In what ways is China still fundamentally a communist state?
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Today we sit down with Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC), which works to expose the crimes done in the name of communist ideology, past and present.
Jan Jekielek: Marion Smith, wonderful to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Marion Smith: Thanks for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: Marion, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation is something really, really close to my heart. We’re going to talk about Hong Kong today. We’re going to talk about China and the NBA. But before we jump into that stuff, I want you to tell me briefly and tell our audience briefly, what is Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation? What’s it all about? What’s its mission?
Mr. Smith: In 1993, Congress was reassessing the relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation. And there were some calling for getting away with the Captive Nations Law that had existed since the Eisenhower administration. There was this thesis about the end of history and the inevitable rise of democracy all over the world, but there were those who were calling for lessons to be learned from the Cold War, memorializing the victims, and some sense of justice for those more than one hundred million people who had been killed in [about] 40 communist regimes since 1917.
Congress, with the leadership of Tom Lantos in the House of Representatives, and Jesse Helms in the Senate especially, authorized–unanimously–[that] an organization be established that would memorialize the victims and educate Americans about the history, the legacy, and the ideology of communist regimes around the world.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s very interesting. Lantos of course, was a Holocaust survivor. And National Socialism did have its reckoning. Everyone seems to know National Socialism is bad, at least most people. There was an accounting of the crimes [in the] Nuremberg trials. [However], many communist regimes never had [a reckoning].
Mr. Smith: Right. It’s 30 years ago this year that we celebrate the collapse of communism in Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. But earlier that same year, in June of 1989, we saw the entire protest movement in China crushed by the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese Communist Party. It wasn’t just in Beijing, of course, in Tiananmen Square, but in cities and towns throughout China.
And so this year, we’re thinking a lot about 1989. We have lessons to learn that people everywhere desire to live free. And yet, despite that desire, if a communist party in power is willing to massacre and kill their own citizens to stay in power, it seems that freedom is not necessarily achievable. And in 1999, we saw a Chinese Communist Party that was willing to kill its own people in order to stay in power. But … we saw a corrupt communist party apparatus in the Soviet Union and in communist parties throughout the Eastern Bloc who were no longer willing to kill their own citizens. They’d lost confidence in their ideology. And so we could see hundreds of millions of people made instantly free simply because communist parties no longer were in charge.
Mr. Jekielek: It never ceases to amaze me. That same day that the Tiananmen Square Massacre began was the same day that the elections were held in post-Soviet occupation Poland. It’s incredible how two different paths were taken. And China never did change like many of these countries did. Which brings us to today.
Mr. Smith: It’s true. The great lie is that under Deng Xiaoping, there was this great economic reform that took place in China. It was a deal made with what was very clearly a problem that the Communist Party had. And that is: you had a middle-class, an increasing and growing middle-class, who were dissatisfied with the Communist Party. The Communist Party wasn’t living up to its own claims of justice. It was corrupt. And so a deal was made and people could exercise greater economic freedom as long as they were completely silent when it came to politics or even religious expression. And since that time, I mean really since 1949, the People’s Republic of China has remained fundamentally unchanged in its power structure. And there was no meaningful legal or economic reform in China post-Tiananmen [Square Massacre].
So, everything was set for Xi Jinping to come in and centralize power, centralize his own power within the Party and then centralize the Party’s role within the country once again. That’s what we have seen and it’s increasingly expansionist and threatening China from the American point of view. But for the people in China, this has been going on for generations now. And it is sad that on this day [when] we’re about to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have the longest surviving single party communist dictatorship in history in Beijing, which also [is] the single deadliest entity in human history.
Mr. Jekielek: Ten years ago, we kept hearing things like: China’s changing and it’s almost a democracy. Look at all the development. And I think even a lot of the general population of the US and many other countries believed those kinds of narratives. I find it fascinating that recently we have this NBA situation which suddenly turned this narrative, as much as it existed, completely on its head. You’ve been talking a lot about this.
Mr. Smith: I think the entire fiasco with the NBA under Adam Silver was somewhat inevitable, because the NBA in the last few years, under Adam Silver’s leadership, has made a decision to do more and more business with China. We have seen a pattern over the last few years of companies that are overly dependent on doing business in China, [that] are subject to and vulnerable to coercive threats from Beijing.
We’ve seen Marriott fire one of their employees for tweeting out something that the Communist Party didn’t like. We’ve seen Apple remove apps. We’ve seen Google participate in Project Dragonfly using American ingenuity and engineers to help build algorithms that would enable the Communist Party to keep a control on their population. We’re participating in Orwell’s totalitarian state in China. And this is certainly not what the American free enterprise system and our democracy was established through much blood and treasure to do.
