Ich Bin Ein Hong Konger

How Hong Kong is turning into the West Berlin of the quasi-cold war between the West and China.

By Melinda Liu, Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief.
Protesters demonstrate against the now-suspended extradition bill on June 16 in Hong Kong.
Protesters demonstrate against the now-suspended extradition bill on June 16 in Hong Kong. Carl Court/Getty Images

When mainland tourists emerged from Hong Kong’s gleaming new high-speed rail station earlier this month, they witnessed something few of them had ever experienced back home in increasingly authoritarian China. Peaceful protesters outside the West Kowloon station approached the visitors, trying to win their support for the beleaguered civil liberties and freedoms of semi-autonomous Hong Kong, according to Reuters. Many of the protesters wanted more: to convert the mainlanders. Protest organizers declared their desire to “export our revolution.”

Thus a protest movement that began by targeting a controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong—with demonstrations mainly in the local government district—has begun to widen its geographic focus. Nothing could be less welcome both to embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has sought to choke off what civil liberties still exist on the mainland. On Saturday, Hong Kong protesters targeted mainland Chinese “parallel traders” in a border town who buy Hong Kong goods such as baby formula and sell them at a huge markup on the mainland. The following day, Hong Kong police used pepper spray against some 100,000 protesters who’d descended on a shopping mall in Shatin, in the New Territories, right across the frontier from China. Dozens of people were hospitalized. 

 And now the protesters have added a new demand: universal suffrage, something Hong Kong residents never enjoyed even under British rule. The concept of “one person, one vote” was certainly not on the agenda when the enclave reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, with Beijing’s promise of 50 years of a “high degree of autonomy” for Hong Kong. More and more, the protest drama—while not reaching the scale of an actual Cold War-era conflict between great powers—feels like a virtual tug-of-war of ideas and ideals, a symbolic competition between Western-style liberalism and reinvigorated authoritarianism as exemplified by Beijing. 

And to some—especially as U.S.-China tensions rise—the crisis in Hong Kong is starting to resemble the ideological struggle of an earlier era, when the Berlin Wall was erected in the early years of the Cold War and U.S. President John F. Kennedy came to free West Berlin to famously declare: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” 

“There are big differences. Still, ideologically and institutionally, there are some parallels with West Berlin,” said Prof. Ho-Fung Hung, a political economist at Johns Hopkins University and the author of a book on Chinese protest.

But if Hong Kongers’ grand dream of transforming mainland China—rather than ending up like it and living under greater repression—has any chance of coming true, it needs to start happening fast. Beijing has been chipping away at the former British colony’s freedoms and rights, despite a promise in 1997 that Hong Kong’s freewheeling mix of laissez-faire capitalism, social freedoms, and an independent judiciary could continue until 2047 under a “one country, two systems” formula. Over time, Hong Kong protests have flared and ebbed—but by early 2019, the pro-democracy movement seemed a spent force. That is, until the second week in June, when the streets erupted with startling ferocity and mind-boggling numbers—organizers claimed up to 2 million protesters at one point. 

The protest conflagration was sparked by opposition to Lam’s clumsy attempts to push through a proposal that would allow people in Hong Kong to be detained and sent to China for trial in the mainland’s opaque and politicized courts. Suddenly 2047 didn’t seem so far away after all.

And now the revived protest movement doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon. Protest leaders are echoing the aspiration that Hong Kong will “remain a beacon of hope for a more liberal, open and tolerant China” as Anson Chan, the second-highest official in Hong Kong before and after its reversion to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, put it in an interview with the Financial Times. Chan’s dream was—and still is—to see Hong Kong become a “testing ground” for introducing democracy into China, she said.

As a political goal, that seems quixotic at best—especially considering that Xi has installed an even more brutal brand of authoritarianism as he has consolidated party control in Beijing. Yet oddly enough, U.S. President Donald Trump—who until now has not been seen, to say the least, as a JFK-like champion of freedom around the world—appears willing to provoke China in ways that his predecessors have not. This weekend, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was welcomed in New York with the approval of the Trump administration, underscoring the warmest ties between Washington and Taipei in 20 years and further enraging Beijing. The U.S. Defense Department is also considering a sale of more than 60 new F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan in a move that can be interpreted as a challenge to Xi. Tsai delivered a hard-hitting message, vowing never to bow to Beijing’s threats and adamantly opposing any “one country, two systems” proposal for Taiwan. Her Democratic Progressive Party is viewed with distrust by Chinese officials because its platform espouses independence for Taiwan—a longstanding red flag to in the eyes of Beijing’s mandarins.

