Summary

  • WHAT: Washington Foreign Press Center On-the-Record Briefing
  • WHEN: Wednesday, November 6, 2019 at 1:00 p.m.
  • WHERE: : National Museum of American Diplomacy U.S. Department of State, Harry S. Truman Building Washington, D.C.
  • BACKGROUND: Mr. Marion Smith will discuss the legacy of the fall of the Berlin Wall and other movements that occurred in 1989, reflect on the 30 years since, and examine oppression of human rights and religious freedom under repressive regimes. The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation is an educational and human rights nonprofit organization authorized by a unanimous Congressional Act, which was signed as Public Law 103-199 by President William J. Clinton on December 17, 1993. From 2003 to 2009, President George W. Bush was Honorary Chairman of the Foundation. On June 12, 2007, he dedicated the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C. NOTE: Non-government guests and experts invited to address FPC member journalists offer their views in a personal capacity, and do not necessarily represent the official policy views of the U.S. government.

AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN DIPLOMACY, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE, WASHINGTON, D.C.

 

MODERATOR:  So thank you for coming.  My name is Cheryl Neely with the Washington Foreign Press Center, and today we have Mr. Marion Smith with the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.  The foundation is an educational and human rights nonprofit organization that was established by Congress.  You have a little more information as far as the link to the organization in the invitation that you received, and I also have a link to your bio – to Mr. Smith’s bio.

Marion Smith is a civil society leader, an expert in international affairs, and has been executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation since March 2014.  And his full bio, again, is linked in your invitation, and today he will talk about the legacy of the fall of the Berlin Wall and maybe touch on some other movements that occurred around the same time, reflect on the 30 years since, and examine questions of oppression of human rights and religious freedom under repressive regimes.

So thank you, Mr. Smith.

MR SMITH:  My pleasure.  Thanks for having me.  It’s great to be one of the first speakers in the newly opened National Museum for Diplomacy here, and happy to make this very informal, so jump in if you want to interrupt me.

But yes, we get to celebrate this week the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of communism in Europe, the end of the Iron Curtain, and so it’s a euphoric moment for our foundation, the way it was, I think, 30 years ago.  We also want to learn the lessons from 30 years ago and better understand how we can ensure that that same triumph of liberty can occur in other countries and for other peoples today the way it did for Germans and Europeans 30 years ago.

So first, just to say that we’ve been thinking a lot about 1989 this year, and I think two things are very clear from the events that took place in 1989.  First, there is a desire for freedom and liberty everywhere, and we saw that in 1989 most visibly because of the protest movements, the pro-democracy movements throughout China, all over China, and throughout Europe and the states of the Soviet Union.

And the second thing that seems pretty clear from 1989 is that those movements, the result of that desire for freedom, don’t turn out the same way.  And so it’s not inevitable that simply having a desire for freedom and democracy is going to lead to the realization of freedom and democracy.

And so we’ve been thinking a lot about how we can learn the lessons, because I hate to say that in 2019, it’s the beginning of the 21st century still, and far from realizing the collapse of communist regimes around the world, one out of five people alive today lives in a single-party communist dictatorship – in China, Laos, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba.  And if you look at what has happened in Crimea, in Hong Kong, in Venezuela, you see actually that communist parties and post-communist regimes – specifically Vladimir Putin – really are behaving in the way the worst communist parties of the 20th century were behaving.  And you see in Crimea once again the oppression of Crimean Tatars being kicked out of their homes, being – their homes being occupied by Russians who have been moved in to solidify Russian Federation control over Crimea to complete the annexation.  And of course, the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine, a war in Europe in 2019, unresolved, where in some of the official faux government seals, et cetera, of eastern Ukraine, occupying forces utilize hammer and sickles, making it very clear how they understand their role in the region.

And then Hong Kong, you have high school students, 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds in the streets, two million out of seven million people in Hong Kong on the streets making it clear they don’t want to be governed by the Communist Party of China.  And these are young people whose parents and grandparents have lived in a free city, and so you now have the Chinese Communist Party taking over Hong Kong for the first time in human history, and that is, of course, a violation of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that was agreed to by the United Kingdom and the PRC.

