The Pillar of Shame statue that commemorates the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing. Photo: AFP / Miguel Candela / Anadolu Agency

A top global law firm will no longer represent the University of Hong Kong in seeking the removal of a Tiananmen memorial from its campus after it came under heavy criticism in the United States for helping China purge dissent, the Washington Post reported.

Mayer Brown is the latest international company to face pressure over how its actions in China contradict its more progressive statements in the West.

The eight-metre high “Pillar of Shame” sculpture by Danish artist Jens Galschiot has sat on HKU’s campus since 1997, the year the city was handed back to China.

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

“Going forward, Mayer Brown will not be representing its long-time client in this matter. We have no further comment,” the firm said on Friday, the Washington Post reported.

The Chicago-founded firm has worked on civil rights issues in the United States but found itself under criticism from rights groups and US lawmakers over representing HKU to seek removal of the only Tiananmen memorial on Chinese soil.

“It is even worse American law firms are doing the bidding of the Communist Party to erase the memory of the brave, young Chinese students who gave their lives for freedom in Tiananmen Square,” Senator Lindsey Graham told Substack newsletter Common Sense.

Senator Ted Cruz also condemned Mayer Brown, saying the “American firms should be ashamed to be complicit” in the sculpture’s removal.

The University of Hong Kong wants the statue removed. Photo: AFP / Peter Parks

In response to the law firm’s decision, Galschiot said it would be almost impossible for Western law firms to represent and help Chinese and Hong Kong authorities suppress freedom of expression “without suffering severe damage to their reputation and image”.

The controversy was sparked by a letter Mayer Brown wrote on behalf of HKU ordering the now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance, which used to organise the city’s annual Tiananmen remembrance vigils, to remove the statue by Wednesday.

HKU has so far not take any action since the deadline passed and Galschiot said he had requested a hearing with the university over the fate of the statue.

Hong Kong used to be the one place in China where mass remembrance of Tiananmen’s dead was still tolerated.

But the city is being remoulded in China’s own authoritarian image in the wake of huge and often violent democracy protests two years ago.

Scores of opposition figured have been jailed or fled overseas and authorities have also embarked on a mission to rewrite history and make the city more “patriotic”. 

On Friday, eight pro-democracy activists were sentenced to between six and 12 months over an unauthorized assembly last year.