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Hong Kong’s leader has distanced herself from the controversy over whether a sculpture that pays tribute to victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown can remain at the city’s top university, saying she is not involved in such decision-making.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who also holds the title of chancellor at the city’s public universities, said on Tuesday she would not interfere after the creator of the Pillar of Shame warned that any attempt to remove the memorial from the University of Hong Kong (HKU) campus would be “sacrilege”.
“This incident happened on the university campus. I would expect the university management to handle it according to their own policies,” Lam said on Tuesday. “I do not get myself involved or interfere in the affairs of the university.”
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Lam said artistic and academic freedoms had been safeguarded, but did not offer any clarification of rumours regarding removal plans.
Danish artist Jens Galschiøt said on Monday that letting the sculpture he created remain on campus would help the world remember the peaceful demonstrators who had lost their lives during the crackdown.
A spokeswoman for HKU said it would “review risk management measures and facility usage on campus from time to time” but declined to comment on the fate of the statue.
The eight-metre tall artwork has stood on the HKU campus for 24 years, after it was donated to the now-defunct Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organised the local annual candlelight vigil on the crackdown.
Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, secretary of the disbanding alliance, said the university had not approached him about any removal plans.
Several reports by local media cited unspecified sources revealing the university’s plan to remove the monument. Commenting on the matter, National People’s Congress Standing Committee delegate Tam Yiu-chung had said that “anything that does not meet national security requirements is expected to be removed”.
Separately, the city leader commented on another escalating political controversy involving a third batch of district councillors risking disqualification after the oaths they took were questioned by the government.
As of Tuesday, 17 district councillors from Hong Kong Island and Kowloon have been unseated for invalid oaths. Out of the 392 directly elected seats won by the opposition bloc in 2019, only some 100 remain following waves of resignations amid fears they would have to pay back their accrued salaries.
The resignations have left some district councils in a bind as they now do not have enough people for a quorum for meetings. The 15-seat Central and Western District Council, for example, has only three members left.
Asked about plans to fill the vacuum in district administration, Lam said the authorities would review whether councils were “still functional in a fair and efficient manner” after the validity of oaths to be taken by two more batches of councillors was settled.
She highlighted the councils’ advisory role and said they did not “possess power to make decisions or allocate money”, citing Article 97 of the Basic Law – the city’s mini-constitution – which reiterates that district organisations are not “organs of political power”.
“The influence we have given district councils over the years is out of respect and recognition of the representativeness of these members,” Lam said. “We have allowed them to have a say on the use of public money which is controlled by public officials in the name of the director of home affairs.”
Lee Wai-fung, the Democratic Party’s district councillor, said Lam’s remarks were “self-contradictory”, given that she had led a reform to empower district administration 15 years ago as the then permanent secretary for the Home Affairs Bureau.
Lee cited the example of Yau Tsim Mong District Council, whose allocated funding increased from HK$9.8 million in 2008 to HK$43 million (US$5.5 million) this year.
“Lam is just putting the cart before the horse after the landslide defeat of the pro-establishment camp in the 2019 district council election. This won’t solve the problem,” he said.
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