Mere hours ago, a teenager in the Tsuen Wan District in Hong Kong was shot with live ammunition. The bullet missed his heart by three centimeters but nonetheless pierced his lung — an injury that can sometimes end with the patient drowning in his own blood. Thankfully, this one did not. According to reports, he is in stable condition, but at the time of this writing, he joins 50 others injured while demonstrating against the government in Hong Kong on the 70th anniversary of the ascent to power of China’s Communist Party. A poetic moment: he, like the city, could have drowned in blood by now — and yet lives to fight another day.
In the fall of 1987, in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s famous and inspiring “evil empire” speech, my father wrote an incisive chronology of the Soviet Union’s crimes titled “Seventy Years of Evil.” He defended Reagan’s then-controversial use of the phrase by carefully producing 14 heart-wrenching pages of statements and events, a veritable “catalogue of evil,” which argued that the Soviet Union had indeed escalated mere tyranny into “history’s most sophisticated apparatus of rule by terror.”
Yesterday, 32 years later, our young Hong Konger and this world mark the 70th birthday of yet another evil empire: the People’s Republic of China. The Soviet Union may have produced and expanded the 20th-century totalitarian state, but Beijing has fully modernized it, having about 20 percent of the world’s total population under its heel and inflicting horrific and unspeakable violence on its own people in the process. The Soviet Union was an unnatural empire stretching an entire continent, ultimately born to unravel. The People’s Republic of China, in similar fashion, is an imperial state held together by brute force that openly admits its project of “Sinicization” — that is, cultural erasure — against ethnic and religious minorities alike. In a nation of 1.4 billion incredibly diverse people spread out over 3.6 million square miles, Chinese President Xi Jinping has embarked on one of the most ambitious totalitarian undertakings of modern times.
Examples are abundant. In the western province of Xinjiang, for instance, Xi has imprisoned more than one million Uyghur Muslims in re-education or “psychological correction” camps since at least August 2016, in which prisoners are held without trial. In these camps, Uyghur Muslims are forced to drink alcohol and eat pork — serious violations of their religious traditions — and are indoctrinated with Communist Party propaganda, through torture if necessary. One of Cornell’s most astute writers on this issue, Prof. Magnus Fiskesjö, anthropology, correctly argued this April that the regime’s true focus is clearly on destroying the Uyghurs as a people and should therefore be defined as a genocide.
But the Uyghurs aren’t the only ones filling the camps. Beijing represses its dissidents in countless ways, including sending some to be interned in the same facilities. Many have heard the stories of high-profile Chinese prisoners, like 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s most vocal opponents of one-party rule. They may have heard of Wang Dan, a Tiananmen Square student protest leader — and witness to the thousands slain or wounded there — who visited the Cornell Political Union last November. But countless other, still-unnamed Chinese prisoners of conscience continue to suffer. From Mao Zedong to Xi, the Communist Party has always been primarily interested in its own survival and brutal toward any who have even a modicum of reservation to its actions.
Today in Hong Kong, the situation is no different. Many of those on the front line against Chinese state brutality today are of college age, including yesterday’s teenage shooting victim. Like their counterparts in Hong Kong, U.S. college students will need to face down China — with an acknowledgment that this country is possibly the greatest threat to freedom the world over.
Challenging totalitarianism, even just rhetorically, is stage one in unraveling it. After Reagan’s 1983 “evil empire” speech, in which he correctly identified the Soviet Union as “the focus of evil in the modern world,” liberal supporters of détente were apoplectic. They said, like pro-Chinese engagement advocates do today, that the conflict must be kept in perspective and that a total embargo is ill-advised. This is true; but what the Reagan administration proved in the wake of this declaration is that it is possible to keep your arms open to a nation while denouncing its malevolence. It is wrong for Americans to merely shuffle their feet as Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, Tibetans and freedom-loving Chinese citizens at home and abroad reasonably ask that their oppression by China’s autocratic government be condemned by civilized nations of the world.
The geopolitical climate of the Cold War’s final days and China today are not precise parallels. But there are common denominators. The Reagan-era officials who then labeled the Soviet Union “evil” were a minority. Their factual descriptions of it were met with gasps in the largely progressive foreign policy intelligentsia. Some even predicted they were words capable of starting a nuclear war.
But factual words turned to real thoughts in the minds of millions, and those thoughts turned to acts, first small and symbolic but eventually becoming larger and more daring. And the growing case against the Soviet Union’s brutality was paired with bolder policies from the Reagan administration to check its aggression. Then, a mere eight years after articulating its evilness, the Soviet empire was gone.
Though the case against China is building, its future is still unknown. But one thing is known: The power of truth, articulated boldly and with moral clarity, is more powerful than even the brute force of the world’s most powerful regimes. Anything positive that will and can occur in China starts with describing and condemning its brutality accurately and fearlessly. “Globally minded” activists at Cornell and beyond should take note.
Let our truth-telling begin, and let it begin with our generation so that the next 70 years in China are brighter than the repressive ones its rulers “celebrated” yesterday.
Clarification: This article has been amended to emphasize the difference between the Chinese Communist Party, founded in 1921, and the People’s Republic of China, established 70 years ago.
Michael Johns, Jr. is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester.