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Chinese Leaders Are Living in a Dangerous Illusion

Arthur Waldron, October 17, 2016

This is a speech delivered on October 2, the first day of the three-day conference on the prospect of a democratic China in New York City, organized and attended by overseas Chinese scholars and dissidents. With Professor Waldron’s permission, we are pleased to post the text of his speech here. – The Editors


Good morning, my dear friends, it’s a great honor to be here.

The first demonstration against dictatorship in China took place outside of the Chinese Consulate in New York more than 30 years ago. I knew it was going to happen, so I went there. There was no press, just me sitting in a café. About 12 people appeared wearing grocery bags over their heads, and they unfurled a banner saying “Democracy for China.” The Consulate was absolutely silent, the windows sealed, but I said to myself: “You have just seen the beginning of a river that’s going to grow and grow and grow.” And I think I’m right.

Since July 9 of last year more than 300 Chinese human rights lawyers have been abducted or threatened by the Beijing authorities and two dozen of them have been incarcerated, tried, and given heavy sentences or are awaiting trial. One is Xie Yang who was abducted in Changsha, July 11 of last year, and tortured in the hope of eliciting a confession, but now looks set to be put away for a long time.

Here is what Xie told the Beijing agents as they threatened him: “I will not confess, because these two charges against me are spurious. I will never dismiss my own lawyers, and I want to meet with my lawyers according to normal procedure. I hope that more lawyers will take part in my case.”

He and those like him, even in prison, represent something new and important for China. A class of fearless people, who are not frightened, and refuse to lie, has appeared. They cannot be intimidated and they cannot be bought.

My argument this morning is that they are writing the future of China, that great civilization.

We must keep these people always in our minds. Tens of thousands of them. We must keep lists, raise names and wrongs at every opportunity, and never forget.

In the pitch black of a prison basement, hungry, shackled, attacked by rats and vermin, just to stay sane is a challenge. If you know that thousands of people outside have you constantly in mind and in the public eye, however, your hope will not die.

Let me now turn to the People’s Republic of China, sixty-seven years and one day old today, an aspiring great power.

China has decided, sometime under Hu Jintao, to abandon her tactical military connection with our country to become flagship of the dictatorial fleet, and oppose the United States and other free countries. China now has the largest military forces in the world equipped with technology that often matches ours, and they have decided that they have no need for the U.S. to counterbalance the USSR, gone a quarter of a century.

Democracy is not somehow new and alien to the Chinese who are, it is thought by some foreigners, natural slaves who need a master – a khozain as they say in Russian. My dear younger son returned from the politically intense Princeton in Beijing summer program unhappy at the attempt to brainwash him, but convinced that democracy in China would mean chaos, which is the Party line.

In fact China had elections from the turn of the last century, a parliament into the 1920s whose building can still be found in Beijing, a truly democratic constitution in 1946, local elections in 1947, and national elections the following year. Yes, pre-communist China was not entirely stable. But she was like a rock of stability compared to the PRC, where more than fifty million people have died in peacetime and good weather.

Even Mao Zedong pretended to be a democrat and fooled both many Chinese and most Americans specialized in the country.

On September 27, 1945, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) provided written and thus presumably definitive answers to written questions posed by the Reuters correspondent in Chongqing. One was “what is the Chinese Communists’ definition for a free, democratic China?”

Mao answered that “a free, democratic China would be a country in which all ranks of governments, including the central government, would be produced by popular, judicious, and anonymous voting, and the country would realize the ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ concept of Abraham Lincoln and the ‘four freedoms’ proposed by Franklin Roosevelt.”

This exchange was published in the newspapers at the time but was not included in the Chinese edition of Mao’s complete works, though it is included in the Japanese edition. Strict control of information. One of the things I love about China is that they screw up all the time. If you go to Baidu, this document will pop right up on your computer. What kind of dictatorship is that?

Today the People’s Republic has decided to abandon even talk of liberalization. She wants a Party dictatorship without end. She has no interest now in the United States.

We Americans do not yet entirely recognize that this change of course has been determined in China. We are all, as it were, Emersonians. We believe other cultures will understand our gestures as we mean them: our hand proffered for a handshake, our attempt to walk a mile in their moccasins, our gestures of restraint, will signal desire for peace and understanding, even friendship. That is the message we are trying to send.

How does the Chinese government receive it? Not at all as intended, but as the opposite.

