The West should ban companies from cooperating with totalitarian regimes like China in the suppression of democracy and free speech.
A Hong Kong university is using a U.S. and UK law firm to erase the Tiananmen Square massacre’s physical history, in the form of assisting in the removal of an almost sacred Hong Kong statue of the June 4, 1989 victims.
The statue by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot depicts a “Pillar of Shame” that shows in wrenching and emotional detail the suffering of dozens of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.
On Oct. 7, the Chicago and London law firm Mayer Brown delivered a letter on behalf of the university to a Hong Kong organization that was a caretaker of the statue. The letter demands removal of the statue by 5 p.m. on Oct. 13, and threatens its disposal.
“They really want to destroy everything about a story that China doesn’t want people to know about,” Galschiot told ArtNet, an art news site. “I hope the art institutions around the world will do something [about this]. This is a monument that belongs to art. We call for action but there is not much time.”
Galschiot told ArtNet that his work served as not just a monument, but a tombstone for those massacred at Tiananmen. “We all believed that one day, we will put it in Tiananmen Square in Beijing,” the artist said. “One day, China will change. It was our dream, but now it’s a nightmare.”
The Hong Kong organization, called the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, responded with its own letter that protested the threatened removal. It reasonably pointed out that after more than 20 years, giving the organization just a few days to arrange the fragile statue’s removal was unacceptable.
The Hong Kong Alliance has for three decades organized commemorations of Tiananmen Square, but now many of its organizers have been arrested under the new national security law, and are in jail. Galschiot himself has lost contact with them. Police raided and confiscated exhibits from the Hong Kong Alliance’s June 4 Museum, which has since moved online.
The artist described the threat of the statue’s removal as unfair and immoral.
“They’ve given them five days to remove the sculpture, it’s not possible. A lot of students are in jail, this is really crazy and unfair. I had an agreement with the university for the permanent exhibition of this sculpture,” he told CNN. “This is a big statement from the Chinese government if they remove it. It’s the only monument remembering the Tiananmen crackdown, morally it’s a big problem.”
The “Pillar of Shame” in Hong Kong is Galschiot’s best known work from a large oeuvre of sculptural and conceptual pieces. Two other pillars of shame were erected in the series of three sculptures. The second was unveiled in Mexico in 1999, to depict the oppression of indigenous people; and the third in Brazil in 2000, to depict a massacre of landless peasants.
The pillar in Hong Kong, which is arguably sacred to China’s struggle for democracy, was first erected, poignantly, one week prior to the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997. It was relocated in 1998 to the University of Hong Kong, where it is annually washed by pro-democracy activists during preparations for the Tiananmen commemoration.
Galschiot, who was in Hong Kong in 1997 for the initial installation, told ArtNet: “It felt scary, the week before the handover. But after a couple of months, nothing happened. China made the arrangements of one country, two systems and it was okay. But now, there’s only one country, one system.”
Beijing’s confidence and power has grown in Hong Kong, following the brutal suppression of the city’s pro-democracy protests in 2019 to 2020, a new more Chinese nationalist educational curriculum, a national security law that criminalizes political opinion against Beijing, and a national security hotline where pro-democracy activists can be reported.
The university cited legal advice in its decision to remove the statue, and is likely under increasing pressure from Beijing to remove art, culture, and scholarship that is supportive of democracy.
The Chicago and Hong Kong offices of Mayer Brown did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Mayer Brown public relations contact is the same for Beijing and Hong Kong.
While Mayer Brown has law offices in 24 cities globally—including Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, and Brussels—and so is arguably a reasonable choice for navigating this complex international issue, the university’s involvement of a U.S.-based firm has the effect, intended or not, of putting some of the blame for this cultural outrage onto the United States.
Any argument that all clients deserve legal representation does not wash here. The university is not facing charges in a courtroom. There are plenty of Hong Kong lawyers who could have sent the letter at a fraction of the cost. And totalitarian dictatorships, such as Beijing and the universities in Hong Kong that must increasingly serve the Chinese Communist Party, arguably do not deserve American legal services in their attempts to erase their own bloody history.
The leadership of Mayer Brown shows a profound lack of judgement in accepting this morally reprehensible task. The situation points to the need for new American, British, and European laws against businesses that assist in the suppression of democracy and free speech abroad. For a few pennies, unscrupulous businesses are willing to shill for Beijing, smear the good name of America and its long history of defending freedom and democracy around the world.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.