I think with the NBA … Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted out a sentiment that many millions of Americans share, that we stand with the people of Hong Kong and we want a free Hong Kong. We don’t want the young people of Hong Kong for the first time in history to be ruled by a Chinese Communist Party. These are high school students, Gen Z-ers, and Millennials who’ve lived in a free city; their parents and their grandparents lived in a free city. And we’re seeing, in 2019, the capture of that city by the Chinese Communist Party and the demolition of their freedoms. That’s what the people in Hong Kong are on the streets to defend: their future and their freedom.
Daryl Morey tweeted out support and instantly the NBA leadership came down on him like a ton of bricks. And Beijing went crazy, because they have now a massive fan base in China of NBA teams, both American and Chinese. And unfortunately, Daryl Morey deleted that tweet and issued an apology. And we saw multiple players and coaches in the NBA coming out essentially saying, “we respect free speech, but shut up, because it might have a negative impact on the finances of the NBA.” And this again has been the result of clear business decisions that have been made in the last few years. A few months ago, it was a 1.5 multi-year billion dollar agreement, a licensing agreement with Tencent in the NBA. And that’s just one clear agreement we do know about.
Obviously the NBA has millions at stake. But Adam Silver’s first instinct was not to defend Daryl Morey’s free expression and free speech in the United States. He jumped on a plane and went to China to pacify the Chinese Communist Party. And a few days later did issue a statement in defense of free speech generally. But I think it has been a great lesson not only for the NBA and NBA fans, but for the American people. The Communist Party demands total loyalty, or they will seek to crush you economically, if you’ve been stupid enough to become economically dependent upon them.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s amazing how much influence this Communist Regime can have over American popular culture, like the NBA. What is more American [than that]? Hollywood is another area which I know you’ve been very interested in, the censorship of films. I saw Mulan is the most recent subject.
Mr. Smith: Mulan, Red Dawn—there have been a number of films we know that the plot, the script was influenced by Chinese money, communist Chinese money in the firms and in the studios producing those films. And this is something that most Americans are not aware of. They’re not aware of the extent to which Chinese officials are in boardrooms, in production studios, in classrooms, around this country, through Confucius Institutes and other initiatives. That’s why it was amazing to see the recent episode from South Park—the title was “Band in China,”—that laid out some of these absurdities–from Disney to pharmaceutical industries, etc. So I think it is a great clarifying moment for the United States, and a recent Pew Charitable Trust Poll found that American unfavorable attitudes towards China are at a recent high.
And I think that’s because people are beginning to wake up to the atrocities that are occurring inside of China, and that China is not best represented by this sort of panda bear diplomacy that they try to push through 10 plus billion dollars every year in soft power efforts around the world. But that it is an unreformed Communist Party that is intent on being a replacement for American values and American influence abroad. As the NBA issue shows so well, [their influence is] not only outside of the United States, but literally suppressing–through American companies who’ve made a deal with Beijing–suppressing the free speech of American citizens. And so ordinary Americans are feeling the shock-waves of totalitarianism from Beijing through these companies like Google and Apple and Marriott and the NBA.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s unbelievable. You have things like this lucrative, state-run murder-for-organs billion dollar industry. You have concentration camps in Xinjiang. You have this 20-year suppression of Falun Gong practitioners, you know, eradicate the spiritual group, so to speak. Yet it takes something very much in the American consciousness like South Park, like the NBA, to suddenly bubble these things up. It’s actually kind of an incredible moment in history, wouldn’t you say?
Mr. Smith: Absolutely. If you look at the fate of Liu Xiaobo, if you look at the hundreds, if not thousands of churches and house churches that have been suppressed and churches that have been physically destroyed recently. If you look at the one and a half to 3 million Uyghurs and others in concentration and re-education camps in Xinjiang, the continued cultural genocide in Tibet, the continuation of forced abortions through the coercive family planning policy. You look at the harassment, the arrest, and the torture of journalists and artists and attorneys in China. There’s just no other way to see this regime in Beijing, but [as] the modern day embodiment of evil, and if the Soviet Union was an evil empire, there is no way we can refuse to call the People’s Republic of China the embodiment of physical evil in this world.
The Chinese Communist Party remains the single deadliest force in human history as an organized entity responsible for human deaths, in terms of scale. And the atrocities that are going on in Xinjiang only rival the methodical, systematic extermination and concentration camp system [of] the Third Reich. Beijing’s been lying about it for several years and now there’s just too much evidence, they can’t maintain that farce any longer, so they have admitted these re-education camps do exist.