The official Chinese reaction will be, “We have successfully intimidated Washington to the point she won’t even mention us. The Americans are weak, irresolute, and when it comes to it, craven. We can deal with them and drive them out of Asia.”

“Compromise” is a scarce concept in Chinese theories of conflict. Rather the phrase they use is ni si wo huo (你死我活) —“you die, I live.” That is not “win-win.” We do not understand the culturally-determined difference between the message sent and the message received.

China’s rulers suffer from the dangerous delusion that the Communist Party can maintain stable and continuing control over China by dint of terror and arrests at home, combined with red carpet welcomes and intimidation abroad.

Let me conclude with my deepest worry, which is the acceptance and normalization, as it were, of the largest and longest lived and hideously oppressive PRC. HHDL comes in past the garbage cans to the White House. We are the United Bloody States of America, as Churchill might have put it. We are a super power and our ideals if not always our actions, are of sublime goodness. So since when does Beijing get to tell us how to treat our guests? We should tell them – write a protest, hand it to our deputy under assistant secretary and we will file it. And the Dalai Lama should go in from the front door and into the Oval Office.

Now, since 2009 Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) has been imprisoned in Liaoning Province, I believe the United States should say to China that, until he is released, we will have no high-level exchanges, no visits of the Chinese presidents, our president doesn’t go over there, because all the work of diplomacy can be done by an ambassador, the rest of this is fluff. Just tell them: look, if you want to come and have the red carpet, dinner at the White House, you have to release these people. Otherwise, we can wait.

The White House has told the Pentagon, secretly, to stop speaking about China’s growing military strength.

Chinese money has infiltrated our system in staggering quantities. One of my colleagues is tracing how many of our so called scholars, think tanks, foundations, etc. take money from the PRC, and are bought intellectually.

But the best deception is self-deception. Our current China policy comes from Henry Kissinger, a man entirely ignorant of the real China. Zhou Enlai he almost worshiped, and trusted completely.

Myself and scholar/diplomat Jay Taylor—he working through Taiwan and me working through China—have now shown that all of the ultra-secret China policy [of the United States] that Kissinger secretly confided to Zhou Enlai was in fact shared immediately from about 1969 onwards with Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan. And it was discussed – Zhou and Chiang had discussions about how to handle this American approach.

This is an astonishing discovery. But the thing is, we never even suspected the Chinese. This is absolutely certain. It’s confirmed in Taiwan, and it has been confirmed to me by Chinese who are authoritative on this. Some people doubted, but this is absolutely true.

Two of those who went with Henry in 1971 are persuaded; Mr. Kissinger has never answered any of my very polite notes and indirect inquiries.

For decades we Americans told ourselves fairy tales about how China was going to liberalize and democratize. I think she will, but how and at what cost is the question. Now we have stopped talking about liberalization and democratization. Our view is, “that’s just how the Chinese are. They disappear people, they beat people up, they run a tight dictatorship. We have to accept this—not as a communist but as a Chinese characteristic—if we are going to get along. So we accept it.”

As an American I am deeply ashamed of this approach, which is both unrealistic and corrupt. But we too are sitting in China’s school room. I am confident that China’s dictators will teach us the lessons we need to know.

Democracy has been the key theme of Chinese history and politics for well over a century. It continues to be the key word. It cannot be stopped though it can be persecuted and delayed. I believe, and I know you all believe too, that in the end it will win.

Thank you all.


arthur-waldronArthur Waldron has been the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania, since 1997. He works mostly on the history of Asia, China in particular; the problem of nationalism, and the study of war and violence in history.






Engaging China with Moral and Strategic Clarity

By Yang Jianli and Han Lianchao, published: September 26, 2015


26 years ago, after the bloody massacre in Beijing in 1989, we came to Washington to urge the U.S. government to link China’s most-favored-nation (MFN) status to China’s respect for human rights. Without such a linkage, we argued, continuing normal trade with China would be like a blood transfusion to the Communist regime, making it more aggressive and harming the interests of both the American and Chinese people.

But our warning fell on deaf ears. After a lengthy debate, the U.S. government decided to grant permanent MFN to China in 1992. We were assured by U.S. policymakers that democratic development would inevitably follow from economic development.

26 years on that warning has become a reality. With money and technology pouring in from the U.S. and other Western countries, the Chinese Communist regime not only survived the 1989 crisis, it catapulted into the 21st century. The country’s explosive economic growth lifted it from one of the poorest countries in terms of GDP per capita to become the number two economy in the world; but China remains firmly near the bottom of indicators on democratic development.

