Time to remove boundary fence with China

Peter Kammerer says Hong Kong should be tearing down the fence that separates it from the mainland, not building it up

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2012, 5:04am

Germans seem to have a term for everything and one, mauer im kopf, perfectly fits Hong Kong's state of mind towards the rest of China. The expression literally means "wall in the head" and refers to how former East and West Germans perceive one another since the fall of the Berlin Wall 23 years ago. Reunification of the Germanys with the removal of the cold war buffer was supposed to banish physical and psychological barriers, but among a considerable number, negative perceptions remain. Scant traces of the wall exist and few remember where it once stood, yet beyond an imaginary line, some easterners still think of the west as a place of opportunity and westerners see those in the east as being backward, corrupt and unsophisticated.

The underlying facts for the barriers were economics and politics. In 1951, when our fence was put up, then British colonial Hong Kong was on the front line of a UN embargo against the People's Republic of China over the Korean war. A decade later, when the Berlin Wall was built, cold war rivalry between East and West had soured to the point that a brick and barbed-wire demarcation zone was necessary to show which side controlled what in Europe. Both barriers served the same purpose: to keep out illegal immigrants, smugglers and spies.

There the similarities end, though. The Berlin Wall has gone, enthusiastically torn down in a show of liberation and freedom, but the wire mesh and barbed-wire boundary fence that separates Hong Kong from Guangdong is still in place. Surprisingly, despite the apparent interest of our government in integration, it has not been symbolically removed. Instead, it is being strengthened and rebuilt for about HK$300million. The existing surveillance system comprising video motion detectors, sensor alarms and closed circuit cameras is being upgraded with more sophisticated technology.

Why this is necessary has not been fully explained. The threats of economic migration, smuggling and spying are not what they once were. Hong Kong is being governed under the "one country, two systems" principle, but that is about a way of life. The barriers should be coming down, not going up.

Hong Kong has a natural border through the Shenzhen and Sha Tau Kok rivers. If we are worried about illegal traders and pregnant women, immigration and police checks readily serve needs, just as in the European Union. Construction of a four-metre-high fence only benefits the firms involved. Which leads to the conclusion that it exists only to proclaim we are insecure about our place in China.

It is worse than a case of " mauer im kopf". Not only do we apparently have a mental fear and anxiety about the mainland, but we also need a man-made barrier beyond the natural one to protect us. What we have is precious. But we also prevent people and ideas from moving freely and create divisions.

The example of Germany shows that even when a wall comes down, people can continue to think about differences and pass such feelings to their children. Hong Kong's boundary fence helps prolong and more deeply engrain negativity towards mainlanders. If the process of integration is to be smoother, a good place to start is by removing it.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post