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Opinion | Hong Kong’s Pillar of Shame Is More Than a Statue

For nearly a quarter of a century, the Pillar of Shame has stood on the campus of Hong Kong University — a 26-foot-tall commemoration of the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Last month, the university ordered the pillar’s removal.

The order is a striking blow in the government’s ongoing campaign to erase the memory of the 1989 atrocity: First, it banned the candlelight vigil held annually on June 4, arrested the vigil’s key organizers and raided a museum that documents the history of the massacre. But this is about far more than a statue.

Along with the removal of the Pillar of Shame, political pressure from the government and university administrations has incapacitated two major university student unions. The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s union was forced to disband, and University of Hong Kong administrators withdrew recognition of its union and banned some of its members from campus.

These moves mark a potentially irreversible turning point in Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong. Whereas earlier phases targeted branches of dissent, these moves strike at the roots: Universities and student unions nourish activism and can fuel future mass mobilization against an authoritarian China.

When it ordered the removal of the Pillar of Shame from campus, the university administration demonstrated that Hong Kong’s higher education authorities appear to be doing the bidding of Beijing’s government, erasing its potential to cultivate future political leaders who would challenge China’s rule.

Uprooting civil organizations and shrinking the public space that preserves the memory and trauma of the 1989 Beijing uprising have effectively turned Hong Kong into another silent mainland city.

As educators and scholar-activists in the Hong Kong diaspora, we understand the grave implications of such moves.

The pillar has symbolized freedom of speech and freedom from fear for students, teachers and citizens of Hong Kong for decades. It was first erected in Victoria Park in 1997 to mark the eighth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre — the same year that sovereignty of Hong Kong was returned to Beijing, launching a tug of war between islanders and mainland autocrats over how the history of the 1989 pro-democracy movement and Hong Kong would be narrated.

After its initial exhibition, different universities in Hong Kong housed the Pillar of Shame until it was permanently installed on the campus of the University of Hong Kong in 1998.

Pro-democracy activists have for years rallied around the pillar to maintain the collective memory of the Tiananmen massacre, its pain and grief. Before the passage of the National Security Law in June 2020, Hong Kong was the only place in China that permitted such commemorative acts.

The pillar holds particular historical, political and cultural significance to Hong Kong’s students, who view the collective commemoration of June 4 as integral to the democratic future of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s universities have historically championed critical thinking, giving students and faculty the space to openly deliberate contentious political and moral issues and to examine state-sanctioned ideas and values. They have produced great intellectuals, activists and organizers deeply engaged in creating a more democratic political future (including one of us, Alex Chow, who was jailed for his role leading the 2014 Umbrella Movement pro-democracy demonstrations).

Every year, students from the University of Hong Kong have cleaned the pillar, paying special attention to the words engraved at the bottom: “The old cannot kill the young forever.

Student unions, in particular, have served as launchpads for many activists.

Their power has long been recognized: During the Sino-British negotiations about Hong Kong’s future in the 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party viewed the student unions as an asset to help propagate the idea of returning Hong Kong to its motherland. After the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, student unions led the charge to cut ties with Beijing. In the past 10 years alone, student groups shepherded the 2012 anti-national education movement, the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the 2019 anti-extradition-bill movement.

Now university administrations in Hong Kong are punishing students for voicing dissenting views on campus. By abandoning their neutral role and dedication to free speech, the universities have gone from realms of political enlightenment to theaters of state surveillance and policing.

Taken together, the removal of the pillar and the incapacitation of the student unions amount to effectively uprooting Hong Kong’s civil society. Both academic and political freedoms suffer with their forced absence.

While it was only a matter of time before the government turned to target the foundations of the democracy movement, it has nonetheless been stunning to see how fragile the institutional infrastructures and the integrity of public institutions are in the face of pressure from the Chinese government.

The student unions at other universities on the island now are caught in a dilemma: Remaining vocal on Hong Kong’s political developments risks consequences, including extended jail time. Silence means the students’ organizations may not survive another year. Facing the risk of immediate imprisonment or suspension from study, many student leaders have resigned from their positions, paralyzing the unions.

This cannot spell the end of Hong Kong’s civil society.

It should be a warning for global academia.

Universities elsewhere should set up Hong Kong studies programs and offer haven to scholars and students who hope to study Hong Kong from afar. Given Beijing’s extensive global surveillance, researchers and teachers should enhance protocols to communicate with colleagues and students in Hong Kong safely.

These troubling developments also should drive a rethink of the movement itself. We need to look elsewhere to rebuild Hong Kong’s civil society, albeit in different forms.

President Biden raised concerns about the Chinese government’s practices in Hong Kong in a meeting last week with President Xi Jinping. Mr. Biden has offered temporary safe haven for Hong Kongers in the United States. Congress is considering humanitarian pathways, like the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act and the Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act. Those can offer shelter abroad for members of civil society.

It may be hard to keep track of the many ways China is cracking down on Hong Kong. But this latest move cannot be ignored. The stakes — future leaders, freedom and accountability — are far too high.

Shui-yin Sharon Yam, a diasporic Hong Konger, is an associate professor at the University of Kentucky who teaches about public advocacy and social movements. Alex Chow, a Hong Kong activist in exile, is the board chair of the Hong Kong Democracy Council and a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley.

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