Skip to main content
Berlin Wall 1.png

Original illustration by Alice Tse. 

01:35 pm | 8. November 2019

China’s Berlin Wall

As Germany celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dramatic changes brought by the events of 1989, the anniversary will pass quietly in China.

By Qian Gang

For decades in China, the Berlin Wall has been a potent political symbol. But the wall’s meaning for the Chinese leadership has shifted back and forth over time. In the wake of the Second World War, the wall symbolized the oppressive and divisive powers of the capitalist West. As Sino-Soviet relations soured, the wall focused criticism on Soviet hegemony. And as political change gripped Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, the wall directed reflection back on “the East” and the fate of both China and the communist world.

Today, as China slips back into a more hardline posture reviving Mao-era sentiments about “the east wind prevailing over the west wind,” the symbolic meaning of the wall seems to have come full circle. A look back on the wall’s unique history in China can tell us a great deal about Chinese politics of yesterday and today.

BW 2-2.png

A People's Daily article on December  3, 1950, describes the postwar environment in Berlin. 

The Democratic and the Western

On the evening of December 3, 1950, a Chinese journalist for the official People’s Daily newspaper checked into a guest house situated on the boundary between East and West near Berlin’s Thälmannplatz, which had previously been known as Wilhelmplatz. Outside the journalist’s window came the incessant sound of hammering as workers continued to clear away rubble left in the wake of the war.

Here is how the journalist, Qian Xin – identified by the penname "Zhong Huai" – described East and West:

. . . . [People from] the two districts can cross the border freely in peacetime, and no one watches at the border, but one can easily tell which is the democratic district, and which is the west-occupied district.

On June 17, 1953, workers building Stalinallee, the monumental socialist boulevard planned along the former Große Frankfurter Straße, went on strike to protest the raising of work quotas by the East German leadership, and a wave of protests swept across East Germany. In the aftermath of what later became known in the West as the “East German Uprising” of June 17, 1953, brutally suppressed by Soviet forces, the People’s Daily reprinted multiple articles from the Soviet press, emphasizing that the riot was created by “foreign forces” from West Berlin – a characterization that should sound quite familiar in light recent tensions in Hong Kong. One headline in the newspaper read: “How Was the Berlin Incident Manufactured?”

At this period in the 1950s, when the Berlin Wall had not yet been constructed, People’s Daily reports stood firmly with the East. According to this narrative, the East was happy and the West was miserable. While workers in the East lived in comfortable apartments, workers in the West lived in dungeon-like conditions. While women in the East worked enthusiastically in factory jobs, women in the West were driven into prostitution. While goods were abundant in the East, inflation was a constant problem in the West.

BW 3.png

Public domain image from Bundesarchiv of the "East German Uprising," superimposed with report by the People's Daily

“There is only one Berlin, but in Berlin there are two different social systems,” wrote Zhang Pei, a People’s Daily reporter. “Over time, the people will learn from the facts which system is good, and which system is bad.”

On August 13, 1961, East Germany started work on the building of the wall. The People’s Daily published a related speech delivered by East German leader Walter Ulbricht on August 18, but Ulbricht’s speech made no actual mention of the wall. The term conveyed in the People’s Daily report, mirroring the wording in East Germany, was “a security measure to protect the boundary in Berlin.”

In the early 1960s, relations deteriorated between China and the Soviet Union, and China under Mao Zedong intensified its public opinion war, driven by propaganda in publications like the People’s Daily, against so-called “revisionism.” The Sino-Soviet split meant for China the gradual shutting out of East Germany. In 1964 and 1965, visits were made to the “Berlin border wall” (柏林边界墙) respectively by Yun Ze, the vice-premier also known as Ulanhu, and by vice-premier Lu Dingyi.

The term conveyed in the People’s Daily report, mirroring the discourse in East Germany, was “a security measure to protect the boundary in Berlin.”

 

One final exchange came on National Day in 1966, as the People’s Daily published congratulatory telegrams from East German leaders, including Ulbricht. But these were final bursts of warmth before a freeze came that would grip relations for several years.

