'Pillar of Shame' Statue Removed from Hong Kong, Could Be Placed Near D.C. Chinese Embassy

A statue at the University of Hong Kong memorializing those who lost their lives in the Tiananmen Square massacre was removed from the campus and put into storage Thursday.

The 26-foot red statue, called the Pillar of Shame, was sculpted in remembrance of when China's military opened fire on pro-Democracy protestors on June 4, 1989. The statue depicts bodies piled up on each other.

While Chinese officials said about 200 died in the massacre, other estimates put the number of victims in the hundreds or thousands, according to BBC. In 2017, British documents revealed that the death total was closer to 10,000.

The university said they removed the statue due to fears of its "legal risks."

Jens Galschioet, the sculptor who created the Pillar of Shame, told the Associated Press this was a message to students that Hong Kong is cracking down on dissent.

Galschioet has offered to take the statue back to Denmark. He also has gotten an offer to put the statue in a Washington, D.C., park across from the Chinese embassy. Canada, Norway and Taiwan have also offered him spots.

For the past few years, China has cracked down more on any attempts to commemorate the massacre. Students at the Hong Kong university used to wash the statue every June 4 in remembrance, but the student union that organized the cleaning is now defunct.

Additionally, Chinese authorities banned candlelight vigils for the past two years and shut down a museum dedicated to the incident. Some of the museum's key members are now behind bars.

Pillar of Shame, statue, Hong Kong
The "Pillar of Shame" statue, a memorial for those killed in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, was removed by the University of Hong Kong Thursday. Above, the statue is displayed at the university on October 13, 2021. Kin Cheung, File/AP Photo

The dismantling of the sculpture came days after pro-Beijing candidates scored a landslide victory in Hong Kong legislative elections, following amendments to election laws allowing the vetting of candidates to ensure they are "patriots" loyal to Beijing.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam traveled to Beijing this week to report on developments in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, where authorities have silenced dissent following Beijing's imposition of a sweeping national security law that appeared to target much of the pro-democracy movement following mass protests in 2019.

The Pillar of Shame became an issue in October, when activists and rights groups opposed a university demand that it be removed following "the latest risk assessment and legal advice." Galschioet offered to take it back to Denmark provided he would not be prosecuted under the national security law, but has not succeeded so far.

"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 in a statement after its removal.

Galshioet compared the removal of the sculpture to "driving a tank through Arlington Cemetery," a burial ground for American war veterans.

"Grave desecration is also very frowned upon in China, but that's really what it is. It is almost a sacred monument," he told the Associated Press. "It is a sculpture for those who died."

Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said its removal was another worrying development in Hong Kong.

"The Danish government cannot decide which art other countries' universities choose to exhibit. But for me and the government, the right to speak peacefully—through speech, art or other means—is a completely fundamental right for all people. This is also true in Hong Kong," he said.

Billy Kwok, a University of Hong Kong student, said the Pillar of Shame has been treated as part of the university by many who studied there.

"It's the symbol of whether (there is still) ... freedom of speech in Hong Kong," he said.

An employee at the university, Morgan Chan, said its removal "doesn't mean that history will be erased, and removing the pillar doesn't mean people won't learn about the history."

Wang Luyao, a student, had a more mixed reaction.

"To me, because I am from mainland China, perhaps my understanding of the Pillar of Shame is not as deep as the locals or students from Hong Kong and it is not that significant to me," Wang said.

"For me, it's like a landmark which provides an approach to understanding. For the University of Hong Kong, it should also be considered a landmark."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Pillar of Shame, statue, removal
The University of Hong Kong cited "legal risks" as a reason for removing the "Pillar of Shame" statue. Above, the statue is removed from the University of Hong Kong on December 23, 2021. Lam Chun Tung/The Initium Media via AP