A vast pillar confronts visitors to Haking Wong Building at the University of Hong Kong. Towering eight metres high and tapering to a point, the fibreglass and concrete sculpture depicts a nightmarish pile of bodies and faces wrenched in pain. Carved into its base are the words: “The old cannot kill the young forever.” It's called The Pillar of Shame.
The statue was created by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, and gifted to the pro-democracy campaign group Hong Kong Alliance (HKA) in 1997. It commemorates the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protestors who were gunned down by the People’s Liberation Army in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. It served as a visceral reminder of that crime against humanity: the moment, for many, when China firmly turned its back on human rights and democratic values.
Or, it used to serve as such. On October 9, the University of Hong Kong ordered the removal of the statue. In a letter served by its law firm Mayer Brown, the university said that unless The Pillar of Shame was removed by 5pm on October 13, it would be “deemed to be abandoned [and] the University will deal with the Sculpture at such a time and in such a manner as it thinks fit without further notice”. This chilling warning was just the latest blow to the territory’s cultural life – and the widespread freezing of free expression since the enactment of a draconian National Security Law last year.
“This is the first act to destroy the Hong Kong I know and love,” Galschiøt tells me over the phone, after an exhausting day fielding media enquiries. “If it is removed, then a piece of the Hong Kong spirit will leave Hong Kong.”
It seems, though, the statue has been granted a reprieve for the moment. The university missed their deadline for its removal, and they have indicated that Galschiøt has a few days to dismantle it and ship it away. But, he says, they haven’t contacted his lawyers – nor him personally. And so the statue's fate remains uncertain. Galschiøt says the 24-year-old sculpture is fragile, and its construction means only his team would be able to take it apart without damaging it. So he’s worried that any attempt to move it without supervision will in effect destroy it.
It's not the first time his work has got him into hot water. The Odense-based sculptor has a reputation for large-scale, politically-provocative art. In 1993, he simultaneously erected 20 one-ton black concrete sculptures at landmarks in European capitals. Grotesque depictions of a pig's head on a man's body, the artworks – called My Inner Beast – were a commentary on social deprivation, intolerance and violence. And he has erected other Pillars of Shame as well. One is in Mexico City, the other outside the Brazilian Parliament in Brasilia. The Mexican pillar commemorates 45 unarmed indigenous people killed by a paramilitary group in 1997; the Brazilian statue honours 19 peasants murdered by military police during a government land grab.
But The Pillar of Shame in Hong Kong is his most moving – and controversial. Galschiøt gave it to the HKA in 1997 to mark the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty. As part of that agreement, the Chinese government was supposed to guarantee the territory’s autonomy for 50 years – the “one country, two systems” understanding. Many, though, now feel the CCP’s recent actions in Hong Kong, including seeking to remove the sculpture, trash that fragile consensus.
“[It is] the only monument to Tiananmen on Chinese soil,” Galschiøt explains. “It’s a monument to that crime, and the people who lost their lives there. I’ve spoken to students who’ve grown up with this monument – it’s a really important place of memory. And it’s a symbol of the difference between mainland China and Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, you have the right to remember the story.”
Samuel Chu, the founding director of the Washington-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, agrees. “I cannot think of a more fitting and apt metaphor for what’s happening to basic freedoms and political rights in Hong Kong right now. It is a symbol of academic freedom and all other forms of freedom that Hong Kongers have enjoyed.”
The statue was first exhibited during a candlelit vigil to mark the eight anniversary of Tiananmen Square on 3 June 1997. Afterwards, students fought police and lobbied university administrators to give it a permanent home – eventually, at 3am on 4 June, it was erected in its current location. In the years after, the statue toured Hong Kong’s universities, before being returned to its podium at the Haking Wong building.
It’s long been a lightning rod for anti-government anger. On the ninth anniversary of Tiananmen Square, it was moved to Victoria Park, the location for the annual vigils; it was splashed with red paint by an activist yelling “The blood of people is also my blood”. In September that year, the university’s student union voted overwhelmingly to give it a permanent home at the university. It was moved back on campus without the university’s permission.
In 2008, Galschiøt was invited to Hong Kong as part of The Colour Orange project, a protest organisation founded by Galschiøt and international collaborators to highlight China’s human rights abuses during the Beijing Olympics. The statue was daubed a lurid, flickering orange by the HKA. But Galschiøt was denied a visa to Hong Kong – and he has given up hope of ever returning to see it in situ. “[The statue] has made China very angry with me, they’ve banned me,” he tells me, voice weary.
Now it appears the authorities cannot tolerate such a conduit for dissent. In June 2020, the LegCo – Hong Kong’s largely toothless government – waved through the National Security Law in response to the territory's roiling protests in 2019. This sweeping law criminalises secession, subversion and “collusion” with foreign forces: crimes which carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.
It also throttles free artistic expression. Article Nine states the authorities: “Will take necessary measures to strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, social organisations, the media and the internet”. It also forbids anyone “provoking hatred among Hong Kong residents” towards local and national governments.
Since last summer, pro-democracy organisations in the territory have been crushed. The HKA was forced to dissolve on 25 September after all its members were jailed, fled or languished in custody. Teachers hoping to deliver an annual lesson about the Tiananmen Square massacre were warned off by dark mutterings from the Education Bureau about “impartiality” and “not instilling negative values”. And the annual Victoria Park vigils have been banned – last year, COVID was the authorities’ excuse; this year, the National Security Law did the talking.
The Pillar of Shame is not the only cultural landmark to be threatened. The 4th June Museum, set up by a pro-democracy group in 2019, has also been forced to close. A clutch of rooms filled with objects commemorating those who attended the Tiananmen Square protests, including a model bone with a bullet hole through it, the museum opened in the teeth of threatening letters from the government. And it was vandalised in 2020. But the territory’s newly repressive atmosphere means it cannot operate and was finally shuttered earlier this year.
“For so many Hong Kongers, like myself, Tiananmen was our political and democratic baptism,” says Chu. “And as the public rituals and symbols around 89 have been criminalized and banned in Hong Kong, the risk is not just Hong Kong becoming like just another mainland city, but rather Hong Kong becoming like Xinjiang and Tibet.”
He believes there is little chance of Hong Kong recovering the freedoms it once enjoyed. “I am heartbroken to see this – for more than 30 years, Hong Kong kept the flame and served as the guardian and conscience for not just the Chinese people but also for the world about what transpired on June 4.”
Galschiøt is pessimistic about the territory’s future. “You cannot call Hong Kong a free country now,” he explains. “They will grab more and more of its freedoms and turn it into mainland China – or even worse. It’s a crime because they promised one country, two systems. Now it seems it will be one country, one system.”
He is hopeful, though, that the statue will live on. He aims to dismantle it and get it shipped out as soon as possible. He's currently looking to find a new home for it in “Washington, DC, or maybe Europe”. Meanwhile, its story – and the lives and hopes bound up with it – will endure. Symbols, like ideals, cannot easily be snuffed out.
“We cannot lose,” he says. “Because when you try to destroy art, you make it stronger. We will never die. If you crush a symbol, you create a new symbol. And we’re not destroyed – yet.”
The University of Hong Kong were contacted for comment but did not respond.