And I feel very strongly that the modern-day equivalent of West Berlin in the 1950s and ’60s is Hong Kong today.  It’s very clear that as we began to realize in the 1950s with the Soviet Union, we were in a long-term ideological and material confrontation, competition, and there were going to be certain flashpoints that came to the fore.  West Berlin was, of course, one of the first of those.  You had the Berlin airlift to overcome the Soviets’ attempt to cut off West Berlin, and you had the bipartisan – very strong bipartisan statements and actions.  JFK going to West Berlin, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which was echoed when Reagan went and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”  And I just think – imagine a U.S. president going to – flying into Hong Kong and saying something as strong about the future and the fate of Hong Kong, even if it’s just reminding Beijing that no, Hong Kong is not a purely internal matter, as a matter of treaty law.

And so this has got to be, I think, at the very top of our agenda in Asia because if we lose the free city of Hong Kong and it is completely subsumed into the totalitarian – increasingly totalitarian system of the People’s Republic of China, that has ramifications throughout Asia and the world.  And so I think it’s important that we learn those lessons from 1989 and the fact that it took many decades of just not accepting Soviet domination over Central and Eastern Europe, the Captive Nations, et cetera, et cetera.

But thinking back to 1989, it seems that the events in China and the events in Europe turned out differently for a few reasons, and I’ll highlight three.  First, I think to have some sort of fundamental change in the government or in society, you’ve got to have a people who are committed to realizing or restoring their independence and their freedoms.  And you did have that in China, and you did have that in especially Central and Eastern Europe.  You had underground movements in the Soviet Union as well, but you really had national movements in the ‘70s and the ‘80s in the captive nations of Central and Eastern Europe, and these were movements who had leaders who were recognized by the United States of America.  And just one example – and this applies to the Soviet Union – is when Reagan went to the state visit in Moscow in the ‘80s received by Gorbachev, they of course did not want to invite dissident leaders to some of the state events that took place.  And Nancy Reagan had all the White House china flew over, had it flown over to Moscow, and the embassy hosted a shadow state dinner and invited the dissidents of the Soviet Union, making it very clear that we know who the legitimate moral leaders of Russia are, and they at least deserve to have a seat at the table on a visit like this – a remarkable statement that was the result of decades of us recognizing these movements in the Soviet Union and in the Eastern Bloc.

In China, you had a growing movement in the ‘80s of students and white-collar workers and farmers all over the country, and it was not just in Beijing that you had hundreds of thousands if not millions of people in the late spring of 1989 gathering in sort of occupation-style protests.  You had this in other large cities and medium, small cities throughout China.

The second thing that I think factors in is the willingness of the Communist Party in power to kill their own citizens to stay in power.  And we saw – so from 1956 on – of course you had the Soviets who abandoned their promise at Yalta, reneged on their promise at Yalta to allow free elections in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and that of course is when Winston Churchill gave his Iron Curtain speech and Harry Truman and the United States Congress realized we were now in a long-term strategic competition with the Soviet Union, and the front line of that was going to be the capitals of Central Europe.

But in ’56, it became clear that the Soviet Union was perfectly willing to send in tanks to massacre this student unarmed protesters.  Well, by that time in Budapest you had armed protesters; it was a full-on insurrection.  And for a few days the reform communists in Hungary and the pro-democracy in folks had taken over the city.  And when Moscow made the decision to send in a thousand tanks and troops and killed a couple thousand of the mostly young Hungarians in that revolution, it kind of awakened the world to the true nature of the Soviet Union, and that any talk about democracy was completely a front; any talk about honoring human rights in the negotiations over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or other activities at the United Nations were completely disingenuous, and that we were dealing with – as Reagan later would call it – an evil empire.

And so in ’56, the Soviets and their communist puppets in Europe were willing to massacre people to stay in power.  In ’68, in Prague and elsewhere, they were willing to forcibly suppress protest movements, martial law in Poland later, et cetera.  So no protest movement behind the Iron Curtain was successful until 1989.

And then June 1989, on the same day that you saw quasi-free elections in Poland, you saw after weeks of ongoing protest in Beijing and the local divisions of the PLA unwilling to suppress violently the protesters, you saw the Communist Party withdraw the local PLA divisions and bring in PLA – People’s Liberation Army – divisions from outside of the Beijing region.  And over the course of that night on the 3rd and on the 4th, in the morning and during that day, you saw a very bloody massacre take place that was recorded by Western media cameras, firsthand accounts by journalists and others who were stationed there, by diplomats viewing it from the balconies of their apartments overlooking Tiananmen Square.  It was a bloody massacre, we still don’t know how many people were killed, but very clearly it was hundreds if not thousands in that square itself.  There were also other actions in different squares and streets throughout Beijing and in the sort of suburb areas, and we now know based on research that has come out more recently these same kinds of crackdowns were occurring in cities throughout China at the same time.

