Make American Democracy Great Again—MADGA

Thank you, Nicole, for your kind introduction.

On July 27, 2022, as the luncheon speaker at the Class of Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard Kennedy School, I was quickly eating lunch, trying to finish it and get myself ready before the students arrived from their class. When they came in, Nicole was the first to sit at my table and strike a conversation with me. I was very impressed and inspired by such an energetic, visionary and devoted young female leader. You know, I was upset with politics in Washington, DC and wanted to turn my eyes to local and state governments to better understand the functioning of American democracy. I expressed this thought in my talk. While saying this I thought to myself, perhaps, some of the students would get me to visit their communities. Nicole turned out to be the first to do it. I was so excited upon hearing her voice when she called a few weeks ago. She invited me to come to visit this great community and speak at tonight’s event. Here I am.

Yesterday, I became an honorary citizen of the city of New Ulm. I am privileged and humbled to be one of you. This honor brought my mind back to those days when I first came to America.

In 1986, I abandoned what most people saw as a “bright future” in both academia and politics in China and came to the United States to pursue a PhD degree in Mathematics at University of California. For the first time in my life, I breathed the fresh, beautiful air of freedom. Few of you in this room know what it feels like to be blessed with freedom after living under an oppressive dictatorship. Yes, it was the first time that I got to see so many kind and friendly faces, without fear or trepidation. I was emersed in a state of relaxation like I’d never experienced before, despite the tremendous pressure from my studies and the formidable language barrier facing me. 

Needless to say, I was amazed by America’s modernity and splendidness, which was in stark contrast with my home country—the place which I’d left just a few days earlier and to which I was resolved to return one day after completing my studies. I was astonished to learn that most of the magnificent skyscrapers in the U.S. were privately-owned; and large corporations, including the banking and auto sectors, were operated by private citizens and not by the government. I realized that America is a society that encourages and reward hard work and success. This is a land of possibility; This must be what they call the “American dream,” I thought to myself. 

China has a long history and rich traditions. For instance, the Chinese classic Yi Jing, one of the most important Confucian texts, not only recognizes the desire for wealth as human nature but also encourages innovative and productive activities, and promotes the pursuit of wealth and prosperity as a noble cause. Why, I began to ponder, does the Chinese communist regime deprive people of their dignity by dispossessing them of their right to private property? Why haven’t the Chinese people achieved something similar to the American dream—an ideal that was also envisioned by many prominent sages throughout ancient Chinese history and continuing into the present. 

I was dazzled by America’s wealth and high living standards. But what touched my heart was something else that I saw in small towns like Mankato and New Ulm. 

At that time, I had an interesting hobby. Every weekend, I would drive an old used car out to rural America to enjoy the scenery and learn more about the American society. I was fascinated by the beauty and cleanliness of America’s small towns; the preservation of natural resources; and the harmony between people and nature. More importantly, I found that every town had an exquisite public library, and every library had access for the disabled. Later, I found that public transportation and all public places provide facilities for the handicapped. Once, upon seeing all of this, I shed tears. I had been to many cities, towns and villages in China; I remembered clearly how many times I had seen the poor and the disabled being bullied and discriminated against, with no means of having their grievances redressed. I recalled how terrible I felt upon seeing their misery, and being powerless to help them. 

I was always reminded of a Chinese classic, the Book of Chuang Tzu, which tells the story of an inspector asking a market man about his method of finding good pigs in the market. Of course, in this case, a “good” pig is a “fat” pig. The market man replied that the test is always made on the lowest parts of the animal, i.e., the totters, which are least likely to be fat. In other words, if one finds fat on a pig’s totters where fat is least likely to grow, it can be considered a “good” pig. 

Chuang Tzu used this story to teach people an important lesson: The way to determine whether a society is good and just is to see whether the society’s most disadvantaged are respected and taken care of. By this standard (which I learned latter at Harvard University, is also the standard put forth by American philosopher John Rawls in his seminal work A Theory of Justice, 1971), American society is a good and just society. 

In every human heart, the desire for individual happiness and success, as well as care for the collective and compassion for the disadvantaged, should coexist. A society that safeguards the rights and opportunities of individuals to pursue success and protects the results of their success while caring for the disadvantaged and defending the collective interest is the common human ideal. For such a social ideal, almost at the same time, the Chinese philosopher Confucius and the ancient Greek sages put forward the philosophical proposition of the “Middle Way,” that is, when dealing with public affairs, in the face of people with different circumstances, viewpoints, preferences and interests, it is necessary to strike a balance. Going to the extremes is a losing proposition. Confucius firmly believed that only by embarking on a balanced path can we cultivate public virtue and enjoy a happy, fulfilling public life. The Seven Sages of ancient Greece inscribed the motto “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess” at the Temple of Apollo. 

