‘Atmosphere of fear’: Hong Kong students lament loss of Tiananmen statues
Sophie Mak, a recent graduate of law and literature, had walked past the fiery orange monument between classes for five years. A month after her 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 it down .
“It’s an absolute disgrace that HKU removed the Pillar of Shame so callously and so furtively,” Mak says.
The pillar, a statue of bodies twisting towards the sky commemorating the victims of Beijing’s bloody 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square, had been a part of the campus for over two decades. Many saw it as a symbol of Hong Kong’s wider political freedoms – in contrast with 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 hard to distinguish HKU from other universities in the mainland,” a third-year student who wished to remain anonymous said. “As a student it’s heartbreaking. A key piece of what made HKU so iconic is gone.”
The same erasure happened within days at other campuses across the city . By Christmas, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) had removed a Goddess of Democracy statue from the entrance of its train station, and Lingnan University had stripped a Tiananmen massacre wall relief from its campus. A fourth university has requested its student union remove a statue.
The universities cited safety and unspecified legal risks in response to press inquiries. HKU and CUHK maintained that the statues had never been authorised. Both had nonetheless stood on the campuses for over a decade.
The universities’ swift removal of the Tiananmen massacre memorials, done in the dead of night without consulting students, now symbolises the freedoms the city has lost, observers say.
“That an educational institution should remove a statue in the dead of night under such conditions … [underlines] the dramatic deterioration in the freedom of academic thought and expression in today’s Hong Kong,” Louisa Lim, author of the The People’s Republic of Amnesia, tells the Guardian following the removal.
Silence on campus
The erasure of symbols of the massacre is the latest manifestation of a climate of uncertainty and self-censorship that has been growing on the city’s campuses in the past 18 months, academics and students say.
There have been few public signs of protest against the removals from either students or staff, who are on semester break.
The silence is also telling of the state of debate on campus. “You can feel that there is no longer serious academic discussion about the situation. It’s pure bureaucracy,” Harry Wu, a former professor of medical humanities at HKU, says.
Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong last year in response to months of pro-democracy protests, which were widely supported by university students. Authorities largely blamed the unrest on student-aged protesters and unverified claims of foreign interference.
Some universities have moved to distance themselves from their student representative bodies. In 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 law for “advocating terrorism”.
“The general atmosphere is one of fear. People have been very worried about what they can say,” says one HKU professor, speaking to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity due to safety concerns.
Classrooms, both virtual and in person, are no longer safe spaces for debate, some say. Current students described uneasy exchanges in class discussions. “Everyone is taking a precautionary approach, both the students and professors. So while we may be speaking our mind for now, it always ends with a nervous laughter because you never know who is going to take it personally,” a third-year student at HKU says.
‘All of us … become cautious'’
A month after the security law’s enactment, prominent pro-democracy activist and scholar Benny Tai was fired from his role at HKU. The move set off alarm bells among his peers.
Wu, a medical humanities professor who taught at the university from 2015 to May 2021, said he had moved to Hong Kong because he believed the city’s systems were robust. Last year, he realised that was no longer true. “At the moment when Professor Benny Tai was sacked at HKU, I realised the system was not there any more.”
Tai’s dismissal wasn’t an isolated incident. In October, two adjunct professors with pro-democracy affiliations at Lingnan University were also sacked.
Authorities maintain that the city has lost none of its promised freedoms, which they say are enshrined in both the national security law and the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.
A HKU spokesperson said the university was 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 that our staff and students, as of other members in the community, discharge their civil responsibility to abide by the law.”
The CUHK media office did not reply to requests for comment.
Wu has since moved to Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University, where he said he can enjoy “free inquiry”. While he was still teaching at HKU, he says he has 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 says of the general unease on campus. “And you don’t feel that the university is a community … it was gradual, you can feel that the university functions more like a corporation.
“You could see more and more frequently the term ‘senior management team’, as if there were people behind it but you didn’t know who these people were.”
There were also rumours that some students had reported teachers to a dedicated police hotline for national security offences, Lokman Tsui, a former assistant professor of journalism at CUHK, says. Although unverified, they were enough to foster a sense of uneasiness in classrooms.
“Everyone is aware that everyone else is watching. And nobody knows who will say what. You have the sense that people are watching,” he says. “It’s not like everyone is paranoid and super scared. But after the national security law, it has definitely increased.”
The shrinking space for academic inquiry may mean the type of research at the universities will be reduced to those that do not cross Beijing’s red lines. Before his contract ended with CUHK, Tsui published a paper on press freedom and reporting on Tibet. “I don’t know what would happen if I were to start that research 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 do get your cues. If you were researching Tiananmen before, you may want to think twice now. If you were researching social movements before, you may want to think twice now.”