The Chinese Communist regime has instead grown into a Frankenstein’s monster, terrorizing peoples both domestically and internationally.

Xi Jinping reviewing troops in early September, 2015.

Xi Jinping reviewing troops in early September, 2015.

China is using the economic power it has gained with the help of the West to build a formidable, modern military that can reach every corner of the earth. As its power grows, China is demanding a re-write of international norms and rules. China wants to create a new international order with China at the center of the Asia-Pacific region, bringing regional and world peace under threat.

What went wrong with America’s engagement policy?

First, China upturned the traditional linkage between economic prosperity and democracy and re-wrote the rules of development. While China’s model of political repression paired with economic freedom is showing signs of cracking, nevertheless it has achieved tremendous economic gains over the past twenty years.

Secondly, the United States has encouraged this uneven development with its lack of moral and strategic clarity in its dealings with China.

The origin of the error can be traced back to the early 1970s when then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger claimed that by integrating Beijing into the international community economically and politically, China would behave responsibly, abiding by international norms and rules.

This amoral, geo-politically pragmatic strategy failed to recognize the evil nature and hegemonic ambitions of the communist regime, as reiterated in President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” of a great red empire, to challenge, and eventually supersede, the western civilization with the so called China model.

Washington policymakers also failed to understand that economic growth may be a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one, for cultivating democracy. Consequently, this policy has fundamentally undermined America’s national interests and security.

The alternative is to engage China with a moral strategic compass: China under the Chinese Communist Party’s rule cannot rise peacefully, and its transition to a democratic country that respects human rights, rule of law, freedom of speech and religion, is in everyone’s best interest, including China’s own. In other words, the U.S. must push for a peaceful democratic transition in China.

The reason for this is simple:

To support China’s totalitarian regime, a regime that ruthlessly represses its own people, denies universal values to justify its dictatorship, and that challenges the existing international order to seek its dominance, is morally corrupt as well as strategically unsound.

Like Frankenstein’s monster, China is now seeking to revenge against its creator — the West. It will destabilize and endanger the world. We’ve already seen other countries that have copied and are now suffering under the China model, an amoral political system that rewards the corrupt while offering crumbs to its citizens.

While many policymakers in Washington have now realized that it is time to get tough on China, some still believe that the present and future conflicts between the U. S. and China can be managed. Our view is this: Without China’s democratization, a clash between the U. S. and China is unavoidable because the two countries’ strategic goals are on a clashing course and their core interests cannot be compromised.

The only way to prevent a future war with China is to pursue its democratic transformation now.

To start, the Congress should pass a China Democracy Act that flatly states that enhancing human rights and democratic transition in China is decidedly in America’s national interest and that directs the Federal government and all its agencies to make democracy and human rights advocacy the core of all engagement with China.

Current policy allows and even encourages U. S. agencies to assist China just for the sake of engagement, with no regard to any effort to promote political reform and freedom. The act will serve as America’s grand strategy toward China, setting a firm foundation that not only guides U. S. activities with China in all spheres, but also makes clear of the U. S. intentions to the Chinese government and sends an unequivocal message of support to the Chinese people.

Is a peaceful transition to democracy possible in China?

Absolutely. Despite significant restrictions on the internet and the absence of media freedom, access to information has greatly improved and is changing China, particular the younger generations. Civil society is awakening; religious belief is flourishing. The growth of a middle class, as well as the disaffection of certain groups in China, mean that many are longing for a political system that ensures equal opportunity and fairness for all. Even the ruling elite want the rule of law to protect their wealth, because without it no one is safe in China.

Immanuel Kant and modern-day social science has shown that democracies are less disposed to go to war with each other. Long-lasting peace and friendship between the U. S. and China means that China must transition to a democracy.

If the U. S. does not place the highest priority on the development of a democratic China, we worry that China will continue down the perilous path of achieving world dominance through militarism and aggression.  That is a war that the world cannot afford.


Yang Jianli (杨建利) is the founder and president of Initiatives for China, a Washington-DC based advocacy group, and former political prisoner of China. Han Lianchao (韩连潮) is the vice president of Initiatives for China and a research fellow at the Hudson Institute.



The Historic Opening to China: What Hath Nixon Wrought? by Joseph Bosco, Harvard National Security Journal, September 2015.

To Obama – Why China Does Not Have a Nelson Mandela, by Yaxue Cao, China Change, September 23, 2015.