The Divides That Make Hong Kong and West Berlin

The two cities have had shared stresses, balancing radically different ideologies.

A large group of people wave Chinese flags.
Hong Kong residents wave Chinese flags during the lead-up to the handover of the city from Britain to China in 1997. (Claro Cortes / Reuters)

This article was updated at 11:20 ET on February 24, 2020.

Hong Kong and West Berlin stand about as far apart as two cities can be. Yet for most of the second half of the 20th century, they were doppelgängers in an important way: Each was a focal point of Cold War tensions, linked by the shared stresses of being a battleground for two diametrically opposed ideologies.

During the final dozen years of the last century, the unwinding of the Cold War changed each city in a profound way. For Berlin, Germany’s reunification made the city whole again. It is now the country’s capital and most important metropolis. Walking or driving around Berlin today, you can move between what were once parts of two very different cities without necessarily noticing you have done so. Checkpoint Charlie is now a museum, and the last guard tower near the wall on the east side, from which soldiers sometimes shot at escapees heading for the west, is the focus of a historical preservation effort. Your choice of magazines and newspapers does not depend on where you are in the city. If you prefer digital forms of information, the web works identically east and west of the old wall.

This article is an adapted excerpt from Wasserstrom’s upcoming book.

Hong Kong is different. In 1997, Britain handed over its prized colony to the People’s Republic of China, making it a special administrative region that was supposed to enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years. Freedoms of speech, assembly, and protest are still protected under the territory’s constitution, called the Basic Law. This was to be a grand experiment—these freedoms are not available anywhere on the Chinese mainland. In Hong Kong, you can buy biographies of and writings by the Dalai Lama; newspapers run articles that criticize and cartoons that mock the leaders of China’s Communist Party. The “Great Firewall” makes surfing the web a very different experience on opposite sides of the border separating the city from the rest of China. If you are on the mainland, unless you use a VPN to help you scale the digital wall, you get no access to Twitter, Facebook, The New York Times, The Atlantic, let alone specialized sites devoted to such varied things as The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a documentary about the Tiananmen protests and June 4 massacre of 1989, and the Shen Yun pageant, which is linked to the banned Falun Gong sect. By contrast, those who come to Hong Kong from Toronto, Toledo, Lisbon, or London are likely to notice little difference in using the web—except that their internet connection in Hong Kong will likely be faster, and their internet provider’s reach more extensive, than at home.

But in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, some differences between how lives are lived on opposite sides of the border have begun to blur or disappear. A new high-speed train that connects Hong Kong to the mainland cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, called the Express Rail Link, illustrates this change. According to the Basic Law, “No department of the Central People’s Government and no province, autonomous region, or municipality directly under the Central Government may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own.” But in part of a Express Rail Link terminal in Hong Kong that opened in 2018, all security is handled by mainland employees, and travelers are subject to mainland-Chinese laws instead of Hong Kong laws.

If you want a cellphone SIM card that works in Hong Kong and Macau—a former Portuguese colony that in 1999 followed its neighbor in becoming an SAR—as I did during my latest visit to the cities, buy one with Big Bay Area 10-Day Pre-paid Sim Card on the packaging in large type. This promises users that their plan will work not just in Hong Kong and Macau (which in recent years has seen more political and press freedom than in mainland cities, but less than in Hong Kong), but in cities across the border, such as Zhuhai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, that are also in the Pearl River Delta, recently termed the Greater Bay Area. The plan to more tightly integrate Hong Kong and Macau with mainland cities is scheduled to be completed in the 2020s, and includes large-scale development and infrastructure initiatives that were in place even before the plan was announced in 2019. The Express Rail Link is a case in point, as is the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge, a 34-mile bridge-and-tunnel system that is the longest sea crossing in the world. The project envisions a time when going from one SAR to the other or to mainland cities will be as effortless and natural as going from San Francisco to Oakland to Silicon Valley.

“We will no longer be Hong Kong people, but Greater Bay Area people,” Jonathan Choi Koon-shum, the chairman of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, told a journalist in a 2018 interview. He saw the plan as a potentially positive development, and encouraged residents to “focus on integration rather than on the interests of Hong Kong.”

Using a Greater Bay Area SIM card to make phone calls in various cities can be a seamless experience, but surfing the web in Shenzhen is not—I would be unable to read The New York Times or learn more about the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, easy things to do in Hong Kong and Macau.

I wonder whether Hong Kong–based Greater Bay Area boosters, such as Choi, fully understand what will happen if the digital border marked by the Great Firewall vanishes. Do they somehow imagine that surfing the web in Shenzhen will become just like surfing the web in Hong Kong and Macau? It is much more likely that the opposite would happen: that both SARs would end up behind the firewall.

There are still others who do not see the process as all that important. Consider the following exchange that Lily Kuo, the Beijing bureau chief for The Guardian, had in 2018 when writing about the way that new transportation routes were making the borders within the Pearl River Delta less obvious: “Lai Youyou, on her way to Hong Kong from Shenzhen with her friend to go shopping, shrugs when asked if she worries the distinction between Hong Kong and mainland China is disappearing. ‘It’s all the same,’ she says. ‘We can go there. They can come here.’”

