It's 'Captive Nations Week' — here's why we should care

It's 'Captive Nations Week' — here's why we should care
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At the height of the Cold War in 1959, Congress established “Captive Nations Week” to show the American people’s solidarity with the hundreds of millions suffering under communist regimes. Scheduled for the third week of July, the occasion gave rise to annual parades and rallies in major American cities, with thousands of people taking to the streets, supported by governors, mayors and officials at every level of government, to demand the liberation of communist-controlled nations.

Sixty-one years later, Captive Nations Week — which began Sunday — is all but forgotten. Yet the phenomenon of communist subjugation of free people is real and growing, and 20 percent of the world’s population still lives under single-party communist dictatorships — more than in 1989. If ever there were a moment to bring back Captive Nations Week, this is it. 

In creating this week, Congress specifically called out the “imperialistic policies” of the Soviet Union. Today, this phrase is just as easily applied to the People’s Republic of China, which dominates a growing number of lands and peoples, and aggressively seeks to add more to the list. 


Hong Kong is the latest proof. Beijing has violated international treaty obligations with its passage in June of a so-called national security law that effectively ends the “one country, two systems” policy. The law empowers authorities to arrest anyone deemed to be “subversive” or “secessionist,” which in practice means anyone criticizing the Communist Party or advocating democracy and freedom — ideals that are antithetical to Beijing’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Hong Kong is now a captive city.

Yet Hong Kong is hardly the only place that Communist China has overrun. Congress noted the subjugation of Tibet when establishing Captive Nations Week, and to this day, Beijing seeks to stamp out Tibetan culture and the regional Buddhist faith. The regime’s favored tools include the destruction of monasteries as well as the kidnapping and torture of Tibetan activists, which has led the Tibetan government-in-exile to warn of a Chinese-led “cultural genocide.” The apparent successor to the Dalai Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was kidnapped at age 6 by the Chinese Communist Party in 1995 and remains captive to this day.

Beijing also is perpetrating a demographic genocide against the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang. A June investigation by The Associated Press found that Chinese authorities are “taking draconian measures to slash birth rates among Uighurs,” including forced abortion and sterilization. The regime has shunted as many as 3 million Uighurs — nearly a third of the Uighur population — into modern-day concentration camps, which Beijing calls “Vocational Education and Training Centers.” These tyrannical actions give new meaning to “captive nation” in the Chinese context.

Now China is signaling its intention to conquer Taiwan. The Chinese military recently held drills simulating the capture of Taiwanese territory, and communist officials and military officers have threatened war repeatedly with Taiwan in the past few months. Considering that Beijing spent more than two decades telegraphing its eventual takeover of Hong Kong, America and the world would be foolish to ignore China’s clear desire to make Taiwan its captive.

Captive Nations Week was created precisely to draw American attention to situations such as these. While Communist China is far and away the most aggressive nation that embraces a Marxist ideology, there are several others. Communist Cuba essentially has taken Venezuela captive, and it has tried to do the same with Nicaragua. So, too, are Laos, North Korea and Vietnam still beholden to communist tyranny. This week should be a time for Americans of all backgrounds to express our sadness at the plight of the more than 1.5 billion people who still live in communist regimes. 

Is it too much to ask to bring back Captive Nations Week? It may be too early to ask for the spontaneous street parades seen in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. But it’s not too soon for policymakers to rally around this annual event. It could — and should — become a central theme of U.S. foreign policy, especially with the growing realization on both sides of the political aisle that America is now forced to counter the global ambitions and predatory behavior of China. 

What would that look like? Captive Nations Week would be an excellent time to roll out new sanctions against individuals and companies that participate in Chinese oppression. It also could provide an opening to announce new trade and economic measures that prevent Beijing from profiting from the places and people it dominates. By tying these actions to the concept of captive nations, policymakers would give their policies the kind of moral foundation that often has been missing in recent years. It would reaffirm that America’s pursuit of its national interests is inherently linked to the defense of universal ideals such as freedom and democracy.

Captive Nations Week once signified exactly that. Although it has been largely forgotten, its symbolic power remains as strong as ever — both for the American people and those who are oppressed around the world. The U.S. has nothing to lose, and something to gain, by bringing it back.

Marion Smith is executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @smithmarion.