LettersWhy the Pillar of Shame’s removal marks the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong
- The statue was not only a memorial to the Tiananmen crackdown, but a testament to the civil liberties that distinguished Hong Kong from the mainland
- With the sculpture’s removal, HKU has shown its willingness to do Beijing’s bidding – a clear sign that true academic freedom is dead
Academic freedom just took its last breath in Hong Kong.
The Pillar of Shame was the first thing I saw when I arrived at the university as a Fulbright Scholar in 2015 just months after 2014’s democracy protests. Like others, I saw in the statue’s harrowing pile of corpses not only a commemoration of those killed in 1989 but a testament to the civil liberties and academic freedom that distinguished Hong Kong from the mainland.
Universities often serve as sanctuaries from the oppressive power of the state, but HKU, whose outstanding faculty had placed it among the world’s leading academic institutions, has been in a death spiral for some time.
It was hard then to argue with his assessment, but HKU’s removal of the statue has put the issue to rest. Without even the facade of a criminal conviction to justify its actions, the university has demonstrated its willingness to do Beijing’s bidding, international opprobrium be damned.
To be sure, scholars in Hong Kong may still be able to assume critical perspectives on less controversial issues, and they might even get away with certain criticisms impinging on Chinese “national security”, however broadly that term is defined. But this is by no means a given. And with such uncertainty hanging over their every utterance, genuine academic freedom is dead. China has now succeeded in effectively destroying one of Hong Kong’s last bastions of democratic dissent.
Scott Laderman, professor of history, University of Minnesota, Duluth