One of a Handful of Remaining Tiananmen Square Memorials in Hong Kong Has Been Covered Up as China Cracks Down on the City
On Saturday, construction workers arrived without warning and obscured the memorial from view.
Hong Kong University has covered up a prominent Tiananmen Square memorial in the latest sign of China’s increasingly strict control over the semi-autonomous region.
Students had hand painted an inscription in memory of those who died at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. The 20-character message translates to “Souls of martyrs shall forever linger despite the brutal massacre; Spark of democracy shall forever glow for the demise of evils,” in English.
It had graced the sidewalk on the university’s Swire Bridge for 33 years, and was repainted each year to preserve the tribute for future generations. On Saturday, construction workers arrived without warning and began erecting metal sheeting to obscure the message from view.
“The University of Hong Kong regularly conducts maintenance works at various locations and facilities, with the above site being one such project,” a university spokesperson told the Guardian.
It is unclear what kind of work could be going on inside the metal corridor that now encloses most of the message—or underneath the metal plates installed on top the last few characters, which spill off the sidewalk onto the road.
The move comes on the heels of the university’s decision to take down Danish artist Jens Galschiøt’s The Pillar of Shame, a 26-foot-tall Tiananmen Square monument erected in 1997. The school claimed it was following “external legal advice and risk assessment for the best interest of the university,” and that “no party has ever obtained any approval from the university to display the statue on campus.”
The artist attempted to travel to Hong Kong to oversee the work’s removal, but was not granted permission to do so. The piece came down in December while workers attempted to stop journalists from documenting the event.
The sculpture is currently being stored in a shipping container, with a seating area having been installed on its former site, reports the Hong Kong Free Press.
The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, also known as the June Fourth Incident, were a pro-democracy, student-led demonstrations that began in April of 1989. The protest lasted nearly two months, until the Chinese government declared martial law and the army responded with lethal force. The estimated death toll is anywhere from the hundreds to the thousands.
Reference to the events of 1989 remain highly censored in Mainland China, but Hong Kong has historically acknowledged the massacre and held annual memorials honoring its victims. During the pandemic, the government has prevented organizers from staging a candlelight vigil during the past two anniversaries, citing lockdown restrictions.
When the U.K. returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, it was under the condition that until 2047, it would operate under its own laws.
That fragile balance has become increasingly threatened in recent years. A controversial bill introduced in 2019 that would have allowed China to extradite fugitives from the region sparked widespread protests, including a strike among art organizations. Protests continued even after the legislation was withdrawn, escalating to physical clashes between police and protestors in the last months of the year.
Demonstrations died down as the pandemic spread in Mainland China, but the government has continued to introduce measures limiting democratic freedoms, such as a strict national security law ostensibly against foreign interference that went into effect in May 2020.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University also removed artworks commemorating Tiananmen Square last month. The former tore down an “unauthorized” sculpture that recreated the Goddess of Democracy statue paraded in Tiananmen Square, while the latter “reviewed and assessed items on campus that may pose legal and safety risks” and removed a relief sculpture showing tanks rolling through crowds of protesters, according to the BBC.
In June of last year, Hong Kong police also shuttered an exhibition memorializing the two-year anniversary of the pro-democracy protests, and authorities closed the annual June 4th Museum, claiming that organizers were “operating an entertainment venue without the required license.”
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