The removals come a day after Hong Kong’s oldest university took down a statue commemorating the bloody crackdown, sparking outcry by activists and dissident artists in the city and abroad.
Hong Kong was for a long time the only place in China where mass remembrance of Tiananmen was tolerated, with thousands gathering each year to mourn democracy protesters killed by Chinese troops.
The city’s university campuses marked the crackdown with statues commemorating the events in a vivid illustration of the freedoms the semi-autonomous territory enjoyed.
But early Friday, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) removed the “Goddess of Democracy” from its campus.
The sculpture by Chen Weiming — a six-metre (21-foot) replica of the giant statue that students erected in Tiananmen Square — was a potent symbol of Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
Around the same time, the Lingnan University of Hong Kong removed another relief sculpture marking the Tiananmen crackdown, also created by Chen.
The removals took place on Christmas Eve, when most students were on break and away from campus.
The US-based artist Chen expressed “regret and anger” at the removal of his works, adding that the universities acted “illegally and unreasonably”.
“They acted like a thief in the night”, Chen told AFP. “It was the opposite of being clean and above board… They were afraid of exposure and of a backlash from students and alumni.”
Chen said the works were only on loan to the schools and that he would hire a lawyer to take legal action if the sculptures were damaged.
Chen said he would consider asking for the works to be sent to California, where he runs the Liberty Sculpture Park.
CUHK said it removed the “unauthorised statue” after an internal assessment, adding that the groups responsible for moving it to the campus in 2010 were no longer functional.
Lingnan University said it had taken down its statue after having “reviewed and assessed items on campus that may pose legal and safety risks to the university community.”
Beijing is remoulding Hong Kong in its own image after democracy protests two years ago and commemorating Tiananmen has effectively become impossible.
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 Tiananmen and seized exhibits, under a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong last year to curb dissent after huge and often violent democracy protests.
The museum had previously been shuttered as authorities said it lacked the relevant licence.