Facing Off Over the Berlin Wall
As activist Joshua Wong spoke in the German capital this week, right on the heels of a visit to China by Chancellor Angela Merkel, he invoked the Cold War and the Berlin Wall while reiterating his cause for free elections and greater autonomy in Hong Kong. A social media account operated by the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper quickly went on the attack.
This month German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her 12th official visit to China, joined by a delegation of German businesspeople. During Merkel's trip, the growing economic relationship – China accounted for nearly $100 billion of German exports in 2017 – was a crucial part of the agenda, particularly amid fears of an economic downturn in Germany.
But the human rights situation in China, including ongoing protests in Hong Kong, were a looming question that complicated the agenda ahead of Merkel's trip. On September 3, Hong Kong activists, including activist Joshua Wong, penned an open letter to Merkel that appeared in Germany's Bild newspaper, urging her to recall her own experiences growing up in the Soviet-backed German Democratic Republic (GDR). "You have first-hand experience,"the letter said, "of the terrors of a dictatorial government."
Now, in the wake of Merkel's trip, and less than two months away from the 30th anniversary on November 9 of the fall of the Berlin Wall that divided East from West in Germany, the wall itself has become a potent and contested symbol overhanging the question of rights in Hong Kong and China's strongly worded counter-messaging.
This week, en route to the United States, where he is scheduled to speak on September 17 at a congressional hearing on "the future of U.S.-Hong Kong relations in light of the ongoing demonstrations," Joshua Wong visited Berlin. He was hosted Monday night at a dinner arranged by Bild, where he spoke briefly with Germany's foreign minister, Heiko Maas. “If we are now in a new cold war, Hong Kong is the new Berlin,” Wong reportedly said in a brief address to those gathered at the event, held at a rooftop reception space at the Reichstag building, not far from where the Berlin Wall once stood. “We urge the free world to stand together with us in resisting the autocratic Chinese regime.”
Today, the Chinese Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper struck back through its official account on the popular WeChat platform against the suggestion that Hong Kong is the new Berlin, a symbol of division in a new Cold War.
Unlike articles appearing in the print edition of the official People's Daily, the social media post – labelled as a "Tough Comments" (人民锐评) column – is directed at a larger and more popular audience. The language it employs is less measured than one would generally find in the print newspaper, dispensing with diplomacy in favor of more direct and confrontational statements.
The post includes a cartoon in which activist Joshua Wong is depicted as a marionette with a serpent's tongue, screaming into a megaphone, his strings leading up to a raptor-like hand that is striped red-white-and-blue, an unmistakable reference to allegations, often repeated in official Chinese propaganda, that the United States has encouraged and led the Hong Kong protests behind the scenes.
The post includes a cartoon in which activist Joshua Wong is depicted as a marionette with a serpent's tongue, screaming into a megaphone.
Wong is referred to in the social media post with the emotive prefix "causer of chaos in Hong Kong" (乱港分子), and the headline of the piece refers to Wong's Berlin Wall reference as a "door-knocker brick" (敲门砖), or "expedient tool," that is used to evoke sympathy from "Western politicians."
According to the People's Daily post, Wong delivered a speech "beside the Berlin Wall" in which he compared Hong Kong with Berlin during the Cold War. This is itself a dramatization, as Wong's meeting was never positioned in this way – though former sites and remnants of the wall are often an unmistakable presence in today's Berlin.
But while the post heaps scorn on Wong's reference to the Berlin Wall, it too seizes eagerly on the symbolism of the wall, turning it to other purposes (bold portions are bolded in the Chinese original):
"...[T]o compare Hong Kong to Berlin, this shows ignorance of history and confusion about reality. The Hong Kong question is entirely a matter of China's internal affairs, and if the Hong Kong situation continues to worsen, and such a situation emerges that the SAR government is incapable of controlling the disorder, then according to the stipulations of the Basic Law, the Central Government has sufficient methods, and sufficiently strong forces to quickly subdue any form of disorder that might emerge. China absolutely will not permit outside forces to use Hong Kong to carry out subversive and separatist activities, and Hong Kong will not become like Berlin as it was sacrificed by the US-Soviet battle for hegemony."
