2019 Democracy Award Conference: China’s Repression Model: Tiananmen, Today, Tomorrow

Welcome and Introductions by Carl Gershman

Let me first invite everyone to silence your cell phones and to let those using Twitter know that you can find our handle and hashtags in your program.   I also want to thank the many dedicated NED staff who organized today’s program and tomorrow’s Democracy Award event, and also Senator Menendez and Ambassador Brownback for taking the time to join us today.

Looking back at the Tiananmen Square massacre after thirty years, it is now clear that it was a decisive turning point in the history of the modern world. Before the massacre. the world seemed to be at the threshold of an historic transformation toward freedom and democracy.  The third wave of democratization was cresting, and the communist regimes in Central Europe and the Soviet Union had entered a crisis that was to leave them on “the ash heap of history,” as Ronald Reagan had predicted would happen in his Westminster Address. The breakthrough elections in Poland leading to the democratic revolutions of 1989 occurred on the very day of the Tiananmen massacre.

But the massacre changed everything.  It closed off – for how long we don’t know – the possibility of democracy in the world’s largest country.  And it opened the way for the rise of China as a dictatorship, something that Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo said would not just be a catastrophe for the Chinese people “but likely also a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world.”  

Liu was right.  Against all the conventional wisdom among political establishments in the United States and other democratic countries – which believed that China would liberalize as it grew economically – China has become increasingly closed and repressive.  Its new wealth has also financed policies that threaten democracy – a comprehensive military buildup in the South China Sea and elsewhere, the $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative targeting more than sixty countries, the construction of a massive surveillance state using the most sophisticated facial and voice recognition technologies, and the promotion of an ideological offensive against democracy, involving the investment of $10-15 billion in so-called Sharp Power information tools to manipulate target populations and promote its own preferred authoritarian ideas, norms, and model of governance.  

This is where we are today, and as we think about how to respond to this new and very worrying challenge to democratic values and security, we will need to bear in mind something else that Liu Xiaobo said – that it is in the vital interest of all democratic countries and freedom-loving people to rescue “the world’s largest hostage population from enslavement.”

Within that hostage population, no groups are more threatened than the Tibetan and Uyghur peoples, who are victims of what the Dalai Lama has called “cultural genocide,” and religious believers among the Han majority, especially the House Church movement and the rural Christian underground.

We will be hearing from representatives of these groups this morning and also recognizing them tomorrow with the NED’s Democracy Award.

It is now my great pleasure to introduce our two keynote speakers this afternoon.