Most striking of all, the drama in the streets of Hong Kong has appeared to affect Taiwanese politics in recent weeks, stiffening the resistance to the mainland. Until a month ago, Tsai was saddled with a lackluster economy and weak approval ratings; she wasn’t even sure of winning her party’s primary ahead of next year’s elections. Then Hong Kong’s defiance against Beijing unexpectedly gave Tsai a boost from Taiwan residents who found themselves inspired and emboldened by the former colony’s feisty residents. On June 13, Tsai won the primary with ease, and next January she will go up against the Kuomintang. The opposition party opposes Taiwanese independence, and this weekend the victor in the Kuomintang primary was Han Kuo-yu, a Beijing-friendly populist mayor. But even he felt he had to reassure Taiwan residents about their future vis-à-vis Beijing: He declared he would accept “one country, two systems” only “over my dead body.” 

Washington’s role in this larger struggle could be significant. The China-U.S. tit-for-tat tariffs war launched by Trump has its roots in legitimate complaints of unfair Chinese trade practices. But hawks on Trump’s team have gone several steps further, painting China as an existential national security threat to the West. To be sure, the United States and China may manage to find some accommodation, or call a truce, in the trade war, and the intertwined nature of the Chinese and U.S. economies make a duplication of the old Cold War all but impossible. Still, U.S. tech curbs, heightened FBI scrutiny of Chinese researchers, and, most importantly, strategic distrust are not likely to disappear overnight.

“What makes the [West Berlin] analogy possible is the timing. Five or ten years ago, the international community was still fascinated by the Chinese economic miracle,” said Hung, of Johns Hopkins, “Now the mood has changed.” Indeed, even as Xi has tightened his political control, doubts have grown over China’s economic model as growth has slowed.

With sinuous curves and 125 miles per hour bullet trains, the futuristic West Kowloon rail station hardly seems the backdrop for a shadowy contest of ideologies, activists, and intrigue. It’s no Bridge of Spies (the nickname of the Glienicke Bridge linking Berlin with Potsdam, where in 1962 a tense and high-profile U.S.-Soviet spy swap took place). Yet the new terminus, which opened last September, is deeply unpopular and viewed with suspicion by many in Hong Kong. Despite being located inside Hong Kong, it has mainland Chinese customs and immigrations officials on duty inside, and part of the station falls under Chinese jurisdiction. In other words, mainland Chinese immigration officers are enforcing Chinese law on Hong Kong soil for the first time. Many consider this a violation of the “one country, two systems” guarantee. 

“It’s been seen as a way for the Chinese government to extend its judicial system into Hong Kong, as part of the larger game plan to dissolve the border altogether,” Hung said. Critics of the rail project call it “the Trojan train.”

But who is infiltrating whom, exactly? The train station symbolizes inroads made by the Chinese system into Hong Kong, but now it also plays a role in exposing mainland Chinese to things that are banned from being propagated on the mainland. Precisely because what some are calling “Cold War 2.0” is not a traditional old-school turf battle, it can play out in unpredictable venues and ways, from glitzy commercial malls to courtrooms to cyberspace. For a while, it looked like the closest thing to a new Berlin Wall was a government’s decision whether or not to use 5G telecommunications products from Huawei, the Chinese tech firm that Trump initially banned from buying advanced U.S. components due to security risks. Then, after meeting with Xi at the G-20 summit last month, Trump announced his administration would relax the Huawei ban to help get stalled China-U.S. trade talks up and running again. U.S. allies were perplexed. 

Chinese strategists fear growing antagonism is the new normal in their ties with the West, especially Washington. Chinese authorities have blamed “foreign forces” for using Hong Kong protesters as “chess pieces” to further their covert agendas. On July 7, China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, lamented the “Cold War mentality” of some U.K. politicians. Earlier he had warned “colonial” Britain to keep its “hands off Hong Kong” and accused London of trying to “obstruct the legal process” over the proposed extradition bill. And even though Lam, the Hong Kong chief executive, has declared “the bill is dead,” she further angered protesters by declining to withdraw it formally. Protest organizers vow to continue the demonstrations. 