But history tells us that this ideal is not easy to achieve. In China, for example, we don’t have to look further than the time under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the political struggle has always been cruel and ruthless, often fighting to the death. The government only defends and answers to the interests of the ruling elite; deprives the people of their basic rights and interests; and brutally persecutes dissidents and those who openly call out the powers that be. Growing up, I saw firsthand how the CCP regime was engaged in bloody and ruthless communist politics that eliminated all private property, as well as state-crony capitalism that exploited ordinary people. 

In contrast, what I saw in America was a democracy where different political factions were able to come together to represent different interests; compromise to make meaningful public policies, large and small, whether at the federal, state or local level. In America, different groups, regardless of class, color, gender, age, or creed, can largely coexist in harmony and with mutual tolerance. I’ve always believed that “Don’t go to extremes” should be the golden rule in politics. I felt that the traditional Chinese ideals seemed to be realized in the United States, and that I would return to China after my U.S. studies to realize the same ideals in my native land. It was here that the American dream and the Chinese dream of a 22-year-old Chinese scholar became conflated. 

This is what I saw and thought when I first came to the United States, which was very intuitive and idealistic, perhaps superficial. Later, my life and studies in the U.S. made me realize that the history and reality of the United States are richer and more complex than I’d previously thought (Just in the past two days, I got to know some of the rich history of this part of Minnesota). I, however, drew inspiration from the process of the ideal of ever-expanding U.S. freedom and democracy as envisioned and set by the Founding Fathers, and passed on from generation to generation. I was also inspired by the social fabric of the United States (especially local self-governance organizations such as the Region Nine Development Commission, or RNDC); the rule of law; and the guarantee of human rights; these constitute the core of American democracy. After World War II, the United States became the world’s leading defender of a free world governed by the rule of law, a champion of human rights around the world, and a beacon of light for the world’s people who yearn for freedom and democracy. I loved America. 

I know this is very heavy, but let me ask you: Have you been to the capital of this great country during the past two years? I live in Washington, D.C. Every day, I’m appalled by what I see. The highest body of American democracy, Capitol Hill, home to the U.S. Congress, is not as accessible to the people. It is barricaded with barbed wires. Heavy security is imposed on each and every government building and public place. Different groups are less tolerant towards each other. Mutual trust is waning. Extremism seems to be a growing force in U.S. politics, with political parties increasingly dominated by extremist views. Elite extremists and grassroots extremists are mutually mobilized and reinforce each other. There is hardly an issue for which consensus can be reached. Each party treats the other as an enemy of American democracy, melodramatically claiming that a victory by the “other side” would spell the end of the world. Polarization and violence are threatening the function of democracy. American democracy seems to be losing its appeal to many civilians and politicians around the world. 

Obviously, this makes me feel extremely dejected and worried. 

I’m not here to offer a solution to the problem. Instead, I’d like to remind my American friends that the worst is not that the other side winning the election, but that elections no longer matter. The results could be catastrophic. I have a first-hand understanding of such catastrophes. Hopefully, my story will help you understand how the people around the world see America, American democracy, and, in a way, help define what we are as a nation. 

I was three years old when the Cultural Revolution was launched in 1966 by then CCP chairman Mao Zedong. By that time, Mao—who had already been responsible for the genocide of about 60 million Chinese citizens since taking power in 1949—had come to believe that a large number of CCP officials and many ordinary citizens lacked a true understanding of communism. Mao’s solution to this perceived crisis was to imprison people of all backgrounds and all walks of life in what became known as “re-education camps.” At the time, many of Mao’s comrades in the top leadership ranks were dissatisfied with him due to his string of disastrous policy failures (including the Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine). Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to incite the masses to rebel against officials who challenged his power and authority. 

My father was a local party chief at the time. Like millions of other CCP officials whom Mao no longer trusted, my father was targeted and assaulted by rebels mobilized by Mao. I was sitting in my house when I looked out the window and saw a group of men savagely punching and kicking my father for what seemed like an eternity. They beat him mercilessly, then hauled him away in a cart to a countryside detention camp. As a three- or four-year-old boy, I was unable to fathom the circumstances surrounding the savage beating my father endured. I was equally terrified and indignant. I felt the urge to seek revenge against the perpetrators. 

