The Fall and Rise of a Wall Series, Part I: A Tale of Three Cities

Twenty five years ago, the Berlin wall came down, and the world was a changed place.  Twenty five year later, I am saddened to realize that the physical wall may have been demolished, the virtual one has gone up.

Berlin – September 25, 2014

In the morning of a gloomy day when the temperature never reached over 15°C – typical weather pattern for Germany’s capital city in September I was told – I was pacing from one edge to the other of the 70-meter-long-expanse, remnant of part of the structure that had divided this city till November 1989.  Rain started to fall and wind continued to pick up.  The former Sophien parish on the grounds, despite the usual bleakness one would expect to find at a cemetery, somehow appeared more dreary.  The solemn voice of the recording read the names of the victims who paid the ultimate price to try to reach the other side.  I wondered what drove them to even consider making such desperate attempts, knowing full well that armed guards could spot them and would not hesitate to shoot.

The city of Berlin was gearing up to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany.  During the week leading up to the marathon, students on field trips roamed the streets and athletes filed in and out of my hotel elevators.  Checkpoint Charlie was abuzz with souvenir shop activities and tourists posing with American GI impersonators.  A mall at the Potsdamer plaza offered an extensive multi-media exhibition with photos, videos and objects.  The fanfare was supposed to be festival, yet the atmosphere felt more somber.  On this day when my parents and I toured the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Street, its eerie surrounding finally prompted my father, a member of the Chinese Communist Party, to question out loud: “whose idea was it to build this wall?”

Beijing – June 4, 1989

I was at my home in Shanghai having dinner with my family when all of a sudden regular TV programming came to a screeching halt. A CCTV anchorman announced that the People’s Liberation Army had just succeeded in its crackdown on the “counter-revolutionary riot” and taken over the Tiananmen Square.  Prior, the students had congregated at the square for a few months, calling for democracy, corruption eradication and political reform, and pressing for a dialogue with the communist government.  Their fate unfolded as the whole world watched in horror: some of them were murdered, some were maimed by tanks, and some narrowly escaped death or injury.  The state propaganda machine went on overdrive to portray the students and their sympathetic, supporting citizens as “mobsters.”  To drive home its point, it repeatedly showed a burned, shrunk corpse of a People’s Liberation Army solider, said to be lynched by the unruly mob.  The image was so forcibly etched in my brain that for months I cringed at the sight of seeing tree stubs on campus.  All my classmates and I were also forced to write an essay, detailing our whereabouts that day and pledging our support of the mass killing.

PLA soldier body

Four years later, I made it to the USA as an international student. The first few months of my arrival produced quite a few instances when some American classmates and co-workers, after finding out I was from mainland China, asked me why the students had given up their quest.  My English ability at that time was limited, and all I could say was that they did not have weapons to fight back.  The puzzled Americans could not understand and reasoned that if the students had continued, they might have finally prevailed.

Years went by and I stopped getting questions of what happened on that fateful day.  One reason is of course memory fades, though it is probably more because the Chinese government now has an arguably tighter grip on its people.  As the West watched with glee how Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania ended their communist rule, culminating with the fall of the Berlin wall, I have always believed that it was the students on Tiananmen Square, and images of their courageous defiance and the government’s brutality that inspired the people in the former Eastern Bloc to rise up and free themselves from the tyranny.  Fortunately for them, their governments’ soldiers had conscious and refused to shoot at their own people.  The bloodshed in China may have saved lives in Europe.

man vs tanks

Hong Kong – October 30, 2014

When I met a businessman for a breakfast meeting there, I assured him that the whole international community was behind the students’ pro-democracy demonstrations that started in late September, and that the entire world was particularly interested in the end game.  He confessed that he was a leader of his university’s student organization at one time, and predicted the movement would run out of steam once the weather got cooler.  By the time of my visit to Hong Kong, the Chinese government’s state-sanctioned media had toned down its rhetoric, and it became obvious that Beijing’s strategy was to wait it out, hoping the demonstrators would eventually grow tired and go home.  The businessman helpfully suggested that I visit one of the sites in Central when our meeting ended.

While walking towards the Admiralty district after sampling Mandarin Oriental’s signature afternoon tea, I was getting a little disappointed after seeing only a few scattered barricaded spots with used books, stools and flyers.  I continued my trek towards the gleaming, futuristic high-rises, and was stunned to find myself all of a sudden surrounded by seas of handwritten slogans, life-size posters, and wall-to-wall post-it notes.  It was a surreal moment to witness the genuine, palpable excitement of a fearless young generation’s epic yearning for freedom and democracy, juxtaposed with the towering skyscrapers emblazoned with logos of some of the wealthiest financial institutions – considered symbols of pure, unadulterated capitalism – casting an all-encompassing shadow over the site.  People in Hong Kong had long been known for being apolitical, and for their relentless pursuit of all things money.  The cynical stereotype is now disavowed in the wake of their protracted, peaceful demand for electing a chief executive of their own choosing, and for the majority of the protestors to be young people, it just signals hope, not only for Hong Kong, not only for China, but for the rest of the world.

Standing in the epicenter of the movement and watching lights flicker as night started to fall, I could not help but think of what happened twenty five years ago.  The students at Tiananmen Square were, looking back, naïve: they had no intention of overthrowing the dictatorship.  They did not want to change the status quo of the government’s having its final say on everything from their education, work, and life.  All they asked for was while keeping the existing framework of the one-party rule, a small window to enjoy some degree of freedom of press, and a more transparent legal system to account for corrupt officials.  They pleaded, they begged, and they even kneeled.  Their fate?  Being shot at and run over.  Luckily for the students in Hong Kong, they live in a former British colony where there are still laws that supposedly protect residents’ rights to assemble, even though Beijing is the ultimate master of what’s tolerated.  Regardless of what direction the movement goes from here (I noticed rows of police vans lining up the streets in the Admiralty area when I returned in mid-November), they set the spirit of the people in the whole city, and arguably the whole world ablaze, and the flame will burn more brightly than ever when re-ignited.  After all, it was Chairman Mao who declared that “a single spark can start a prairie fire.”

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