The Latest Threats to Freedom in Hong Kong

I've long been intrigued by parallels between Hong Kong's situation before the 1997 Handover and West Berlin's during the Cold War--and the contrasting shifts that took place when the former became part of the People's Republic of China and the latter became part of a unified Berlin. I first thought of Hong Kong and West Berlin as comparable spaces for a very specific, personal reason. In early 1987, when I visited Hong Kong midway through an academic year of research in Shanghai, the plethora of consumer choices and range of opinions expressed in books and newspapers, so different from what I had been experiencing on the mainland, made me feel I had returned to familiar ground, even though I had never been to the metropolis before. Later that same year, when West Berlin was the endpoint of a trip on the TransSiberian railway, I felt a similar sensation, though that was my first visit to the German city.

At first, I just found the idea of connecting the two places intriguing, but during the last decade or two, when I have thought about West Berlin and Hong Kong, it has been in a more worrying vein. For while the main trend in Berlin after the Wall came down was for all of the city to become influenced by the freer public sphere that existed on the Checkpoint Charlie side, in Hong Kong, the opposite kind of trend, that of a free zone getting more constrained rather than a controlled becoming less controlled. Yes, many consumer-related traits more typical of Hong Kong than Shanghai in 1987 can now be found in most mainland cities, but when it comes to political trends, it has been more common for influences to flow in the other direction.

At several points in the past, I have thought about writing something exploring the value and limits of Hong Kong-West Berlin comparisons and contrasts. I almost did this, for example, after I had read, back to back, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Honourable Schoolboy, le Carré novels in which West Berlin and Hong Kong's positions as capitalist outposts near Communist countries play somewhat similar roles. In the end, though, what finally inspired me to write, rather than just think about writing, a commentary juxtaposing the two places was a very different book-related experience--following the news about the disturbing disappearance of five Hong Kong individuals linked to a company that publishes books that officials in Beijing wish would vanish from all stores.

My commentary, which also brings in other issues related to the precarious nature of Hong Kong's current political situation, has just been published by the Los Angeles Review of Books, under the title "Then They Came for the Bookseller." To read it, click here.