Francis Moriarty: The tale of two cities — a new Cold War?

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PITTSFIELD — Are there parallels to be drawn between Berlin and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and Hong Kong and Communist China today? It's a thought-provoking comparison that has a certain timeliness.

Joshua Wong, the face of Hong Kong's Umbrella protests five years ago, thinks there are similarities between the two sets of relationships.

Speaking to a reception atop Germany's Reichstag (parliament) building and overlooking what's left of the Berlin Wall, Wong said: "If we are in a new Cold War, Hong Kong is the new Berlin."

Jimmy Lai, who founded Hong Kong's only major pro-democracy newspaper, similarly told CBS News late last month: "What we are fighting for, is the first battle of the new Cold War."

The comparison between the Wall's demise and Hong Kong's current uprising is hardly exact, but they have not chosen Berlin randomly. Both sets of relationships involve division, competing political ideologies. Both men know that without the kind of foreign support that West Berlin enjoyed, Hong Kong would have scant hope for democracy. So they are reaching out to the U.S. and the Europeans by using an example that is easily understood and, they hope, compelling.

Many Hong Kongers today feel that they are being embraced by China in much the same manner that a python embraces lunch. With the Chinese mainland to the north and China-controlled waters on every side, they feel isolated and vulnerable, as did many Berliners during the Cold War.

That helps explain why the protests have become more frenzied in response to the increasingly harsh efforts to crush them. At this writing, at least two people are in critical condition after being shot by officers. One female protester has filed suit alleging that she was raped and impregnated while in custody, and that police subsequently obtained personal information (including medical records and CCTV footage of her visiting a gynecologist) that was somehow leaked to social media. Add to this a growing number of reports, complete with photos, about missing persons last seen in police custody and the sense of urgency becomes comprehensible.

There is also a matter of historical timing with the Berlin example.

'BODIES SMASHED'

We've just marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, where the government crushed a student-led pro-democracy movement using troops and tanks. China's leader, Xi Jinping, has recently referenced that event by issuing a graphic warning that any effort to divide China would result in "bodies smashed and bones ground into powder" — exactly what happened in Beijing on June 4, 1989.

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We have also just marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Communist-built barrier that encircled the Western-occupied sectors of Berlin, Germany's capital before and during World War II. The fall of the Wall, also in 1989, was triggered by a peaceful civil action no one had predicted, until it happened.

The Wall's destruction came just five months after the Tiananmen massacre, but it did not come down because Berliners wanted to separate from their nations, be it East or West Germany. Nor was there a demand for Berlin's autonomy.

The Wall fell because the people wanted a reunified city that could lead to a reunified Germany. In short, it was about bringing together, not pulling apart — a big difference with Hong Kong.

Any search for comparisons involves looking at the Wall's origin.

At the end of the war, Berlin was occupied by Soviet, American, British and French forces. Russia occupied East Berlin. Each Allied army had a subsector in West Berlin. But the whole city was surrounded by Soviet forces that had rushed to occupy as much of Germany as possible before any armistice was agreed. When the Iron Curtain fell, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin — thinking the U.S. would withdraw under pressure — began the Berlin Blockade, cutting all land access to the city.

In response, the Americans, British and others launched the Berlin Airlift. Begun on June 24, 1948 and lasting till September 30, 1949, cargo planes supplied the people of West Berlin — many of them women whose husbands were dead, missing or POWs — with the basics of survival. In all, nearly three million tons of supplies, two-thirds of that coal, were airlifted. It was a humanitarian effort with huge ideological rewards.

Could it happen again? It's difficult to envisage today's self-absorbed and nationalist U.S. undertaking anything comparable, even if were it were purely domestic. For Hong Kong? And risk collapsing the China trade? Try getting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce behind that idea.

Throughout the 1950s, East Germany hemorrhaged talent as people — including border guards — fled to the West. The Communists' responded in 1961 by erecting the Wall.

Under an Allied-Soviet agreement on access to each sector of Berlin, Allied nationals could enter East Berlin for up to 24 hours, which is how I made a number of visits during the 1980s to meet East German dissidents and Lutheran church officials who were working on reconciliation — a concept that Hong Kong's dissidents and officials should be studying now.

I'll have more on this story in another column.

Francis Moriarty was the senior political reporter for public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) covering the return of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.


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