Hong Kong, the new Berlin?

AP Images

*Published in Taipei Times (2019, Nov 22)

“If we are in a new Cold War, Hong Kong is the new Berlin,” so claimed the Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong at the Bild100-Party on 9th Sept 2019. The analogy between the two cities is in fact an old one. Since the establishment of the Communist China in 1949, Hong Kong was already considered “the Berlin of the East” by British policymakers, say by the then Prime Minister Clement Attlee and the then Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin.[1] Today, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is an occasion for us — all who care about the global prospects of democracy under new threats — to reflect how similar and how different the two cities are.

Apparently, Hong Kong has become the strategic frontier between two political prospects — democracy vis-à-vis one-party dictatorship — which makes it an analogue to Berlin before 1989. Nevertheless, it is questionable how far the conflict in Hong Kong resembles that which divided Berlin into two. Is it a conflict of ideology? For sure, the U.S. has long been regarding Hong Kong as an outpost in Asia for driving China’s liberalization. In a recent speech delivered on 24th Oct 2019, the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence emphasized that Hong Kong is a living example of what can happen when China embraces liberty.[2] Correspondingly, China takes advantage of Hong Kong as a gateway to the global market, and thereby exerts its growing influence worldwide. Yet, the ideological exchange is mostly unilateral. Due to the huge benefits Hong Kong can bring to the Chinese economy, Beijing never desires to convert Hong Kong into a communist city. Instead, the party leaders of the first generation decided not to invade the Crown colony for a long-term utilization of this precious gateway. This policy continues when Beijing promises “One country, two systems” and grants a special administrative status to Hong Kong after the handover of its sovereignty. Moreover, after the fall of Mao Zedong, China gradually succumbs itself to market economy, so that nowadays it only remains a communist regime by name, which is so far away from leading an alternative ideology that reigns across borders.

Is Hong Kong then simply dragged into the power struggle between the giant rivals? Despite the repetitive warnings from the Chinese side against any foreign interference in Hong Kong’s affairs, it is an undeniable fact that the international community is a stakeholder of such a financial capital of the Indo-Pacific. But it is doubtful if an international solidarity has been substantially formed to back the city up, especially in comparison with the case of Berlin. During the Cold War, West Berlin was regarded as the last bastion of freedom, since the widely circulated domino theory enticed people to believe that the fall of Berlin would result in the fall of West Europe. According to the Gallup polls taken in 1961, an overwhelming majority of the U.S. citizens demanded the American troops to remain steadfast in West Berlin even at the risk of a hot war.[3] The mood of solidarity reached its peak when President John F. Kennedy, on 26th June 1963, proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner” in front of the Schöneberg Town Hall. In contrast, the protests against totalitarian rule in Hong Kong are not obviously supported by a third party. On the one hand, unlike the divided Berlin, the sovereignty of the pre-colonial city is now tightly held by Beijing alone, hence Beijing’s perception that the crisis in Hong Kong is nothing but “internal affairs”. On the other hand, both before and after the outburst of democratic protests in Hong Kong this summer, business brands from “the free world” successively bow to the Chinese market and hence vow loyalty to Beijing — a sign that China appears not less as an irresistible trading partner than as a threat to the West. Indeed, if the unrest in Hong Kong is not a mere bargaining chip against China, it is also unobvious that the protestors can expect any prompt and persistent intervention from the liberal West. Or we can try a thought experiment: imagine Hong Kong will lose its autonomy completely tomorrow, will the traditional free world continue to do business with China? This is an open question. Though the former experience of Taiwan already tells a lot. If Hong Kongers look for a sincere coalition, the closest alignments are from Taiwan, Tibet, and Uyghur — the repressed peoples at the edge of the empire.

If a new Cold War has started, we would still have homework to do to understand how the new threat from China differs from that from the Soviet Union, so that the analogy drawn will not be sheerly out of terminological laziness, as the Cold War specialist in Harvard Odd Arne Westad has criticized.[4] What we see are instead bargaining tables here and there on which Hong Kong is handily traded. The tragic fate of this orphan city has not significantly changed since the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, when the future of Hong Kong was settled by the great powers with no citizen ever consulted. Today, the violence at the edge of the empire is escalating in an alarming pace. A right timing — the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — has come for raising our alertness to any novel and probably more penetrating form of totalitarianism.

[1] Wm. Roger Louis. “Hong Kong: The Critical Phase, 1945–1949.” The American Historical Review 102, no. 4 (1997): 1052–084. doi:10.2307/2170629.

[2] “Remarks by Vice President Pence at the Frederic V. Malek Memorial Lecture (Hong Kong Excerpts)”, URL=https://hk.usconsulate.gov/n-2019102401/.

[3] Daum, Andreas W. (2007), Kennedy in Berlin, Cambridge University Press, Pp. 36–38.

[4] “Has a New Cold War Really Begun? Why the Term Shouldn’t Apply to Today’s Great-Power Tensions”, Foreign Affairs (2018), URL=https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-03-27/has-new-cold-war-really-begun.

I tell the stories of Hong Kong before it is too late.