On April 30, 1967, as the Cultural Revolution went into full swing with Mao Zedong’s call for a “full-fledged civil war,” the People’s Daily bitterly attacked “Ulbricht and his like, the loyal followers of the Soviet revisionists,” which it said “beat their drums and recklessly slander China.”

PD mao.png

A report in the People's Daily on August 28, 1968, reports great love for Mao Zedong in Eastern Europe. 

The People’s Daily also hyped up the love that it said the people of Eastern Europe felt for Mao Zedong. A report on August 28, 1968, said:

. . . . [An] East German friend under the rule of Ulbricht’s clan finally obtained a German version of the Quotations of Chairman Mao. Having the treasured book in his possession, he opened it up to the title page, gazed at the portrait of great leader Chairman Mao, and said with a profound sense of love to Chinese comrades that his family was too poor to afford electricity, that he was forced to study under a street lamp.

In the early 1970s, China adjusted its policy toward Eastern Europe. It continued to speak out against the Soviet Union, but treated other countries in the region with less aggression. The People’s Daily briefly reported in 1971 on the reception of a new Chinese ambassador by the Ulbricht government, and later, in August 1973, reported Ulbricht’s death.

By 1973, relations with West Germany were gradually improving as well. In 1973, the People’s Daily reported on a visit to China of the director of West German Broadcasting (WDR). And by 1975, we find the official Xinhua News Agency drawing on reports in the West German media to attack the Soviet Union.

It was in the context of avowed hatred for the Soviet Union and so-called “socialist imperialism” the “hegemonism” that the Berlin Wall made its debut in the People’s Daily on August 8, 1976. By this point it had been almost exactly 15 years since the raising of the wall.

Equating Soviet “Revisionism” with Nazism

The first piece in the People’s Daily mentioning the Berlin Wall is a fascinating report that may surprise some. It is more sympathetic to West Germany, and sharply critical of East Germany and the Soviet Union. The report came, in fact, during an extremely turbulent period for China. This was just four months after the death of Zhou Enlai and the suppression by the Gang of Four of the Tiananmen Incident, following by just 11 days the disastrous Great Tangshan Earthquake – and it was almost exactly one month before the death of Mao Zedong, and two months before the arrest of the Gang of Four.

By August of 1976, the tragic period of the Cultural Revolution was edging to a close, though Deng Xiaoping had not yet re- emerged to set the country on the reform path.

In the People's Daily report, the unidentified reporter writes that, “[T]ravelling by train, I crossed the borders of the two Germanies, arriving in West Berlin, and I witnessed two countries ripped apart, and a city ripped apart.” The report describes in the center of Berlin as “a dead city without people,” which is “surrounded by barbed wire and the Berlin Wall.”

002__mauerbau-in-berlin-im-august-1961.jpg

Construction begins on the Berlin Wall in August 1961. Photo by Helmut J. Wolf available from the Bundesarchiv, Bild 173-1321. 

Travelling West toward Bonn, referred to by this time as the “federal capital,” the reporter writes with obvious sympathy for the West:

As we visited the Federal Republic of Germany, we saw in the people and the army of West Germany their determination and power in defending the sovereignty and security of the country and fighting back against invaders. The Soviet revisionists, though they may seem thunderous and strong, are doomed to fail as they expand and invade, just as Hitler, who was once all-powerful, was finally buried by the fury of those fighting against invasion.

The next year, on April 10, 1979, the People’s Daily published a report called “Dangerous Love.” This was a gripping tale of spies and romance – not the sort of material we generally associate with the Party’s mouthpiece newspaper. The article began:

[T]he Berlin Wall divided Berlin into the East half and the West half. The opening at Friedrichstraße is a transit point for East and West German people. Men and women, old and young, emerge from the border checkpoint – but of particular interest are a handful of strikingly handsome young men. . . .

