By Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett
Speech at the 16th InterEthnic/InterFaith Leadership Conference (Dec.14, 2021)
Editor’s Note: A year ago, Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, a leading international human rights champion, and president of the Lantos Human Rights Foundation, delivered a powerful speech at the 16th InterEthnic/InterFaith Leadership Conference hosted by CPIFC. Her optimism displayed in a dark time of global democracy’s accelerated decline then has been proven right by the Chinese “Tang-Ping”(躺平, literally translated as “lying flat,” meaning “doing-nothing” ) generation’s recent “Blank-Page Revolution,” which demanded the step-down of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party for their failed, disastrous Covid-zero policy. Tens of thousands of young people were empowered and encouraged by the Internet despite the strictest censorship, and went to streets protesting against the regime, which fits well with Dr. Swett’s call for tearing down China’s Great Firewall to defeat totalitarianism. This is a must-read for human rights activists and democratic leaders across the world.
Thank you so much, Jianli and Lianchao, for your always insightful, incisive and incredibly important remarks. I am very honored to be part of this conference. I want to commend you for conceiving of this very important gathering and for bringing together this tremendous array of diverse ethnic and religious communities, all of them impacted by the malign influence of China, to look beyond the things that divide them to the things that unite them.
And what is it that unites them? It is a very noble mission of, on the one hand, building respect, mutual concern, and commonality among these communities and, on the other, fighting for the goal of advancing democracy and human rights. It is a worthy goal and, quite honestly, it has never been more pressing and more relevant than it is today.
I would like to begin by setting the broader stage of China’s actions in the world and the kind of threat they pose, not only in terms of digital dictatorships but to the whole liberal world order that has been so influential in advancing the values we all share and care about so deeply. The past several years have seen the growing aggression of China on multiple critical fronts, and it seems clear to me that China has come to believe that it can act in aggressive ways with impunity – with no real consequences.
Let’s very briefly review some of China’s more egregious policies over just the past five to eight years. Of course, we all think about the crushing of any semblance of democracy or rule of law in Hong Kong. For generations, Hong Kong was a vibrant city where West and East met in a very exciting way. Commerce flourished, arts flourished, culture flourished, and the rule of law flourished. We have seen this coming now for quite a few years, but the crushing of Hong Kong is now virtually complete. China’s attitude of impunity has been reinforced by the failure of the West, the United States, and the liberal world writ large, to do anything. I hope and pray that the crushing of Hong Kong is not irreversible, but we are kidding ourselves if we don’t think it’s complete, and it happened with little more than a whimper from those of us in the West who should have been defending this outpost of freedom in a very critical part of the world.
Of course, one of the most horrific and disturbing examples of the way in which China is acting with impunity and acting with truly evil aggression has been the ongoing genocide against the Uyghur people. You will be hearing after my remarks from my good friend Omer Kanat who can address this topic far better than I ever could, but this is deeply shocking to me. I am the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and the idea that in the 21st century a genocide should be taking place against an entire community with the full knowledge of the world is something that troubles me to my very core. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to this ongoing genocide and targeting of the Uyghur community as the stain of our century, and so it is. While there are efforts in the Congress and there have been plenty of speeches made on the topic, the response has, I’m sad to say, been woefully inadequate. It falls so far short when we consider the magnitude of the crime being committed and when we consider the full knowledge of the world about this unfolding crime against an entire people.
We have also seen very aggressive moves by China in the South China Sea, another demonstration of this new attitude of impunity. Last but not least, we see a pattern of China increasing threats to forcibly reunify Taiwan with the mainland.
There are many other examples we could cite. These are maybe the most prominent that we see covered in the news on a regular basis, but I’m sure those of you in our audience know better than most the many other examples of the way in which China is absolutely ignoring the protests of the world as it proceeds down increasingly aggressive and repressive paths. Maybe the best way to sum up this confluence of very disturbing actions by China is in a phrase that the Chinese have coined themselves – they refer to their new style of diplomacy as “wolf warrior diplomacy” and it kind of says it all. They are on the hunt, they are the aggressor, they are challenging, and they embrace that identity in a way that should cause the rest of us to pause with great concern.
Where does this new brazenness come from? It’s a question we have to ask ourselves. My own belief is that it is born out of a sincere conviction on the part of the Chinese leaders that the United States, and the West more broadly, are in decline. They believe that we are internally weak and that we have lost the will to meaningfully defend the values that are at the heart of our civilization. And we must all hope that they are wrong in that conviction. China, of course, increasingly views itself as a peer, or near peer, to the United States both economically and militarily. They have some basis for believing that.
The United States still has the world’s largest economy and is still the most powerful player, but China is rising very quickly and we are naive if we deny that reality. The United States, again, still remains militarily the strongest nation in the world, but experts who have followed the pattern of Chinese military spending over the last decade have seen, and our military is increasingly talking about this, that China was in a vastly different military posture 15 to 20 years ago.
It is my opinion that China now believes – and, when it comes to statecraft, belief is a critical ingredient, it will drive policies and decision-making – that the United States and the West are in decline, that they lack a certain belief in themselves and a certain inner fortitude. As a consequence, China is emboldened, and we see that in so many arenas. What is in a way most disturbing to me is China’s willingness now to challenge what I consider to be the secret ingredient of the United States’ and liberal world order’s strength over the years: this profound commitment to democracy and human rights. We increasingly hear Chinese leaders saying, “That model failed, or that model isn’t working. We have a better, more realistic, more pragmatic, tougher model.”