And so you saw on the same day a sort of different path that had taken I think a while to get there for the Poles, and for the Europeans, and for Gorbachev and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – they really weren’t willing anymore to send in tanks and troops and crush protest movements in Europe.  And so you had quasi-free elections take place in Poland and the rise of solidarity, and you had in August of that year the Hungarian communist party give a stand-down order to the border guards on the Austrian-Hungarian border.  You had a Pan-European Picnic.  You had the cutting of the Iron Curtain, the cutting of the barbed wire on the Austrian-Hungarian border in a field, and that was the first break in the Iron Curtain for decades.  And immediately you had Germans and others coming down, filtering into Austria through Hungary, and then back into West Germany.

And so the farce of the Berlin Wall became ridiculous at that point.  And so the pressure began to mount in the late summer and early fall, and then you had – there are a few different accounts of this, but in Berlin you had either an actual order to allow an opening, or you had a misunderstanding, but in any event it became clear that the guards were no longer going to shoot – as they had; 140 people were killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall in Berlin to escape obviously from East Berlin to West Berlin, 140.  And this morning, our foundation opened an exhibit in Union Station that tells the stories of 10 individuals who were killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall.  But then you had hundreds if not thousands of people who also were killed trying to get out of East Germany, some through – well, various different ways that that occurred, drowning in the North Sea and different things but – so it became clear that on November 9th, East German authorities were not going to kill people trying to cross the wall.  And so it very rapidly got out of hand, and then you have all the scenes that we celebrate, and a chink in the wall emerged, and then a piece of it fell down, and then it was over.  It really was the culmination of a lot of different factors.

So you saw in 1989, obviously, the Soviet Union, Gorbachev, glasnost, Perestroika, the reform communists in Central and Eastern Europe, they were no longer willing to kill.  And then you had the very serious anti-communists, the underground movements, the dissidents who built the pressure internally, and the combination of those two things allowed to take place what took place.  But then you saw in China, the Chinese Communist Party was willing to massacre its own people to stay in power.

And so I think that brings us to the third factor and that is international pressure, action, leadership.  It’s very clear the United States played an important role.  The free world played an important role in confronting the Soviet Union in various places, flashpoints of the Cold War.  We played an important role in trying to separate communist China from the Soviet Union to prevent a juggernaut, which would have been extremely powerful in crushing free societies around the world, and all the flashpoints that you know about.  And I think that clearly the United States in the ‘80s had accepted a kind of agreement that our main adversary was the Soviet Union and our friend in necessity was the People’s Republic of China.  And I think that gave – certainly I think in the mind of the Chinese Communist Party, it gave them a room to maneuver that is unfortunate.

And obviously, from my perspective, it’s a shame that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in ‘91, we didn’t take a fresh look at our relationship with the People’s Republic of China and understand that the same dynamics that allowed for decades the Soviet Union and their puppet states in Central and Eastern Europe to dominate captive societies, captive populations, taking over violently by force, illegitimate – and in the case, of course, the Baltics, the Baltic states, the United States never recognized the occupation of the Soviet Union in those countries.  But those same dynamics of course were true for Communist Party control of mainland China, and Tibet, and lower Mongolia, and East Turkestan, and they took over violently by force, and we – you know the story.

So I think we are now in a situation where we can celebrate the collapse of communism in Europe 30 years ago, but we are still reeling and grappling with the not only continuation, but the growth of an anti-democratic, totalitarian or authoritarian – however you want to define those terms – regime in Beijing that has now as of last – well, as of, yeah, last month, become the longest surviving single party communist regime in the world, turning 70, and outliving the Soviet Union which collapsed in its 69th year.

And if you look at what Beijing is doing under Xi Jinping especially, hardliners have come to the fore, moderates have been pushed out of the party.  They violated the “one country, two systems” policy in Hong Kong, trying to take over that city.  The extradition bill that was introduced, now withdrawn, would have eliminated the autonomy and the freedoms, the rights of Hong Kong people totally.  So – and then you had Xi Jinping not long ago virtually state that he was rejecting the policy and that Hong Kong was a purely internal matter, and deal with it.

