A man walks in front of a stretch of wall...

A man walks in front of a stretch of wall at the so-called East Side Gallery in Berlin, near a recently torn down segment of the Berlin Wall. (March 27, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

In the next few days, I suspect we'll see a lot of photos and videos of the Berlin Wall coming down -- 25 years ago this Sunday.

But we probably will not see many pictures of Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who made it possible.

It was a spectacular moment that was brought back to me when I visited Berlin recently. I went to the old site of Checkpoint Charlie, the legendary crossing point from the American-occupied sector of Berlin to the Russian-occupied side. It had been the scene of one of the most tense standoffs in the 1960s, when American and Russian tanks faced off a few yards apart with their gun barrels aimed at each other. I was moving to visit the empty spaces with barbed wire and the monuments to those shot trying to escape East Berlin, preserved by the Germans as testimony to the brutality of the wall and its role in one of the cruelest episodes of the 20th century.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down because of the decisions of one man. Gorbachev had spent his career within the treacherous confines of the Russian Communist party, but saw history and human values with enough clarity that in November he ordered border guards and military troops in Berlin not to shoot those tearing down the wall or crossing to the West. And shortly after the wall came down, Gorbachev agreed to the reunification of Germany.

This year marked another important 25th anniversary -- in China. In June 1989, Chinese troops crushed a popular uprising in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Today, there is a comparable faceoff in the largest surviving communist dictatorship there is a comparable faceoff between an authoritarian regime struggling to reinforce its hegemony and a popular rebellion seeking democracy and freedom. This is the struggle in Hong Kong, led by students, known as Occupy or Occupy Central, named after a key district in the city.

Many Asian cultures, including China, embody a concept known as the "mandate of heaven," in which a government generally doing a good job is presumed to enjoy a divine mandate to continue its work. But if the government breaks its trust with the people or is seen to act in unjust ways, then the presumption of legitimacy is shattered and it is only a matter of time till that government is superseded or overthrown. This was not a real factor in the Tiananmen Square episode of 25 years ago, when the Chinese economy was roughly 5 percent of its present size; when events were not disseminated instantly around the world over the Internet; when the Berlin Wall had not yet fallen; and when the status of the central government and party in China was not easily questioned.

Today, Hong Kong's situation is made more difficult for the Chinese government in Beijing because it appears to have broken -- or at least seriously modified -- a commitment to allow Hong Kong to choose its own local leadership democratically. And the squeeze for the regime is even more painful because legions of young people around the world have seen pictures of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the violence in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago, and are watching videos of Occupy Central in Hong Kong today.

And, there is another broad, but quieter, challenge to officialdom in China: the widespread discontent with the environmental quality of life in China. Smog, toxic pollutants in the water and air, and unsafe food and other products have become commonplace in the world's most populous country. As part of this growing discontent, ordinary people have led protests and filed legal suits against Chinese governments at different levels as citizens fight back against the tidal wave of poison, pollution and waste that is a byproduct of China's most rapid development boom in history.

For the Chinese government, the most dangerous sparks of discontent are the ones that flamed up this fall in the streets of Hong Kong. Nobody knows for certain how this struggle will end. But there does not appear to be an equivalent of Gorbachev in the Chinese equation.

Peter Goldmark a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.


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