Thursday, November 12, 2009

From the Berlin Wall to the Great Wall

This week the world commemorated the fall of the Berlin Wall, 20 years ago. That signaled the demise of communism in Europe. 1989 was also the year when China witnessed unprecedented upheaval in Tienanmen Square in the summer, which was forcibly ended on June 4. Not surprisingly, there has been lot of commentaries in the media looking at the events in 1989, and comparing fall of communism in Europe to the longevity of communism in China and its mutation adopting a lot of features of capitalism.

Here are a few interesting items that I would like to share with you. If you come across anything interesting, please do share it on this blog.

Wall Street Journal, Oct 29, 200: In a report from Berlin on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mercus Walker asks in the in an article, "After the Wall: A debate over democracy's reach" Does China have a competing autocratic model? The collapse of Communism marked an ideological victory, but some wonder if China now has a competing autocratic model.
In the summer of 1989, American political economist Francis Fukuyama foresaw the "End of History" in a landmark essay, meaning that no credible alternative had survived to political and economic liberty as practiced in the U.S. and Western Europe. All that remained, he argued, was for other countries to catch up.

Today, history is back, according to writers such as Israeli military historian Azar Gat. In his new book, "Victorious and Vulnerable," he says that although democracy is the most benign system in history, it will have to demonstrate its advantages all over again in the face of its latest rival: authoritarian capitalism, as practiced by self-confident powers such as China and Russia.

In retrospect, 1989 led to the near-universal adoption of capitalism, but the same can't be said of democracy. Indeed, by switching from Communist economics to capitalism -- albeit a state-controlled kind that Adam Smith wouldn't recognize -- China and Russia have adopted "a far more efficient brand of authoritarianism" than they had during the Cold War, says Prof. Gat.

Other political scientists say it is too early to tell whether the two powers really represent an alternative path of development to the West.

"It is by no means certain that China can maintain its existing structure of power," says Niall Ferguson, an economic historian who teaches at Harvard Business School. What's more, today's Russia may be growing more assertive, but it's still a far weaker power than the Soviet Union that preceded it, while two of the major emerging economies -- India and Brazil -- are in the democratic camp, Prof. Ferguson points out.
Foreign Policy, Sept 29, 2009: Jeffrey Wasserstrom says that the fall of the Berlin Wall may have been the best thing to have ever happened to the Chinese Communist Party, in the article, "The autocrats' learning curve"
China, unlike the Eastern European states, had early warning that its regime was about to fall; the entire world seemed to know it. That sense of urgency made Chinese leaders avid students of the Soviet Union's downfall. The CCP charged official think tanks with discovering the keys to maintaining a monopoly on power, while avoiding the fate of erstwhile counterparts in Budapest, Bucharest, Prague, and Moscow.

What did the Chinese researchers learn? First, that Europe's 1989 unrest was fueled by patriotism -- a desire to rid their countries of regimes imposed from outside. Protesters in Europe also had a potent mix of economic and political grievances. Those in charge had claimed that Marxist regimes could compete with capitalist ones in material terms, but the night-and-day contrast between the creature comforts available on the two sides of the wall revealed the hollowness of this boast. Finally, Eastern Europe's movements spread quickly because nearly everyone -- regardless of their class -- felt they were in the same boat. The only meaningful social divide was between a small privileged coterie of corrupt officials and the rest. And the rest was pretty much everyone.
The Economist, Nov 5, 2009: The magazine revisits the confusion that prevailed in the echelons of power in China in the aftermath of the events in Europe in 1989. It credits Deng Xiaoping for guiding the party through the most severe challenge it ever faced, by advising the leadership "Keep calm and carry on".
In late 1989 China’s anxiety was so profound and its diplomacy in such confusion that it was difficult to imagine it would ever come to terms with the new world order. Fresh unrest seemed unavoidable. It was far from certain that Jiang Zemin, a little known leader who had been appointed party chief in the wake of the Tiananmen Square unrest, was on firm ground.

China’s dogged insistence that nothing untoward was happening in eastern Eur ope ensured that its awakening would be harsh. In early October 1989, even after thousands of East Germans had fled their country, China sent a senior leader to East Germany’s official celebration of four decades of communism (a “glorious” 40 years, the People’s Daily called it). East Germany’s 77-year-old leader, Erich Honecker, was a conservative much respected by China’s own gerontocrats, and a backer of the crackdown in Tiananmen. His resignation that October was appalling to them.

