Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
“If we are in a new Cold War, Hong Kong is the new Berlin,” Joshua Wong, the 22-year-old pro-democracy activist has said about the ongoing rebellion against Beijing’s creeping erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. His comment has particular relevance this week as the world looks back at the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, which ultimately led to the reunification of Germany and the dissolution of the Soviet bloc.
During the first Cold War, Berlin, like Hong Kong today, was the geopolitical flashpoint where freedom met oppression. As “one city, two systems,” it was divided by a physical wall erected to keep the East in. The “one country, two systems” model of Hong Kong is likewise riven by the absence of the rule of law in the Chinese motherland and the Great Firewall of censorship, devised to keep the ways of the West out. What originally sparked the massive protests, and what continues to fuel them and gives them an air of desperation, is resistance to the fait accompli that awaits Hong Kong once its systemic autonomy is totally absorbed into one country.
The stakes are high. Instead of properly seeing the protests as an organic movement animated by the genuine motive of young people seeking to own their future, the authorities in Beijing imagine the “black hand” of foreign instigation. Looking back on the collapse of the Soviet bloc after the wall fell, they view the angry high-school students and average citizens who fill the urban canyons with defiant protests as pawns of the U.S. seeking to consign the Communist Party in China to the same dustbin of history where the Soviets rest in peace. Thus the very dangerous prospect that sooner or later the rebellion will be met with “emergency measures” instead of the political response it demands. To let the spirit of Hong Kong’s revolt seep into the mainland is, in the view of China’s leaders, to invite the demise of their own system.
Chandran Nair sees a less admirable dimension to the protests that parallels the longer-term outcome of the liberation of Eastern Europe all these decades later: the transformation of citizens seeking freedom from an authoritarian yoke into the intolerant tribal mentality we see today in the eastern parts of Germany, as well as in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere, where nativist and nationalist political parties are on the rise.
As Nair writes from Hong Kong, an “ugly intolerance and bigotry” has arisen “against mainland Chinese living in Hong Kong who, even before the protests, were seen as a proxy for a whole range of social ills. This has no place in a pluralistic society that aspires to be a beacon of democracy and the rule of law.”
“One element of the protest movement,” he continues, “has been particularly troubling and perhaps a warning of things to come: an anti-mainland Chinese sentiment expressed through verbal harassment, doxxing, targeted vandalism and, in the worst cases, violence. Businesses are being targeted based on poorly substantiated claims (the supermarket chain Best Mart 360, for example) or even just associations with mainland China (like the technology company Xiaomi). Several mainland Chinese have expressed to me their fear about living in the city; they are now planning for an eventual exit.”
He concludes: “If Hong Kong is to remain an open and pluralistic society, this targeted violence has to stop and the population must learn to live alongside people with a broad range of backgrounds and viewpoints.”
The lesson here, and of the trajectory of the former Eastern bloc countries, is that freedom is no more an unalloyed good than order and authority are always its enemy. As we are learning everyday, open societies, like unbounded social media, can be inhabited not only by the voices of reason and the practices of tolerance, but by bad faith, fake news and alternative facts, hate mongering and tribal animosity. Let’s not blame the quest for freedom on ulterior motives, but let’s also realize that freedom is only the condition through which open societies set limits on themselves.