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‘Atmosphere of fear’: Hong Kong students lament loss of Tiananmen statues

sOphie Mak, a recent law and literature graduate, had been walking past the fiery orange monument between classes for five years. A month after her graduation from the University of Hong Kong (HKU), two nights before Christmas, workers erected barricades around the statue. Under the cover of darkness, they cut it down.

“It is an absolute shame that HKU has removed the Pillar of Shame so harshly and covertly,” says Mak.

The pillar, a statue of bodies spiraling toward the sky commemorating the victims of Beijing’s bloody crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, has been part of the campus for more than two decades. Many saw it as a symbol of Hong Kong’s wider political freedoms – unlike mainland China, where the killings have been erased from public memory and remain taboo. On Christmas Eve, students were seen crying in the empty space.

“Now that it’s gone, it’s incredibly difficult to distinguish HKU from other universities on the mainland,” said a third-year student who wishes to remain anonymous. “As a student, it’s heartbreaking. An important part of what made HKU so iconic has disappeared.”

The same removal happened at other campuses in the city within days. By Christmas, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) had removed a statue of the Goddess of Democracy from the train station entrance, and Lingnan University had removed a wall relief of the Tiananmen massacre from campus. A fourth university has asked its student union to remove a statue.

The universities cited security and unspecified legal risks in response to questions from the press. HKU and CUHK claimed the images were never authorized. Nevertheless, both had been on campuses for more than ten years.

The universities’ swift removal of memorials to the Tiananmen massacre, done in the middle of the night without consulting students, now symbolizes the freedoms the city has lost, observers say.

“That an educational institution under such circumstances has to remove a statue in the middle of the night… [underlines] the dramatic deterioration of freedom of academic thought and expression in present-day Hong Kong,” Louisa Lim, author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia, told The Guardian after the removal.

Workers remove part of the Pillar of Shame statue at the University of Hong Kong. Photo: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Silence on campus

The erasing of symbols of the massacre is the latest manifestation of a climate of insecurity and self-censorship that has grown on the city’s campuses over the past 18 months, academics and students say.

There are few public signs of protest against the removal of students or staff who are on semester break.

The silence also tells about the state of affairs on campus. “You feel that there is no serious academic discussion about the situation anymore. It’s pure bureaucracy’, says Harry Wu, former professor of medical humanities at the HKU.

Beijing last year imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in response to months of pro-democracy protests, which were widely supported by university students. Authorities largely blamed the unrest on student-age protesters and unverified claims of foreign interference.

Some universities have distanced themselves from their participation bodies. In the past year, HKU and CUHK, the city’s two oldest universities, have both severed ties with their sororities, while four student leaders have been arrested under the national security law for “inciting terrorism.”

“The general atmosphere is one of fear. People are very concerned about what they can say,” said an HKU professor, on condition of anonymity to the Guardian due to security concerns.

Classrooms, both virtual and in-person, are no longer safe spaces for debate, some say. Current students described awkward exchanges in class discussions. “Everyone works as a precaution, both the students and the professors. So although we are allowed to express our opinion for the time being, it always ends with a nervous laughter because you never know who will take it personally’, says a third-year student at the HKU.

Students will gather at the CUHK's Goddess of Democracy statue in 2020.  The monument has since been removed.
Students will gather at the CUHK’s Goddess of Democracy statue in 2020. The monument has since been removed. Photo: Yan Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

‘All of us…be careful”

A month after the security law came into effect, prominent pro-democracy activist and scholar Benny Tai was fired from his position at HKU. The move raised alarm bells among his colleagues.

Wu, a professor of medical humanities who taught at the university from 2015 to May 2021, said he moved to Hong Kong because he believed the city’s systems were robust. Last year he realized that was no longer the case. “The moment Professor Benny Tai was fired from the HKU, I realized that the system was no longer there.”

Tai’s resignation was not an isolated incident. In October, two adjunct professors with pro-democracy leanings at Lingnan University were also fired.

Authorities claim the city has lost none of its promised freedoms, which they say are enshrined in both the National Security Act and the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.

An HKU spokesperson said the university is committed to protecting academic freedoms. “HKU always respects academic freedom and upholds it as one of our core values,” it said. “The university also expects our staff and students, like other members of the community, to take their civic responsibility to comply with the law.”

The media agency CUHK did not respond to requests for comment.

Wu has since moved to Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University, where he said he enjoys “free research”. While still teaching at HKU, he says he removed Powerpoint slides from his teaching materials that may be more politically sensitive before uploading them to the school’s computer system.

“All of us, not only students but also teachers, became cautious,” Wu said of the general unrest on campus. “And you don’t feel that the university is a community … it was gradual, you feel that the university functions more like a business.

“You saw the term ‘senior management team’ more and more, as if there were people behind it, but you didn’t know who those people were.”

According to Lokman Tsui, a former assistant professor of journalism at CUHK, there were also rumors that some students had reported teachers to a special police hotline for national security violations. Although unverified, they were enough to create a sense of unease in the classroom.

“Everyone is aware that everyone is watching. And no one knows who will say what. You have the feeling that people are watching,” he says. “It’s not like everyone is paranoid and super scared. But after the National Security Act it has definitely increased.”

The shrinking space for academic research could lead to the type of research at the universities being reduced to research that doesn’t cross Beijing’s red lines. Before his contract with CUHK expired, Tsui published a paper on press freedom and reporting on Tibet. “I don’t know what would happen if I started that investigation today,” he says.

“It’s not like there are clear instructions from higher up, it’s not quite what’s happening on the mainland yet, but you’re getting your signals. If you’ve researched Tiananmen before, you might want to think twice now. If you’ve been researching social movements before, maybe you should think twice now.”