Asia-Pacific, Headlines

HONG KONG: Stone Pillar Is New Symbol of Freedom After Handover

Yojana Sharma

HONG KONG, Jun 6 1997 (IPS) - The “Goddess of Democracy”, a rough- hewn replica of America’s Statue of Liberty took on a symbolic meaning for the student-led pro democracy movement crushed by the Chinese military tanks eight years ago.

In Hong Kong, the “Pillar of Shame” is turning to be the rallying point for residents anxious about their future after the territory is handed back to China on June 30.

The eight-metre-high stone pillar of tortured, grotesque faces and writhing bodies – a graphic depiction of the agony of the past – was publicly displayed on the night of June 4 during a candlelight vigil to commemorate hundreds of people killed at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989.

More than 50,000 people turned up for the vigil, an annual event in Hong Kong which many fear could be suppressed next year.

The “pillar of shame”, carved by Danish sculptor Jens Galshiot, was sponsored by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, branded by Beijing as a “subversive organisation”

The Alliance vows to keep the statue in Hong Kong, but the search for a permanent site has made the statue a symbol of something much bigger than itself.

The pillar has become the centre of a battle to preserve Hong Kong’s freedom of expression and right to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre less than a month before the handover.

Many have insisted they will commemorate the massacre under Chinese rule even if they have to resort to “civil disobedience” to do so.

But the saga of the pillar is an indication of what they might be up against, in particular because the pillar’s travails are occurring even before the handover.

The Alliance had applied with the municipal authorities to display the sculpture in two public parks prior to the June 4 vigil this week, but both applications were rejected. According to one councillor, the pillar was “too horrible” and did not reflect the “joyful mood” of the handover to Chinese rule.

Oscar Ho, exhibition director of the Hong Kong Arts Centre said councillors had openly used a political reason to reject the public display of a work of art.

Ho himself had turned down the statue for display in the Arts Centre for artistic reasons. “The images do not offer a new way of showing political ideas,” he said, but added it had a useful role. “I regard it as action art. A piece to contemplate, a sort of deliberate trap and the Urban Council was silly and fell right into it.”

In the words of another art critic the pillar is an “artistic agent provocateur,” designed to test the limits of China’s tolerance.

Few have been discussing the artistic merit of the pillar, shipped from Denmark a week ago. Those fighting for the right to erect the pillar in a public venue are upholding Hong Kong’s freedom of expression, and those opposing it are, in the eyes of the Hong Kong public, intent on silencing Hong Kong now and in the future.

Like the activists that turned out in force this week to mark the Tiananmen massacre, the pillar must have permission to stand. And like activities to commemorate June 4 in Hong Kong, it is a sensitive issue. While praise and criticism are a normal part of any artists life, “I was surprised that so many people were afraid” commented Galshiot.

“The stronger the opposition to the statue which still has no permanent home, the more important it becomes,” notes one Alliance member, describing it as “in effect a stone martyr”.

The statue became the subject of a confrontation between students and police on Thursday morning. Some 500 students at Hong Kong University clashed with police as they tried to bring the statue into the university campus aboard a truck. It was a major victory for freedom when the police finally caved in and allowed the truck to drive in.

But the pillar is still not standing. It is lying in two pieces on a university podium, and the standoff continues. “We totally have the right to erect the pillar of shame anywhere inside the campus,” insists student union vice-president Linda Wong.

The University authorities are insisting “safety” is behind its banning of the sculpture and says the two tonne statue could damage the podium.

University spokesman Rupert Chan warned the university would have no choice but to take action if the sculpture was put up without approval. “Political considerations have never been a factor in this issue. Safety is our primary concern,” he said.

But students point out that university authorities have tried to ban freedom of expression in other ways in recent weeks. They point out that the university had torn down paintings of the Goddess of Democracy earlier this month. Students recently accused the university of censorship when anti-Beijing slogans painted on a university footpath were removed.

Authorities at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University also banned a T-shirt stall which the human rights organisation Amnesty International wanted to set up on campus in collaboration with the students’ union.

The vice-chancellors of both universities are members of China’s handpicked Preparatory Committee preparing the transition to Chinese rule.

“If a free place like a university cannot accept such a small sculpture, then it would be a very sad day for every one of us,” commented Albert Ho, a legislator and Alliance member.

Alliance Chairman Szeto Wah has vowed to keep the “pillar of shame” in Hong Kong as a symbol of “the authorities’ degree of tolerance of human rights and freedom.”

Earlier he said the sculpture was intended to test Beijing’s pledges that Hong Kong will have a high degree of autonomy under Chinese rule. The inscription on the statue says “the old can’t kill the young forever”.

“Even if the pillar of shame cannot be erected legally, its symbolism will live on. In years hence small replicas will surface as a potent sign of dissent, just as the six-inch replicas and paintings of the Goddess of Democracy are so eagerly displayed eight years after the Beijing massacre,” noted one Hong Kong University student waving his Goddess replica.

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