Pillar Of Shame, Symbol Of Freedom: Tiananmen To Hong Kong To Berlin
The “Pillar of Shame” in Hong Kong, a memorial to the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre, was a symbol of freedom and democracy. Beijing has taken it down, but a replica is being built in Berlin. Activist Samuel Chu explains why that means so much to him.
HONG KONG — On Dec. 22, 2021, shortly before midnight, masked workers removed the original “Pillar of Shame” statue from the campus of the University of Hong Kong, where it had stood for more than 24 years. The sculpture was dismantled into three pieces and wrapped in white sheets that were reminiscent of the shrouds used to wrap dead bodies.
The pillar has a very personal meaning for me. Its arrival in Hong Kong in 1997 marked the start of a friendship between the artist Jens Galschiøt and my father, the minister Chu Yiu-ming, a founding member of the Hong Kong Alliance.
The Alliance was founded to support the protest movement in Tiananmen Square in Beijing (Tiananmen meaning the Gate of Heavenly Peace). After the protests were brutally suppressed, the Alliance became the most important voice working to ensure that the victims were not forgotten, and for 30 years it organized annual candlelight vigils on June 4 in Hong Kong.
When the pillar was removed from Hong Kong in 2021, I traveled to Jens’s workshop in Odense, Denmark to start work on our new plan. We wanted to ensure that the pillar, as a memorial to the murdered of Tiananmen Square, as well as to those who kept these forbidden memories alive in Hong Kong, did not disappear. To understand how it came to this, you need to understand the history and the idea behind the pillar in Hong Kong.
The pillar is a powerful memorial to the bloody massacre on Tiananmen Square. For Hongkongers it was the conscience of a nation that suffered from state-imposed amnesia. On the mainland, any mention of Tiananmen, even baking a cake in the shape of a tank or using the number 8964 (code for the date), is forbidden and punishable by imprisonment. The pillar reminded us of the shameful events of June 4 and the Chinese Communist Party’s inhumane treatment of its people. Never again.
But the pillar also played another, equally important and subversive role. It was the canary in the coalmine – an early warning sign that would set off alarm bells if the freedoms that Hongkongers enjoyed began to be threatened or undermined.Despite the Chinese government’s guarantees in the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 – namely that after Hong Kong was transferred to Chinese control in 1997, it would retain its freedoms and autonomy – Tiananmen showed both us and the wider world that the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party could not be trusted.
December 23, 2021: Workers remove The Pillar of Shame sculpture at University of Hong Kong, China.
A test case for promises of freedom
Jens Galschiøt wanted his sculpture to be installed in Hong Kong before the transfer – in what would soon be the only place on Chinese soil where an official memorial of Tiananmen would still be allowed. As he didn’t know anyone in the city, he called up anyone who was prepared to listen to him and help with his bold plan. One of those who answered his call was my father.
Together with other pro-democracy activists, they ensured that the statue was brought to Hong Kong shortly before the transfer of power on July 1, 1997, and later they fought for it to be installed on its eventual site on the campus of the University of Hong Kong.
They believed – rightly – that the Chinese authorities would not allow the statue to remain in the city after the transfer of power. However, even more importantly, Jens and the leaders of the Hong Kong Alliance saw the pillar as a test case for Beijing’s guarantees of freedom and autonomy.
Freedoms stripped away with no warning
How long would the new, Beijing-appointed government tolerate such a public deviation from the orthodoxy of the Communist Party and the state-approved alternative history? How long would it be until the regime tried to censor and wipe out any mention or commemoration of Tiananmen? How long would it be until institutions such as universities, student groups and the Hong Kong Alliance were directly attacked and threatened for exercising their right to free speech?
We sacrifice our future when we decide to forget.
The freedoms began to be stripped away with little or no warning – like the colorless and odorless poisonous gas that the canary in the coalmine could detect before the miners. The pillar and all the people who contributed to installing it in Hong Kong — the activists who gathered every year to wash the statue and the thousands who took part in the candlelight vigils every year — were the canary in the coalmine in a city that was facing fundamental changes. The pillar was created as a commemoration of the past – and it was and is a brave, subversive call to action for the future.
The removal of the statue in 2021 represented a surprising and swift end to all the freedoms and autonomy that Hongkongers had previously enjoyed. It came hard on the heels of the general outlawing of all public protests and the passing of a national security law that criminalized everything from speaking to foreign media to posting on social media. The Hong Kong Alliance was forced to disband and its leaders were arrested and imprisoned. Independent media outlets were forced to close, their leaders were imprisoned and their assets were frozen.
I am deeply moved that the Axel Springer Freedom Foundation has decided to install a replica of the pillar in Berlin. It means that we will have a public symbol of our resistance to censorship, to remember the dead of Tiananmen Square and to remind the world about the 7.5 million Hongkongers who have lost their freedoms.
Germany is a nation that understands public, collective commemorations of history. Only a few meters away from the replica of the pillar are the remains of the Berlin Wall, which once divided the nation. A few kilometers away are the 2,711 concrete slabs that mark the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
We are all canaries in the coalmine for freedom.
We sacrifice our future when we decide to forget. But looking to the past is not enough – we must also commemorate it in a way that spurs us on to fight vigilantly and fearlessly against all threats to our freedom, wherever we are. Our right to self-determination is stifled when we decide to remain silent and invisible.
May 22, 2023: A flag with the inscription ''Free Hong Kong - Revolution Now'' is held high during the painting action in front of the ''Pillar of Shame'' memorial in Berlin, Germany.
Hannes P Albert/ZUMA
Documents and photos brought to safety
A few years after their first meeting, Jens and my father arranged a second delivery, of a different kind. Recognizing the signs that there would be a crackdown from Beijing, they sent documents, newspaper cuttings, publications and photos from Hong Kong to Denmark, to keep them safe if the organization was searched and closed down.
Their suspicions were once again confirmed. The Hong Kong Alliance was forced to disband in September 2021, after eight or nine members of the standing committee were arrested – 88 days before the pillar was dismantled and removed.
We are all canaries in the coalmine for freedom. I believe that the decision to remove the pillar and restrict people’s right to commemorate what happened in Tiananmen Square will prove to be a massive misstep by a regime that is deathly afraid of its own people.
A statue or a memorial can be removed or destroyed, but ideas and memories cannot. Although the original pillar has been taken down, replicas both large and small will rise up in its place. By attempting to halt the spread of dissent, those in power have unleashed something that is far more contagious, dangerous and impossible to extinguish.
*The author is a pro-democracy activist, founder and president of the Campaign for Hong Kong and a member of the advisory board of the Axel Springer Freedom Foundation.