The article mentions a supposed case involving six West German girls who fell for handsome men who later proved to be Soviet agents working for the KGB, including one who reportedly managed to infiltrate NATO headquarters. The theme of the article is the penetration of the West by hostile outsiders intent upon sabotage. The outsiders, the foreign forces, are no longer coming, as they had in the earlier case of the East German Uprising, from the West to the East, but rather the other way around.  

This was a gripping tale of spies and romance – not the sort of material we generally associate with the Party’s mouthpiece newspaper.

 

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Day of 1979 led to a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics by Western countries. China joined the boycott, and the People’s Daily – which in the past had so frequently excerpted reports from the Soviet newspaper Pravda – ran a report attributed to American media in which the writer visited the old Olympic Stadium in Berlin and compared the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany. “Finally, I left the sad, silent stadium,” the writer said. “I took the subway, then walked a bit until I came to Checkpoint Charlie, where there was no sign of relief. Behind the barbed wire and the minefield, at the opening of the Berlin Wall, were the disciplined detectives of another Germany.

Gedenktafel_Straße_des_17_Juni_(Tierg)_Ronald_Reagan-small.jpg

Memorial plaque to Ronald Reagan commemorating his speech at the Berlin Wall, located on Straße des 17 Juni in Berlin. Image from Wikimedia Commons available under CC license.

The image of West Berlin in the Chinese press in the 1980s was a far cry from the demonization of the 1950s. It was a beautiful and prosperous space, one report noting the odd fact that the output of its economy has surpassed that of Portugal. The attitude toward the Berlin Wall remained quite neutral. One report in the People’s Daily even noted that when it came to the reasons for building the wall, it was “the East’s word against the West’s.” While the GDR insisted the wall prevented hostile actions from the West, the West insisted the East had built the wall to prevent East Germans from fleeing westward.

By the mid 1980s, tensions between China and the Soviet Union were easing at last as China turned its energies to reform and opening over the ideological squabbles of the past. This brought an obviously less hostile tone toward East Germany and its leaders. On August 15, 1986, the People’s Daily reported on a speech by East German leader Erich Honecker two days earlier to “commemorate the 25th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall.” According to the newspaper, Honecker had emphasized the inviolability of the border and its role in preserving peace.

On June 15, 1987, the People’s Daily reported on the June 13 visit by US president Ronald Reagan to West Berlin, during which Reagan urged Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” The headline in the newspaper read: “Reagan Makes Provocative Speech in Berlin (West), USSR and GDR Respond Fiercely to Reagan’s Speech.”

Less than two years later, the events of 1989, a painful year for China, would culminate in Berlin with the end of the Berlin Wall.

Chinese Solutions

Looking at two reports appearing in the People’s Daily in 1989, just over nine months apart, we can clearly see one of the most dramatic questions that hung in the air in the fall of that pivotal year. The first report, appearing on January 21, is Honecker’s affirmation that the Berlin Wall must continue to stand, contrary to Reagan’s words. The headline of the report reads: “Honecker Says Berlin Wall Must Continue to Exist: Soviet Foreign Affairs Minister Says the Berlin Wall is an Internal Matter for the GDR.”

2 articles.png

Reports in the People's Daily from January and October 1989 show East Germany facing dramatic change -- if you read between the lines. 

The second report, appearing on October 10, is about a meeting in East Germany between Honecker and China’s visiting vice-premier, Yao Yilin, a hard-liner who had been among the senior leaders in the CCP’s Politburo to sanction the crackdown on demonstrations in Beijing on June 4. That headline read: “Honecker Meets With Yao Yilin, Emphasizes Adherence to the Leadership of the Party.”

Media in the West at the time also reported that Honecker and Yao had agreed that events in East Germany pointed to “a particularly aggressive anti-socialist action by imperialist class opponents with the aim of reversing socialist development.'' Not surprisingly, the People’s Daily article contains no reference to the events of June 4, saying only that Yao and Honecker agreed that the leadership of the Communist Party must continue in East Germany in the 1990s. But Honecker clearly stands here with China’s hard-liners, and he is known to have said at the time that “there is a fundamental lesson to be learned from the counterrevolutionary unrest in Beijing and the present campaign [in the GDR].''

