The situation in Hong Kong is as serious as it is difficult. Millions of protesters line the streets and fill the universities, in outcry against the Chinese dictatorship. Their demands are, for the most part, reasonable; they want withdrawal of Carrie Lam’s proposed extradition bill, which would have Hong Kong prisoners sent to China at Beijing’s request, an independent investigation into the reported police brutality, involving outright beatings, gassings and alleged gang-rape of unarmed innocents and, most essentially yet controversially, real democracy and free elections. For some, they will stop at nothing until this vital request is fulfilled.
There have been many comparisons, notably by leading activist Joshua Wong in his visit to Germany, that Hong Kong is “the new Berlin” of my generation’s Cold War. The problems faced are, indeed, similar; a pro-democracy movement protesting the oppression of the totalitarian dictatorship it is forced to live under, and that dictatorship attempting to crush it into the ground. Hong Kong has a clear parallel with Berlin in that it is the semi-free link between China’s iron firewall and the outside world; this, combined with its slowly eroding “one country, two systems” status, fuels revolutionary attitudes in a strikingly similar fashion to how it did in Berlin. Perhaps, as happened 30 years ago, these protesters could start a nationwide movement to free China from the grips of its communist rulers; yet, the likelihood of this outcome seems to lessen and lessen with every Chinese response.
The protesters in Berlin were, undoubtedly, lucky; rather than being faced with the consequences of defiance, they were met with support from the Russian dictator, Mikhail Gorbachev; he went on to not only liberate Berlin but all of Eastern Europe from the clutches of the USSR and its puppets. But Xi Jinping is no Gorbachev, and Hong Kong no Berlin. In Europe, communism was all but finished; despite their planning, coordination and cooperation, the Soviets had not truly rivalled the Western states economically, and though they used terror tactics, and propaganda, to fully permeate every part of their people’s lives, they still did not fully embrace communism. After 40 years, Gorbachev realised that communism had failed; when the uprisings began, he embraced them. In China, the exact opposite has happened; economic performance is unprecedented, and I have seen first-hand the unquestioned control that the CCP holds over the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. They, like those who dare oppose them, are unyielding in their demands.
Hong Kong is, I fear, much more like Belfast, where I lived as a child, than Berlin. Both the so-called liberators and rulers are growing in violence as tension rises and no side seems willing to give. The students filling the universities, crying for freedom from China, seem only too similar to the youths who founded the IRA in the 1970s and set out to deliver Northern Ireland from British control. I felt the echoes the of bitter, bloody street fighting that ensued whenever I visited the city, conscious to hide any sense of Englishness lest an impassioned Republican notice. The war in Ireland never truly ended, rather reached a bitter stalemate; the standard-bearers of the IRA continue their fight politically in the halls of Stormont, rather than violently in the streets that surround it. What I am sure of is that Hong Kong’s freedom fighters will receive no such opportunity, and, if they press too hard, that China’s retaliation will know no limits. If the ripples of a conflict such as the Troubles can still be felt in Belfast today, I fear for the escalation of its new sister.
Maybe Hong Kong is not Berlin or Belfast, but its own story entirely; it will certainly make for a significant tale and its inhabitants, those who tried to fight the most powerful regime in human history, made an example of—for better or for worse. Whether today’s protesters reach freedom as in Berlin, grind to a violent stalemate as in Belfast or meet another end entirely at the end of Xi Jinping’s wrath, their memory will separate a city, a nation and a planet for years to come.
Joshua Wong on Berlin:
I’d had the idea for this article a couple months ago, but several people had beaten me to writing similar stuff. Here are some of my favourites: