HONG KONG (AP) – A monument from a Hong Kong university that was the best-known public memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre on Chinese soil was removed Thursday morning, erasing the last place of public commemoration of the bloody crackdown from 1989.

For some at the University of Hong Kong, the move reflected the erosion of the relative freedoms they enjoyed compared to mainland China.

The 8-meter (26-foot) high Pillar of Shame, which depicts 50 torn and twisted bodies stacked on top of each other, was made by Danish sculptor Jens Galschioet to symbolize the lives lost in the military crackdown on the Pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

Billy Kwok, a student at the University of Hong Kong, said the Pillar of Shame has been treated as part of the university by many students. He had been in college for over two decades.

“It’s the symbol of (there always is)… freedom of speech in Hong Kong,” he said after the sculpture was removed.

The university said it requested that the sculpture be put into storage because it could present “legal risks”.

“No party has ever obtained the approval of the university to display the statue on campus, and the university has the right to take the appropriate steps to manage it at any time,” he said in a press release after its withdrawal.

Every year on June 4, members of the former student union would wash the statue to commemorate the massacre. The city, along with Macau, were the only places on Chinese soil where commemorations of the crackdown were allowed.

Authorities have banned annual candlelight vigils in Tiananmen for two consecutive years and shut down a private museum documenting the crackdown. The group that organized the annual vigil and managed the museum, the Hong Kong Alliance to Support China’s Democratic Patriotic Movements, has since disbanded, with some of its key members behind bars.

The dismantling of the sculpture came days after pro-Beijing candidates won a landslide victory in the Hong Kong parliamentary election, following amendments to election laws to screen candidates to ensure they are “patriots” loyal to Beijing.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam visited Beijing this week to report on developments in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, where authorities have silenced dissent following the imposition by Beijing of a sweeping national security law that appeared to target much of the pro-democracy movement in the wake of mass protests. in 2019.

The Pillar of Shame became a problem in October, when activists and rights groups opposed a university demanding it be removed following “the latest risk assessment and legal advice.” Galschioet has offered to bring him back to Denmark on condition that he is not prosecuted under the National Security Act, but has so far failed.

Galschioet said he was promised a place for the sculpture in a park opposite the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, and was also offered places in Norway, Canada and Taiwan.

He likened the sculpture’s removal to “driving a chariot through Arlington Cemetery,” a burial site for American veterans.

“Desecration of graves is also frowned upon in China, but that’s really what it is. It’s almost a sacred monument, ”he said. “It is a sculpture for those who have died.”

Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said his withdrawal was another worrying development in Hong Kong.

“The Danish government cannot decide which art universities in other countries choose to exhibit. But for me and the government, the right to speak peacefully – by word, art, or other means – is a very basic right for everyone. This is also true in Hong Kong, ”he said.

University employee Morgan Chan said removing the Shame Pillar “doesn’t mean history will be erased, and removing the pillar doesn’t mean people won’t learn history.” .

Wang Luyao, a student, had a more mixed reaction.

“For me, because I’m from mainland China, my understanding of the Pillar of Shame may not be as deep as the locals or students of Hong Kong and it’s not that important to me,” he said. Wang said.

“For me, it’s like a benchmark that allows understanding to be approached. For the University of Hong Kong, this should also be seen as a landmark. “