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A security guard stands in front of the Pillar of Shame statue at the University of Hong Kong, on Oct. 13.

Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

A desperate bid is under way to preserve a memorial to the Tiananmen Square massacre at Hong Kong’s oldest university after administrators demanded that it be removed or face destruction.

The eight-metre-tall, two-tonne Pillar of Shame, which consists of writhing, grimacing figures representing the pro-democracy protesters who were killed on June 4, 1989, has stood on the campus of the University of Hong Kong since 1997, a symbol of the city’s autonomy from mainland China, where all mention of the massacre is banned and authorities strictly control the historical narrative.

Late last week in a letter to the Hong Kong Alliance, an activist group that has helped maintain the concrete statue for the past two decades, a law firm acting on behalf of the university said that if it is not removed by 5 p.m. on Oct. 13, it will be “deemed abandoned.”

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Should that happen, “the university will deal with the sculpture at such time and in such manner as it thinks fit without further notice,” law firm Mayer Brown wrote.

The 5 p.m. deadline passed Wednesday without any apparent action by the university. But the weather may have had something to do with that, as the city was largely being shut down by Typhoon Kompasu, which struck in the early hours.

A spokeswoman for the university said: “We are still seeking legal advice and working with related parties to handle the matter in a legal and reasonable manner.” Mayer Brown did not respond to a request for comment.

Artist Jens Galschiot, who created the statue and has erected versions of it around the world, denounced the demand for its removal as “brutal and almost criminal,” adding that he first learned of it through the press.

Mr. Galschiot is currently seeking to assert his legal ownership of the statue, warning that improper removal could damage the fragile artwork, estimated to be worth about $1.7-million.

“In the case of The Pillar of Shame, I have lent out the sculpture for permanent exhibition in Hong Kong,” the artist said in a statement. “It was the agreement that The Alliance and the students at the University of Hong Kong should administer the permanent exhibition together and take on the cost of having the sculpture on permanent display at the University of Hong Kong.”

Mr. Galschiot said “there is a great possibility that the work of art will suffer irreparable damage if handled by any others than experts in handling art,” and should this occur, “the university risks incurring a claim of compensation.”

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Further complicating matters is the fact that the Hong Kong Alliance, which also organized the city’s annual Tiananmen candlelit vigil, disbanded in August under intense pressure from the authorities. Multiple senior members of the alliance are currently in prison or facing trial under a national security law that came into force in July, 2020.

That law has dramatically transformed Hong Kong over the course of the past year, with dozens of prominent activists and former lawmakers locked up or facing long prison sentences. Multiple prominent civil society groups have disbanded rather than risk further prosecutions, including the Confederation of Trade Unions, the largest pro-democracy workers’ organization, and the Hong Kong Civil Human Rights Front, which organized pro-democracy marches in 2019 that attracted more than a million participants.

“Hong Kong’s institutions are being reshaped at warp-speed as the post-2019 rectification campaign destroys its once-thriving civil society,” Louisa Lim, author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, wrote this week. “In requesting the removal of the ‘Pillar of Shame,’ Hong Kong University is bowing down to the post-National Security Law reality and signalling that it will sacrifice its century-old tradition of academic freedom and critical inquiry in the interests of self-preservation.”

Ms. Lim is not alone in her criticism. An open letter signed by 28 civil society groups around the world, including several Canadian organizations, called on Mayer Brown to “rescind their agreement to represent the University of Hong Kong in their attempt to remove the famous Pillar of Shame sculpture from the university’s campus.”

Employing some 200 lawyers, Mayer Brown describes itself as “one of the largest and longest-established law firms in Hong Kong.” The firm is headquartered in Chicago and also has offices in London and New York.

Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of free speech group PEN America, denounced Mayer Brown on Twitter for its “willing complicity in repression,” adding that it was “grim to see a reputable U.S. law firm” acting in this manner.

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