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US firm Mayer Brown has been criticised by human rights groups for working to remove a memorial to the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The Pillar of Shame sculpture, which shows tortured bodies piled nine metres high, is a monument to the hundreds of people who were killed in 1989 when the Chinese military instigated a brutal crackdown on student protesters in Beijing.
Dutch artist Jens Galschiøt loaned his artwork to the University's pro-democracy group, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, in 1997, and for the last 24 years the memorial has stood on the University of Hong Kong campus, where it has served as a focus for candlelit vigils.
However, the Alliance was forced to disband in September after its entire senior leadership was arrested and charged under China's new national security law in Hong Kong.
Wasting no time, Mayer Brown issued a letter to one of the Alliance's former leaders, Richard Tsoi, informing him that it was acting for the University and that, unless the sculpture was removed within six days, “the Sculpture will be deemed abandoned and the University will not consider any future request from you in respect of the Sculpture, and the University will deal with the Sculpture at such time and in such manner as it thinks fit without further notice".
Tsoi replied that the request was unreasonable, and that, “As a space with free speech and academic freedom, the University of Hong Kong has the social responsibility and mission to preserve the Pillar of Shame".
Galschiøt said it would take considerably longer than a week to remove the two-ton copper statue, explaining that "there is a great possibility that the work of art will suffer irreparable damage if handled by other than experts".
The artist told RollOnFriday that the demand was "the kind of methods that an Italian mafia boss will use", and that Mayer Brown's involvement was "morally reprehensible".
"I believe that Mayer Brown is morally and ethically responsible for helping to destroy the only mark of remembrance of the Tiananmen peace plan that exists on Chinese territory", he said.
Others reacted with dismay that Mayer Brown was helping the University to scrub the massacre from history at China's bidding.
Dan Hindsgaul, interim director at Amnesty International, said the demand to remove the art "shows how fear and self-censorship have spread in the wake of the crackdown on civil rights in Hong Kong".
"China wants to erase the deaths of hundreds of peaceful students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 from the history books. But the world will not forget what happened when China crushed peaceful protest. Neither will the world forget how freedom of expression and other rights are being crushed in Hong Kong", he said.
Everyone deserves legal representation, but Mayer Brown's decision to help suppress a memorial to murdered protesters is notable given its recent proclamations about human rights.
The US firm was proud to align itself against state brutality last summer, once it became politic for corporates to endorse the Black Lives Matter protests. Outgoing Chairman Paul Theiss declared that Mayer Brown "stands in solidarity with all who lawfully seek justice for those who have been denied their civil liberties and human rights", and affirmed that "we have a corresponding responsibility to speak up when our core values are undermined".
Luckily for Mayer Brown's bottom line, its dedication to human rights doesn't appear to extend to Hong Kong, where declaring support for protestors being jailed and killed carries a financial risk, whereas supporting the regime that's doing it attracts considerable financial opportunity.
Despite its "responsibility to speak up", the firm did not respond to multiple requests for comment.