That feeling would be tested a few years later. As a first or second grader, after school, I would often take short walks by myself outside the town. One day, I saw a group of construction laborers on a hillside using a huge hacksaw to cut a hole in a large rock. I became even more interested as I heard them singing traditional Chinese workers’ songs as they flexed their saws. I was fascinated and approached ever closer. Just to be friendly, during their break, they asked me what my name was, including my family name. But as soon as I answered, they fell silent. They returned to their work and once again began singing songs. In their songs, I heard my father’s name; the laborers were singing very unkind words about him. I felt shocked and embarrassed. It was beyond my comprehension why these laborers, who didn’t seem like bad people, despised my father. 

I later realized that the reason many Chinese people hated local officials like my father was because the CCP’s oppressive policies were implemented by officials from the top down. During the Cultural Revolution, the local common people who had suffered at the hands of local CCP officials, like my father, still harbored hatred toward them, even though the officials themselves were also brutalized by Mao. 

In 1970, my father was reinstated as a local party chief, alongside many other officials. The rebels mobilized by Mao had done their job of helping Mao eliminate his immediate challengers. Mao decided it was time for the rebels to go. They were no longer useful to him and were less trustworthy than the old cadres who had followed him in the revolution. Among the first things these reinstated officials did when they returned to power was to viciously seek revenge on those rebels who had brutalized them. Another round of bloodshed followed. “Kill or be killed.” 

In the summer of 1975, there was a huge flood in my hometown. My father took me with him on his government relief trip to the countryside. The flood was bad, but manageable. What was unmanageable, however, were the conditions of the people living there—which I learned had been going on for decades. I saw parents and their children trying to survive without enough food to eat; without running water to cleanse themselves; without electricity, coal, or fuel to keep themselves warm; without sufficient clothing to keep their bodies warm; and without beds to sleep in. It was the opposite of what we learned in school, where we were taught that the Chinese were the luckiest and happiest people on earth thanks to the leadership of Chairman Mao and the CCP. 

I started to become suspicious and resentful. When we returned home from the relief trip, I confronted my father about the things I’d witnessed. I explained that, for the first time in my life, I understood the horrible human suffering caused by communist rule. For my father, though, such talk was unacceptable. After that, I often found myself arguing with my father across the dinner table. I became even more vexed when I learned that three members of our nuclear family died of starvation during the Great Famine. I also felt guilty about the poor peasants I had just met in the countryside. To compensate, I removed my own mattress and began sleeping on a straw mat. My mother said I was crazy for doing so. My elder sister, with whom I discussed the need for a peasant uprising, warned that I would certainly get in trouble. 

With Mao’s death in 1976, the Cultural Revolution came to an end. Life in China gradually returned to some semblance of normalcy. Schools and universities were reopened after a decade-long shutdown. Parents once again placed a primary emphasis on the education of their children. 

In 1978, at the age of 15, I went to college. Four years later, I was accepted to the graduate Mathematics program at Beijing Normal University. It was in 1983, during my studies there, that I faced another profound internal conflict. By the early 1980s, CCP officials from the 1949 Revolution were gradually reaching retirement age. With a steep decline in the number of working-age and educated cadres, the CCP was in urgent need of fresh blood. The CCP began recruiting young intellectuals. When CCP’s reform-oriented leader Hu Yaobang called on young intellectuals to “join the Party and change it from within,” many young students—including me—naively believed that he was sincere. With high hopes and an open mind, I joined the Party. 

I soon came to regret that decision, despite being rapidly promoted to the Party’s mid-ranks. It didn’t take me long to realize it was wishful thinking to believe that I could change the CCP from within. Indeed, it was the other way around; the Party changed the young intellectuals who joined it in a negative and enduring way. I decided to wait for an opportune time to quit the Party. 

Three years later, in 1986, the opportunity came. I came to the United States. (At the beginning of this talk, I spoke about how I felt and what I learned when I first came to America.) Then history intervened. In the spring of 1989, tens of thousands of Chinese students staged a series of peaceful anti-government demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, located in the heart of Beijing. My hope was rekindled. 

I put my studies on hold and returned to China to join the protests. I didn’t realize that I was about to become both a participant in and a witness to an impending tragedy: the Tiananmen Square Massacre. On June 4th, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army ordered government soldiers to show no restraint. The soldiers slaughtered thousands of innocent demonstrators by firing at them with machine guns and crushing them with tanks. I was among the fortunate protestors who survived the massacre. Still in possession of my U.S. student visa, I was able to flee China and return to the United States before the CCP reasserted itself and launched mass arrests. (I am very happy that Congressman Tim Penny is being with us tonight. Congressman Penny was in Congress when the Tiananmen Square Massacre took place. In the wake of the incident, the US Congress passed the Chinese Student Protection Act to protect the nearly 50 thousand Chinese students studying in America. Thank you, Congressman Penny.) 

