This Friday, the University of Hong Kong said that a statue on its campus commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre must be removed saying their decision was made based on “the latest risk assessment and legal advice”. The faculty of the University sent a letter to the organizers of a now-disbanded pro-democracy organization in Hong Kong to remove the statue before next Wednesday, if they do not comply, then the University itself would do it.
The statue, called the Pillar of Shame, is an eight-meter-tall sculpture built by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt in 1996 and was moved to the campus of the University of Hong Kong in 1997. The harrowing sculpture shows the images of dozens of people on top of each other with suffering expressions on their faces, the sculpture was then painted in orange in 2008, a color that came after the mixture of red (the color of the CCP) and yellow (representing human rights).
The move by the University of Hong Kong is just the latest of a large series of crackdowns on pro-democracy activists and symbols in the former British colony after the passage of the Hong Kong National Security Law in 2020. With Beijing overhauling the island’s electoral system to ensure that only “patriots” are allowed to run as candidates for public office, and with the government ramping out the arrests of pro-democracy activists in the city.
What happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989?
The Tiananmen Square massacre remains one of the most brutal moments of the Chinese dictatorship when the Chinese army used its full military might end massive peaceful protests in Beijing during the Spring of 1989, a year when communist regimes across Eastern Europe started to fall due to the collapse of the Soviet-style communist governments that were installed soon after the end of WW2.
The Chinese army accomplished its mission in a bloody way using its armored tanks and automatic rifles to end the popular protests. Although no one really knows how many people died during those days, some recently revealed diplomatic cables reveal that Western diplomats calculated that the total death toll was close to 10,000 people.
While totalitarian regimes in almost all of Eastern Europe fell to the combined pressure of the economic crisis and popular protests, the Chinese Communist Party managed to not only survive the decade but to consolidate its authoritarian political system for decades. One of the measures that the CCP has taken to achieve this is to heavily censure any type of information about what happened in Tiananmen Square.
While Beijing was able to enforce its censure in mainland China, there was one British Colony where they couldn’t control the way people talked about Tiananmen: Hong Kong.
Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong
When the massacre happened the rich city of Honk Kong was under British rule, as part of an agreement reached after the Chinese defeat against Western power during the Opium Wars. Although British Hong Kong was not a full democracy, the colonial authorities did allow freedom of the press and of speech at a level that was completely unacceptable in mainland China.
This is why when the massacre happened, the Hongkongnese people were able to hold annual vigils in Victoria Park to commemorate the thousands of Chinese protesters that were assassinated at Tiananmen Square.
However, in 1997 the island was handed back to Beijing after both parties negotiated a treaty installing the “one country, two systems” maxim, which meant that while China would have de jure sovereignty over Hong Kong, the island would have a different system of government and would have its civil liberties respected until 2047.
Although the CCP promised to keep this arrangement until 2047, Beijing began to increase its authority over the last few years. In 2014, thousands of HK citizens protested (the so-called “Umbrella movement”) against a proposed law that would give Beijing more power to designate who will be the city’s head of government.
Most recently in 2019, the island saw a similar popular movement against a bill that would allow Beijing to extradite people from Hong Kong and try them in the CCP-dominated legal system of mainland China. Although the law was eventually repealed, Beijing then managed to pass a restrictive National Security Law in 2020, which was not met with popular street demonstrations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After that law was passed, the Hong Kong government has made a special emphasis on cracking down any memorials in the city over the massacre. In 2020, the vigil was canceled for the first time in decades over COVID concerns, a move that was also repeated this year with the island’s government also jailing the vigil organizers who refused to comply with the cancellation.
The decision of the University of Hong Kong is just the latest move that confirms how quickly has Beijing moved against the liberties of Hong Kong. Just two years ago, hundreds of thousands gathered in the streets to challenge the CCP, today, not even a sculpture can survive the wishes of the Chinese government.