Hong Kong university students and graduates on Friday paid solemn tribute to two campus statues marking Beijing's 1989 suppression of Tiananmen Square democracy protesters, which were removed overnight as authorities steadily erase all remaining tributes to the historical event.
The removals come a day after Hong Kong's oldest university took down a well-known sculpture commemorating the bloody crackdown, sparking outcry by activists and dissident artists in the city and abroad.
Hong Kong used to be the only place in China where mass remembrance of Tiananmen was tolerated, and the commemorative statues -- found in many top universities in the city -- were a vivid illustration of the freedoms the territory enjoyed.
But since huge and often violent democracy protests two years ago, Beijing has set about remoulding Hong Kong in its own image, imposing a sweeping national security law to curb dissent.
Before dawn on Friday, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) removed the "Goddess of Democracy" from its campus.
The six-metre (21-foot) sculpture -- a replica of the giant statue that students erected in Tiananmen Square -- had been a potent symbol of Hong Kong's democracy movement.
Around the same time, Lingnan University of Hong Kong removed a relief sculpture and painted over a wall bearing an image of the Goddess of Democracy.
- Candlelight gathering -
On Christmas Eve, a few dozen CUHK students and alumni lit candles and placed flowers at the statue's former location -- an outpouring of grief that has become rare in Hong Kong where public gatherings are heavily policed.
Those gathered also displayed placards reading "Shame on CUHK" and "Missing: have you seen her?", while Tiananmen commemorative songs played from a nearby loudspeaker.
Eric Lai, who was the president of CUHK's student union when the statue was moved to the campus in 2010, told AFP he was saddened but not surprised.
"What happened these days in university campuses is a microcosm of Hong Kong society," said Lai, now a scholar at Georgetown Law School.
"The pillars of free expression, diversity and opposition opinions are no longer tolerated by the government."
Lai said school management objected to the statue's installation at the time, but had not removed it for fear of public backlash.
CUHK's student union, known for its active role in Hong Kong's democracy movement spanning 50 years, disbanded in October.
CUHK said it had removed the "unauthorised statue" after an internal assessment, adding the groups responsible for moving it to the campus were no longer functional.
- 'Thief in the night' -
At Lingnan University, a handful of students quietly placed flowers and candles at the spot where the relief sculpture once stood, though the tributes were soon cleared away by guards.
"The decision of Lingnan University is an insult to the protection of historical monuments and academic freedom," student leader Eric Tong told AFP.
Other alumni accused the school of breaking a pact with students to keep the monument on campus, noting some alumni had raised funds in 2019 for the artwork's maintenance.
The university said it had taken it down after having "reviewed and assessed items on campus that may pose legal and safety risks to the university community".
Both artworks removed on Friday were created by US-based artist Chen Weiming, who expressed "regret and anger".
"They acted like a thief in the night", Chen told AFP. "They were afraid of exposure and of a backlash from students and alumni."
Chen said it was unreasonable for the universities to remove the sculptures without notifying him, adding he would take legal action if the works were damaged.
- More to come? -
At least two other Hong Kong universities host Goddess of Democracy statues.
AFP confirmed on Friday that one at the Baptist University of Hong Kong had been locked in a storeroom by school staff, though it was unclear when.
Baptist University told AFP that it "examines its campus environment from time to time to ensure that items displayed on campus are safe and legal".
The goddess replica at the City University of Hong Kong was still in its regular spot at the foyer as of Friday lunchtime.
But the acting leader of the student union said he had received a verbal warning from the school to remove the statue as it might be in breach of the national security law, according to local media reports.
Since the introduction of the national security law, commemorating Tiananmen has effectively been criminalised.
An annual candlelight vigil to mark the June 4 crackdown has been banned for the past two years, with authorities citing security and pandemic fears.
In September, police raided a museum commemorating the event and seized exhibits.