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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.