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Workers remove a part of Pillar of Shame by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot at the University of Hong Kong.TYRONE SIU/Reuters

A statue memorializing the Tiananmen Square massacre was removed from the campus of Hong Kong University in the early hours of Thursday morning, after an unsuccessful fight to preserve it by the artist, students and civil society groups.

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 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 Wednesday night, with the university largely closed for the holidays, security guards placed yellow barricades around the artwork. By Thursday morning, it was gone.

University administrators had been demanding its removal since October. They first sent a request to the Hong Kong Alliance, a group which organized annual candlelit vigils to remember June 4 and had helped maintain the statue. But the group, which was forced to disband due to a national security law imposed on the city by Beijing, said it did not own the artwork.

Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot, who created the statue and has erected versions of it around the world, first learned about the demands for its removal through the press. He immediately asserted ownership and sought to protect it, warning a botched removal could damage an artwork estimated to be worth about $1.7-million.

The backlash from Mr. Galschiot, civil society groups around the world and students at HKU also targeted lawyers representing the school, Chicago-based firm Mayer Brown. Shortly after the story made headlines worldwide, Mayer Brown said it was no longer representing the university, further stymying efforts to remove the statue.

But after weeks of silence, the actual removal came suddenly. Late Wednesday night, news leaked out that the statue had been cordoned off, and photos showed police and men in yellow hard hats swarming the site.

Loud power tool noises could be heard from the cordoned-off area, and in the early hours of Thursday, workers were seen loading the upper half of the statue into a shipping container. By 7 a.m. local time, only an empty podium remained.

In a statement Thursday, the university said the decision to remove the Pillar of Shame had been made at a meeting of its governing council the previous day.

“The decision on the aged statue was based on external legal advice and risk assessment for the best interest of the University,” it said. “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 statement added that “legal advice given to the University cautioned that the continued display of the statue would pose legal risks to the University based on the Crimes Ordinance enacted under the Hong Kong colonial government.”

It is unclear what this means, given the law has been in force for the entire period the statue has been displayed. However, in the wake of the national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing last year, several people have been charged for sedition under the colonial-era law, though not in cases related to memorializing Tiananmen.

Observers had previously said it was far more likely that the security law itself could be used to force the statue’s removal, or punish HKU were it not to do so. The law bans secession, subversion and collusion with foreign powers, and has been interpreted widely by the authorities for a sweeping crackdown on the city’s pro-democracy opposition.

Mr. Galschiot, the artist, expressed shock at the sudden removal of the statue. He had offered to help HKU move the artwork in a way that did not damage it, but requested a guarantee he wouldn’t be prosecuted under the security law before he would enter Hong Kong.

“It is completely unreasonable,” he said in a statement after the statue was taken down. “Countries around the world have offered to receive The Pillar of Shame and the Danish Foreign Minister has offered his help — but there has been no response from Hong Kong universities or other responsible authorities — it is a disgrace and an abuse and shows that Hong Kong has become a brutal place without laws and regulations such as protecting the population, the arts and private property.”

Pointing out that the statue is “my private property,” Mr. Galschiot said he would “claim compensation for any damage to the sculpture.”

Others also reacted with outrage at the university’s decision.

Samuel Chu, a Hong Kong democracy activist based in the U.S., said “there might not be a more timely and apt metaphor to the current state of civil and political rights in Hong Kong than the fate of the Pillar of Shame.”

“Its creation in 1997 was a touchstone for freedom in Hong Kong; its destruction in 2021 would be a tombstone for freedom in Hong Kong,” he said.

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