You obviously have all of the efforts, official and unofficial, to subvert the autonomy of Taiwan.  You have the ongoing genocide in Tibet, and you have the new extremely disturbing re-education, forced labor camp system in Xinjiang where one and a half to three million Uighurs – Muslim Uighurs and others – are in these camps.  And our China fellow who studied this, Adrian Zenz, explains – and he is certainly an expert on this subject, one of the first people to break some of the details of how this system is working a couple of years ago.  But it really is part of a larger attempt in China, and in Xinjiang in particular, to eliminate religious sentiment and to eliminate any kind of opposition.  So far from trying to squash protest movements, it’s an attempt to prevent any sort of gathering of any size from ever taking place.

That’s something, obviously, they cannot yet do in Hong Kong, and that’s why I think in the case of Beijing, but also for the young protestors in Hong Kong, this is an existential moment.  Never before has the Chinese Communist Party allowed a protest movement in China to be successful or acquiesced to any of their demands.  You have had now, out of the five demands that the Hong Kong protestors have made, you have the withdrawal of the extradition bill and you now have, as of this week, a statement that – that the chief executive Carrie Lam will be replaced perhaps as early as March.  So that’s two of the five demands that the protestors have made – five demands, not one less – and that is in some sense historic for the Chinese Communist Party.  But at the same time, I think we have to understand the party denies that the massacre in 1989 ever took place.  The guilty party is still in charge, led by Xi Jinping.  They have amassed military and para-military forces across the border of Hong Kong and in mainland China, and there is, I think, enough evidence now to say that they – there are PLA folks embedded, if not controlling the Hong Kong police activities in Hong Kong, and there is also, in my opinion, enough evidence to say a coordinated use of triad and unofficial elements to enact violence against the protesters in Hong Kong.

So I think we have to be very clear-eyed about the fact that the Chinese Communist Party still – and we see this throughout mainland China – is still willing to kill their own people to stay in power.  And I do think that out of the three factors that I mentioned that were in play in 1989 – efficacious desire of the people to be free; willingness of the governing regime, in this case the Communist Party, to enact violence to stay in power; and international pressure – I think in Hong Kong you definitely have the desire for freedom.  Two million out of the population of seven million on the streets this year.  A sustained, months-long protest movement.  By any measure anywhere in the world in history, this is – this is already significant and historic.  Two, it’s very clear the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping is willing to enact violence against innocents to stay in power.

And so, in my mind, the only question mark is the free world, democracies, and the United States in particular, to make a very strong stand.  You’ve had President Trump say that there would be consequences if the situation in Hong Kong is not handled peacefully.  That was said several weeks ago.  We’ve had excellent statements by the Vice President on the question of Hong Kong.  But if we take Hong Kong and its fate as seriously as we took the fate of West Berlin in the 1950s and early ’60s, I think we’re not quite yet at the point of understanding how significant it will be for our interest and the cause of freedom in Europe and our national security in Europe if Hong Kong falls and becomes a captive city.

So with that, I mean, let’s have a conversation.

MODERATOR:  Wonderful.  So we’ll open it up for questions, and if I can remind our three journalists to state your name, outlet, and country for the transcript, and I’ll let Mr. Smith call on folks.

MR SMITH:  Well, sure.  Questions or comments.  Yeah.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  I was at the –

MODERATOR:  Your name and outlet and country, please.

QUESTION:  Oh, sure.  Sorry.  Okay.  I’m from Turkey originally.  Name, Amel Akan from The Epoch Times.  So Secretary James Baker today, this morning, said that it was not really the U.S. Government efforts but it was more the enduring spirit of citizens that really brought down the wall.  And you also mentioned that there’s a huge desire in Hong Kong.  But if we look at the Chinese citizens, what do you think about that?  Like, what do you – how do you see the desire of Chinese citizens to bring some change to China?

MR SMITH:  Well, on the question of U.S. action and the action of citizens of the Soviet Union and which played a greater role, I think it’s very much related.  And just to back up that claim, I refer to Natan Sharansky, who said that when he was in a prison cell and heard that Ronald Reagan had called the Soviet Union an evil empire, he and the other dissidents in the Soviet Union, the refuseniks and others, felt emboldened that they were no longer alone and that even though they didn’t have a voice, the United States, the leadership, the free world, understood what was happening.

