The Danish sculptor of a Hong Kong statue commemorating pro-democracy protesters killed in Tiananmen Square has warned authorities not to destroy or damage the memorial amid pressure from China to have it torn down.
The future of the haunting statue - one of the few remaining public symbols of the Tianenman crackdown in the former British colony - was thrown into doubt when the University of Hong Kong, where it stands, said it may fall foul of China's crackdown on free speech.
It was due to be torn down on Wednesday but for a last-minute legal intervention by its creator Jens Galschioet who instructed lawyers to have it moved to Denmark.
In a warning to the university, he said: "I consider any damage to the sculpture to be the responsibility of the university."
Galschiot loaned the eight-metre high, two-tonne copper sculpture called "Pillar of Shame" to a local civil society group, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, in perpetuity.
But the group disbanded this year under pressure from a wider Chinese crackdown that has all but banned political dissent through its sweeping national security law.
The removal order was sent by global law firm Mayer Brown and addressed to the Hong Kong Alliance. Mayer Brown said the university was a longstanding client who was being helped to "understand and comply with current law".
The sculpture has been on display at the university for more than two decades. The Tianenman subject is a taboo topic in mainland China, where it cannot be publicly commemorated.
The two-tonne copper memorial depicts 50 anguished faces and tortured bodies piled on one another and commemorates democracy protesters killed by Chinese troops around Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Last night the statue remained untouched as the university considered the legal challenges. It is not clear if the Chinese state will step in to resolve the dispute.
However, fencing was erected on Tuesday amid rumours the memorial will be boarded up for the time being, pending its removal at a later date.
Galschiot accused the university of acting like a mafia for ordering that the activists remove the statue themselves.
"These people are in jail. And they say within four days you should take it down," Galschiot said last night, referring to some of the group's members who are in prison over anti-government protests in 2019.
"So I think this is a warning, that we want to destroy this sculpture if you don't pull it down. So this is a kind of mafia. I am really shocked."
“If they break it, then they break a Danish artist’s private property in Hong Kong. Then this can be a big problem if we bring them to court," Galschiot added.
Earlier this week several Danish politicians demanded foreign minister Jeppe Kofod to summon the Chinese ambassador and ensure the sculpture will be safely transported back to Denmark, Danish newspaper Politiken reported.
The university released a statement at 5pm on Wednesday, saying they are still “seeking legal advice and working with related parties to handle the matter in a legal and reasonable manner”.
Hours past the deadline, no action against the sculpture has been taken yet. As a strong typhoon ravaged the city, only a few visitors showed up to take photos of the Pillar of Shame whilst some left candles next to it.
In April, the university cut ties with its student union, adding that their actions may bring legal risks to the university and enforced their management rights over facilities.
Before the formal request for removal came, Galschiøt said: “To remove and desecrate a memorial erected in the honor of the dead is by all standards sacrilege, a deed that in all of human history has been seen as amoral and profane."
The statue, which Galschiot estimates is worth around $1.4 million.
China has never provided a full account of the 1989 crackdown. The death toll given by officials days later was about 300, most of them soldiers, but rights groups and witnesses say thousands of people may have been killed.