Just as Jianli said, China is seeking to export its system of digital dictatorship around the world. The Chinese leaders are also seeking to export their overarching theory of society, and it is not a theory that embraces and upholds the things we hold most dear. I would say that for all of America’s many weaknesses, shortcomings and failures, and there are plenty of those, it is nonetheless the case, in my view, that America’s commitment to democracy and advancing the reach of civil constitutional and human rights has been real. It has been sincere, and I think it is at the very heart of my nation’s DNA. For that reason – not our military strength, not our economic strength, but for that reason – I believe the United States has been a force for good in the world. But as America and the West are struggling to reckon and rightly to make amends for those parts of our history which have been wrong, China has come forward to challenge the very premises of democracy and universal human rights, which has been the organizing architecture for much of the world since the end of the Second World War. China uses our own willingness to look inward to face our history as an argument that our model has failed and is in decline, and when we fail to vigorously defend the principles that we hold, we only strengthen an increasingly confident and aggressive China.
There’s a simple scripture in the Bible that says, “If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to battle?” If we give an uncertain sound when blowing our trumpet in a call for defending democracy and defending a regime built around human rights, justice and the rule of law, and freedom of religion, conscience and belief – then we fail to defend those precious birthrights with passion and conviction. Who, then, is going to suit up for the ideological battle (and we hope it remains an ideological battle only) that lies ahead?
What is to be done? This is always the tricky part. It’s easier to explain and outline a problem than it is to point to solutions, but I would like to focus on two things. I’ll try to be brief because there are so many other outstanding people you’re waiting to hear from.
First, getting back to the issue of Taiwan: That is a place where the United States must be prepared to make a stand. It grieves me and my heart is broken when I think about our weakness in responding to Hong Kong, our weakness in responding to the Uyghurs. But we have defense treaties, we have legal obligations pertaining to protecting the territorial integrity and the right of Taiwan to defend itself. If we fail to live up to those obligations, if we allow China to forcibly take Taiwan and reunify Taiwan with China against the will of the Taiwanese people, I fear a line will have been crossed that will be very hard to reverse.
For many decades there has been a strategic intentional ambiguity regarding the United States’ policy towards Taiwan. At different times one can certainly argue that such intentional ambiguity served a purpose. At this point, ambiguity harms and weakens our ability to not only defend Taiwan, itself, the geographical place we know is Taiwan, but it will profoundly harm our ability to defend all the things we believe in and to defend everything that is at the heart of our civilization. So, I think that Taiwan is a critical test we cannot afford to fail, and if we do fail that test, I think we are inviting disaster not only for the people of Taiwan, and not only for America’s standing in the world, but for the whole democratic project and for the whole human rights project. I think this is a looming challenge and we cannot afford to sound an uncertain trumpet. We must meet that challenge. It must be the point at which we say, “No further! You shall not pass here!”
The second thing that we can do is what Jianli spoke about in his wonderful opening remarks. China views itself as a Goliath. But like the Goliath in the Bible, China has a great vulnerability of which it is aware – but not fully. Or perhaps it is aware, which is why it works so hard to defend that vulnerability. What is that vulnerability? China fears the truth. It fears its own people being able to access uncensored, unfiltered truth. It fears, of course, freedom in any form and internet freedom right at the top of the list. What it boils down to is that China fears its own people. It is terrified that its own people, its own citizens, will have access to the truth, access to the world, access to reality. If any government lives basically in fear of its own citizens, then despite all the bluster, all the tools of repression, all the elements of a police state, it remains a profoundly fragile and vulnerable system. When a government has to live in fear that its own people can find out the truth, that is the spot on the forehead that young David with his little slingshot found to bring down the mighty Goliath. And with all of Goliath’s armor, and all of his massive height – he was a giant even by today’s standards, I think he would even tower over the tallest NBA players if the description in the Bible is to be believed – even with all of that, David found that vulnerability.
Jianli, Lianchao, and those of us who have been working now for many years on this question of tearing down the Great Firewall of China, believe that this is China’s great vulnerability. And we have history to support that conviction. Before China became the greatest threat to freedom in the world, it was the old Soviet Union that held this dubious distinction. The Soviets had brought down over half of Europe what Winston Churchill memorably termed an “Iron Curtain”. But we tore down that Iron Curtain, and we succeeded eventually in tearing down the Berlin Wall, which was the most visible symbol of that barrier between freedom and repression. One of the ways we did it was using the old technology of that era, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, ways of getting through that Iron Wall with the truth. Because when people have access to knowledge and truth for themselves, they become empowered. They become encouraged and brave enough to live out their own ideals and beliefs. I love looking at the derivation of words, and the word “encourage”, derived from French “encourager”, means to put courage into someone, to infuse them with courage. When people have that kind of access they are encouraged, empowered, and given the bravery to do what they need to do.
I will close with an optimistic note based on something my late father used to say. As I mentioned earlier, he was a Holocaust survivor, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to serve in the United States Congress. He had really seen the worst that humanity was capable of and would have had every reason to be a pessimist and to be discouraged by the world, especially when we see it sometimes going in very concerning directions. But he used to say something to me often, and he always encouraged me this way when something terrible happened. I remember even after 9/11 he said this: “Darling (because he was a very affectionate father and always referred to me as honey or sweetheart), we are just bending a windy corner of history. And around this corner will be bright blue skies and wonderful possibilities.”
These are difficult and sobering times that we are facing, and we have to have the courage of our own convictions to stand up to the threat that China imposes. One key way is through aggressively pursuing a policy of internet freedom. But I also believe we’re bending a windy corner of history and that around this corner will be wonderful possibilities.
Thank you so much!