Shame’s removal. “Its creation in 1997 was a touchstone for freedom in Hong Kong; its destruction in 2021 would be a tombstone for freedom in Hong Kong,” he wrote on Twitter.
The Council of the University of Hong Kong, the institution’s governing body, said it made the decision on Wednesday to remove the sculpture from the campus.
“The decision on the aged statue was based on external legal advice and risk assessment for the best interest of the university,” it said in a statement, adding that the university has the right to take “appropriate actions” to handle the artwork and that the institution could be in violation of colonial-era laws if the sculpture remained.
When workers began removing the sculpture on Wednesday, security guards tried to prevent journalists from filming. Reporters described the sound of digging and power tools emanating from within. Footage shot by local media appeared to show the sculpture split apart before being loaded into a container and taken away on a truck at dawn on Thursday.
The HKU Council said the Pillar of Shame had been put into storage.
Galschiot, in emailed statements and on social media, expressed his shock at the events.
“The Pillar of Shame is getting demolished right now in Hong Kong. The sculpture has been covered and is heavily guarded so that no students can document what is going on,” he wrote, adding that he condemned the destruction of private property. He later said in a phone interview that the removal was “a political statement against the democracy movement” in Hong Kong.
The sculpture had been on permanent loan to the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, a group that for years organized annual Tiananmen vigils but disbanded recently after it was targeted by national security investigators.
Galschiot, who maintains he is the owner of the sculpture as its creator, had appealed to Hong Kong authorities to allow him to bring it back to Denmark. But despite repeated requests, he said he had not heard back from the university. Because of its age, the sculpture needs special care to ensure it does not get destroyed, he said.
Galschiot still hopes the Pillar of Shame can be returned to Denmark so he can repair it and find it a more permanent home. Installing the sculpture in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington would send a strong signal, he said, adding that Taiwan, London and Norway also could be options.
By Thursday morning, the yellow barricades remained at the university. But the artwork was gone.
Online, people drew comparisons to a 2005 episode of “The Simpsons” that mocked China’s censorship of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The online streaming service Disney Plus recently removed that episode in Hong Kong.
Crawshaw reported from Sydney.