The statement of solidarity between the SED and the Chinese Communist Party was understood as a clear political signal to the opposition movement in East Germany that the leadership was prepared to implement a "Chinese solution" to ongoing opposition.  

It was only a matter of days from the second People’s Daily article, however, that Honecker was driven from the stage, replaced during a Politburo meeting by Egon Krenz. The news was reported five days later in the People’s Daily as though the change was a routine matter, rather than an indication of deeper uncertainty about the future of the GDR.

demostration-against-china-1989.jpg

A demonstration by youth in East Germany outside a church in June 1989, protesting the June 4th crackdown in Beijing. The sign to the left reads in Chinese: "Democracy." Image from the project Youth Opposition in the GDR available for free use. 

Three weeks later, late at night on November 9, 1989, checkpoints were opened at the border crossing at Bornholmer Straße after a chaotic press conference earlier in the day by Günter Schabowski, a spokesman for the Politburo of the SED, suggesting that the wall would be opened with immediate effect. East Germans flooded through the crossing, where they were welcomed by residents in West Berlin. The wall had fallen.

The news the next day in the People’s Daily read: “GDR Announces Opening of the Border.”

The collapse of the Berlin Wall, and eventually of the entire Soviet camp, was a huge embarrassment for China in aftermath of June Fourth. The People’s Daily was as discreet as it could be in reporting and commenting on the so-called “wave in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.”

You can spot the leadership’s inclination just by looking at the odd reports here and there in the People’s Daily of the situation with Erich Honecker, the former East German leader. In March 1990, the paper reported that Honecker had traveled to Moscow for treatment in the hospital. In      December the same year, he was reported to have arrived in North Korea for medical treatment. All of this masked in the Chinese headlines the drama surrounding the investigation of Honecker in Germany and his asylum attempts in Moscow and Chile before his eventual arrest on July 29, 1992.

A report on December 5, 1992, quoted Honecker at trial defending his actions in building the Berlin Wall, which he characterized as an act of peace. “Building the Berlin Wall was decision made by the National Conference of the Warsaw Pact on August 5, 1961 in Moscow,” Honecker was quoted as saying. “It was a right decision at the time, and had it not been for [this decision], nuclear war might have broken out in Europe.”

nyt pd.png

An editorial in the New York Times on January 30, 1997, draws a fierce response from Chinese leaders in the People's Daily one week later. 

Economic Opening, Political Closing

On January 30, 1997, the New York Times published an editorial called “The Berlin Wall and China,” which looked[at the question of why, when the USSR and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe had been dramatically transformed, China had resisted political change. The article suggested that communism in China as “mutating into a new form that tolerates economic liberties while still suffocating political freedom.” It urged President Clinton to pressure China on human rights and domestic political reform, and insisted that America uphold its principles while doing business with China – at a period when the United States and China were engaged in negotiations over a trade deal that would lead to China’s membership in the World Trade Organization.

The New York Times article infuriated Chinese Communist Party leaders. On February 6, 1997, the People’s Daily struck back with a fiery editorial. The response did not at all attempt to defend as legitimate the autocratic system that had prevailed behind the Berlin Wall, but only stated in a generic manner that China in fact valued human rights and rule of law, and was working toward political reform. The message seemed to be  that China was moving with the tide of history, but that I just needed time.

Media Push the Boundaries

By the time of the fiery editorial in the People’s Daily responding to the New York Times, media in China were already undergoing profound change, despite the continued determination of the Party to maintain social and political controls of which media controls were seen as an important part. A whole new generation of commercial newspapers and magazines had sprung up in China’s cities to cater to increasingly savvy Chinese readers thirsty for information, and they could often be found pushing the boundaries.

At the time of the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1999, these media were still in their relative infancy. But by the twentieth anniversary in 2009, they were feeling bolder and were ready to speak up and explore the deeper meaning of the wall and the collapse of the political system it had symbolized. By this time, too, China had a vibrant internet that was an important part of the story of media transformation, and that Chinese were eager to use to express themselves –even if the internet had itself by this time been enclosed by its own wall, the so-called “Great Firewall,” a technical system to contain China’s information landscape from the outside world.

