'Pillar of Shame' Sculptor Threatens Lawsuit Over Tiananmen Square Massacre Statue Removal

The Danish creator of Hong Kong's Pillar of Shame, once a prominent memorial to the Tiananmen Square massacre, has threatened to sue for the sculpture's safe return after it was demolished by the city's public university on Thursday.

Artist Jens Galschiøt, 67, erected the memorial in Victoria Park in 1997 as part of a vigil to remember the Chinese government's 1989 crackdown on democracy demonstrations. After the vigil, it was moved to the campus of the University of Hong Kong, where it stood for nearly a quarter of century.

Reports about the statue's imminent removal began to appear late on Wednesday after the 26-foot pillar of metal and concrete was covered in sheets and surrounded by guards. With local media having been refused access to the site, the final remaining public reminder of the massacre was pulled down and hoisted into a container.

Galschiøt told the BBC it would have been impossible to remove the 2-ton Pillar of Shame without destroying it. He said the statue—depicting 50 anguished figures atop one another—was likely pulled down "in pieces."

"This is the reason I offered to come there and take it down, and help them to do that, because it's not possible for people who don't know anything about sculptures to do that," he said.

University of Hong Kong officials had announced their intention to remove the sculpture in October, but did not publicly acknowledge Galschiøt's ownership. He and his lawyers wrote to the university and the Hong Kong government requesting safe access to the city, but the letters were ignored, he said.

"This is my sculpture; this is private property. This belongs to an artist in Denmark," he said. "It's their duty to take care of that. And now they destroy it.

"I believe the law about private property is still intact in Hong Kong," Galschiøt said.

He told the Associated Press he would sue the university if necessary.

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All references to the Tiananmen protests are restricted in China, especially on social media. When it has to be mentioned in reports, it is done in careful terms. In the state-owned tabloid the Global Times, an English-language article about the Pillar of Shame's removal referred to the massacre as "the incident that occurred between spring and summer in 1989."

Hundreds of student activists as well as a number of Chinese soldiers died during the violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing on June 4, 1989. Hong Kong had been one of the last places where memorializing the event was tolerated.

In recent years, however, Beijing has extended its reach into semi-autonomous Hong Kong to mute remembrance of the massacre. The annual Victoria Park candlelight vigil has been banned for two years on public health grounds. Activists including the former publisher of Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily—already jailed for 30 months for breaching the territory's sweeping security law—were handed additional sentences for taking part in this summer's forbidden event.

Galschiøt told the BBC the Pillar of Shame existed to symbolize the difference between Hong Kong and China, which had promised to leave the city's political system untouched for 50 years under the "one country, two systems" model of governance it adopted at handover in 1997.

"This is a graveyard sculpture; this is a sculpture about dead people, and remembering the dead people in Beijing in '89," he said. "So, when you destroy that this way, it's like going to a graveyard and destroying all the gravestones. I think it's really brutal."

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In a statement on Thursday, the University of Hong Kong said it had removed the sculpture "based on external legal advice and risk assessment."

It added: "No party has ever obtained any approval from the university to display the statue on campus, and the university has the right to take appropriate actions to handle it at any time."

The university said the pillar had been placed in storage and it would seek legal advice on subsequent action.