But it is not the same. The David-and-Goliath struggle under way in Hong Kong can be seen as partly rooted in contrasting views of the significance of borders and what happens as they blur or disappear. Some people welcome the fading distinctions between Hong Kong and mainland cities—or at least do not worry about them much. This can be because they see the Communist Party as a benevolent organization, or for pragmatic reasons, as is the case with some people who work in Hong Kong but live in Shenzhen, where rents are not as astronomically high.

Others treasure the many aspects of local life, including a vibrant civil society and courts that operate with more independence from other government bodies, that make Hong Kong distinctive—and freer—than the mainland. For them, Beijing having direct and total control over part of a train station located in the heart of Hong Kong conjures a sense of outrage not so different from what a resident of West Berlin might have felt on learning that Checkpoint Charlie was to be controlled by the Stasi.

In 2015, five people from Hong Kong associated with a publishing house and bookstore known for producing gossipy, lightly sourced exposés of the private lives of Beijing leaders went missing. One, Gui Minhai, was living in Thailand and held a Swedish passport when he was taken to the mainland, while the others were living in Hong Kong and did not have deep ties to any other place. Four were pressured into making televised “confessions” as the price of regaining their freedom; Gui, despite ongoing efforts by Swedish diplomats and others abroad to draw attention to his situation and secure his release, remains detained on the mainland. This set of abductions made headlines around the world, then was soon forgotten as new crises occurred. But it haunts many in Hong Kong.

The episode seems like a John le Carré plot. (Indeed, the parallel between Hong Kong and West Berlin was not lost on le Carré. When the author of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold decided to set a novel in Asia in the late 1970s, he opened The Honourable Schoolboy with scenes in Hong Kong.) Many in Hong Kong now worry that Beijing and its local proxies will be able to arrest them openly in the future, without having to resort to Carré-esque cloak-and-dagger subterfuge. The protest leader Agnes Chow modified a famous verse by Martin Niemöller—about people failing to act when others are targeted by the authorities, because they think they are safe from the same fate—in an early-2016 YouTube video that within days had been watched by hundreds of thousands of people. Chow’s reworking opens with “First they came for the activist,” and goes on to describe journalists and then booksellers being whisked away.

It is no longer just activists who are concerned. This is shown by the size of the crowds, made up of people from all walks of life, that have flooded Hong Kong’s streets since last June. Varied grievances have inspired people to turn out for demonstrations, including anger that the police were too aggressive in handling previous ones. Still, the original trigger for the ongoing series of marches was a proposed extradition law. Opponents of the bill insisted that if it was implemented, it would become far too easy for all kinds of residents, and even for international travelers, to disappear from Hong Kong and reappear in mainland prisons, with as little chance of a fair trial as a West Berlin resident would have had if he or she had ended up being tried on the other side of the wall.

As I have spent time in Hong Kong in recent years, I have wanted to meet or see again people who have been put into jail cells. An interest in what has disappeared in Hong Kong, what has not, and what could in the future—a theme that writers such as the cultural critic Ackbar Abbas have explored in previous books on the city—provided a background for a research trip across the Pacific that I took last June to prepare for writing this book. I was determined to get to Hong Kong ahead of the 30th anniversary of the June 4 massacre, to take part in a tradition that I feared someday might be added to the ever-growing list of things that used to be part of the Hong Kong political landscape: a vigil held in Victoria Park, in the heart of Hong Kong, to commemorate the death of at least hundreds, probably thousands, at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army. Despite devoting much of my career to the study of Chinese student movements, including the Tiananmen struggle, I had never been in Hong Kong when this ceremony took place.

To worry about a future in which June 4 vigils cannot be held in Hong Kong, or can be held only in a less central and less impressive setting than Victoria Park, is justified. Since 1989, no public commemorations of the June 4 massacre have been allowed anywhere on the mainland. And in recent years, far from relaxing the policing, authorities have even curtailed private mourning of the martyrs in cities such as Beijing.

I am glad I took part in last year’s vigil. The moment midway through the gathering when the crowd fell silent and I joined others in holding up a candle in memory of the martyrs was a magical moment. The reflection of flickering flames on the ground combined with the twinkle of stars and the glow of tall buildings nearby to create a unique spectacle in a city known for its glittering light displays. The mood throughout the event was solemn, but with an undertone of hopefulness. The event’s turnout of about 180,000 people was not quite as large as its peak, but it was bigger than expected and surpassed the size of the crowd in the past couple of years. Attendees attributed this to growing outrage over the proposed extradition law, which many in Hong Kong feel is a direct assault on the “one country, two systems” framework.

Most of the speeches delivered and songs sung reflected on past tragic acts of violence, but with the extradition law on attendees’ minds, the event ended on a forward-looking note. Speakers called on the crowd to take part in the march planned for the coming Sunday. Outrage continued to build in the days that followed the vigil, so it was no surprise that many attendees heeded the speakers, alongside an enormous number of people who had not been at Victoria Park. The fight against the bill had come to seem a life-and-death matter. This was reinforced by the fact that in Cantonese, the main three-character term for “anti-extradition,” while literally meaning “opposed sending to China,” includes two characters that are both homophones for “send off a dying relative” and also “give someone a clock” (slang for wishing death on the recipient).

On June 9, two days after my trip to Hong Kong concluded, an estimated 1 million people took to the streets to show how determined they were not to let their community die without a fight.

This article is adapted from Wasserstrom’s upcoming book, Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink.