China’s people need the truth — America should help them get it

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The Biden administration came into office pledging to focus on human rights in a more sustained and consistent manner than its predecessor. But it was alway a gross exaggeration that the Trump team collectively ignored the subject in favor of realpolitik and purely transactional diplomacy.

In 2017 and 2018, President Trump himself addressed the deplorable human rights situation in North Korea with three major speeches — at the United Nations, the South Korean National Assembly, and the State of the Union — and twice provided a presidential platform for North Korean victims of the Kim Jong Un regime to tell their horror stories to the world. Kim was rattled.

In the last two years of Trump’s term, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and several Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials delivered a series of speeches highlighting Communist China’s multiple offenses against its own population and its threats against democracy and human rights in Hong Kong and Taiwan. And Trump unhesitatingly signed every act of Congress advancing those causes. Xi Jinping was rattled — until the pandemic distracted Washington.

By its rhetoric and instincts, Biden’s team was poised to amplify the emphasis on human rights, most dramatically by affirming Pompeo’s declaration of a Uyghur genocide. (President Biden has now made his own unique contribution to historical truth by declaring Turkey’s massacre of 1 million Armenian Christians a genocide.) 

When Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan met in Alaska with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Foreign Affairs Councilor Yang Jiechi, they naturally called attention to China’s human rights atrocities in Xinjiang and elsewhere.  

The Chinese officials were well-prepared for the expected criticism and delivered a fusillade of return fire on America’s domestic disturbances, troubled history of race relations, and recent attacks on Asian Americans. Yang virtually spat out his rebuttal: “Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States. The leaders of China have the wide support of the Chinese people.”

The counterattack was widely applauded among those Chinese who have succumbed to Beijing’s daily diet of “information” conditioning (otherwise known as brainwashing). They have been taught since childhood that the United States, and the West generally, are the proclaimed enemies of the Chinese people, culture and history. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which started its brutal rule with a self-defined Cultural Revolution intended to destroy those values and that history, now postures as their savior and protector against hostile foreign powers.

Yang and Wang were effectively declaring a frontal assault on America’s claim to any special standing in the world, throwing down the gauntlet that (a) the CCP’s rule is morally superior to the democratic system in the United States, and (b) the Chinese people know and appreciate their more favorable situation.

The Biden administration should pick up the challenge, which plays directly into their professed strong suit against the world’s tyrannies: human rights and democratic values. Beijing already brazenly interferes in the U.S. democratic process, both legally and illegally, so Washington should feel no hesitation in vigorously engaging China in the arena of information warfare. It must ensure that the Chinese people have the full picture of reality within their own country and abroad long denied them by their communist leaders.  

The very premise of Richard Nixon’s historic policy change in 1972 was “to open China to the world and open the world to China.” Neither goal can truly be achieved as long as Beijing controls and distorts the flow of information in both directions. The false claim of popular approval must be exposed, just as it was with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, despite Nikita Khrushchev’s boast to the West that “we will bury you.” 

Building on the ultimately successful and relatively peaceful outcome of the Cold War, Washington should undertake a sustained and comprehensive strategic communications campaign that supports the Chinese people in challenging the very legitimacy of CCP rule. And in that effort it should employ the other touted strength of the Biden administration — its reliance on cooperation with allies, security partners and other like-minded nations.

Pompeo, in his groundbreaking speech at the Nixon Library last July, implicitly suggested the template for such an approach: “[C]hanging the CCP’s behavior cannot be the mission of the Chinese people alone. Free nations have to work to defend freedom. But  … we can do it … because we’ve done it before. We know how this goes. … [T]he CCP is repeating some of the same mistakes that the Soviet Union made — alienating potential allies, breaking trust at home and abroad, rejecting property rights and predictable rule of law. … I see [the awakening] among other nations that know we can’t go back to the past.”

With Blinken and Sullivan as his stalwarts, Biden can carve out his own place in history by finally making real Nixon’s 1967 declaration: “China must change.”

The Chinese people themselves want that change, despite Yang’s boast in Anchorage that he and his colleagues “have their wide support.” Former premier Wen Jiabao recently revealed the emptiness of that claim, ending a tribute to his late mother with this appeal: “In my mind, China should be a country full of fairness and justice. There should always be respect for the will of the people, humanity and the nature of human beings. There should always be youthfulness, freedom and a striving spirit.” 

Wen’s statement was widely interpreted in China as an implicit criticism of Xi’s leadership, but it applies broadly to the entire communist system. The authorities recognized that and quickly took it off the internet — but not before it had gone viral. Recent polls show growing concerns among young Chinese about their economic future. 

In power from 2003-2013, Wen regularly stated that China would begin its long-promised path to political reform by instituting democratic elections at the local level before expanding it more broadly. Taiwan followed that course when it moved from stale dictatorship to vibrant democracy.

The Biden administration should relentlessly press Beijing to fulfill Nixon’s expectation and Wen’s promise. Voice of America and Radio Free Asia should start the information campaign by getting “Grandpa” Wen’s remarks to the vast Chinese population so they can see their own aspirations reflected in the words of a Chinese leader, rather than the devious Western plots the regime portrays. 

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. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Antony Blinken Chinese Communist Party Donald Trump Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Kim Jong Un Mike Pence Mike Pompeo Presidency of Joe Biden Separatism in China Uyghur genocide

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