When officials from the University of Hong Kong removed the Pillar of Shame, a monument to the victims of Tiananmen Square, from the University campus in the early hours of December 23, they took away a historic symbol of freedom in one of the most important locations in Hong Kong. They did so in a concerted effort to erase history and collective memory; in that effort, they will not succeed.
The Pillar, created by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, was installed at the University in 1997, shortly before the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. With its many twisted faces and skulls crushed together, it was not something that was meant to be easy to look at or admire. Like the truth about the events of June 4, 1989, it is designed to make the viewer uncomfortable, and hence unable to forget this part of history. When I was studying law at the University in the late 1990s, the statue was a constant reminder to my fellow students and me of the tragedy that had taken place in Beijing and of how precious our freedom was under Hong Kong’s system. Hong Kong was the only place in China where people could openly gather on an annual basis to remember those whose lives were lost under the tanks of the People’s Liberation Army. The Pillar of Shame and the annual candle vigil gatherings in Victoria Park were the conscience of our nation, the symbol of Hong Kong as the last beacon of freedom and democracy in China. Our hope was that one day those who perished in Tiananmen would lay the foundation of a better China.
The Pillar’s location on campus had a deeper significance. The University has over the past century nurtured countless thinkers and leaders. It was there that, in 1923, Sun Yat-sen gave his famous speech about his hopes for a democratic and modern China, saying, “I feel as though I have returned home, because Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong are the birth place of my knowledge.” Among other activists who followed in the footsteps of Sun at the University was Benny Tai, one of the organizers of Occupy Central, a peaceful movement led by him and others in 2014 to fight for democratic reform in Hong Kong.
Today, Beijing no longer recognizes the words and spirit of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty signed by the People’s Republic of China in 1984 and registered with the United Nations that guaranteed Hong Kong’s freedom. With the imposition of the National Security Law and the wholesale takeover of all aspects of life in Hong Kong by the authoritarian Communist government, there is now no place left for freedom. The open commemoration of the Tiananmen Massacre will not be tolerated under the “new” Hong Kong. Leaders of the opposition, like Tai, journalists, radio hosts, student leaders, and countless others, are now in prison. Charged with subversion and sedition, they are looking at years in jail simply for speaking out and fighting for freedom and democracy.
Galshiøt has threatened to sue the University of Hong Kong over the monument’s removal, but he’s unlikely to be successful. He has some moral rights over the original work of art, though they will likely be useless in the courts in Hong Kong. Luckily a 3D model of it has been created that can be printed and replicated anywhere in the world. Art is about ideas, and ideas cannot be erased, even by the most powerful governments in the world. Hong Kongers may not be able to speak out anymore, but the sculpture will become even more powerful in our memories through the images of its removal. The aspiration for freedom as embodied by the Pillar of Shame will not be snuffed out.
The Pillar of Shame is a work of art that pushed all of us to think beyond ourselves, and to truly appreciate the freedom that was unique to us Hong Kongers, and denied to the rest of China. The true power of a work of art is its ability to project power and ideas, and to be able to resonate decades or centuries after its creation. The Pillar of Shame carried that power. The lesson of its removal should serve a warning to the rest of the international community: authoritarian governments will always try to control all aspects of life—including art. But, in some form or another, art will always outlast politics.
Dennis WH Kwok is a Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and former Lawmaker of Hong Kong (2012–20).