Keynote Speech by Carl Gershman to the Thirteenth Interethnic Interfaith Leadership Conference

Responding to China in the New Era

The United States Congress, December 10, 2018

The first and most important point I want to convey to you this morning is that we are now in an entirely new period in relations between the United States and China.

In my view, China today poses the greatest threat to democracy in the world.  Its growing power and bellicose behavior have surprised most political leaders and policy specialists in the West, who have assumed that economic growth and integration into the global economy would promote China’s liberalization, as happened in South Korea and Taiwan. In fact, though, China’s growth has reinforced the Beijing regime’s belief in the legitimacy and superiority of its own state-driven economic model.  And the wealth it has amassed as a result of the growth has enabled it to play a much more assertive role internationally.

One person who had no illusions about the dangerous consequences of China’s rise was the Chinese intellectual and Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died last year in prison.  He worried about China rising as a dictatorship and noted that other rising dictatorial powers in the past -like Hitler’s Germany, the Meiji Emperor’s Japan, and Stalin’s Soviet Union – “all eventually collapsed, and in doing so brought disaster to human civilization.”  If China followed the same path, he warned, the result would “not only be another catastrophe for the Chinese people but likely also a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world.”

A couple of weeks ago I attended a meeting organized by a major Washington think tank about how to rebuild and defend the world order.  An important person at the meeting said that we can’t build a world order without China, saying that China’s Belt and Road Initiative is having an impact as great as that of the Marshall Plan after World War II.  I replied by saying that if Liu Xiaobo were sitting at this meeting, he would say that we can’t build a real world order without a democratic China.  A totalitarian China is a threat to that order.

No one heeded Liu’s warning when he wrote his prophetic words in 2006 because the conventional wisdom at the time assumed that as China modernized economically, it would eventually become, in the words of Robert Zoellick, the former President of the World Bank, “a responsible stakeholder” in the global economy and the liberal world order.  In fact, exactly the opposite has happened.  As China has risen economically, Beijing has become far more repressive, arresting dissidents and independent lawyers, crushing religious freedom, creating mass concentration camps for Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, and using facial-recognition technology and other digital tools to establish what has ominously been called the “surveillance state.”

Internationally, it has militarized the South China Sea, despite President Xi Jinping’s pledge not to take such action made in the Rose Garden in 2015.  China’s military buildup has been described in a Pentagon study as “perhaps the most ambitious grand strategy undertaken by a single nation-state in modern times.”

It has engaged in “cyber theft on a massive scale,” despite promising the Obama Administration in 2015 that it would end cyber-hacking.  Just yesterday The Wall Street Journal reported that this week federal prosecutors are expected to unseal criminal charges against hackers linked to the Chinese government who have broken into US technology service providers, compromising hundreds of thousands of companies.  US officials have called the Chinese cyber-theft campaign “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.”

In addition, through its $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative Beijing targets more than sixty countries in an effort to advance its economic and military goals, including securing access to strategic ports.  It has also launched 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 models of governance.

Such threatening behavior has provoked an international backlash that The Economist magazine has called “the starkest reversal in modern geopolitics.”  An example of this reversal was the harsh speech given by Vice-President Mike Pence last month at the Hudson Institute, which criticized all of China’s repressive and aggressive actions that I have noted and added the charge of meddling in American politics to all the other alarming Chinese actions.

Some observers have seen this speech as a portent of a new Cold War.  But one shot across the Chinese bow is not a coherent policy response to the greatest international challenge now facing the United States.

So this is my second key point: The United States needs a coherent and bipartisan policy to address the multiple challenges that China presents.  Elements of such a policy are beginning to emerge.  So far, the backlash against China – in addition to the Pence speech and the accompanying trade and tariff conflicts with China – has triggered a proliferation of proposals to counter and contain China’s expansionism, ranging from efforts to balance China militarily in the South China Sea and other potential conflict zones to demands for a policy of “reciprocity” in dealing with China.  Reciprocity means treating China the way it treats other countries.  For example, investments would be screened in order to block access to Chinese companies that is denied to U.S. companies in China.  Congressman McGovern’s Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act is another example of the application of the principal of reciprocity in dealing with China.  In addition, cultural programs like Confucius Institutes would be monitored to ensure that they are not used as tools of political intervention, and the U.S. would insist that American cultural centers in China have equal access to universities and other institutions.

I think a bipartisan policy on China is possible because China has not become a partisan issue in American politics; and because prominent people in both parties are strong defenders of human rights in China, including the defense of political rights and religious freedom for Han Chinese, and also the defense of the rights of the Tibetan and Uyghur minorities, as well as the defense of the freedoms promised to the people of Hong Kong in the 1997 agreement.

An immediate goal is to build a bipartisan coalition in the Congress in support of a new China policy that would include promoting human rights and democracy in addition to defending US security and economic interests and countering China’s Sharp Power campaign in the arena of information.

Building such a coalition is possible, I think.  Nancy Pelosi, the presumptive next Speaker of the House, has a long record of devotion to the cause of human rights in China.  Her heartfelt statement on the passing of Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy, emphasized that “Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle benefitted from Lodi’s insight and wisdom.”  Ms. Pelosi could be an important ally in building bipartisan congressional support for a new China policy.

Support for the development of democracy over the long term needs to be a core element of a comprehensive new China policy.  Such a policy will also need the support of our democratic friends in Asia.  None is more important than India, which shares the U.S. concern about the rising power of China.  This shared concern is the principal reason that there is today a growing strategic convergence between India and the United States.

Aiding democracy is especially important in dealing with the protection of the rights of minorities in China.  Lodi Gyari hoped that it would be possible to negotiate an agreement with China based on the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach, which seeks genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people within the framework of the existing Chinese state and constitution.  He continued to believe that Tibet is “in every sense an occupied nation, brutally occupied.”  But he became persuaded that the Dalai Lama’s vision of autonomy offered a nonviolent way to preserve the Tibetan people’s religion, culture, language, and identity.  He was influenced by exploratory talks he held in China in the 1980s during the period of reform under Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang.  But the fate of Bao Tong shows why the negotiations ultimately failed.

As Liu Xiaobo wrote after the Lhasa uprising in 2008, “everyone in China is prisoner to the same dictatorial system,” and “So long as Han people live under dictatorship, it will be unthinkable that Tibetans precede them in gaining freedom….  That is why,” he said, that “the resolution of the Tibet question depends fundamentally on the question of the form of government that China will have in the future.  Democratization for all of China is the necessary condition for any solution, whatever its form, of the Tibet issue.”

And, of course, the same can be said regarding the resolution of the Uyghur issue, or the Hong Kong issue, and also of the issue of Taiwan, which threatens China because it is successful democracy.  Indeed, Taiwan is a democratic model for China since it shows that Confucian culture does not pose an obstacle to democracy.

There are some people who have given up on the prospect for democracy in China.  This is a serious mistake.  I recently had a correspondence with a friend in China, a liberal writer, who wrote to me that “We will continue to labor for the coming transition in Greater China.”

The coming transition: that’s a hopeful goal.  Our friends in China have not given up, and nor should we.  Our goal should be to support them, because in so doing we support our own future – and the prospect for a more democratic and peaceful world.