Hong Kong and West Berlin stand about as far apart as two cities can be. Yet for most of the second half of the 20th century, they were doppelgängers in an important way: Each was a focal point of Cold War tensions, linked by the shared stresses of being battlegrounds for two diametrically opposed ideologies.
During the final dozen years of the last century, the unwinding of the Cold War changed each city in a profound way. For Berlin, Germany’s reunification made the city whole again. It is now the country’s capital and most important metropolis. Walking or driving around Berlin today, you can move between what were once parts of two very different cities without necessarily noticing you have done so. Checkpoint Charlie is now a museum, and the last guard tower near the wall on the east side, from which soldiers sometimes shot at escapees heading for the west, is the focus of a historical preservation effort. Your choice of magazines and newspapers does not depend on where you are in the city. If you prefer digital forms of information, the web works identically east and west of the old wall.
Hong Kong is different. In 1997, Britain handed over its prized colony to the People’s Republic of China, making it a special administrative region that was supposed to enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years. Freedoms of speech, assembly, and protest are still protected under the territory’s constitution, called the Basic Law. This was to be a grand experiment—these freedoms are not available anywhere on the Chinese mainland. In Hong Kong, you can buy biographies of and writings by the Dalai Lama; newspapers run articles that criticize and cartoons that mock the leaders of China’s Communist Party. The “Great Firewall” makes surfing the web a very different experience on opposite sides of the border separating the city from the rest of China. If you are on the mainland, unless you use a VPN to help you scale the digital wall, you get no access to Twitter, Facebook, The New York Times, The Atlantic, or specialized sites devoted to such varied things as The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a documentary about the Tiananmen protests and June 4 massacre of 1989, and the Shen Yun pageant, which is linked to the banned Falun Gong sect. By contrast, those who come to Hong Kong from Toronto, Toledo, Lisbon, or London are likely to notice little difference in using the web—except that their internet connection in Hong Kong will likely be faster, and their internet provider’s reach more extensive, than at home.
But in subtle and not so subtle ways, some differences between how lives are lived on opposite sides of the border have begun to blur or disappear. A new high-speed train that connects Hong Kong to the mainland cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, called the Express Rail Link, illustrates this change. According to the Basic Law, “No department of the Central People’s Government and no province, autonomous region, or municipality directly under the Central Government may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own.” But in part of a Express Rail Link terminal in Hong Kong that opened in 2018, all security is handled by mainland employees, and travelers are subject to mainland-Chinese laws instead of Hong Kong laws.