Hong Kong Student Sentenced to Prison for Tiananmen Monument Banner

Hong Kong authorities have sentenced a student to jail for six months for allegedly planning to display a banner marking the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Zeng Yuxuan, a 23-year-old law student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was arrested in early June for reportedly attempting to display a massive poster of the recently removed “Pillar of Shame” (1997) artwork as part of a global protest campaign against the Chinese state. Last week on Tuesday, September 12, Yuxuan was sentenced on charges of sedition in a West Kowloon court, the South China Morning Post reported.

“Mourning those who died to peacefully protest should be ‘celebrated’ as a humane and good hearted act, not punished,” Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt, who created “Pillar of Shame,” said in a statement, adding that he was “deeply concerned about the wellbeing of Zeng Yuxuan.”

Originally erected in Victoria Park on June 4, 1997 during a candlelight vigil in memory of the event, the “Pillar of Shame” is a 26-foot-tall copper sculpture featuring a tower of twisted bodies symbolizing the victims of the 1989 massacre. At the base of the podium, an engraving reads, “The old cannot kill the young forever.” Since 1998, the statue has permanently resided at the University of Hong Kong until it was removed from the campus in December 2021.

People look at the “Pillar of Shame” statue on October 11, 2021 in Hong Kong, China. (photo by Louise Delmotte/Getty Images)

After the 2020 passing of a new national security law that criminalizes acts of “secession” and “subversion,” the Chinese state has cracked down on political dissidence, removing pro-democracy monuments and prohibiting the city’s annual candlelight vigil held on June 4 to mourn the lives lost during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. While the Chinese government maintains that only about 200 civilians were killed during this event, documents have led many experts to estimate that the death toll was in the thousands.

On May 5 this year, authorities seized the “Pillar of Shame” from the Kadoorie Centre of the University of Hong Kong, an agricultural research facility near Shek Kong where it was reportedly being stored, according to the Hong Kong Free Press. On June 1, local authorities took Yuxuan into custody after she attempted to collect a package containing two banners displaying the statue. The banner of “The Pillar of Shame” has been displayed in over 40 cities and 18 countries around the globe as part of an international campaign calling for the sculpture’s return led by Galschiøt and the Czech organization NGO DEI. Founded by two Hong Kong artists in collaboration with a Czech colleague, the organization’s name is both a play on the Cantonese terms for “us” or “our land,” as well as the abbreviation for non-governmental organization.

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Activists display the “Pillar of Shame” banner in front of the White House in Washington DC. (photo courtesy NGO DEI)

The banners were sent from human rights activist Zhou Fengsuo, a former student leader during the 1989 protests who currently lives in New Jersey. Fengsuo confirmed to Hyperallergic that he had sent “at least two or three banners” to Yuxuan after she had gotten in touch with him over social media.

“She is very committed to the memory of Tiananmen, and especially indignant at the fact that the June 4 commemoration in Hong Kong cannot continue anymore,” Fengsuo explained. He said that Yuxuan had contacted him after seeing the banner displayed in Times Square on May 7 this year.

Warning her of the potential legal consequences, he said he had told her that her safety was a priority. Fengsuo said that prior to her arrest, Yuxuan had notified some journalists of her plans; he suspects that “some of the journalists may have leaked the information to the police,” triggering her arrest. In addition to Yuxuan, Reuters reported that Hong Kong authorities arrested 23 people for “breaching the public peace” on the 34th anniversary of protests. 

While Fengsuo said that Yuxuan’s arrest “shows the fear of [China’s] totalitarian regime of the Tiananmen protests,” he also said he was “encouraged by Yuxuan’s courage.”

“The Chinese government has been eradicating this memory [of Tiananmen Square] meticulously from people’s minds for generations, but still every year there are people who are arrested in China for commemorating,” Fengsuo said. 

Hyperallergic has reached out to the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts, Hong Kong Police Force, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong for additional information.

As part of a movement led by Jens Galschiøt and NGO DEI, activists have displayed the banner in cities all over the world. (photo courtesy NGO DEI)

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