The fate of islands, or: When history isn’t on your side | B. Freudenberg

by Critical Asia

by B. Freudenberg, Dec. 2021】

Regarding the German reunification and the fall of the Berlin wall, Willy Brandt famously remarked: “Now grows together, what belongs together” (Jetzt wächst zusammen, was zusammen gehört.) Decades later we are witnessing another kind of reunification in Hong Kong and while many think that here too ‘what belongs together, is finally joined’, many also disagree. Recent protests and the National Security law appear to have finalised this reunification somewhat ahead of the original 2047 expiration date. As a former citizen of East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic, I find myself drawing parallels between these reunifications in more ways than one, even though the comparison is plagued by inversions, a certain lag, for lack of a better word, and the omnipresent, overpowering pull of geopolitical coordinates. Both these reunifications were at least initiated at the end of the 20th century and appear aligned with the larger telos of that historical moment: finalising the ‘end of history’ by restoring what was shattered in some way or another. Of course any attempt at restoration of this kind is not going to go as planned—cunning of reason?—and it is in this sense that the afterlife of former entities like West Berlin and East Germany post-reunification can provide some orientation in this context.

There must have been an extraordinary appeal to ‘islands of freedom’ like West Berlin or Hong Kong at their prime during the Cold War. Personally, I was on the other side of both of these for the most part. As a young child growing up in East Berlin, I was too young to walk past the Wall and wonder how one might get across it, but I do have memories of watching Sesame Street on television, available by way of a simple antenna due to proximity, and relatives from West Berlin bringing presents like comic books on visits. I also have vague recollections of the protests in Leipzig which many credit as the beginning of the end of East Germany. And although my lifeworld and horizon of experience did not end there—I was too young to have built up much of anything and invest in the political order that was the German Democratic Republic—I do have some second hand notion of the distress, even shock such an end can bring about seeing as my immediate family had to reorient and rebuild. I mention the psychological stress these sorts of ends can bring about because I believe that this aspect is quite important in the current situation here in my adopted home as well.

Of course we can point to real grievances in explaining the protests which, in one way or another, brought about the Security Law. I did so a couple of years ago when I was asked to give a talk about the protests and began with the late 50s in order to cover both the emergence of a Hong Kong identity—by most accounts a combination of antipathy and anti-communist sentiment caused by the riots in the late 60s and a deliberate colonial effort to instrumentalize this response for purposes of control—and chart the trajectory from local demonstrations in support of Beijing students to Occupy Central and on to the Fishball Revolution and openly separatist revolts, the latter of course motivated not only by the frustrations with the lack of results of earlier, peaceful resistance, but also the looming threat of extradition. For quite some time past the handover Hong Kong had apparently remained an island, one among a whole array in the ‘one country, multiple systems’ category, between ‘special administrative regions,’ ‘autonomous regions,’ ‘special economic zones,’ and perhaps even a ‘renegade province.’ The Beijing government seemed content to tolerate heterogeneity at the periphery at least as long as it did not get out of hand.

While the handover was technically carried out in 1997, when locals who could afford to apparently emigrated elsewhere before it became clear that it was neither the violent annexation nor the economic collapse some had forecast, ‘one country, two systems’ and a border wall made this reunification completely unlike the German one: instead of an overnight collapse and hurried takeover, a legal limbo that effectively retained Hong Kong’s privileges and appealing role as Eastern ‘showcase of the West’. There seems to be a surplus snugness to making your home at the fault line of geopolitical tension, right in the eye of the storm so to speak. But now that aura that West Berlin and Hong Kong likely had in common is slowly degrading here. Almost imperceptibly due to the drawn-out pace, that special Cold War je ne sais quoi is dissipating and with it initial hopes that a repatriated, post-colonial Hong Kong could perhaps perform as the little piece of properly modern China that steers the motherland towards the telos that so clearly presented itself at the end of last century. What has/was ended between the recent protests and the Security law is precisely this possibility, this telos.

Hong Kongers had used their special status both economically and politically to some effect. I will not attempt to get into the economic dimension of the protests here in any detail, but suffice it to say, it was an important element in the run-up to recent demonstrations, starting with the issue of whole shopping districts in the New Territories changing to cater primarily to mainland visitors all the way to the question of immigration quotas being decided in Beijing and the exorbitant prices on the local housing market. What is relevant politically in the context of beginnings and endings of Hong Kong in the aftermath of the Security Law is the change in the political agenda of protesters in response to these economic uncertainties and Umbrella: Whereas before the idea of a change for all of China supported by, perhaps even originating in Hong Kong still looked possible, ‘Hoxit’, if I may coin this terrible portmanteau simply to point out one of the many parallels with respect to global political trends involved here, was suddenly the solution. And whereas the handover still more or less fit the historical moment of post-Communist reunifications or, alternatively, could be seen as a belated, contractually obligated end to colonialism, roughly twenty years later this forced repatriation seemed at an end.