The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 2009 became a small flashpoint over more daring coverage of the event.

 

2009, in fact, marked a high point in the ongoing cat and mouse game between the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to assert press controls, what since the crackdown of June Fourth they had called “guidance of public opinion,” and the efforts of more outspoken media to push alternative agendas. In June 2008, ahead of the Beijing Olympics, the top leader, Hu Jintao, had introduced a new policy designed to emphasize information and narratives driven by trusted state media over more outspoken commercial media, but this had been complicated again by the emergence of online blogs and social media platforms like Weibo.

The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 2009 became a small flashpoint over more daring coverage of the event.

In November 2009, the influential journal Yanhuang Chunqiu, a publication focusing on history and politics that was championed by liberal figures within the Party, published a lengthy article by by Li Ying, at the time a senior editor at Worker’s Daily. Li, who had studied abroad in West Germany, told the story of the origins of the Berlin Wall, and shared tragic accounts of East Berliners attempting to make it over the wall, as well as the events leading up to its collapse.

YHCQ 1 layout.png

The November 2009 edition of the influential journal Yanhuang Chunqiu covers the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Li wrote, mixing in references to both the Brothers Grimm and Patrick Henry:

To ordinary Germans, the Berlin Wall does not represent abstract political concepts such as the Cold War between East and West . . . . but rather hundreds and thousands of tragic and bitter accounts of the regular people. These nobodies, with extraordinary wisdom and courage, and even at the sacrifice of their lives, added a new tale for a country famed for its fairy tales. The tale’s name is, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

The next month, Yanhuang Chunqiu continued its coverage of the Berlin Wall anniversary with references that hit very close to home, given the constant struggle of publications like Yanhuang Chunqiu faced in dealing with the Chinese leadership’s efforts to “guide public opinion.” The article by writer Ya Siming was called, “The Public Opinion Tide Before the Fall of the Berlin Wall.”

YHCQ 2nd feature.png

The December 2009 edition of Yanhuang Chunqiu. 

Ya’s article looked in some detail at how the SED, which had ruled the East Germany under a single- party dictatorship for four decades, had ultimately lost its regime. It talked about the development of grassroots freedom movements in East Germany, and looked also at the emergence of underground magazines in East Berlin before the fall of the wall.

At one point, Ya wrote, to the sure discomfort of Party hard-liners:

To his death,  the former East German leader Erich Honecker attributed [what he called] the “anti-revolutionary coup d’état” to intervention from foreign hostile forces.” But 20 years have passed, and the story of  how this “anti-fascist defense wall” fell of its own without attack has been molded by Western media into a model of “freedom urging the people forward.” The underlying principle behind the  story of how a “movement of liberalization” begun at the grassroots could so easily and irresistibly topple the wall is ultimately: “He who goes against the will of the people shall perish.”

Yanhuang Chunchiu was not alone in pushing the boundaries. In 2009, the Nanfang Media Group in China’s southern Guangdong province, long a bastion of the more liberal press,  was enduring major pressure from propaganda authorities. Two leading publications under the group, Southern Weekly and Southern Metropolis Daily, had been severely punished for their critical reporting the previous year on the earthquake in Sichuan. But as the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall drew near, Southern Metropolis Weekly, a magazine under the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, ran the risk of publishing, right under the noses of the censors, a special report called “Twenty Years After the Demolition of the Wall.”

SMW 2.png

Guangzhou's Southern Metropolis Weekly, runs a special feature in 2009 on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

Shen Yachuan, the magazine’s lead writer under the penname “Shifeike,” interviewed many important sources for the story, including the former East German border guard Günter Leo; Rainer Eppelmann, chairman of the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship; Cliewe Juritza, a former prisoner held in an East German secret police jail for “illegally crossing the national boarder”; and the Berlin Center for the Treatment of Torture Victims (BZFO).

