Two cities: Beijing and Berlin

Two cities: Beijing and Berlin
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First Published: Wed, Nov 11 2009. 08 45 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Nov 11 2009. 08 45 PM IST
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
So began Charles Dickens’ description of London and Paris in A Tale of Two Cities (1859). The imagery could easily be about Berlin and Beijing of 1989.
On 9 November that year, after an East German official announced, possibly mistakenly, that East Germans wishing to cross the border no longer needed permits, people rushed to the wall with pickaxes, knocking the wall which defaced the city like a scar on its face. Mstislav Rostropovich turned up at Checkpoint Charlie, and began playing a solo suite from Bach. As the English poet William Wordsworth once wrote, in another context: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.”
If you walk through Berlin today, it is hard to tell apart where the former east ends and the old west begins. Potsdamer Platz, once the desolate locale for a secret rendezvous in a spy novel, is now the face of the new Berlin, with its shining high-rises. When I was there recently, a German friend could no longer tell me with certainty where lay east and what was west.
The dawn in Beijing on 4 June that year was quite different. A young man walked up to a tank on the stately avenue at Tiananmen Square.
Thousands of students watched the drama; they were at the square, demanding reforms peacefully. The tank tried to skirt past the student, but the student kept blocking it, and then, with breathtaking audacity, he climbed on the tank, pleading with the soldiers to return.
He has not been heard of since then.
What happened in 1989? Who won? Democracy? Or markets? Did the Great Wall become the Great Mall, and was that enough? This is a point British writer John Kampfner explores in his thoughtful new book, Freedom for Sale, which takes him to Singapore, Russia, India and other places as he tries to figure out if in the marketplace of ideas, ideas lost and markets won.
In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the wall, there was hubristic triumphalism: The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman even claimed that as with democracies, two countries with McDonald’s wouldn’t go to war: which sounded like a glib Friedmanesque aphorism that the Davos Men like to hear, until, as economist Jagdish Bhagwati pointed out, the Balkan wars erupted, mauling that metaphor, messing the mantra.
While post-wall eastern Europe has seen greater respect for civil liberties, there has also been a rise in anti-Semitism, restrictions are placed on abortion rights, violence has increased against the Roma, the national exchequer looted through dubious privatization schemes—and then, those Balkan wars.
And there is China, where despite the Tiananmen Square massacre, the hounding of Falun Gong adherents, and the persecution of Tibetans, and despite an earthquake and rising costs which have forced millions of migrant workers to flee the countryside, the economy continues to grow. Beijing has staged an impressive Olympics, and now China sits on foreign reserves that offer stability to the global economy.
China pretends to be more open, and goes about as if it won the unfinished debate of 1989. But has it, really? As India’s finance minister in the 1990s, Manmohan Singh said open societies only appear to be weak because their weaknesses are visible and strengths taken for granted. With closed societies, who knows their vulnerabilities? And when revealing those vulnerabilities is a bad career move? A journalist jailed for writing about the central bank’s gold sales; a research firm rewriting a report which alleged that the non-performing loans of Chinese state banks are understated. Retribution is swift: China glares, governments and businesses kowtow.
Recall the time when the Soviet Union made extravagant claims of harvest and industrial productivity, and then quietly revised figures, airbrushing the past from its history, hoping no one would remember. And yet, in the end, unlike the dire predictions of French author Jean-Francois Revel—How Democracies Perish (1985)—the other guy blinked.
Two decades are like that blink. As Chou En Lai is supposed to have said when asked about the impact of the French revolution: “Too soon to tell.” And so it is with 1989: That year, a people divided by an artificial border tore down that wall. Twenty years later, a prosperous China remains paranoid, busy building firewalls to stop the Internet from bringing dangerous ideas that could destabilize the middle kingdom. Guess who will win?
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Nov 11 2009. 08 45 PM IST