Construction workers labouring at Hong Kong's oldest university early Thursday appeared to have dismantled a statue that honors those killed in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, amid tight security at the scene.
The eight-metre (26-feet) high "Pillar of Shame" by Jens Galschiot has sat on the University of Hong Kong's (HKU) campus since 1997, the year the former British colony was handed back to China.
In October, HKU officials ordered the removal of the sculpture, which features 50 anguished faces and tortured bodies piled on one another and commemorates democracy protesters killed by Chinese troops around Tiananmen Square in 1989, as authorities crack down on dissent.
University staff used floor-to-ceiling sheets and plastic barriers to shield the statue from view late Wednesday, and the sounds of drilling and metal clanging could be heard, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.
Security guards blocked reporters from getting close and tried to stop media outlets from filming. A cargo container was placed at the site.
In the early hours of Thursday, an AFP reporter who remained at the scene overnight could see workers in hard hats using a crane to maneuver a large chunk of what appeared to be the sculpture, which was wrapped up, toward the container.
Earlier a smaller piece was brought out wrapped in plastic.
The university has not responded to calls and emails from AFP on whether the statue is being removed.
- 'Shocking' -
Hong Kong used to be the one place in China where mass remembrance of Tiananmen's dead was still tolerated.
But the city is being remoulded in China's own authoritarian image in the wake of huge and often violent democracy protests two years ago.
Scores of opposition figures have been jailed or fled overseas, and authorities have also embarked on a mission to rewrite history and make the city more "patriotic".
Galschiot told AFP it was "strange" and "shocking" for the university to make a move on the statue, which he says remains his private property.
"This is a really expensive sculpture. So if they destroy it, then of course we will sue them," he added. "It's not fair."
Galschiot said he had offered to take the statue back and, with the help of lawyers, tried different ways to get in touch with the university.
HKU officials never contacted him or alerted him to the action that began late Wednesday, he said.
The artist sent an email to supporters, encouraging them to "document everything that happens with the sculpture".
"We have done everything we can to tell (HKU) that we would very much like to pick up the sculpture and bring it to Denmark," it said.