The 26-foot tower of naked bodies twisted together, some in mid-scream, was created by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot and is the last remaining Tiananmen commemoration on Chinese soil. Activists view the university’s demands for its removal as an egregious example of an official campaign to make Hong Kong more like mainland China, in the process stripping the city of its freedoms and identity. Officials have already banned an annual Tiananmen vigil and arrested activists. A museum documenting the Tiananmen crackdown has been shuttered and its online successor blocked in Hong Kong.
Students and residents flocked to the sculpture in recent days ahead of a Wednesday removal deadline, taking close-up pictures of the faces molded out of concrete. Efforts are underway to create 3-D models of the memorial, with permission from the sculptor.
In demanding the artwork’s removal, the university engaged Mayer Brown, a Chicago-founded global law firm known for its work on police accountability and other civil rights issues in the United States. After the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last year, Mayer Brown’s then-Chairman Paul Theiss wrote in a statement that the firm “stands in solidarity with all those who lawfully seek justice for those who have been denied their civil liberties and human rights.”
More than two dozen nonprofit groups have urged Mayer Brown to stop representing the university, citing the firm’s stated mission to make a “positive difference in the lives of others.”
“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.
Samuel Chu, the founder and former managing director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, added that it was “outrageous for any U.S. or global corporate or law firm to profit off the oppression of human rights and freedom.”
“Mayer Brown joins a list of shame of enablers of atrocities throughout history,” he said.
In an emailed statement, Mayer Brown said it was “asked to provide a specific service on a real estate matter for our long-term client, the University of Hong Kong.”
“Our role as outside counsel is to help our clients understand and comply with current law. Our legal advice is not intended as commentary on current or historical events,” it said.
A spokesperson for the university said it is “still seeking legal advice and working with related parties to handle the matter in a legal and reasonable manner.”
Mayer Brown, in a letter to leaders of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which received the sculpture on permanent loan in 1997, said it must be removed by 5 p.m. Wednesday or it would be “deemed abandoned” and dealt with by the university “at such a time and in such a manner as it thinks fit without further notice.”
The alliance, which was formed during China’s 1989 pro-democracy protests, was forced to disband last month and authorities have frozen its assets. Most of its leaders have been arrested and charged in connection with nonviolent protests, including under a new national security law that penalizes broadly worded speech crimes.
Richard Tsoi, a former member of the alliance, said the university “as a space of academic and speech freedom” has a “social responsibility and mission” to preserve the statue.
The university spokesperson would not elaborate on when and how the statue would be removed. Galschiot has hired a lawyer in Hong Kong to represent him.
“I hope that my ownership of the sculpture will be respected and that I will be able to transport the sculpture out of Hong Kong under orderly conditions and without it having suffered from any damage,” he said, adding that any damage would be the university’s responsibility.
The sculpture was part of a collection of Hong Kong commemorations to Tiananmen victims that for almost a quarter-century stood as testament to the city’s differences from the Chinese mainland under the “one country, two systems” principle, which gave Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy. Every year until 2019, thousands of residents would attend a peaceful vigil in Victoria Park and light a candle to honor the lives lost — estimates range from several hundred to 10,000 — in the massacre.
At the university, students would clean and scrub the sculpture each June 4. Engraved at the bottom of the artwork are the words, in English and Chinese, “The old cannot kill the young forever.”
Students and faculty have mostly avoided commenting publicly on the removal issue. The Hong Kong University Students’ Union has not issued any statement as it, too, has ceased to operate after the university severed ties with it in July.
Theodora Yu contributed to this report.