Hong Kong’s Pillar of Shame, explained

“Every year, around the fourth of June, we will lead fellow councils and recruit students from the University to clean the statue and stand in a silent tribute,” Stella (nickname), a former committee member from The Hong Kong University Student Union (HKUSU) recalled. “The demand for removal makes me wonder if Hong Kong is becoming another city that can’t talk freely about the history and truth of the June-Fourth incident,” she added.

Standing since 1997, the Pillar of Shame was created by a Danish artist, named Jens Galschiot. As a reminder of the Tiananmen massacre, otherwise known as the June-Fourth incident, Galschiot created the sculpture as a tribute to the victims. Dubbed its name, the art piece “serves as a warning and reminder to people of a shameful event which must never reoccur” – as stated on the artist’s website.

The Pillar of Shame by Jens Galschiot at The University of Hong Kong, October 2021 (Photo source: Katrina Lau)

Starting from 2002, the HKUSU committee would lead students to clean the pillar ahead of the anniversary of the June-Fourth incident. The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China was a frequent participant in the activity. The Alliance was also granted a permanent loan to Galschiot’s pillar in 1997.

As the national security law hits hard at local democratic activists, charges were also pressed against core members of the Alliance. In late September this year, the group was forced to disband following the folding of The Civil Human Rights Front and The Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union.

A request from HKU

On October 8, 2021, the Alliance received a demand from HKU to remove the Pillar of Shame by October 13, 2021.

“I felt helpless and frustrated. It wasn’t anything unexpected, I just didn’t expect it to happen this soon,” a local nursing student from the University told Shroffed.

In the following few days, citizens visited to witness what was known to be the last days of the famed statue. While the creator himself called upon Hong Kong citizens, to “collect as many pieces of the Pillar of Shame as possible” as a symbol reflecting how empires pass away but art persists.

The University of Hong Kong (Photo source: Katrina Lau)

As the legal owner of the statue, Galschiot has engaged with a lawyer in Hong Kong to represent him in the case.

More than a week has passed since the original deadline of removal. The University spokesperson did not explain when and how exactly should the monumental art piece be taken away.

Mayer Brown

The request made by the University was engaged with a Chicago-founded global law firm, Mayer Brown. Caught in a dilemma, the representative was urged to drop the case as it contradicts its reputation in defending the freedom of speech.

Artist Galschiot warned the firm of risking its reputation and undermining the American virtue of embracing freedom and democracy. During the Black Lives Matter movement last year, the law firm’s former chairman stated the corporate’s support for “those who lawfully seek justice for those who have been denied their civil liberties and human rights.”

The US law firm confirmed on October 15 that they would cease the case for HKU regarding the Pillar’s removal.

Students’ say

The University is considered as a microcosm of Hong Kong. Since the national security law went into full force, at least 49 civilian groups had disbanded, according to Stand News.

Within HKU, students have just witnessed the shutting down of their Union, which has been standing for more than a hundred years.

“It’s a shame,” Janis (nickname), a social sciences student from Shanghai said.

“One of the biggest differences is that all parts of history can be freely discussed here (in Hong Kong), but I guess that it won’t be the case for any longer,” she expressed.

Trophy under the Pillar of Shame at The University of Hong Kong, October 2021 (Photo source: Katrina Lau)

Today, under HKU’s Pillar of Shame, a shiny trophy can be seen, carved out with “Chinese Dream” and on its plate reads “no shame in the country”. Situated right next to the canteen, Galschiot’s creation brings students closer to the history marked over 30 years ago.

Former Student Union member, Stella (nickname), said the council had considered cutting out the tradition of cleaning the Pillar, as its history gradually grows distant to our generation. “However, every year, we would witness bits of Hong Kong’s freedom being stripped away. And that reminds us of the symbolic meaning of the statue. It’s more than just memorializing an event and paying tribute to the victims,” she added.

Passing by the area every day, law student Jaime (nickname) felt happy that people cared more about the Pillar now than before. “It’s inevitably sad that this is happening. But on the other hand, I’m happy that it gained attention both locally and internationally,” he stated. “The history of June Fourth is brought closer to our generation, its symbolic meaning also becomes more significant, and more of our generation are caring about it.”

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