The Chinese ambassador Liu also denied that Beijing had instructed Lam to introduce the bill and said the legislation included safeguards such as prohibiting extradition for people based on religious or political beliefs. How to deal with fugitives was one of several bits of unfinished business left over when Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Beijing authorities may have let the Hong Kong government know that this and other loose ends had to be tidied up before 2047. Still, Lam chose the worst possible moment to try to rush the bill through and “badly mismanaged” the issue, wrote the former British diplomat Charles Parton, a senior associate fellow at the U.K.-based Royal United Services Institute. Not only did it virtually coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown—traditionally marked by heightened emotions and a public vigil in Hong Kong—but it was equally risky to court potential unrest so close to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949. 

Now Lam’s credibility is in tatters. She blamed last weekend’s violence on “mobs” as she visited injured police in the hospital. She also denied recent media reports that she’d offered to resign and vowed to continue heading the government with a more “open, tolerant, and humble attitude.”

But if Lam steps down before her term officially ends in 2022—as activists have demanded and as has been rumored she offered to do—that would embolden the protesters further and make the job of the chief executive more difficult still. In the near term, officials in both Hong Kong and Beijing will likely be scrambling to preempt further unrest, at least until Xi has successfully presided over the PRC’s 70th birthday in October. 

What happens next? The Beijing and Hong Kong governments know they must move quickly to rebuild trust, especially among Hong Kong’s younger generations. With 2047 looming, however, the portents don’t look good. Pessimists worry that Beijing aims to “harmonize” everything that makes Hong Kong special. 

Those jitters were not calmed when China unveiled its campaign to create a new Greater Bay Area—basically what used to be called the Pearl River Delta. The idea is to merge the economies of China’s Guangdong province with the former British colony of Hong Kong as well as Macau, a gambling haven administered by Portugal until 1999, when it reverted to Chinese sovereignty. By exploiting synergies between these three zones, the Greater Bay Area is supposed to blossom into an Asian San Francisco or New York. That’s great for the mainland—but cold comfort for Hong Kong residents who lament the idea of Hong Kong becoming just another Chinese city. 

Even though the enclave’s special status is due to expire in 2047, Beijing will come under pressure to continue some form of its “one country, two systems” guarantee after that date. For Chinese leaders, the reasons would have less to do with freedoms and civil liberties, and more to do with commerce and money. At the moment, in accordance with the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act, the United States treats Hong Kong as a discrete customs entity, separate from the mainland in key commercial, economic, and diplomatic areas that impact technology transfers, tariffs and so on. This allows Hong Kong to function as an international financial hub and China to move only very gradually toward making its currency, the renminbi, a convertible one. This special treatment—which is valuable to Beijing—would diminish or disappear should Hong Kong morph into another Shanghai or Chongqing.

There’s another, equally potent, reason for Beijing to handle the run-up to 2047 with kid gloves. Chinese officials hope a benign outcome in Hong Kong will help them win over skeptical residents of Taiwan. China’s goal is eventual reunification of Taiwan with the mainland. And the carrot, at least as Beijing views it, has been some variant of the “one country, two systems” formula granted to Hong Kong in 1997. (The stick has been Beijing’s refusal to eschew reunification by force, and occasional military exercises and activities in the vicinity of Taiwan.)

Winning over the unbowed residents of Taiwan, a thriving democracy, will be tough for Beijing. For decades, the Taipei government was staunchly anti-communist, populated mostly by stalwarts of the Kuomintang, which had fled to the island in 1949 after losing to the Communist Party in China’s civil war. For years Taipei and Beijing each claimed to be the sole legitimate government of China, and they competed for diplomatic recognition from foreign governments. More recently, economic ties have developed—and deepened. Yet the two regimes remain politically separate, and it is almost certain that nothing short of war will change that, at least for now.

Many in Hong Kong would like a similar outcome—if not outright political independence, then a spiritual and social kind of independence. And they are being heard far from home.

Melinda Liu is Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief and the co-author of Beijing Spring, about the events of April-June 1989.