The University of Hong Kong Takes a Page From the Taliban’s Playbook

And it is getting support from Mayer Brown, a law firm based in Chicago.

In June 2019, the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, students clean the “Pillar of Shame” statue, an art piece dedicated to the victims of the massacre at the University of Hong Kong. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

The Chinese Communist Party — with the help of an international law firm headquartered in the United States — is erasing the history of the Chinese democracy movement and the countless students, writers, artists and underground activists who gave their lives for the cause of freedom.

Today, the sculpture Pillar of Shame, a monument to the victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre that rises more than 26 feet and features the bodies of 50 protesters mowed down by Chinese troops, is slated to be removed by the University of Hong Kong, where it is housed.

The university, which is state-run and, for all intents and purposes, an extension of Beijing, is represented by the Hong Kong office of Mayer Brown, headquartered in Chicago.

Most American firms that do business in China sell things like cars or iPhones or sneakers or movies to ordinary Chinese. By contrast, Mayer Brown is selling its services to a university bending to the will of the Chinese state.

In a statement, the law firm said: “We were asked to provide a specific service on a real estate matter for our long-term client, the University of Hong Kong. Our role as outside counsel is to help our clients understand and comply with current law. Our legal advice is not intended as commentary on current or historical events.”

Students stand in front of “Pillar of Shame,” an art piece dedicated to the victims of the 1989 Beijing Tiananmen Square massacre at the University of Hong Kong on June 4, 2019. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

The Mayer Brown statement on Pillar of Shame sidesteps the obvious: Last year, when China took over Hong Kong, Hong Kong’s legal system ​​— the “current law” to which Mayer Brown refers — was effectively incinerated. Today, the law in Hong Kong, like everywhere else in China, is subservient to the party. And the party wants the Chinese, and especially Chinese students, to forget that there were ever people who believed in a free country with due process, civil liberties, the rule of law, and a system of checks and balances. 

(The fate of China’s pro-democracy movement notwithstanding, Mayer Brown does take great pride in its respect for those who it feels have not been sufficiently centered. “Diversity and inclusion have always been moral imperatives at our firm, and in today’s multicultural world, they are also critical to our ability to provide clients with the level of service they deserve and demand,” the firm’s chairman, Paul Theiss, said in July 2020.)

The Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt, who took three years to make Pillar of Shame, has been waging a one-man campaign to stop the authorities from destroying his artwork. “If you help the Chinese government in their crimes, and you say on your website you have American values, well, you have corrupted your morals,” Galschiøt said, referring to Mayer Brown. 

The sculptor donated his work, in 1997, on the eighth anniversary of the Tiananmen uprising, to the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements. Today, there is hardly anyone left to defend it. Most alliance members have been arrested for illegally commemorating Tiananmen. Galschiøt did find a lawyer willing to fight the order to remove his sculpture, but she requested that her name stay out of print. His previous Hong Kong attorney is in jail.

The sculptor, who spoke to me by phone from the sprawling Gallery Galschiøt, on the island of Funen, said that he had in mind Cathe Kollwitz’s drawings and The Scream, Edvard Munch’s iconic painting, when he set to work on Pillar of Shame. “I was diving in my darkness when I made the sculpture,” he said.

On October 7, Mayer Brown informed the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China that it had until Wednesday to remove the statue, which is made of clay and cast in bronze and concrete. If the alliance does not comply, “the Sculpture will be deemed abandoned,” and the University of Hong Kong “will deal with the Sculpture at such a time and in such a manner as it thinks fit without further notice.”

In an email Tuesday, Galschiøt urged supporters to go to Hong Kong University if his pillar is smashed and collect the remnants. He hopes to use them to make something new that conveys the message that “empire passes away, but art persists.”

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who, last year, introduced legislation calling for sanctions should China fail to provide a full accounting of the events leading up to the outbreak of Covid-19, lashed out at Mayer Brown: “It is even worse American law firms are doing the bidding of the Communist Party to erase the memory of the brave, young Chinese students who gave their lives for freedom in Tiananmen Square.”

Republican Senator Ted Cruz, whom China sanctioned last year for attacking China over its handling of the pandemic and treatment of the Uighurs, said, “American firms should be ashamed to be complicit” in the removal of the monument.

What is happening right now in Hong Kong is not that different from the Taliban destroying two Buddhas carved in limestone off the cliff of a mountain. Today, the Chinese regime is using the cover of Hong Kong’s once-independent legal system to airbrush an image and an idea that it believes — for good reason — is dangerous. It is scared of the recent past, just as the neanderthals who took over Afghanistan were scared of their ancient past. It is state-sponsored iconoclasm, and its victims are not just the Chinese coerced to forget their history and heritage, but all of us, who still need to be reminded of the crimes and horrors that tyrants wish to erase from our memory.

Eli Lake is a columnist for Bloomberg and a fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas, Austin.

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I am a syndicated columnist for Bloomberg and a contributor to Commentary Magazine.