And so it’s both, and there’s a mutually reinforcing strength that comes when the United States stands for our values, makes it clear we know what’s going on, and we don’t want military conflict or war but we’re also not going to put our heads in the sand and allow totalitarianism and authoritarianism to grow and expand and take territory and destroy lives when the United States can do something about it.  And very often that just starts with a very clear moral statement, because that emboldens the people, again, who don’t have a voice.

The – on the question of the people inside of China, I think that you have Chinese people in Hong Kong living free, prosperously, without any help from the Chinese Communist Party, making it clear that the party’s claim that China is the party and the party is China and that the Chinese people cannot prosper without the party’s micromanagement is all a farce.  The way that Beijing has dealt with Hong Kong has, of course, disabused us of any notion that Taiwan has any future inside the PRC.  And I think that in the face of the most total totalitarian system the world has ever known, in China today, you still have examples of groups and individuals trying to speak out, and they are, of course, silenced very quickly.

So insofar as we need evidence, I think there is certainly enough evidence to say that when given an opportunity, the Chinese people would like to have a greater degree of freedom over their lives, and I also would say it’s a very telling sign that even those who would be viewed winners of the system in the PRC under the communist party are doing what they can to educate their children outside of the country and to put their money in Western banks.

And so I think this is where the United States has some leverage and why it’s a very good sign that the State Department announced it would be putting certain individuals from the PRC on a ban list and the Department of Commerce putting certain companies on a blacklist who are responsible for some of the ongoing systematic human rights abuses in Xinjiang.  It’s a very positive sign.

QUESTION:  Hello.  My name is Alex Raufoglu.  I cover Azerbaijan and I’m (inaudible) from Turan News Agency.  There’s a conventional wisdom in our part of the world, in countries like Azerbaijan and Russia, that the U.S. and Western countries, they are sacrificing their values over their interests in the region like when it comes to Russia and Azerbaijan.  People feel like this third part of all three factors that you mentioned – highlighted – international pressure, is missing here because of energy security and other interests that the U.S. has pursued.

Is this the case when it comes to post-Soviet countries?  And is it – are there stones that we are not looking under because of our interests?

MR SMITH:  I mean, there’s a lot of complicating factors.  You have – out of the post-communist space of Central Asia, Europe, the former Soviet Union, you have a lot of different stories.  You have some really stellar success stories especially in Central and Eastern Europe, vibrant democracies doing really well economically.  Having joined NATO and the EU sort of solidified their place in – back in the West and in the free world.  You have Ukraine, Russian Federation, Belarus, some of the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, where that story hasn’t necessarily played out in the same way.  Yeah, there are a lot of complicating factors there.  I think America is best when everybody does their job, and it falls certainly to the United States Government and to our diplomats and our defense folks to make sure that we are protecting not only the interests of the American people but the values of our country.  And that’s when we’re at our best, and I think there’s enough history to prove that that also benefits us economically and in terms of national security.

QUESTION:  Tad Zachurski, Polish Press Agency, formerly, more importantly with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.  I wonder, how would you explain minimum knowledge of experience of communism in the United States?  Your recent poll shows that 70 percent of millennials are sympathetic or they are prone to vote for socialist candidate.  Why this experience wasn’t engrained in American society deeply enough?  One explanation is Kosovo conflict, Balkan conflict, which came immediately after, but it’s not enough.

MR SMITH:  Yeah, well, I mean, I think if you look at – let’s just take the United States, Albania, and China, all right?  There is more or less one true historical narrative about what took place in the Cold War, right?  There are some pretty basic facts I think we should all be able to agree on, and even in terms of how World War II started – Hitler, Stalin agreeing to declare war on democracy, carve up Europe.  And it’s unthinkable that World War II could have started how it did and when it did without that agreement.  So there you had National Socialist and international socialist, all anti-democratic, all against human rights, declaring war on democracy, dividing up Europe, and starting the most catastrophic war in history.  And of course Russia has propaganda saying that didn’t happen; they now accept that it did happen and that it was actually a good thing, right?  So not necessarily consistent, but certainly confusing.

