In the dead of night, a statue commemorating the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre was removed from a university campus in Hong Kong.
The Pillar of Shame statue by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt stood eight metres tall at the University of Hong Kong campus for years until Wednesday night when it was taken down.
Drilling sounds and loud clanging could be heard coming from the boarded-up site, which was patrolled by guards.
The university cited "legal risks" in a statement to Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK when justifying the removal, and said there were concerns about security threats posed by the "fragile statue".
The artwork, which depicts 50 torn and twisted bodies piled on top of each other, symbolises the lives lost during the bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Beijing has long been opposed to the presence of the statue on university grounds as it seeks to erase any public memory of the military campaign against the Tiananmen movement.
The removal of the Pillar of Shame has not only been condemned by members of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, but by Mr Galschiøt himself.
"The Pillar of Shame is getting demolished right now in Hong Kong," he tweeted.
"The sculpture has been covered and is heavily guarded so that no students can document what is going on. This is happening in the middle of the night in Hong Kong. I'm shocked."
In a statement issued by Hong Kong University and shared to Twitter, the university's council said it was their request to have the statue put in storage.
The Pillar of Shame is getting demolished right now in Hongkong. The sculpture has been covered and is heavyly guarded so that no students can document what is going on. This is happening in the middle of the night in Hongkong. Im shoked. #Thepillarofshame😢 pic.twitter.com/eSDjTWql7y
— Jens Galschiøt (@Galschiot) December 22, 2021
Tensions over statue brewing for months
The Pillar of Shame monument became an issue in October, with the university demanding that it be removed, even as activists and rights groups protested.
Mr Galschiøt offered to take it back to Denmark provided he was given legal immunity that he won’t be persecuted under Hong Kong’s national security law, but has not succeeded so far.
"We have done everything we can to tell the University of Hong Kong that we would very much like to pick up the sculpture and bring it to Denmark," Galschiøt told dpa.
He said he considers the artwork to be his property and that it was only on loan to the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China.
Each year on June 4, members of the now-defunct student union would wash the statue to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre.
The group disbanded under pressure from the controversial Hong Kong national security law which the Chinese government pushed through a year and a half ago.
The law's vague wording makes it easier to crack down on activities China considers subversive, separatist, terrorist or conspiratorial and effectively targets critics of the Hong Kong government and China's leadership.
It has also been internationally criticised as a violation of agreements to ensure special freedoms for Hong Kong when the territory was handed back to Beijing from Britain in 1997.
The dismantling of the sculpture came days after pro-Beijing candidates scored a landslide victory in the Hong Kong legislative elections, after amendments in election laws allowed the vetting of all candidates to ensure that they are "patriots" loyal to Beijing.
Over 100 pro-democracy activists have been arrested since Beijing implemented the national security law in Hong Kong.
With DPA and Associated Press
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