HONG KONG - The Danish sculptor of a statue that commemorates pro-democracy protesters killed during China's Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 has accused a leading Hong Kong university of "mafia" style tactics over its order to have it removed.
Jens Galschiot loaned the eight-metre high, two-tonne copper sculpture called Pillar of Shame to a local civil society group, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, in perpetuity.
After the group disbanded last month with some members accused of national security offences, the University of Hong Kong sent a letter to the alliance last week requesting it remove the statue from the campus by 0900 GMT (5pm Singapore time) on Wednesday (Oct 13).
"These people are in jail. And they say within four days you should take it down," Galschiot told Reuters via Zoom, referring to some of the group's members who are in prison over anti-government protests in 2019.
"So I think this is a warning, that we want to destroy this sculpture if you don't pull it down. So this is a kind of mafia. I am really shocked."
The University of Hong Kong said in an email response to Reuters it was still seeking legal advice regarding the management of the sculpture and was "working with related parties to handle the matter in a legal and reasonable manner".
The sculpture has been on display at the university for more than two decades, and is one of the few remaining public symbols of the crackdown in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square more than 30 years ago that is a taboo topic in mainland China, where it cannot be publicly commemorated.
The statue, which Galschiot estimates is worth around 1.2 million euros (S$1.9 million), depicts dozens of torn and twisted bodies that symbolise those killed.
China has never provided a full account of the 1989 crackdown. The death toll given by officials days later was about 300, most of them soldiers, but rights groups and witnesses say thousands of people may have been killed.
Galschiot said he had contacted the university to explain that he is the owner of the statue and to offer to help with what he described as a "complicated operation" to move it.
"This is my property, so if they destroy it, then we will take action. I think there is still some legal system in place in Hong Kong to protect private property," he said.
The statue was still in the university campus by the time the deadline for its removal passed on Wednesday, with most of the global financial centre closed due to a typhoon.