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Photograph of President Reagan giving a speech at the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, Federal Republic of Germany, on June 12, 1987. Public domain image from Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, available at Wikimedia Commons

10:10 am | November 9, 2019

The Wall and the US-China Trade War

Germans may celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall as a turning point for the country, and an end to repression and division. But in China's state media today, the wall is a symbol of US-China trade divisions. 

By David Bandurski

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As media scholar Qian Gang outlines in his story for Echowall about the history of the Berlin Wall’s portrayal in the Chinese press, the symbolic meaning of the wall for China has shifted through the decades, reflecting the fears and priorities of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. We can see an illuminating example of this in today’s edition of the People’s Daily, the Party’s official newspaper.

Crowds in Berlin today will celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall as an important turning point for Germany, as an end to repression and division. For China’s leaders today, however, the wall is not a European story at all. It is a symbol of the country’s economic rivalry with the United States. 

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An editorial by "Zhong Sheng" on page 3 of  today's People's Daily sharply criticizes remarks yesterday in Berlin by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

In an editorial on page three of the People’s Daily today, the Chinese leadership addressed remarks made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday at a forum in Berlin, during which he said that the Chinese Communist Party was “shaping a new vision of authoritarianism.” 

“[The] Chinese Communist Party uses tactics and methods to suppress its own people that would be horrifyingly familiar to former East Germans,” said Pompeo. 

Expressing similar concerns at the event, incoming EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, who previously served as Germany’s defense minister, urged a tougher position toward China and said the country had frustrated hopes in the West that it would progress toward greater freedoms.

The People’s Daily editorial accused Pompeo of “brandishing a heavy club of ideology” and “attacking China’s political system” while on his visit to Germany — and echoed yesterday’s language from Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, who said that “attempts to separate the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party are a provocation against the entire Chinese people and are doomed to fail.” 

The editorial, written under the penname "Zhong Sheng" (钟声), a homonym of "China's voice" that identifies it as coming from the top leadership, then brought the Berlin Wall into its criticism: 

One goal of Pompeo’s trip will be to take part in events for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Clearly, at this time of reassessment of history, he lacks deep reflection on the history of the Cold War, and even more has not seen clearly the direction of the world since the end of the Cold War. 

What direction might that be? For China's leadership, the crux of this historical lesson is not at all about political change but about broader economic development and engagement. 

For China's leadership, the crux of this historical lesson is not at all about political change but about broader economic development and engagement. 


The crucial walls for China are the ones that inhibit its trade agenda, and the final passage of the People's Daily makes this clear by turning the reference to the building of walls around on the US administration: 

US-China relations are at a crucial moment, and Secretary of State Pompeo should know that today when economic globalization has called for the “dismantling of walls” (拆墙), using ideological prejudice and zero-sum Cold War thinking to build high walls and prevent the development of the world and the progress of the times, is sure to be a futile farce. 

According to our database search covering hundreds of Chinese newspapers and magazines, just six articles mention the "Berlin Wall" inside China today, aside from the People's Daily editorial. Quite tellingly, four of these six articles come from the Global Times, a tabloid spin-off of the official People's Daily that focusses on coverage of international affairs with a clear nationalistic slant. 

All of these articles generally follow the same line as the People's Daily piece, that the wall is a symbol of present-day Cold War mentalities on the part of the United States and China's critics in the West. One article, written by Zhang Shuhua (张树华), the head of political research division of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is called “On 30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Certain People Are Building New Walls” (柏林墙倒30年,有人在建新墙)

For those who are interested in the history of the Chinese Communist Party's political framing of the Berlin Wall – including the relative diversity of reflection in the Chinese media in 2009 – we encourage a reading of Qian Gang's analysis. The Chinese-language version of Mr. Qian's analysis is available at FTChinese

November 9, 2019
David Bandurski

An expert on Chinese journalism and communication, Mr. Bandurski is currently a part-time researcher at the Institute of China Studies at the University of Heidelberg. He is also co-director of the China Media Project, dividing his time between Germany and Hong Kong. Mr. Bandurski’s books include Dragons in Diamond Village (Penguin/Melville House), a work of reportage about urban development in China, and Investigative Journalism in China (Hong Kong University Press).