“Mood of Fear”: Hong Kong Students Lament Loss of Tiananmen Statues | Hong Kong
Sophie Mak, a young graduate in law and literature, had spent five years in front of the fiery orange monument between classes. A month after his graduation ceremony at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), two nights before Christmas, workers erected barricades around the statue. Under the cover of darkness, they cut him off.
“It is an absolute shame that HKU has removed the Pillar of Shame in such a ruthless and stealthy manner,” says Mak.
The pillar, a statue of a body twisting skyward commemorating the victims of Beijing’s bloody 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square, had been part of the campus for more than two decades. Many saw it as a symbol of Hong Kong’s broader political freedoms – unlike mainland China, where the killings have been erased from public memory and remain taboo. Students were seen crying at the empty site on Christmas Eve.
“Now that it’s gone, it’s incredibly difficult to distinguish HKU from other universities on the continent,” said a third-year student who wished to remain anonymous. “As a student, it’s heartbreaking. A key part of what made HKU so iconic is gone.
The same erasure occurred in a matter of days on other campuses in the city. By Christmas, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) removed a statue of the Goddess of Democracy from the entrance to its station, and Lingnan University removed a relief of the Tiananmen Massacre Wall from its campus. . A fourth university has asked its student union to remove a statue.
Universities have raised security and unspecified legal risks in response to press inquiries. HKU and CUHK argued that the statues were never allowed. Both had nevertheless remained on campus for more than a decade.
The rapid removal by universities of memorials to the Tiananmen massacre, carried out in the middle of the night without consulting students, now symbolizes the freedoms the city has lost, observers say.
“That an educational institution remove a statue in the middle of the night in such conditions … [underlines] the dramatic deterioration of freedom of thought and academic expression in today’s Hong Kong, ”Louisa Lim, author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia, told The Guardian after the dismissal.
Silence on campus
The erasure of the symbols of the massacre is the latest manifestation of a climate of uncertainty and self-censorship that has developed on city campuses over the past 18 months, according to academics and students.
There have been few public signs of protest against the dismissals of students or staff, who are on semester break.
The silence is also indicative of the state of the debate on campus. “You can feel that there is no more serious academic discussion about the situation. It’s pure bureaucracy, ”says Harry Wu, former professor of medical humanities at HKU.
Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong last year in response to months of pro-democracy protests, which were widely supported by college students. Authorities largely blamed the unrest on student-aged protesters and unverified allegations of foreign interference.
Some universities have distanced themselves from their student representative bodies. Over the past year, HKU and CUHK, the city’s two oldest universities, have both cut ties with their student unions, while four student leaders have been arrested under the National Security Act for “To have advocated terrorism”.
“The general atmosphere is fearful. People were very worried about what to say, ”said an HKU professor, speaking to the Guardian on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Classrooms, both virtual and in person, are no longer safe spaces for debate, some say. Current students described difficult exchanges in class discussions. “Everyone takes a precautionary approach, both students and faculty. So even if we say what we think so right now, it always ends with a nervous laugh because you never know who is going to take it personally, ”said a third year student at HKU.
“We all … get careful”
A month after the security law was enacted, prominent pro-democracy activist and scholar Benny Tai was dismissed from his post at HKU. This decision sounded the alarm among his peers.
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 true. “The moment Professor Benny Tai was fired from HKU, I realized that the system was no longer there.”
Tai’s dismissal was not an isolated incident. In October, two democracy-affiliated adjunct professors at Lingnan University were also fired.
Authorities argue that the city has not lost any of the promised freedoms, which they say are enshrined in both the National Security Law and the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.
A spokesperson for HKU said the university is committed to protecting academic freedoms. “HKU always respects academic freedom and supports it as one of our core values,” he said. “The university also expects our staff and students, like other members of the community, to fulfill their civil responsibility to obey the law.”
CUHK’s media office did not respond to requests for comment.
Wu has since moved to National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan, where he said he could enjoy a “free inquiry.” While still teaching at HKU, he says he removed Powerpoint slides that might be more politically sensitive from his teaching materials before uploading them to the school’s computer system.
“All of us, not only the students but also the teachers, have become cautious,” Wu said of the general unrest on campus. “And you don’t feel like the university is a community… it was gradual, you can feel the university is more like a business.
“You could see the term ‘management team’ more and more frequently, as if there were people behind it but you didn’t know who those people were. “
Rumors have also circulated that some students have reported teachers to a police hotline dedicated to national security offenses, according to Lokman Tsui, former assistant professor of journalism at CUHK. Although unverified, they were enough to create a feeling of unease in the classrooms.
“Everyone is aware that everyone is watching. And no one knows who will say what. You get the feeling that people are watching, ”he says. “It’s not like everyone is paranoid and super scared. But after the National Security Law, it definitely increased.
The shrinking space for academic research may mean that the type of research at universities will be reduced to those that do not cross Beijing’s red lines. Before his contract with CUHK ended, Tsui published an article on freedom of the press and reporting on Tibet. “I don’t know what would happen if I started this research today,” he says.
“It’s not like there are any clear instructions from above, it’s not quite what’s happening on the mainland yet, but you get your bearings. If you were researching Tiananmen before, you might want to think twice now. If you’ve been researching social movements before, you might want to think twice now. “