Global Lives #3: Anka Lee’s Hong Kong Perspective on Tiananmen Square

Anka on Star Ferry
Anka Lee on the Star Ferry in Hong Kong

It’s June 4th today. 20 years ago, in Tiananmen Square in Beijing a huge protest movement was violently suppressed. The numbers are disputed, but hundreds, if not thousands were killed in clashes with the military. Tiananmen Square Massacre, June 4 Incident, or just Six-Four — whatever you call it, the event had a big impact on Anka Lee. He was just a kid then, but he remembers the day well. He was born in Hong Kong and was nine years old that summer in 1989. He talks about his memories and the city where he was born in this episode of Global Lives.

Anka wrote an essay about Tiananmen and his Hong Kong connection. You can find it on the back page of Time magazine’s June 8 international editions. UPDATE: Time put Anka’s story online here.

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Global Lives #3: Anka Lee’s Hong Kong Perspective on Tiananmen Square

Is Hong Kong free?

I’ve had many conversations with different people about how Hong Kong has changed since becoming a territory of China in 1997. There are a lot of different camps: Some say the changes have been subtle but significant, others that the changes have actually been surprisingly minimal. Some decry what they see as a cultural shift in the island territory, a dulling of what used to be a vibrant civil society. Many applaud the opportunities being part of China have afforded them, financially and otherwise. Here are points of view in some interesting reports:

Freedom House takes on the question in an appraisal of the media. In their annual report (PDF) on press freedom, released today, they downgraded Hong Kong’s status from “Free” to “Partly Free” for 2008. Here’s how they explain it:

In terms of status changes, Hong Kong’s status declined to Partly Free to reflect the growing influence of Beijing over media and free expression in the territory. Of particular concern were the appointment of 10 owners of Hong Kong media outlets to a mainland Chinese political advisory body, increased restrictions on film releases in the period surrounding the Olympics, and reports that critics of Beijing encountered growing difficulty in gaining access to Hong Kong media platforms.

At the same time, the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal gave Hong Kong its top rank in their annual Index of Economic Freedom which was released in January. They explain:

Hong Kong has an impressive record of openness to global trade and investment. Despite a lack of natural resources, the economy’s institutional strengths have allowed it to achieve high levels of prosperity reinforced by vibrant entrepreneurial activity. The small island is one of the world’s leading financial centers, and regulation of banking and financial services is transparent and efficient. Income and corporate tax rates are very competitive, and overall taxation is relatively small as a percentage of GDP. Business regulation is straightforward, and the labor market is flexible. Property rights are well protected by an independent and corruption-free judiciary.

Anthony Y.H. Fung and Chin-Chuan Lee predicted 15 years ago that integration with China would prove to be a dilemma for Hong Kong’s traditionally free and vibrant press. They introduce a 1994 paper (PDF) in the International Communication Gazette this way:

Hong Kong’s media are undergoing an unprecedented rate of ownership change as the British colony sails toward the transfer of sovereignty to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. The fate of Hong Kong was decided by the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. Since then, China has attempted to coopt the Hong Kong media and journalists by conferring prestige, legitimacy, interests, and information upon them. This strategy has reaped unusual success despite temporary setbacks in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In this final phase of the transition, however, foreign corporations have started to raid on Hong Kong’s media, with which they hope to capitalize on a growing market in China. Equally important, China seems intent on managing political effect of the transition through media acquisition by pro-China or China-affiliated capitalists. All these new owners must cope with the dilemma of ingratiating themselves with China without impeding media legitimacy in Hong Kong’s market environment.

legislative building

Hong Kong’s landscape is changing as well. The coastline used to come right up to the edge of the Legislative Council Building (formerly the Supreme Court). 

eight-hour layover

I’m pretty well acquainted with the airports of transportation hub city-states. The airports of Hong Kong and Singapore are well-designed places where travelers can keep living or working or holidaying, instead of just waiting. While I was living in Singapore, the proud little red dot unveiled its brand-new Changi Airport terminal, the enviable T3, where environmentally friendly vines cling to indoor walls and sculptures, waterfalls flow from architecturally integrated fountains, and brides and grooms gather to take advantage of the soft lighting for their wedding memories (no joke — I saw it with my own eyes and discovered later that the airport advertises itself as a wedding venue). I’ve made three trips through the spacious arrival and departure halls of the Hong Kong International Airport, where you get floor to ceiling views as planes taxi in and out against the backdrop of the island’s beautiful, rolling hills.

Airports in Asia compete to be the most beautiful, the best for shopping, the grandest. But my layover in Hong Kong this time around — an eight-hour marathon of aimless walking and bottom-numbing musical chairs — reminds me that a) I can get pretty restless and b) the world is very connected.

The flight boards show many cancellations today. Flights to or via Bangkok are all not coming or going. Flights to Mumbai are delayed. Travelers here watch the news and know people who are or were or might have been in these places, stuck or injured or worse. And its that sense of, “It could have been me,” on such a grand scale that makes geography almost irrelevent. I’m working on the first episodes of a podcast called “Global Lives” — this, I suppose, is one of the drawbacks to the otherwise exciting lives of people who consider the whole world their home.

Gateway of India

On my last visit to India in December, 2007, (correction) June, 2008, the Gateway of India in front, the Taj hotel just across the street.


It’s been one long month — it’s great traveling and I love to see new things. But it nice to take stock.

I spent an excellent two weeks in Turkey in March. Istanbul is a fantastic city — I particularly like Turkish tea, backgammon and grilled cheese. And fresh tomatoes. It’s a vibrant place with so many surprising paradoxes (see this and this). I also recommend sleeping in caves. There’s something about it — maybe the minerals in the air or the way it gets very dark — that gives you a really deep sleep. Turkey also offers some really amazing, really ancient things.

I got my first taste of Hong Kong, as well, and let me tell you, it was delicious. (Don’t go overboard on the street food, by the way. I learned that the hard way.)

Here’s a new friend I made in Cappadocia.

Cappadocia boy