While visiting the BZFO, Shen was pelted with questions that he had not anticipated. Before he could even start with his questions, he wrote, the spokesperson from the center and other staffers took him to task. They wanted to know why he was reporting on this place. Doesn’t China force confessions by torture? Could Shen’s report even be published given China’s controls on the press? What sort of treatment could Shen expect when he returned to China?

The spokesperson from the center took [the Chinese journalist] to task. They wanted to know why he was reporting on this place. Doesn’t China force confessions by torture?

 

In a telling illustration of the incredible courage of Chinese journalists at that time, so difficult to imagine now, in an era of redoubled controls, Shen’s notes on these exchanges were also published in Guangzhou’s Time Weekly.

Such frank reporting and discussion of the Berlin Wall behind China’s own “Great Firewall” was almost a miraculous occurrence. At the end of 2009, Southern Weekly also ran a tribute to its series of articles on the Berlin Wall anniversary, which it clearly viewed as a professional high mark. The writers published the articles on their personal online blogs, and they were archived also on a special blog site called “The Muckraker,” which included articles from other sources – including one published by BBC Chinese by scholar Liu Junning (“Why the Berlin Wall Fell”).

muckraker.png

The Chinese blog "Muckraker" archives coverage of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a point of pride for Chinese journalists. 

Another report archived at “The Muckraker” was written for the magazine New Weekly by scholar Liu Yu, and included this passage, an artful example of the way writers in China employ imagery and implication in a system that does not often reward directness:

The human mind is full of wisdom, but our feet have their own propositions. They may not be so well-spoken, but they love freedom, and they have a keen sense. More importantly, they are always more honest than our hands, which hoist slogans high up in the air, or our eloquent mouths, or our brains and their raging hormones. They have enough modesty to yield to basic good sense.

As I said before, 2009 was a year of rapid growth for blogs and social media in China. And while Twitter had been blocked in China just a few months before the Berlin Wall anniversary, many Chinese still managed to use VPNS to “climb over” the “Great Firewall.”

In Germany, Kulturprojekte Berlin GmbH created a “berlintwitterwall to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. On this wall, readers were encouraged to express their views and share their stories. Before long, Chinese posts began appearing on the virtual wall.

Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall was pushed over,” read one Chinese post. “Twenty years later, and an invisible wall encloses the internet, and it blocks the walk toward freedom.” Another wrote: “You builders of the Great Firewall, you are entrapping all people who love peace and freedom, and you are entrapping your own heart and body, so that you will never have a day of peace.”

Wall online.png

"Berlintwitterwall," created by Kulturprojekte Berlin GmbH to mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall draws interest from Chinese users. 

“Here from within the Great Firewall, I count the days it will continue to stand,” said another Chinese poster. “I may grow old, but some day it will fall.“

A few days after the launch of the project, Kulturprojekte Berlin GmbH reported that the site had been blocked from China. Of the approximately 3,000 posts made to the site up to that time nearly half had been written in Chinese.  

Silence Beyond the Wall

Chinese inside the wall must still wait. Since 2012, controls on information in China have grown more pronounced, and the Chinese Communist Party has reiterated its claim over all aspects of Chinese life. As Xi Jinping stated in his recent bulletin to the Fourth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee of the CCP: “The Party, the government, the army, society, the schools – north, south, east and west, the Party rules everything.”

This year, ten years after the encouraging reflections in the Chinese media and on the internet about the fall of the Berlin Wall, such reflections have been “walled” completely. Unlike the latter days of the Hu Jintao era, there is no space in the Xi Jinping’s “new era” for reflection on the disintegration of the former Soviet Union.

kulturprojekte-berlin-statsi.jpg

3D video projection​s on the former headquarters of the Stasi, the East German secret police, commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Image by Alexander Rentsch for Kulturprojekte Berlin

Instead, the Party prefers to complicate the narrative about the wall’s collapse by quoting out of context, and sometimes with what appears to be outright fabrication, the remarks of Western scholars. One of the best-loved quotes is that of German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who famously said: “It is not as though the collapse of the Berlin Wall has solved a single one of the problems specifically caused by our system.” These words, which Habermas meant to underscore his criticism of the capitalist system, have been repeated by Chinese state media, including the People’s Daily.