We’re also finding out that there are Chinese companies that are listed in the American capital markets, which means that pensioners’ investments may be funding some of these companies. A few of these companies, like Hikvision, [are] responsible for participating in the population control system in Xinjiang and elsewhere through facial recognition cameras. We’ve found out recently that a subsidiary of Huawei has helped to build the communications infrastructure in North Korea. These companies shouldn’t be listed in the United States without very clear risk disclosures that these companies may be participating actively in some of the greatest human rights atrocities this century has yet known.
Mr. Jekielek: So, Marion, it’s clear communist China is a dictatorship, and doing terrible things, but as an expert on this very important element here, how does communism actually fit into this?
Mr. Smith: All you have to do is listen to what Xi Jinping is saying or what he’s writing or how the organs of the Party justify why they’re in power. They have a claim to justice and it is the Marxist Maoist claim. It’s how they say democracy is not meant for Chinese people. That it is Mao and the Party that basically led the transformation of Chinese society into this modern, prosperous state. That’s why what’s going on in Hong Kong, and frankly, the existence of Hong Kong, and the existence of Taiwan, is such a threat to the Chinese Communist Party. It proves that Chinese people can live freely, happily, in prosperity—totally without communism.
But it is very clear that insofar as the Soviet Union was ever communist, the People’s Republic of China is definitely communist. And if we can’t call it that, what else do we call it? Jesse Helms used to say, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck. There are efforts to sort of recast what’s going on in North Korea or in China today as some sort of basic authoritarianism. I just don’t think that that is fundamentally a serious approach. You would never try to understand US foreign policy or American geopolitics or our strategic culture without seriously trying to understand what democracy means to the American people today, what it means to our leaders, how we appeal to that. In terms of debating policy, we talk about democracy, they talk about Marxism. And if you need examples of this, there are many.
One of the most visible was on the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth. The Communist Party funded a massive celebration in Europe and erected a giant statue of Karl Marx in his home town of Trier, Germany. The entire campaign was to give a lift financially and in terms of PR to those academic voices and popular voices in Europe who are presenting an apologia of Communism for our time.
It is, of course, true in my opinion, that the ideals of the free society and the fate of free people–be it from Hong Kong to Venezuela to elsewhere–the single greatest material and intellectual threat to freedom today is still Marxism. It’s still communist parties in power. One out of five people alive today on the planet live in a single-party communist dictatorship, which is at a basic level that their decisions, their futures are determined by the internal politics of a Communist Party.
In Laos, in Vietnam, in China, in North Korea, and in Cuba. And we have now seen in the last few years that their power, their sinister power, has gone outside of those borders and is now causing the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, which has been micromanaged by the Cuban Communist Party and the Castros under Maduro. We see that Venezuela could not have survived in the last few years without loans from China. North Korea would have fallen apart following the collapse of the Soviet Union, had it not been for Beijing becoming the new benefactor. And, then, of course, we see Hong Kong, heretofore a free city, being made captive by the Communist Party.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s actually talk about Hong Kong. Kyle Bass was at a recent Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation event, the China Forum. He called Hong Kong the golden goose, and actually a really huge conundrum for the Chinese Communist Party, because on one hand, it is the channel for a lot of money, specifically US dollars, which the Chinese Communist Party craves. On the other hand, the city, as we’ve seen, is rising up and saying, no, we’re not going to become a Communist Party vassal. So, where are things going?
Mr. Smith: Kyle Bass is brilliant to talk about the economic dependency that China has on the United States, and he and others have pointed out that for the last 20-25 years, the rise of the PRC would be unthinkable if not for Western capital . . . when the decision was made to allow China to join the WTO, the argument was we at least would have a mechanism to hold them to a rules-based order. The problem is we haven’t held them to anything. They have artificially devalued their currency. They have continued to rely on slave labor inside of China, and without those factors and others, China would not have been such an advantageous place for Western manufacturers to relocate to. And that has hurt workers in the United States. And it certainly hurt ordinary citizens and people in China.
We have seen for many, many years this collusion between America’s corporate elite and Communist Party officials in China. And that has now extended to the tech industry and to NBA leadership and other leaders in our society, who are willing apparently to sell out our values and the people, not only of China, but of the United States, in pursuit of short term gain. And that’s not free enterprise. That’s tyranny.
Mr. Jekielek: I noticed actually today as we’re filming, that Tim Cook was named as the Chairman of the Board of Tsinghua University, the famous management school there. And I happened to look at who else is on the board and it’s a who’s-who of, you know, American company CEOs, including Mr. Zuckerberg, including General Motors’ CEO, and so forth. What are the implications of that? I didn’t actually know that that was the case, and I know a lot about these kinds of things. What does that actually mean?