But – okay, some things we should all agree on:  China.  We have video evidence of tanks and troops massacring students in Tiananmen Square, and the world’s second most powerful country denies that ever happened.  And if you try to talk about it in China, you go to prison.  You’re silenced, under house arrest, intimidated.  Your family’s intimidated.  Albania.  You now have an attempt to silence, shut down, and make unavailable to the public the communist era archives.  This is a country that is attempting to be a part of the European Union.  And so you have a very contested almost weaponization over historical memory in Albania.  And then you have the United States, where there is – it’s true, I think – a growing lack of awareness, an erosion of historical memory, especially among younger generations.

The poll that you reference, yes, was conducted by YouGov and released, I guess, two weeks ago.  It does show that the vast majority of Americans underestimate the – just the basic death toll that occurred in communist regimes in the last century.  It does show that one out of three millennials has a positive view of communism.  That’s an all-time high; we’ve been doing this poll for four years.  But this data tracks other polls, which shows a decreased appreciation for democracy among Millennials and Gen Z-ers in the United States, a decreasing awareness about the Holocaust, the crimes of the Holocaust and World War II, and a sort of wavering understanding of the importance of free speech.  So there are lots of different polls over the last few years that show this kind of trend.  And so yeah, I think it’s an educational problem.  Certainly one of the most important roles of a good education is to learn some of the most horrific and hard-won lessons of the last century, and that is that the flawed ideas, the ideologies, the violent ideologies of fascism and Marxism have failed, and they have no place in America’s political discourse.

And the way you do that is just by the historical record showing the stories of those who have survived.  We have tens of millions of Americans in this country who have escaped one of the single-party communist regimes – from Ethiopia to Cuba to Poland to Russia, China, North Korea – have come to this country and made it a better place.  A lot of our refugee policies in this country have been passed as the direct result of trying to accommodate immigration flows from Central and Eastern Europe or Vietnam, et cetera.  It’s a key piece of American’s modern understanding of itself and the world.  The whole idea of America as leader of the free world is a concept that came about as a result of America taking the lead in confronting imperialist, communist regimes.

And then, as we’ve already talked about, when you see what China is doing, you see we need to learn those lessons because that role is required again, or else there is going to be no one else to stand for people like the protestors in Hong Kong or those in Crimea, on and on.  So we cannot leave the world to the Chinese Communist Party of China, to the corrupt, kleptocratic regime in Moscow, or the Chinese – or the Cuban Communist Party, which in the last few years has sort of enacted a complete coup in Venezuela after two decades of supporting Chavez and then Maduro.  The same things seem to be playing out to a lesser degree in Nicaragua, and this is – this is certainly not the direction that Latin America should be going in.  So I think there are a lot of lessons to learn.  It’s a good moment to think about it and to learn it, and yeah, hopefully that’s what a lot of people in Washington will be doing this week.

QUESTION:  What are the causes of this historical amnesia you mention in America?  Is it that society cherish more security than freedom?

MR SMITH:  I do think fundamentally it is a failure of education.  It’s not only on mathematics and science that the United States could do a lot better, but I think it’s on basic literature, basic history.  I think self-esteem is important.  A basic knowledge base is just as important, and maybe even more important in terms of the responsibility of a school.  And I think there are lots of indicators that the United States could do a lot better in terms of education, not only the history side.

QUESTION:  Marion, I want to go back to your comments about 1989, when you have different response from China to the protests in Tiananmen.  What really caused the difference?  I’m trying to understand if the economic situation of the communist bloc in Europe was really playing an important part in the regime’s decision to not really attack the people with military force.  Was that the reason, or –

MR SMITH:  I – so I think in a broad-stroke response, I do think that the Soviet Union was in a weaker position economically in the late ’80s than they had been in the early ’70s, for example.  I think that that – I mean, there are people who say that played the decisive role in the reform movement led by Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, and so yes, that’s certainly a factor.  But it is interesting how sort of economic desperation or a desire for a more capitalistic economic future led to very different outcomes in the Soviet Union and China.  So we have seen that obviously Glasnost, Perestroika, the – and Gorbechev has said he never intended to seek the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  They really just wanted a better-functioning economy and access to capital, and it sort of – it unraveled very quickly, and Putin has – Vladimir Putin has blamed Gorbachev for not understanding how that would take place.

