Hong Kong University is pretty much its own pillar of shame at this point, so what is there to remove?
or, Zhang Xiang wants to build that pillar of shame bigger, better, and higher than ever
This weekend, Hong Kong University confirmed that it is seeking the removal of the Pillar of Shame sculpture, which commemorates the thousands of innocent people slaughtered in cold blood by the so-called People’s Liberation Army in June of 1989.
A legal letter stating the university’s intent was addressed to the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Democratic and Patriotic Movements on the Mainland: an alliance whose main figures have all in recent months been thrown into prison on baseless charges, and are as such not exactly at liberty to organize the relocation of a massive sculpture on short notice.
It is impossible to predict precisely how this saga will end… but it is very much possible to predict that it will end horribly, as is the case for so many political and personal tragedies unfolding in what used to be known as “Asia’s world city.” That’s admittedly catchier than the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s new slogan: “Pyongyang with better lighting.”
Yet rather than using this column to make depressing predictions, knowing that reality will always be even more depressing than I could have imagined, I would like to consider a few facets of this pillar saga that are in my reading emblematic of the state of Hong Kong today.
First, there were the rumors. Last week, before there was any confirmation, rumors circulated that Hong Kong University was considering removing the sculpture.
One characteristic of rumors in Hong Kong today is that they are always negative. There is never, for example, a rumor that Carrie Lam is about to flee the city with the piles of cash she keeps stacked at home, or that Junius Ho has to step down, or that Regina Ip stopped tweeting. The rumors are always about some new horrible law (usually first “scooped” by HK01) or some other despicable move by the government.
The second characteristic is the element of disbelief that these rumors temporarily generate. The government couldn’t really be that horrible and insensible, we like to think to ourselves. But that’s where you’re wrong!
The third characteristic is that these rumors always come true. Thinking back about all of the depressing rumors that I have heard about what might happen under the National Security Law, I honestly can’t think of a single one that hasn’t come true.
As such, the most reasonable approach to any nightmarish rumor about Hong Kong is simply to take it at face value: a discomfiting but also pragmatic approach.
Second, there is the genuinely ridiculous pseudo-legal aspect of it all. Hong Kong University is employing global legal firm Mayer Brown LLP (not to be confused with Oscar Mayer, which makes awesome hot dogs and bacon), which drafted a letter to the Hong Kong Alliance stating the university’s intent to remove the sculpture.
For some reason beyond my comprehension, Hong Kong bureaucrats feel the need to put on this elaborate farce that everything is proceeding in accordance with the law precisely as they strip the Hong Kong people of their legally guaranteed rights and freedoms.
I would honestly have an ever so slightly greater degree of respect for them if they just said “ok, we are just going to do whatever we want and throw anyone who criticizes us into prison. We just don’t care.” After all, at least that would be honest!
But they don’t do that. They continue on with their pseudo-trials and their pseudo-evidence and their pseudo-legal procedures. They make sure that all of the appropriate boxes are ticked for their completely arbitrary political terror.
Let’s look at this from another perspective, however: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is part of the Basic Law. All of these infringements of people’s basic freedoms are infringement of the ICCPR, which are then infringements of the Basic Law. And anyone who doesn’t fully uphold the Basic Law is not fit to hold office in Hong Kong.
We are thus left with no choice but to send the entire National Security Office to national security prison.
Third, I have to ask, where are HKU academics on this? I know, I know, a few people have made statements… but there are really a lot of academics at HKU. And I know, I know, it is easy to criticize from a distance, without the constant threat of being arbitrarily sentenced to life imprisonment hanging over my head.
I certainly don’t expect HKU academics to go out and protest in the current political environment, or to attempt to block the removal of the sculpture, but… can’t you at least say something?
Hong Kong University used to be a genuine bastion of academic freedom and activism. Have we already reached a point at which raising some pointed questions about the decision to remove an artwork from campus is simply too sensitive?
From the removal of Benny Tai to the cancellation of the student union and the arrest of students for speech acts to the removal of the pillar of shame, I have been troubled by the relative silence of HKU academics.
Is there anything that you can do to prevent your university from further destroying itself and its reputation? Is there any way to avoid the SCMP-ization of HKU, by which I mean the political transformation of a once respectable institution to the point that it becomes a parody of itself?
In conclusion, I propose that the Pillar of Shame is being removed from HKU to make space for ever bigger and better shames. Zhang Xiang wants to build that pillar higher, until it stretches above the Bank of China Tower.
When all of HKU transforms itself into a pillar of shame, there will be nothing left to remove. The removal of this pillar is an important step in that direction.