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

good feelings and the Olympics

After visiting grand Shanghai and glittering Chongqing, it was in a taxi in Dongguan that my view of China took a small, but important shift. I was traveling with a friend to the South China Mall, down the main road that stretches from the city’s train station all the way out to the suburbs. It was Olympics time, but we were a far cry from Beijing’s impressive Bird’s Nest.

The train station was bustling with passengers, laborers and managers who clogged up nearby cafes and bars, eating cost-efficient meals before getting on buses to their offices or factories or wholesale shops. We were trying to get to a magical place, though, a place hailed as the world’s largest shopping mall. But we knew something was not quite right as the crowds thinned out and the buildings got taller but the streets got emptier. The downtown megacity was full of half-empty towers and ambitious but abandoned construction projects for new skyscrapers. The media, even China’s state-media Xinhua, was already reporting on falling property prices and demand well before the Olympics, and  in Dongguan, it was obvious, even to our taxi driver, that things were not as great as so many people thought they were.

At a University of Southern California conference on Friday, scholars gave more academic perspectives on China’s Olympics. Anthropologist Susan Brownell discussed China’s goals as hosts. Contrary to popular belief, she said, most of their efforts were turned toward their domestic audience. They did not have a “master plan to promote a positive image of China to the outside world.” She outlines this argument in a post on The China Beat and in her book, Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China.

China promised to host a “People’s Olympics,” but can that kind of agenda survive, or even have any effect on the post-Olympics ground reality? Stanley Rosen raised the question, citing the warnings of state-run weekly magazine Outlook. Because of rising unemployment, reporter Huang Huo wrote that China is entering a “peak period for mass incidents.” Rosen, a USC professor of political science, pointed out significant, and emotional, upcoming anniversaries; May 4 will mark the 90 year anniversary of Beijing student protests that sparked the May Fourth Movement for populism and June 4 will mark the 20 year anniversary of the violent put-down of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Economist Jeffrey Owen stressed that the Olympics did not provide direct financial benefit to Beijing or China. With a $40 billion price tag, including Olympics and Olympics-related costs, the gains come more in the form of less quantifiable “legacy effects,” the good feelings, China brand building, and the international education received by volunteers, students and residents of Beijing. Certainly, Chinese residents of the second-tier cities, like Chongqing and Shenzen, felt pride for the country’s successes, even though they were far-removed from the glamor and cameras. But still, they, like me and my traveling companion, became very tired of the Game’s soundtrack.

 

Last week’s conference, hosted by the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, the Center for International Studies and the US-China Institute, was filled with interesting food for thought. But it was hard to get the repetetive refrains Beijing Huan Ying Ni out of my head every time I thought about my time in China. A friend in Chongqing told me the young people there were alternately pulling their hair out and making lewd parodies of the song, just to make its constant presence bearable. So while Premeir Wen Jiabao does his best to spread hope for China’s near future on his global financial goodwill tour, it’s still difficult to figure out if the Beijing Olympics gave China any significant leg up, if it was, as the conference asked, a “Public Diplomacy Triumph or Public Relations Spectacle?”

So what happened when we finally got to the world’s biggest mall? My friend, Anka Lee, wrote about it for NBC in San Francisco. But I think you can guess that it was not as triumphant as Beijng’s fantastic opening ceremonies.

Two Guangzhou Neighborhoods

In the last days of the Olympics, neighbors in Sanyuanli and residents of the Clifford Estates left their televisions on so that the final matches and last medal ceremonies set the backdrops of their daily lives.

The neighborhoods are similar in many ways. They both sit on the edges of the megacity of Guangzhou. The people who live in Sanyuanli and the Clifford Estates seem to enjoy their ways of life, and exhibit pride in the place where they live. They point browsing visitors to their most cherished monuments — for Sanyuanli, a monument to their victory over the British in an 1841 battle of the Opium War, and for Clifford Estate, the multimillion dollar condominiums that line a beautiful lakeside walk. Which, of course, hints at the two neighborhood’s obvious differences.

Sanyuanli is an upward-growing urban slum, where small businesses line small alleyways and families crowd the upper levels of precarious housing. It’s called a “shake hands village,” where the buildings are so close together that neighbors can shake hands just by reaching out their windows. Clifford Estate is a sprawling and modern development, a gated community for retirees from Hong Kong and upwardly mobile families in China. It’s home to Clifford markets and Clifford restaurants and its own internal shuttle service system.

Here are these neighborhoods in pictures.

Thanks to my little bridge to China, Jacky Peng, and my road tripping companion, Anka Lee, for giving me entree into these neighborhoods.

Olympics+

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people lately about how the world is covering the Olympics. Along with the palpable excitement and pride on the part of Chinese people, and intrigue and appreciation on the part of folks from other parts of the world, there is a lot of frustration out there.

Is the world looking too closely at politics and human rights and freedom of speech in China? It’s nothing new that the Olympics are politicized by the media (and many other parties) — is there something different and worse about what is happening for China? Or maybe, the media is not paying enough attention to the China’s politics.

Perhaps there’s something more important here — what happens after the Olympics? Will the world still be watching China? Or will they suffer China-burnout and start running cursory stories about mining accidents or human rights and focus solely on financial news?

Here are a few links that might be of interest on these topics:

On Western bias:
China Daily’s reportage on Ban Ki-Moon’s comments

On the Beijing organizing committee and the IOC’s conflicts with the press and each other:
The New York Times’ detailed account of a daily press briefing

On China’s future post-Olympics:
Daniel Lynch in The Far Eastern Economic Review

And here’s a totally different way of looking at the Games (via history) by my former Cal classmate Anka Lee: San Francisco’s local NBC station is publishing his blog (also here). He’s also making short videos.

Would love more links — what have you been reading about China? Do you find the focus fair?

joining The China Beat

I wrote my first post for The China Beat today. It was a Q&A with a political scientist, Benjamin Read, who has been studying homeowners associations in China. He put the recent protest in Shanghai in context:

So I think we should guard against reading too much into this event. Howard W. French, in his New York Times story makes a rather bold claim that the protests are “the strongest sign yet
of rising resentment among China’s fast-growing middle class over a
lack of say in decision making.” Social classes rarely act in unified
ways politically, and it’s questionable at best whether the middle
class in China is generally characterized by resentment.

You can read the full text of the interview here. I’ll be on a bit of a China tour this summer, looking at life on the fringes of big cities with my friend Anka Lee.