Mr. Smith: Well, I think it is indicative of the fact that there is a continued belief by American businessmen that we need to engage with China. It is undeniable that the American economy is intertwined with the economy of China, but it is also now unavoidable that where we think we’re doing business, China thinks they’re extending their influence. And they’re not thinking about free enterprise. They’re thinking about economic control. This is clear from the Belt and Road Initiative, where they are trying to establish an alternative international economic order. It’s true now where American companies and other Western companies are no longer on a level playing field inside of China. Their technology and their business practices and their IP having been stolen over the past decade or so.
I think it’s unavoidable. We have to realize the nature of the regime that we’re dealing with. Of course, the National Security Strategy of the United States has now listed China as a top strategic competitor. This has never before happened in US history. So it is now a whole [new] government approach to deal with this problem, which is the expansionist, imperialistic policies of a Chinese Communist Party that is much more confident in its future than the Soviet Union was in the 70s and the 80s.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve been a proponent of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which was passed in the House and now is heading into the Senate . . . it got passed unanimously in the House, which I thought was incredible—given the realities in Congress at the moment—that anything would be done [bilaterally] like this. Presumably it’ll also pass in the Senate. How is that going to change things for Hong Kong or for China?
Mr. Smith: More generally, there had to be a US response to the abandonment of the “one country, two systems” policy, and Xi Jinping made very clear, within the last a year or so, that that policy no longer applied, and that Hong Kong, from the Communist Party’s perspective, is purely an internal matter. But, as a matter of Treaty Law, that’s just not the case. So, the United States had to reassess the relationship between the US and Hong Kong. If there’s going to be martial law in the streets of Hong Kong, and if the citizens of Hong Kong can no longer enjoy their civil rights, then the United States must reassess the relationship between the U S and Hong Kong, and can no longer offer them preferential immigration and trade status.
Mr. Jekielek: Where do you see things going in Hong Kong now? I’ve been seeing videos again today of some of these water cannon trucks, actually hosing down journalists and not just protesters, which seems like an escalation. Where do you see things going based on your experience?
Mr. Smith: The Communist Party announced this past week that they were banning the importation of black clothing into Hong Kong because that has become a symbol of the protest movement. And it made me think of when the Soviet Union banned denim late in the Soviet Union’s era, because blue jeans had become popular with dissidents. And, of course, the Soviet Union fell apart a few years later. Policies like that–banning masks–these are not the policies of a strong regime, confident in its future. They are terrified by 7 million Hong Kong-ers speaking freely and governing themselves.
And that’s one of the reasons we’re in a very dangerous situation, because this is an existential crisis, from the perspective of Beijing. Since the Communist Party took over in 1949, they have never allowed a protest movement to continue and to achieve its aims. And we know, from 1989, that the Party was perfectly willing to send in the People’s Liberation Army, break the trust of the Chinese people, forever disabusing them of any notion that the Communist Party cared about the aims of its so-called revolution. And they massacred their citizens, and denied that it ever happened to this day, even though we have archival news footage of it occurring–blood in the streets of Tiananmen Square and elsewhere.
We know that they have military and paramilitary forces across the border of Hong Kong, and I believe that the only thing stopping them from going in is Western resolve, is strong international pressure, that Beijing would suffer tremendous ramifications and consequences if they were to enact a brutal crackdown on the protesters in Hong Kong. And I think it is significant that President Trump has said that there would be consequences for Xi Jinping if the situation in Hong Kong is not handled, in his words, “peacefully.”
Mr. Jekielek: I’m going to read you something since we’re talking about this; this is from Xi Jinping. This was kind of a stunning statement to be so public, but he said “anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones.” So, you’re saying you don’t think this is a bluff?
Mr. Smith: Well, that is what the Chinese Communist Party does best, shattered bodies and crushed bones: 50 million plus. We have to understand that the strategic culture of the communist regime has no problem killing innocent life, and they are interested ultimately only in maintaining power. And we as Americans cannot allow that system to expand. And in my opinion, we share now a joint cause with the people of Hong Kong, the same Chinese Communist Party who wants American companies to fire their employees for criticizing the Communist Party, right? That same Party is firing at unarmed student protesters in Hong Kong.
It’s 2019. We’re early in this century, and my generation, millennials, and younger, if we do not meet this threat now, it’s going to define our century, in much the same way that the Soviet Union defined the last century. And Hong Kong is a pivotal, first confrontation in this long-term struggle that we are going to have. We’re already having it. There is, whether we like it or not, a new cold war between the United States, the free world, and the People’s Republic of China, and for us to continue as if that’s not the case or to refuse to see that Beijing is on basically a war and conflict footing with the West, is to simply hurt our own cause.
Mr. Jekielek: Marion Smith, that’s a powerful place to finish up.
Mr. Smith: Thank you.