Germany Commemorates, China Forgets

Chinese Rock Band performs at the German Embassy in Beijing, October 3, 2009

The Chinese Communist Party seems intent on preventing any spillover from Europe’s orgy of commemorations of 1989. China Daily has featured just a small handful articles about German reunification in the last two months, including one about how one in eight former East Germans “wants the wall back.” In announcing the arrival of the rock band U2 in Berlin, China Daily yesterday noted, almost in passing, that “The wall was eventually torn down in November 1989.”

Torn down by whom? And for what reason? Unbelievable.

This October 22 story from China Daily on commemorations in Berlin seems not to have counterpart in the Chinese langugage press.

The Chinese press appears to be unblemished by any story about China’s historical relations with the old East Germany. Is it above China to mumble a “kyrie elaison” for a departed comrade? Admittedly, I haven’t checked the various obscure journals, but to me this lacuna is unsettling.

Vice-President Xi Jinping, who was in Germany in mid-October, wasn’t going to bring up such topics in spite of being surrounded with ample stimulation. Leave such things to the mangled artists!  And after all, there are only certain Germans one is encouraged to discuss in the PRC. Xinhua describes Xi Jinping’s remarks at the Frankfurt Book Fair:

Xi said China upholds the idea of building a harmonious world with sustained peace and common prosperity.

Thanks to the exchanges among various cultures, people from different countries could get to know Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) from Germany, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) from Britain and Confucius (551 BC-479 BC) from China, Xi noted.

And so we get Goethe instead of Erich Honegger or Egon Krenz. No congratulations to Germany for having survived and thrived through two decades of unification, no recollection of the old state. How is one supposed to “seid umschlungen” in such an environment, anyway?

Maybe with this “harmonious architecture” Germany is marketing to China.

In the meantime, the Great Firewall of China gets assailed by Chinese netizens posting on a Berlin Twitterwall, which I blogged about yesterday.

Why is 1989 so pregnant and so dangerous for the CCP?  Perhaps because the European revolution was peaceful, and the German revolution remains linked to memories of China’s violent suppression of the peaceful revolution that same year.

Shades of June 4, yet again.

Thus, in the meantime, it is up to the Germans in China to educate on the high significance of the Wall (1961-1989) and its fall (all links in Chinese!):

– The German embassy launches a “Germany for Beginners” program in Peking

– Think what this list would look like in China: Sites of commemoration of the East German past

– And interview with author Frederick Taylor on his history of the wall, Die Mauer

– Artistic commemorations of 1989

– On Checkpoint Charlie

– “Struggles for Freedom

– Children of 1989 — affecting! and, just because it was so damn fun and the company so lovely, I’ll conclude with

– the techno party at the Goethe Institute in Beijing (the accompanying slide show may be of note!)

However excellent these resources might be, there are a couple of politically-minded omissions in these materials which need to be pointed out. First, so as not to offend the Chinese with untoward references to the CCP’s repression of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, the Chinese version of the timeline of events on the impetus for the fall of the wall does not reach back to spring 1989 starting only in autumn of that year.

As I wrote about with healthy doses of images from Berlin’s Alexanderplatz this summer, many deep connections (thematic, personal, political, artistic and otherwise) existed between the twin democracy movements in the PRC and the German Democratic Republic in 1989; the repression of the Beijing students on the square helped to galvanize the East German student movement in particular.

(Meanwhile, as a document I found in the Berlin archives attests, the North Korean Democratic Youth Leader who met with his East German counterpart that spring was blithely confident that China, East Germany, and North Korea could whether the storm of change. As it turns out he was only two-thirds correct.  North Korean retrospectives on 1989 are another matter entirely, but also not without merit — one imagines a collective sigh of relief, of momentary congratulations among the upper echelons of the Korean Workers’ Party elite before getting back to the latest “100-day speed campaign” while Turkish kids in eastside Berlin Skype with their paramours in Ankara.)

Secondly, the German magazine editors elected to leave untranslated and thus unpublished in Chinese a version of an article on historians reconstructing Stasi (secret East German police) documents — perhaps someone fears the censor? I had always imagined it was a mark of honor to have an article or poster returned to your address, thick with blue pencil markings of the censor. In other words, such a packet would indicate at least that an effort had been made on the part of the author. But in the meantime I shall have to settle for peer reviews.

Some of my previous work on the East German archives and their relation to 1989 can be accessed here ; a short essay on revolutionary nostalgia, replete with excellent citations, is here.