Not long after the German reunification I came into contact with Hong Kong by way of the movies, mostly from an era that was almost over when I started. My imaginary Hong Kong was, for all intents and purposes, located somewhere between the Hui Brother’s Private Eyes and John Woo’s Hard Boiled. It is in this sense that I am familiar with Hong Kong as an ‘island of freedom’ not unlike West Berlin. Because when I first set foot in the city, it was already an ex-colony. That is not to say that the real existing Hong Kong was somehow lacking, but I was certainly too late to fly into Kai Tak airport looking into Kowloon City apartments or for teahouses where customers bring their pet birds in cages. I suspect that it is in this register—of emotional longing, libidinal attachment, perhaps—that the Hong Kong that was to emerge in the ‘revolution of our times’ is ultimately to be found.

It is by now a well-known characteristic of 21st century resistance and upheaval that old goals do not suffice, while adequately new ones are vague or simply missing, and what do we find in their place here? Old slogans (‘May heaven exterminate the Chinese Communist Party’) and old symbols like the colonial flag—sure to irritate a majority on the mainland, but remarkably empty as a placeholder otherwise. Of course there is also Pepe the Frog and talk of ‘freedom hi’, transplanted elements of foreign discourses which appear to work, sort of, presumably because they do notquite fit the local situation. ‘You will burn with us’ was one of the more prominent graffiti I used to see on my way to work during the protests. A good chance most of us would have burned if the UK or US had indeed decided to take a more hands-on approach, but here, again, larger historical trends, indeed some of the same trends local protesters were latching on to, seemed to make any such action quite unlikely.

In the case of the German reunification things moved too fast to question the telos. Of course the relations of power are effectively inverted: Whereas the East German economy, government, whole swaths of the population’s biographies effectively lost any value overnight, here at least the appearance of continuity is guarded at all costs. That is, until the slow-moving merger reaches a critical point, and the withdrawal symptoms suddenly become all too noticeable. To the younger generation of locals—when the protests turned towards independence, this also became an (inverted?) conflict of generations—the comparison will likely only highlight the unfairness of events: Whereas in Germany, reunification made quick work of the old Socialist regime and replaced unfreedom with (the current idea of) freedom, here the relation of power and the momentum of history are not favourable. But did the use of aforementioned old slogans and imported symbols not indicate to the world clearly enough the break with an older generation that still cared about the future of all of China and announce more relevant, contemporary parallels like Catalonia or Scotland?

Just to be clear: Would I prefer a Hong Kong that continues to make relevant movies and where Cantonese remains the lingua franca indefinitely? Certainly. Is this scenario likely? Unfortunately, it is not. Some may think that such priorities are frivolous when faced with an unprecedented loss of freedom of speech and press. But then again, cultural production is the clearer indicator of that aura, that atmosphere that used to characterise Hong Kong. It is also in this register that any future where Hong Kong can possibly move the political needle on the mainland is likely located. We are back in the long game of culturo-political influencing, exactly the game recent protests wanted to shortcut past, because it had not produced the intended effects, had not paid out what last century’s telos had so clearly promised.

Looking at the fate of Germany post-reunification, two related matters that may provide comfort here seem relatively certain. The first concerns loss, in the case of West Berlin the loss of that special status with all its economic benefits and global fame, for East Germany the loss of a whole horizon of experience and expectations. But while such loss is undeniable and often painful, there is always a remainder as well. Roughly thirty years after the German reunification, two Germanies still very much exist: From unequal pay to unequal pensions at the end of careers, to the unequal representation in government and businesses, etc., looking at a map of Germany color-coded to illustrate the differences for all sorts of metrics, the border between former East and West remains very much visible. With every election talking points around a Dunkeldeutschland, or ‘shadow Germany’, where people were never properly educated as to the meaning of democracy and their responsibility as citizens not to randomly support either the far left or the far right or both, returns. While I am certainly not happy with the rise of the far right in my home country—or the blackmail at every election from now on: Make sure to cast your vote for the technocrats or else …—I believe this to be somewhat good news for Hong Kong. It remains for the foreseeable future a perhaps minor, but definitely highly visible ideological battleground of the 21st century—with all the theoretical and political problems that accompany that shift from the late 20th and its all too obvious telos.

Unlike East Germany, Hong Kong did not exactly lose everything overnight, and even those locals who strictly opposed the recent protests probably share more with protesters than they would care to admit. One thing I can definitely vouch for: Decades of separation, multiple generations of a culturally distinct upbringing—these are not things you easily shed, just because a new law is put on the books. And the bright future that is easy to get behind when you have only seen it from afar, certainly came as a shock to many East Germans, even before the mechanics of memory made the old system seem relatively pleasant, even preferable. As the old telos is rather unceremoniously disposed of, I expect a whole host of unforeseen consequences to this particular Zusammenwachsen or, ‘growing together’, on both sides of what is still a border, some of which may even be of use for a true beginning.

[Protests underway in Nov. 2019]

B. Freudenberg, Hong Kong Shue Yan University, Hong Kong

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