Xi Jinping, for his part, has said that he’s learned the lessons.  He’s studied it and he’s learned the lessons of how the Soviet Union collapsed, and that he will not allow that to happen in China.  So we’ve seen in the last 20 or 30 years that China has created some sort of firewall between its attempts to replicate market forces in Chinese society, join Western economic institutions, and gain access to Western capital, all while in – ratcheting up a more and more totalitarian, authoritarian regime politically in terms of social control in China, that there have been a lot of paradoxes here.  I mean, joining the WTO while consistently artificially devaluing their currency in violation of rules, lots of other violations – relying on slave labor inside of the PRC – certainly, but much more widespread is just absolutely no labor protections in China.

So the United States and I think a lot of countries believed too much this idea that doing business with China, trading with China was somehow going to lead to democratization or a greater respect for the rule of law, and that has just simply not been the case.  And now even the economic incentive for Western companies to do business in China is really no longer there.  State-owned enterprises in China – and there is no free enterprise in China.  Let’s be very clear on that; there is no free enterprise in China.  If the equivalent of Tim Cook can be arrested in the middle of the night and put in prison and disappeared for undeterminate period of time, that’s not a free economy.  That’s not a free enterprise system.  That’s not capitalism.  So you can’t really put these freedoms into different baskets.  They kind of do come together, and so the Chinese Communist Party is totally in control of everything that happens, and that includes the economy.  But these state-owned enterprises, having stolen technology, business practices, et cetera, et cetera, and now you see China passing rules that disadvantage Western companies doing business in China – the economic incentive is just no longer really there.

So I think this is why you see not only business leaders but average Americans throughout our country understanding more and more the true nature of the Chinese regime.  I think the entire fiasco with the NBA has also helped an entire segment of Americans who really didn’t understand what was going on to wake up.  You have the South Park episode recently.  It’s good because no one wants a confrontation with China.  We already have that.  No one certainly wants a military confrontation with China, but I think the best way to prevent that is by recovering ground that we unnecessarily gave up because we had a totally naive and intentionally misguided view of what the Chinese Communist Party was going to do.  And they told us; they told us.  So we – Americans going back a long time tend to think other people are as benign as we are, other regimes care about citizens just as much as we do, and it’s just simply not the case.

MODERATOR:  So it’s 2 o’clock.  Do you have time for one last questioner and then –

MR SMITH:  Yeah, one more, if there is one.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Last –

QUESTION:  If I may, just to follow up.

MR SMITH:  Yep.

QUESTION:  Venezuela has been a fail, and – the Maduro’s regime, and actually U.S.-led coalition, there are 55 countries right now denouncing Maduro, yet this doesn’t prevent Maduro from not only staying in power but hanging out in Baku streets – Azerbaijan – just couple weeks ago.  Do you think in – are you worried that in the world we inhabit today, the good guys are teaming up against the bad guys, which was not – maybe the vice versa bad guys are teaming up against the good guys, which was not the case 30 years ago?

MR SMITH:  Well, I do think that there is a very clear coordination of anti-democratic action on behalf of Moscow, Beijing, Havana, Tehran, and these – this is made clear when you have moments like North Korean troops marching with Chinese troops, marching with Russian Federation troops on significant communist anniversaries in Moscow and Beijing.  And, for example, this is not something that was happening 20 years ago.  So it’s very clear that these regimes no longer even want to pay lip service to the ideas of democracy or human rights in the way that the Soviet Union even was doing in the ’60s and the ’70s and the ’80s.

So I do think there is a very troubling confidence in the ideas of authoritarianism and a skepticism of the ideas of democracy, and I hate to say that I don’t know that it’s really clear that the free world is more confident in our ideas of freedom, the rule of law, individual liberty, free enterprise.  I don’t know if we’re more confident right now than the Chinese Communist Party is in its model of harmony, right, which would be, if you understand the way they mean that word, total replacement, supplanting of the American-led post-World War II order.  And that should trouble us.  And I know there are people here at the State Department and others who have to interact with officials from China, and I’m sure that they would tell you that – as they’ve told me – that there is an arrogance and a confidence that those individuals show their counterparts from the West that is troubling.

And so I think we’ve got to learn from our successes.  I think a younger generation of Americans needs to realize that American foreign policy is not the uncertain victories in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The United States has played the most powerfully productive role in human history, and we have a lot to be proud of.  We have a lot to learn from, and if we do that, there’s no reason why this century can’t be freer and more prosperous than the last.

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.

MR SMITH:  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  And with that, I would just like to remind our journalists that non-government guests and experts invited to address FPC member journalists offer their views in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the official policy views of the U.S. Government.

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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future