While Wong refers to the democracy movements in East Germany 30 years ago that resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall, the People's Daily post stresses the history of the divided city of Berlin as a process of victimization of the Berlin and German people, who are caught in the middle of battles between foreign forces. This is a redirection of the Berlin Wall narrative that fits snugly with China's frequent characterization of Hong Kong as a territory thrown into chaos by foreign forces.
At numerous points, the post panders to the notions of foreign conspiracy, suggesting that Joshua Wong and "others" are interested only in sowing chaos in Hong Kong by aligning with unspecified "outside forces." The piece is also liberal with hyperbolic language – such as that Wong is "wishing Western forces would immediately takeover Hong Kong."
The People's Daily post continues by contrasting the brief and informal meeting between Joshua Wong and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas with Merkel's "clearly expressed support" during her recent visit to China for the “one country, two systems” formula for Hong Kong, suggesting there is diplomatic inconsistency or deception at play. It then follows with the rather brazen suggestion that the meeting was "a violation of basic international law and the basic principles of international relations":
"Anyone with clear vision can see that this sort of language is [as ineffective as] an ant trying to shake a tree. But the listeners have their own intentions. Just as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has clearly expressed support during her visit to China of “one country, two systems,” opposing violence, Germany's foreign minister, Heiko Maas, undisguisedly meets with someone like this Joshua Wong. In fact, Maas is himself quite clear that the mutual interests between China and Germany are great, and there is no way he can play some "Hong Kong card." This sort of meeting is just a pretense seeking attention, a political show. But even though this is the case, this is also a violation of basic international law and the basic principles of international relations, and it damages China-German relations. "
Joshua Wong's visit was also a focus of interest in the German media this week. While most media viewed Wong as "the face of the protests" in Hong Kong, the question of what impact the Maas-Wong meeting might have on Sino-German relations was a topic of lively discussion, with widely varying views.
The newspaper Tagesspiegel interviewed two experts. The first, political scientist and foreign policy expert Johannes Varwick from the University of Halle, criticized Maas' meeting with Wong, calling the action "an unnecessary provocation." A more pragmatic approach, suggested Varwick, would have been to "push peacefully behind the scenes and stay in dialogue."
Asia expert Volker Stanzel from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), a former ambassador to Beijing, defended the meeting and said he would not expect Beijing to respond with anything more than harsh rhetoric and a "discussion" with the current German ambassador in Beijing. Stanzel said that Germany's federal government has "obviously been carefully calibrated" in its approach in dealing with Wong. The government did not arrange a meeting between Wong and Merkel, and the foreign minister met with Wong outside the official residence. It is also possible, said Stanzel, that the Chinese side had been informed in advance of the brief meeting. Stanzel concluded that China is unlikely to let the incident impact relations, even if Heiko Maas cannot probably expect to be a much-loved dialogue partner in the future. "Beijing will not drive relations into a new ice age," said Stanzel.
For all of its harsh words and apparent fury, a closer reading of the post from the WeChat account of the People's Daily might support Stanzel's analysis. The anger, in the end, is directed not at Germany, but at the United States:
"Faced with China's rapid development, certain Western politicians find this difficult to bear and harbor prejudice and hostility in their hearts, deliberately seeking to contain China. The "human rights card" and the "trade card" are basically one and the same thing, both tools they wield with less and less effectiveness to pressure China. Just two days ago in the Wall Street Journal, the financier George Soros said that "my interest in defeating Xi Jinping’s China goes beyond U.S. national interests." [NOTE: The Chinese original here makes no reference to "Xi Jinping's China," but opts to translate just as "China."] Joshua Wong's description of Hong Kong as "the new Berlin" caters to the abundantly clear views of people such as this."