It has been twenty years since the ‘Pillar of Shame’ sculpture has stood as a memorial to the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The massacre was a horrendous incident where the Chinese military crushed the protests led by college students in Beijing with deadly force. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the debacle of 1989. Hundreds were massacred and thousands of unarmed pro-democracy protestors in Beijing and around China were arrested.
The protests basically began at Tiananmen Square in central Beijing in the quest for some major political, social, and economic reform. Fueled with non-violence, the peaceful protests soon irked the Chinese authorities, and therefore, attesting to the authoritarian character of China, the public assembly at the Tiananmen Square was responded with unbearable overwhelming force to suppress the demonstrators.
The act of repression was so grave and imminent that military units were brought in and unarmed protestors and onlookers were killed en-masse. History has since asked for accountability from the Chinese governments but the country has never even acknowledged the true events and had never even attempted to dignify the pertinent questions with a justified response. The Tiananmen Square massacre remains a sensational and contentious topic in China, so much so that, the authorities have even banned the mention of the protest to date.
The year 1989 made all the news for Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. In April. people from all across China gathered at the Square to mourn the death of the liberal Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang and also expressed their disappointment and frustration at the slow pace of promised reform. What started as a gathering eventually turned into a wide peaceful protest which spread across the provinces in China and a huge uproar from the student demonstrators began to call for an end to official corruption for political and economic reform.
About a month later, on the 13th of May, hundreds of student protestors in Tiananmen Square went on a hunger strike in furtherance of having a dialogue with Communist Party Leaders and eventually a peaceful resolution of the uprising tension and chaos. The school of hundred students transformed into a swarm of million protesters in Beijing who collectively originated at one place to lend their support to the student hunger strike and demand accountability from the Chinese leaders. Within a week, the huge uproar instigated the Chinese authorities to visit Tiananmen Square at student protests. On 19th May, the Communist party leaders reported at the square and consequentially the protesters ended their hunger strike by the evening. However, as soon as the hunger strike ended, Martial Law was invoked and duly declared in Beijing to completely stop the protest and prohibit assembly at Tiananmen Square. The Invocation of Martial Law did not exactly restrict the protesters. In the weeks that followed, an increased number of people once again protested on the streets of Beijing with similar demonstrations taking place not restricted to Beijing but in various cities across China.
The very next month, on the night of 3rd and 4th June, the Chinese government, in furtherance of maintaining law and order, sent tens of thousands of armed troops and military vehicles into the city center to forcibly clear out the streets from demonstrators and protesters. As the military vehicles penetrated into the city, the protesters raised their decibels exponentially. The unflinching determination of the protesters consequently resulted in them being fired upon by the troops without any prior warning. As the troops continued with their merciless firing, the crowd started running away haphazardly resulting in numerous killings and stampede. Some were shot in the back while some were crushed to death by military vehicles. The death toll remains in the hundreds but the exact figure is yet unknown.
Following the military crackdown, the Chinese authorities did not rest and rather began to hunt down those who were involved in the demonstrations but evaded at the time of military intervention. Thousands of people were arrested, detained, tortured, abused imprisoned, and even executed in this course after being subjected to unfair trials changed under ‘counter-revolutionary’ provisions. It is again imperative to note that the Chinese authorities have never disclosed the number of detainees and arrested people since June 1989. The relatives and close kins of the detainees were labeled as ‘rioters’ and were not only disallowed or unable to seek justice but also were not able to mourn openly for the dead.
Tiananmen Protest remains a taboo, off-shore topic in China. There is no official death toll, no justification of military intervention, no accountability from the side of Chinese governments of any sort. Attempt to discuss, commemorate and demand justice of the innocents is still banned and even stayed aloof. Numerous arrests have been made post the horrors of 1989 of people wanting to commemorate the events or question the official line.
What is Happening Now?
The ‘Pillar of Shame’ is a series of statues that was designed by a Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, memorializing the loss of life during specific events caused by specific circumstances in history. A sculpture 26-foot-tall (8 meters) of the same series indicating the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, was installed at the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) campus. The statue is one of the last iconic memoirs, gifted by Galschiøt to the Hong Kong Alliance which has played a very significant role in holding an annual Tiananmen vigil every year. The statue was later painted in orange by the Alliance in 2008, during their “The Color Orange” campaign which aimed at China’s human rights violations. The statue was one of the last memorials for the victims of the bloody crackdown remaining on Hong Kong soil. The statue shows 50 bodies – with anguish-ridden faces- piled up together commemorating unarmed student protestors who were killed as the Chinese military opened fire on them.
It was only on 23rd December 2021, those yellow construction barriers were erected around the statue at midnight and the sounds of cracking and demolition were heard as the sculpture was removed under the cover of darkness. This was a move drawn by China to come down on the dissenters by invoking the new National Security Law. Hence, the Hong Kong University issued a notice addressed to the Hong Kong alliance stating that the statue is being removed from the University’s premises as the management would not be able to manage the risks associated with its hostility. The Hong Kong University also cut all ties with its student union stating that there were imminent ‘legal risks’ related to national security. Furthermore, the Hong Kong alliance is also banned to hold a vigil for the past two years. The reason is clearly in furtherance of stopping the dissenters but was rather cloaked as a ‘covid measure’ for the rest of the world.
While the Hongkong authorities are being remote-controlled by China under the National Security Law, it is important to note that the designer Jens Galschiøt remains the owner of the statue and no such order or notice regarding the statue’s removal has been received by him from the Hong Kong University. He has also threatened to take the university to court if the institution destroys the statue. Furthermore, Richard Tsoi, a Hong Kong politician and former vice-chairman of the Democratic party has also remarked that along with free speech and academic freedom, the University has the social responsibility of maintaining and preserving the Pillar of Shame rather than caving under the duress of Chinese whims.
Hence, the situation between Hong Kong and China is grim and the tension has intensified with the new National Security Law. A protester-curbing or clampdown of demonstrators is witnessed along with patches of Hong Kong and a major outbreak of strikes and movements of a similar stature as that of 1989 is anticipated.