New Walls

Obama’s visit to Badaling discussed above came on the heels of not only the four China-related anniversaries, but also the twentieth an­niversary of the fall of perhaps the ultimate symbol of border barri­ers in the modern world: the Berlin Wall. Obama himself addressed the significance of the Berlin Wall in a 2008 speech in front of Brandenburg Gate in which he warned that “the greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another.” Obama was obviously speaking metaphorically in referring to “new walls,” yet he could just as easily have been referring to the proliferation of actual border walls in the contemporary era.

The 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of the end of the iron curtain, the Eastern bloc, the cold war, and virtually ev­erything else the Berlin Wall had stood for. It did not, however, por­tend the immediate obsolescence of this sort of barrier. If anything, global enthusiasm for territorial walls and fences has actually in­creased over the past two decades. Israel, for instance, is construct­ing a heavily fortified barricade along its internal border with the West Bank, mirroring those it recently built along its border with the Gaza Strip as well as between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. In the mid-1990s, India began constructing a series of barriers along its borders with Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Kashmir, and it is cur­rently contemplating a similar barricade along its border with Paki­stan. Iran, meanwhile, has recently begun setting up hundreds of kilometers of fence along its own border with Pakistan, even as Pa­kistan is proposing to do the same along its border with Afghani­stan. China continues to maintain barriers along its borders with

Hong Kong and Macao, even though the former European colonies were returned to Chinese sovereignty in the late 1990s, and in 2006 it began building a new barrier along its border with North Korea (and North Korea has responded with a wall of its own on the other side of the same border). Meanwhile, in 2006 the United States passed the Secure Fence Act, authorizing the “possible” construc­tion of more than 700 miles of a double-layer barrier along the na­tion’s southern border with Mexico—at an estimated cost of bil­lions of dollars.

There is a distinct irony in the fact that, at the turn of the twenty — first century, wealthy and scientifically advanced countries around the world are resorting to comparatively rudimentary technologies of concrete and barbed wire to secure their borders. While these sorts of physical barriers may be effective under certain circum­stances, their practical utility is generally limited in the face of the daunting socioeconomic forces that drive movement across interna­tional borders, combined with the sheer length of the physical bor­ders themselves. Although the United States has appropriated bil­lions of dollars to erect the series of fortified fences along hundreds of miles of its border with Mexico, for instance, many experts argue that even when complete these barriers will not significantly de­crease illegal immigration, but at most will merely shunt attempted border crossings to more remote (and consequently more danger­ous) regions. The significance of many of these contemporary walls, therefore, would appear to lie not so much in their status as physi­cal barriers as in their status as abstract symbols of the purposes to which they are ostensibly being put.

China’s Wall is haunted by a similar tension between its status as a material artifact and as an abstract ideal. The Wall is frequently imagined as an unthinkably massive barrier, yet the material struc­ture itself no longer retains any strategic function, and even at its peak effectiveness its significance often lay more in its status as a symbol of the border than as an actual barricade. We could, there-

[To view this image, refer to the print version of this title.]

Obama at Badaling, with “One World One Dream” sign in background.

AP Photo/Andy Wong (2009).

fore, see the Wall as a material barrier, but one whose materiality is often symbolic in nature.

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