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HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s oldest university removed a statue commemorating the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square democracy protesters on Thursday, the latest step in China’s campaign to silence dissent in its southern city.

The night-time operation was condemned by Hong Kong democracy activists and labelled a “despicable act” by one former student leader who survived Tiananmen.

The eight-metre (26-feet) high “Pillar of Shame” by Jens Galschiot has sat on the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) campus since 1997, the year the former British colony was handed back to China.

The sculpture features 50 anguished faces and tortured bodies piled on one another and commemorates democracy protesters killed by Chinese troops around Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Its presence was a vivid illustration of Hong Kong’s freedoms compared to the Chinese mainland where the events at Tiananmen are heavily censored.

But Beijing is currently remoulding the city in its own authoritarian image after democracy protests two years ago and commemorating Tiananmen has become effectively illegal.

In October, HKU officials ordered the removal of the sculpture citing new but unspecified legal risks.

They made good on that promise in the early hours of Thursday morning.

University staff used floor-to-ceiling sheets and barriers to shield the statue as sounds of drilling and metal clanging could be heard throughout the night.

Security guards tried to stop media filming but reporters were still able to capture images of the statue being cut into chunks, wrapped in plastic and carted away.

HKU confirmed the statue had been placed in storage after the operation was completed.

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