My memory of the tragedy that I witnessed at Tiananmen Square will remain with me forever. I will never forget the sight of so many young men and women—mostly young college students with the rest of their lives ahead of them—lying lifeless in the street. I even felt a sense of guilt to be among the lucky ones to survive. This experience refueled my commitment to fight the Chinese Communist Party and help achieve freedom for my native land. 

Since then, my commitment has never wavered. As a student at UC Berkeley and later at Harvard University, I frequently testified before the U.S. Congress, made appearances on television, and gave lectures at various forums around the world. In addition, I established the Foundation for China in the 21st Century, a U.S.-based, pro-democracy activism and research organization. I led a large-scale research project that produced a draft constitution for a future democratic China. In 2000, I launched a series of annual “Interethnic/Interfaith Leadership Conferences.” The conferences seek to advance mutual understanding, respect, and cooperation among the diverse ethnic, religious, and regional groups of the People’s Republic of China. They also aim to explore universal values and establish common ground to advance democracy and human rights for all. The groups represented at the conferences include Han Chinese, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners, and people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. I was also actively engaged in discussions and consultations with the U.S. Congress and American policymakers on U.S.-China policy. In 2001, I took advantage of the then-burgeoning internet and founded the online publication Yibao to provide a forum for Chinese human rights and democracy activists, both in China and abroad. 

By then, in the eyes of the CCP leadership, I had gone from being an up-and-coming Party member to a public enemy. I was deemed a traitor and was forbidden from re-entering China. But in the spring of 2002, I decided to defy the entry ban. That year, in China’s industrial northeast, thousands of workers were taking to the streets to protest the government’s exploitative policies. Sensing an opportunity to forge bonds between democracy advocates and grassroots activists, and with the goal of fostering a democracy movement in China through nonviolent means, I reentered my native land using a borrowed passport and a forged ID card. 

For two weeks, I met with exploited construction laborers, expropriated farmers, and striking workers. I documented their grievances and the hardship they were enduring and helped them conceive strategies to expand their rights and freedoms through nonviolent means. But as I attempted to slip out of China across the Burmese border, my fake ID was spotted, and I found myself in the hands of the Chinese security police. 

I was detained in a Chinese prison for five years, and much of that time was spent in solitary confinement. My mental health deteriorated under the weight of prolonged isolation, repeated interrogations, and endless psychological and physical torture. I resorted to composing poems in my head and committing them to memory as a means of maintaining my sanity. On the edge of a nervous breakdown, I grasped my innermost resources of imagination, belief, and determination to find a reason to go on living. “Am I wrong?” I asked myself with an inkling of uncertainty. I devised a thought experiment, which I would later draw upon frequently for strength: I imagined myself holding a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, arbitrarily choosing a street somewhere in China, showing the document to ordinary citizens, and asking them if they wanted the rights listed therein. Would anybody say “no”? Of course not! Nobody wants to be a slave. In this regard, the Chinese people are no different from any other people in the world. The yearning for freedom and dignity is, indeed, universal. I drew strength and inspiration from this fundamental truth. 

I also thought of my brothers and sisters who had fallen during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. I reassured myself that freedom is not free. Freedom must be fought for and earned. More determined than ever, I knew that I must never give up. 

In 2007, I received overwhelming U.S. support—including unanimous resolutions by the U.S. Senate and House demanding my immediate and unconditional release; a few dozen politicians raising my case to their Chinese counterparts by the U.S. president, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Treasury, as well as numerous American citizens voicing support for my freedom. Thanks to this support, I was freed and returned to the United States. After returning to the States, I founded another activist and research organization, Citizen Power Initiatives for China, and recommitted myself to the hard work of advancing human rights and democracy in China. 

I owe my freedom and even my life to the United States of America, without which I would still languish in a decrepit Chinese prison. In the prison where I was confined, each time there was power outage, the monitoring system would stop working. I would then hear my inmates, most of whom weren’t political prisoners like me, shouting out: “America, come and save us!” It wasn’t that they believed that the U.S. would really come to save them. Instead, they knew that the U.S. stands for human rights, the U.S. stands for human dignity, and the U.S. is a liberator. The U.S. was the country they identified with. 

Yes, many freedom-loving people around the world look up to the U.S. as a beacon of democracy, because they know those living in the U.S. enjoy a free, prosperous and dignified life that many people on earth can only imagine. A young inmate in the same prison where I was detained received the death penalty for the crime of stealing a couple of motorcycles. The night before his execution, he said to his inmates: “If there is a next life, I’ll make sure to be born again, with one condition. I’ll refuse to be born again if I see the Chinese communist flag. I will only agree if I see the Stars and Stripes.” 