It was an appeal for cool heads by China’s 85-year-old senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, that helped China’s rulers weather the storm. In September 1989 he told them—in a speech only published years later—to be “calm, calm and again calm” and to carry on with China’s (mostly economic) reforms. Mr Deng’s advice, and its later elaboration, remains China’s guiding philosophy. Its central message is often summarised as taoguang yanghui, meaning “concealing one’s capabilities and biding one’s time”. Mr Deng wanted China to get on with building its economy and avoid ideological battles. The economy, in effect, would save the party.
The China Beat, Nov 9, 2009: This is a blog dedicated to things Chinese. It listed five interesting news items to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall
It quotes a review of David Shambaugh’s China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation (University of California Press), in the Huffington Post
accounts of the regime ramping up of security measures to ensure that the 20th anniversary of this alleged non-event was not publicly commemorated in China (score one for paranoia). But there are also stories in June about how dramatically lifestyles in China and the countries place in the global economic order have shifted since 1989. In rapid succession, just before the highly charged June 4th anniversary date, the New York Times ran a piece called “To Shut Off Tiananmen Talk, China Disrupts Sites” (June 2), but just after it, the same paper carried one called “What Would Mao Drive? A Little Red…Hummer”(June 7).
In another item from “Chinese Netizens Leap Great Firewall of China to Mark Berlin Wall’s 20th,” by Aileen McCabe at Montreal Gazette:
They are flying over the Great Firewall of China (GFW) in exuberant numbers to send messages to an anniversary website in Berlin that was set up to allow people to share memories of the night the wall came down, or, recommend “which walls still have to come down to make our world a better place.”

“Ordinary people pushed down the Berlin Wall. Let us follow suit. No guilt falls on a crowd. If we are all anti-GFW, the result will be surprising,” Xiaoxiaoqiu wrote in Chinese at

Yet another mimicked Ronald Reagan’s famous plea to Mikhail Gorbachev and said: “Mr. Hu (Jintao) tear down this wall.”

The censorship slowed down Chinese netizens, but not by much.

Website co-ordinator Carsten Heins said in an interview Friday: “We have about 4,700 tweets, 2,200 are in Chinese.”

Another item on China Beats noted “No Celebrations for the Fall of the Berlin Wall in Beijing,” by Wang Zhicheng for AsiaNews:

As Europe and the world celebrate the fall of Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, in mainland China the anniversary has gone unreported. Prominent international public figures are in Berlin today to celebrate the start of a peaceful revolution that would see East Germany disappear, and by domino effect, bring about the end of Eastern Europe’s Communist regimes. However, no prominent Chinese will be there.

The main news item carried by Chinese newspapers and the Xinhua news agency today was the pledge made by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to provide hungry Africa US$ 10 billion worth in aid. The second most important story related the meeting between President Hu Jintao and top air force brass.

In the last two days, Xinhua has only published photos of the Berlin celebrations, without any commentary.


  1. Chaoliang sent this commentary on the Berlin Wall, titled "To change is as vital as to adapting to it" by You Nuo in China Daily, on Sept 11, 2009.

    "The reason why people expected the Berlin Wall to collapse was that it had developed many cracks, both in concept and in reality. What it shielded was a system that had long been alienated from its purpose, as seen by the radical intellectuals who had thought of the necessity to build it... ... ...

    But as the world has learned since, the opening of a wall is only a departure from the past for an inevitable journey, rather than an arrival at a triumphant, if not perfect, state. Freedom and peace in Europe is worth celebrating.

    But the struggle of the East Europeans to rebuild their countries and shake off their economic legacy is enough of an example of the global system's slowness in re-integrating the change... ... ...

    China has learned from the ups and downs in the nation's reform and opening up, that more often than not, change-makers have to adapt to the changes that they introduce.

    The global economic crisis is a signal that the old market economy is at times crippled by its own limitations, both in concept and practice... ... ...

    Indeed, having followed the Soviet-style planned economy but mindful of the cracks, the Chinese government dismantled its ideological wall, which separated the Chinese mainland from the then British colony of Hong Kong, 10 years before the Berlin Wall came crashing down.

  2. There are a number of audio-visual items on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I have listed a few interesting items below. If you come across more such items, please do share with us.

    # Competitive Enterprise Institute marking the occasion in this video on YouTube.

    # Cafe Hayek lists these two videos, on "Reason-TV"
    and an earlier interview of "FA Hayek" discussing socialism on YouTube.

    # Reuters news agency has a slide show on the 20th anniversary celebrations in Berlin.

    # BBC has a special page on the history, the events leading to its fall, and the present.

    # Ayn Rand Institute, has a two part video "The Berlin Wall", on the history of the Berlin Wall, and the meaning of its fall