Another favorite remark is that of Joseph Nye, who said: "When the Berlin Wall finally collapsed, it was destroyed not by artillery barrage but by hammers and bulldozers wielded by those who had lost faith in communism." But this phrase has quite tellingly been doctored by the People's Daily and others, falsely attributing to Nye that statement that “a thousand holes had already been hacked in the Berlin Wall, before its fall, by Western television and movies.” This alteration of Nye's words creates the suggestion that Western media were responsible for changes in East Germany – fitting with the narrative China habitually uses to explain away domestic instances of opposition. 

False quotes or real, the intention is bald-faced – to pick apart the historical meaning of the fall of the Berlin Wall, so that China’s leaders do not feel enclosed by what it entails about their own leadership.

False quotes or real, the intention is bald-faced – to pick apart the historical meaning of the fall of the Berlin Wall, so that China’s leaders do not feel enclosed by what it entails about their own leadership.

 

Since 2013, over the span of the Xi Jinping era, a total of 29 articles on the People’s Daily have used the term “Berlin Wall.There were three in 2013, four in 2014, nine in 2015, seven in 2016, two in 2017, and four in 2018. And in 2019? There is not a single mention of the Berlin Wall this year, even as the anniversary arrives.

All but three of the 29 articles mentioning the “Berlin Wall” in the Xi Jinping era are critiques of the West. The remaining three are incidental mentions, one an article about the culture of graffiti, another about the ongoing process of reunification.

30 year-wall.jpg

An art installation at the Brandenburger Tor commemorates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Image © Kunstinstallation Patrick Shearn of Poetic Kinetics, curated by Kulturprojekte Berlin​, used with permission. 

China’s leaders today cannot talk about or even mention the Berlin Wall today without being highly alert to fears of a “color revolution.” The specter of a Soviet-style dissolution, a changing of the flags, runs deep in the consciousness of the Party.

Controls on public opinion around this critical question now depend primarily upon technology and the building of digital walls to enclose Chinese society. This project of enclosure is constantly transformed and “innovated," as was the physical barrier of the Berlin Wall by East Germany. The Great Firewall is now complemented by Skynet, a mass network for urban digital surveillance, and the Dazzling Snow Project, a similar initiative encompassing rural areas. AI is opening up possibilities Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, could only have dreamed of.

The Chinese character for “wall” is itself rich with potential meanings. One extended meaning, beyond the notion of a physical barrier, is “imprisonment.” But it can be applied now also as a verb, particularly in the face of widespread suppression of speech. To “wall” an utterance is to silence it, to stop it in its tracks. “Climbing the wall,” meanwhile, has become synonymous with resistance.

The character has inserted itself, thanks to the constant inventiveness of Chinese in the online space, even in the Party’s notion of itself in the Xi Jinping era as championing national strength, the words “strong” and “wall” being homonyms.  Xi Jinping speaks of China as a “strong nation,” or qiangguo (强国). Clever internet users have popularized instead the term “Wall Nation,” or qiangguo (墙国).

China seems increasingly a nation of barriers. On this anniversary of the Berlin Wall, it is perhaps an apt time to reflect anew on questions of China's future. What direction is “Wall Nation” heading?

 

This article was translated from the original Chinese by Elaine Wang. Additional context and editing by Echowall staff. 

8. November 2019
Author
Qian Gang

Qian Gang is a veteran Chinese journalist and media scholar whose career spans the reform era. Starting his journalism career in the late 1970s at a reporter for the People’s Liberation Army Daily, Mr. Qian was later managing editor of Southern Weekly, a leading professional newspaper of the reform period. He is currently co-director of the China Media Project, a research and fellowship program in partnership with the University of Hong Kong's Journalism & Media Studies Centre.