The Pillar of Shame and the erasure of Hong Kong

25 December 2021

3:05 AM

25 December 2021

3:05 AM

In the dead of night one of the most prominent memorials to the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Pillar of Shame, was removed from Hong Kong University this week. The eight-metre high statue – commemorating the thousands killed in Beijing’s brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in June 1989 – was filmed being loaded into a container late on Wednesday night.

It is not the only piece of public art to have been targeted. At dawn on Christmas Eve a bronze ‘Goddess of Democracy’ – a replica of a statue built by students on Tiananmen square – was dismantled by the Chinese University of Hong Kong. And at Lingnan University a wall relief featuring the ‘Tank man’ was removed during the night. The message from the authorities could not be clearer: the history of the Tiananmen Square Massacre must be completely erased.

There have always been competing narratives about history in Hong Kong. (The Hong Kong Museum of History has for years presented a carefully curated vision of the past which is pleasing to China.) But there used to be a challenge to the Communist party’s version of history.

I was a young undergraduate when I first visited the claustrophobic, bustling streets of inner-city Mong Kok, and found on the 40th floor of an unassuming tower block the city’s famous June 4 Museum, dedicated to the Tiananmen Square massacre. It was filled with images of the Tank Man, statistics about that tragic day, and filmed footage from Beijing.

In September, the June 4 Museum was raided by the police and four members of the museum’s founders were detained. Chow Hang Tung, a prominent pro-democracy activist and lawyer, is now facing absurd charges under Hong Kong’s new National Security Law. The group which ran the museum has also been banned from holding their annual candlelit vigil in memory of the June 4th massacre.

GettyImages-1346766792.jpgThe Pillar of Shame in October 2021 (photo: Getty)

It is likely to be only a matter of time before the censorship of June 4th becomes normalised in Hong Kong. In China, all traces of the event have already been erased from the internet to the point that the Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia – which describes itself as a ‘free and open’ encyclopaedia – has no entries for 1989. As Kai Strittmatter, the author of We Have Been Harmonised, notes: ‘An entire year has been erased from history.’

Why does this matter? The rapid deterioration of freedoms in Hong Kong gives us a unique window into the mindset, motives and behaviour of Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party. The Communist party knows that if its historical narrative is challenged, it will find its legitimacy under threat. The shamelessness of this drive to erase the past should be a warning for the West.

Hong Kong is a canary in the coalmine. The total deconstruction of the city’s human rights, safeguards and electoral system; the rewriting of its history; and the hollowing out of its civil society demonstrates that Xi Jinping is a leader whose words and pronouncements should be taken seriously.

He is far less concerned about what the world thinks than his predecessors. The central mantra of Deng Xiaoping’s diplomacy was that China should bide its time and hide its strengths; Xi Jinping has sent out wolf-warrior diplomats to project his strong-man vision of Chinese nationalism.

When the Chinese government laid out a policy white paper in 2014 that envisioned its total control of Hong Kong at the expense of many of the city’s core freedoms, not enough analysts took these threats seriously. We should not make the same mistake again. From Taiwan to the South China Sea, Xi’s words should be studied carefully – because Hong Kong is unlikely to be the first casualty of his assertive brand of nationalism.

In Britain, we must also not forget our duties to the people of Hong Kong. There are three tangible steps we can take. First, any Hong Kongers who decide to leave their increasingly dystopian state should be welcomed with open arms. Second, the UK government should adopt proposals from the former minister Damian Green which would expand the Hong Kong refugee scheme so that it covers young people between the ages of 18 and 25, many of whom are facing political imprisonment. Finally, given the UK government has now said China has breached the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the UK should seek recourse through international courts or through the use of sanctions. Our failure to show that there are consequences for this kind of breach of international law will only incentivise similar behaviour in the future.

Hong Kong’s past, its democracy and its identity are now being dismantled as the rest of the world watches on. For the sake of those killed in 1989 and for those now living in an increasingly authoritarian state, we must not let this happen again.

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