We can help the Chinese people change their communist regime
When Joe Biden takes over from Donald Trump, he will confront a complex and daunting China problem. But Trump’s team also will leave Biden a simple — though not easy — China solution: take the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) out of the equation.
Well before China unleashed the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration was moving toward a confrontation with the People’s Republic in the realm of information warfare. Beijing has waged the ideological component of Cold War II for decades without a serious response from the United States, until now.
Trump’s National Security Strategy (NSS) identified China and Russia as “revisionist powers that … weaponize information to attack the values and institutions that underpin free societies, while shielding themselves from outside information.” The NSS pledged new initiatives to address the ideological challenge, noting: “The United States must empower a true public diplomacy capability to compete effectively in this arena.”
Launching that effort, Vice President Mike Pence issued a veritable declaration of America’s response to the new cold war, proclaiming human rights an essential focus in a different U.S.-China relationship: “Previous administrations … hope[d] that freedom in China would expand in all of its forms. … But that hope has gone unfulfilled. The dream of freedom remains distant for the Chinese people. … Beijing’s … lip service to ‘reform and opening’ now rings hollow.”
In a speech recounting four decades of failed U.S.-China relations, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo faulted U.S. policymakers for turning a blind eye to China’s manifold violations of human rights: “We all too often shied away from talking directly about the human rights issues there and American values when they came into conflict, and we downplayed ideological differences, even after the Tiananmen Square massacre and other significant human rights abuses.”
Pompeo promised further administration speeches addressing China’s serial violations of international norms.
At the Nixon Library in July, in a speech that will be seen as a historic turning point, Pompeo carried the informational confrontation to its logical conclusion. Reviewing Beijing’s malign behavior on trade, security and human rights, he called for a united effort to support China’s populace in pressing for change: “We must … engage and empower the Chinese people — a dynamic, freedom-loving people who are completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party. … For too many decades, our leaders have ignored, downplayed the words of brave Chinese dissidents who warned us about the nature of the regime we’re facing. And we can’t ignore it any longer. They know as well as anyone that we can never go back to the status quo.”
Pompeo cautioned that the international community must be involved in the struggle: “[C]hanging the CCP’s behavior cannot be the mission of the Chinese people alone. Free nations have to work to defend freedom.” The implicit message was that 40 years of engagement failed to bring peaceful and honorable coexistence with China. Regime change is now the only alternative short of war.
Also important was deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger’s speech in May, commemorating student protests over China’s unfair treatment at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Delivered in Mandarin, it was favorably received by Chinese citizens but panned by a CCP spokesperson who told Pottinger to “mind his business.”
The Chinese people clearly hunger for honest information and friendly communication with the American people, including U.S. officials. Messages from Pottinger, Miles Yu at the State Department Office of Policy Planning, and other Mandarin speakers in the government would find receptive audiences in China.
The natural conduit for such direct communications would be an expanded and invigorated effort by Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA), but some at VOA fear a conflict between reporting the news and disseminating “propaganda.”
VOA and its sister communications agencies have earned global legitimacy and respect for their journalistic integrity and truthfulness. It would not jeopardize that reputation if news reports about administration speeches or policy statements, with a few quotations, provided links to the complete texts. Funding should be provided for more translators if needed.
A fuller presentation of U.S. policies would be perfectly consistent with the three missions set forth in VOA’s charter: 1) a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news; 2) a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions; and 3) statements of U.S. policies and responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.
Some at VOA have chafed at going beyond the first mission — pure news. Experts close to the organization recently addressed that concern:
“This third mission is often called public diplomacy but … a better term is ‘policy advocacy,’ defined as efforts by U.S. officials and diplomats to explain and defend U.S. interests, intentions and ideals to overseas audiences. Some critics within [the agency] argue for eliminating policy advocacy, calling it inimical to the norms of professional journalism. But this is unrealistic. Policy advocacy is an inescapable part of any government’s communication with the world. The challenge is to keep policy advocacy separate from news reporting — and to do it in ways that are truthful, not propagandistic.”
In fact, however, providing the Chinese audience access to actual administration speeches and policy statements fits easily within even the narrower mandate of “just reporting the news.”
VOA and RFA can unapologetically meet the congressional mandate to present America’s position on the news, whether it is China’s genocidal oppression of Uighurs, forced organ transplants, suppression of Hong Kong, or aggression against Taiwan. The Chinese people are entitled to know what their government is doing, and what America and the outside world are saying and doing about it.
A recent survey in China found high support for the government among people who heard only the Communist Party’s story. But when they were exposed to news about international criticism, approval levels dropped significantly. The Chinese are proud and honorable people who don’t want to be shamed by their own leaders.
Ronald Reagan appealed to the conscience of Russian and East European populations to rid the world of communism’s first “Evil Empire.” The Trump administration started the ball rolling against the Chinese version. Biden and his people should pick up the ball and run with it.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.