Probably nobody in this room is more saddened than I am by the fact that American democracy is losing its appeal. When I expressed my concern and disappointment about the wellbeing of American democracy, I was advised to turn my eyes from Washington to American local government and communities, when I met Ms. Nicole, your executive director. Thank you, Nicole, for bringing me here. This is precisely the thing I wanted to do, and I should do, to get to know the United States better and find hope during this difficult time. 

I studied the RNDC’s projects and functions before coming here. I saw what you’re doing with my own eyes. I’m convinced that the best bet for saving American democracy lies, as always, with state, local, governments, counties, cities, townships, communities, and schools, and more important, the people who run them. I have learned from and believe in the RNDC’s approach. Specifically, we must go local—since people tend to trust the governments with which they interact the most. We must be focused on individual governmental functions, since people tend to trust the programs and agencies that deliver value to them; and we must embrace diversity. Look at Nicole’s team. It is the most divers public service team I have ever seen. And the diversity benefits the entire community. The real question is not laws and rules, but rather, norms, attitudes, values and trust. The U.S. must implement a bottom-up approach, from communities, townships, counties, cities, states, all the way to the federal level, to uproot the incivility and polarization that has infected our democracy. I am hopeful. As the RNDC goes, so should the United States of America. 

The different groups and different political parties within our democracy are not enemies. We must regard each other as fellow citizens and united defenders of freedom. I’m glad that the RNDC has an international component in its business. It is crucial to think globally while acting locally. We must defend our democracy from the world’s dictatorships, which are intent on toppling America as the beacon of democracy. 

Freedom House’s new report, Freedom in the World 2022, finds that autocracy is making gains against democracy and encouraging more leaders to abandon the democratic path to security and prosperity, with countries that suffered democratic declines over the past year outnumbering those that improved by more than two to one. This is alarming. 

After the Tiananmen Square Massacre, I was often asked: by my newfound American friends: “Yes, we believe in the universality of democracy and freedom, but other than that, why should we care about whether, and how fast, China becomes democratic?” My answer was simple. “If China is allowed to continue its path of economic growth and military buildup under a one-party dictatorship, it will pose a serious threat to the security and economic interests of America and even our democratic way of life.” 

Unfortunately, what I said more than thirty years ago has today become a reality. China has been waging economic wars against industrial democracies ever since the U.S. normalized trade relations. And now, China has emerged as the greatest economic and national security threat the United States has ever faced. The U.S. is running the largest trade deficit with China, approximately $350 billion annually. We must not forget that China’s human rights deficit has contributed largely to America’s trade deficit with China. China’s lackluster (or, in many cases, lack of) human rights is a major advantage for China in trading with free-market economies, just like the slavery system was advantageous to the South when trading with the North prior to the Civil War. 

China is serving as a model for dictators and juntas. In fact, it is already a model and a leading supporter of these regimes. 

Today, in the United States, the CCP government takes advantage of our freedom and democracy to solidify its domestic position. China, or its surrogates, has wide access to our universities, thinktanks, and media—through which they can spread their propagandist views and rationalize their actions. The Chinese government has co-opted numerous American businessmen and academics by providing them with favorable business opportunities and all manner of privileges; in turn, they serve the purposes and interests of the Chinese government back in America as lobbyists for favorable policies toward China. 

Make no mistake: The expansion of China’s military power is also a significant and alarming development. Over the past decade, China’s defense budget has increased at an annual rate that is double that of its GDP growth. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army is acquiring more than enough power to intimidate surrounding East Asian countries, some of them America’s allies. 

The Biden administration’s new national defense strategy casts China as the greatest danger to U.S. security. 

The United States was built on the cornerstone of values. From the Mayflower to the Declaration of Independence, from the Constitution to Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech, from Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” to Reagan’s famous “Tear down this wall,” the United States of America was guided by ideals and faith every step of the way. These idealistic qualities have not only ensured stability and prosperity at the national level but also inspired the creativity and potential of Americans at the individual level. If the idealism and belief in American values were taken away, the United States would lose its soul, the fundamental driving force that made America great in the first place. The United States has faced many crises throughout history. Yet history proves that the U.S. has turned each crisis into an opportunity, leading to extraordinary social and economic growth. Now is the time for us—American citizens as well as freedom-loving people from around the world, such as myself—to unite and make American democracy great again. MADGA.