DThe University of Hong Kong wants to quickly get rid of the most famous work of art on its campus: the “Pillar of Shame” by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiat, which commemorates the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. A week ago, the university’s lawyers gave the suspected owners six days’ time. They should remove the two-tonne concrete idol from the premises by Wednesday.
Otherwise the property will be “considered abandoned” and the university will do what it thinks is right, law firm Mayor Brown wrote to the “Hong Kong Alliance in Support of China’s Patriotic Democratic Movements”. The organization has kept alive the memory of the bloody suppression of the protests in Tiananmen Square for decades. It ran a small museum and conducted annual surveillance by hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents before being banned in 2020.
An eight-metre-high “pillar of shame” was erected to mark the vigil for the eighth anniversary of the 1997 massacre. Since then, Allianz has taken care of its maintenance. On Wednesday, however, the organization announced that it is not owned by itself, but by sculptor Jens Galschiot.
Strictly speaking, the alliance no longer exists. The group disbanded in September due to the repressive atmosphere in Hong Kong. Its key members are in custody. He is accused of sabotage and illegal cooperation with foreign powers. Museum exhibits were confiscated. Lawyers for Mayor Brown did not explain in their letter a justification for why the “pillar of shame” should be given way. The university announced on its website that the reason for the move was “current risk assessment and legal advice”.
The Danish sculptor has now registered his property rights through a lawyer. “If we can’t find another location in Hong Kong, we need a few months to ship the sculpture,” said FAZ’s Jens Galschiet. There are already some interested parties in other countries. One possible location is in Washington. But he prefers a place closer to China, for example Taiwan.
For the statue to be fully relocated, its presence in Hong Kong is necessary, the sculptor said. “You need me for this.” This could embarrass the Hong Kong authorities. In 2008, shortly before the Olympic Games in Beijing, Galschiat had already been refused entry into Hong Kong twice. In the rest of China he is a non-person anyway.
3-D scan for replication
If the university refuses to give Galschiat the necessary time to settle, it seeks to go to court. The controversy has already had a positive effect on the sculpture: it renews the memory of the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen protests. “No matter what you do, we win,” said the Dane. This also applies in case the university destroys the pillar. Then the debris could have served as a reminder.
In addition, some residents of Hong Kong have already made 3-D scans of the sculpture so that it can be reproduced on a smaller scale and depicted as street art in various places. Galschiet justified the fact that he did not intervene by first saying that his search for a lawyer took a few days. “All the people I know in Hong Kong are in jail.”
The “Pillar of Shame” was created in 1997, just a month before the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong returned to China. It became “the only public monument of the Chinese democracy movement on Chinese soil”, says Sebastian Wez, professor of the history of Chinese thought in Paris. The sculpture arrived on campus 23 years ago, at the initiative of the Students’ Union of the University of Hong Kong.
The union made the ritual that every year the artwork was washed by the students sometime before the 4th June vigil. Recently this year. It is an “expression of the deep connection” of Hong Kong’s student unions with the 1989 Chinese democracy movement, Wedge says.
The column also had a special meaning for many students in mainland China: it was their first encounter with the genocide, which has been suppressed in the rest of China. As there has been no vigil since 2020, the museum is closed and the pillar is being torn down, this marks the end of the Tiananmen commemoration in China.
law firm under pressure
In other circumstances, the student union may have granted ownership of the sculpture. But it also recently stopped its activities due to political repression. Four of its members were provisionally arrested in July. He is accused of inciting terrorism.
Law firm Mayer Brown, which does most of its business in the United States, has been criticized there for representing the university in the case. Andreas Fulda, a democracy researcher at the University of Nottingham, told FAZ that “the University of Hong Kong is clearly trying to abdicate its moral responsibility to protect science and freedom of expression” with Mayor Brown’s involvement.
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