The Wall is dead; long live the Wall.


  1. Adam,

    I must say that I don’t quite get the fuss over China allegedly not doing enough to “celebrate” the coming down of the Berlin wall. Berlin wall and China? Why are they connected, as far as the Chinese are concerned? How are they connected, as far as the Chinese are concerned? Because both happened in 1989? Because both were direct by-product of the collapse of the Soviets and communism in Europe? I understand the Germans might somehow have a special place in their hearts for June 4th (something I fail to understand) and naively regarded it as the “peaceful revolution” and stuff, that is not to say the Chinese must reciprocate and have some sort of special feelings about the coming down of the Berlin wall, is it? So why should China in particular do more to commemorate the coming down of the Berlin wall? To return the “favor”?

    And Ai Weiwei is sooo overrated. His artistic talents are way overrated. I think the main reason why he received so much attention in the west is simply because he is fiercely anti-CCP, anti-PRC and anti-establishment.

    1. Comparative cultures of commemoration! Because China frequently cites Germany as “the positive example” of “facing history” in its rhetoric towards, and about, Japan. So why do Germans get attention in China for coming clean on WWII, but their look at 1989 gets muffled, and badly so? Not to mention that the narrative of 1989 in Germany _confirms China’s self-perception of centrality_ but China can’t take credit because any discussion of June 4 is verboten. I used to be much more sympathetic toward China’s senstitivies on this issue, but after a couple of years of realizing that economic reforms don’t lead to more open access to information (something I prize on a personal level), I will admit to feeling frustrated at the PRC. In general, the Germans have their particular problems, but I think that absent their total idealization of figures like Ribiya Khadeer and the Dalai Lama (not to mention the provocateur Ai Weiwei), at its core the German recognition of the value of history is something that the historically-minded Chinese are strangely afraid of. What is there to be afraid of?

      This big Die Zeit article tends to confirm for me your assessment of Ai — no mention of a single other peace activist…it’s a little nauseating I suppose, but I admire his father’s courage and his own willingness to swim against the tide. At the same time, there are plenty of Chinese (including a couple of artists who have commented on this blog) who find him overstated and arrogant. I suppose I need to attend his exhibition to figure this all out…

      Thanks for the comments — as always, something worth mulling over for a couple of days, esp. this impetus toward “reciprocal commemoration”; every country has its own history and has the right to shape, if not dictate, the narrative.

  2. Adam,

    You are right, any discussion about the June 4th event is strictly verboten in China, which has been the case for almost two decades. But why should China care about how the Germans in particular see June 4th? I think China pretty much knows how the rest of the world, especially the western world which includes Germany, sees it. The “tank man” was lionized as the symbol against the “evil” totalitarian government of the CCP who was set out to crush the “peaceful revolution” led by democracy-crazed students. I don’t know anything about the narrative of the June 4th event in Germany, which allegedly “confirms China’s self-perceived centrality” (what exactly did they say anyway?), but I do understand why the Chinese government could care less about the coming down of the Berlin war and the collapse of communism in Europe. Not that they don’t care at all, they are naturally a little afraid, after all they fear what happened in Europe will happen in China. Personally I think they have nothing to fear really: China is not Europe and the Chinese don’t value democracy as much as the Europeans do. The CCP should have a little more faith on the Chinese instead of being constantly paranoid.

    1. I forgot about tank man! There was a horribly uncomfortable moment in an interview Mike Wallace did with Jiang Zemin when Wallace kept asking Jiang “but how does this image make you _feel_?” in a kind of creepy, 60 Minutes, kind of way. Which is not to say that Tank Man didn’t have cajones for doing something rash and in fact brave in a moment of supreme stress. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t lay down in front of GW Bush’s motorcade in Cincinnati in October 2002 before his “smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud” speech to a worshipful throng. Something tells me I would have been depicted as a nut case, or not even afforded the courtesy of a “depiction.” Where is American Tank Man when you need him in Ohio? Waiting in line for his provisional ballot to be examined, that’s where!

      On the centrality thing, my point is that the events of May and June 1989 in China were highly galvanizing for the German student and democracy movement. Thus it could be argued that China is inherently influential in Europe even with its democracy/reform movements! But the CCP doesn’t want the wangmin or anyone to take pride in democracy as a Chinese export! Unfortunate.

  3. The great cause of unification of the motherland (Taiwan) is one thing. German unification is another. 😉

  4.  六四20周年之际,大陆人中,有的仍然恐惧,选择沉默;


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