Documents on Democracy

Issue Date July 2020
Volume 31
Issue 3
Page Numbers 179-86
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On May 4, Deputy U.S. National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger spoke at an event entitled “U.S.-China Relations in a Turbulent Time: Can Rivals Cooperate?” at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. His remarks are excerpted below:

On May the fourth, 1919, following the end of World War I, thousands of university students from across Beijing converged on Tiananmen Square to protest China’s unfair treatment at the Paris Peace Conference. Western nations chose to appease Imperial Japan by granting it control of Chinese territory that Germany had previously occupied, including the Shandong Peninsula.

The Chinese students who marched to Tiananmen that day shouted “give us back Shandong!” and “don’t sign the Versailles Treaty!” Police forced the students to disperse. But, as frequently happens when governments close down avenues for peaceful expression, some protesters resorted to violence. In a principled move that acknowledged popular anger, China refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles later that year.

China would regain control of Shandong three years later with the help of the United States, which brokered an agreement at the Washington Naval Conference in 1922. But the movement ignited by those students exactly 101 years ago was about much more than nationalist outrage at “unequal treaties.” The movement galvanized a long-running struggle for the soul of modern China. As John Pomfret wrote in his fine history of U.S.-China relations, the May Fourth Movement aimed for “a wholesale transformation of Chinese politics, society, and culture.” “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy” were the mottos of this movement to transport China into modernity. Some called the movement the “Chinese Enlightenment.” . . . I would like to spend a few minutes highlighting a few Chinese heroes that I believe embody the May Fourth spirit, then and now. [End Page 179]

Hu Shih is naturally identified as one of the most influential leaders of the May Fourth era. He was already an influential thinker on modernizing China. Hu Shih’s family was from Anhui province. Like Lu Xun and many other leading writers of their generation, Hu Shih traveled overseas to study. After switching his focus at Cornell from agriculture to philosophy, Hu Shih studied at Columbia University under the American educator John Dewey.

Hu Shih would contribute one of the greatest gifts imaginable to the Chinese people: The gift of language. Up until then, China’s written language was “classical,” featuring a grammar and vocabulary largely unchanged for centuries. As many who have studied it can attest, classical Chinese feels about as close to spoken Chinese as Latin does to modern Italian. The inaccessibility of the written language presented a gulf between rulers and the ruled—and that was the point. The written word—literacy itself—was the domain primarily of a small ruling elite and of intellectuals, many of whom aspired to serve as officials. Literacy simply wasn’t for “the masses.”

Hu Shih believed otherwise. In his view, written Chinese—in form and content—should reflect the voices of living Chinese people rather than the documents of dead officials. “Speak in the language of the time in which you live,” he admonished readers. He believed in making literacy commonplace. He played a key role promoting a written language rooted in the vernacular, or baihua—literally “plain speech.” Hu Shih’s promotion of baihua is an idea so obvious in hindsight that it is easy to miss how revolutionary it was at the time. It was also highly controversial.

Gu Hongmin, a Confucian gentleman and Western literature professor at Peking University, ridiculed widespread literacy for China and what it implied. In August 1919 he wrote: “Just fancy what the result would be if ninety percent of [China’s] four hundred million people were to become literate. Imagine only what a fine state of things we would have if here in Peking the coolies, mafoos [stable boys], chauffeurs, barbers, shop boys, hawkers, hunters, loafers, vagabonds, [etc.] all became literate and wanted to take part in politics as well as the University students.”

Such elitist chauvinism was—and some would argue still remains—a headwind impeding the democratic ideals espoused by the May Fourth Movement. Hu Shih, wielding the language he had helped bring to life, skillfully dismantled arguments against broadening the social contract. “The only way to have democracy is to have democracy,” Hu Shih argued. “Government is an art, and as such it needs practice.” Hu Shih didn’t have time for elitism.

Still, May Fourth leaders were constantly sapped of energy by accusations, sometimes leveled by government officials or their proxies among the literati, that the movement was slavishly pro-Western, insufficiently Chinese, or even unpatriotic. [End Page 180]

The life and contributions of P.C. Chang make a mockery of the notion that the May Fourth ideals weren’t “Chinese” enough. Like his friend Hu Shih, Chang had studied in the United States on a scholarship. Attracted to the theater, he was the first to adapt the Chinese story of Mulan for the stage. He brought Western plays to Nankai University, which his brother helped found. And he organized a tour of the United States by the Peking Opera star Mei Lanfang, adapting the music and dance to Western tastes. In China’s philosophy of moral cultivation and rigorous education, Chang saw advantages that could be combined with ideas from the West to form something new.

This culminated in Chang’s crowning achievement: His decisive contributions to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was the document drafted after World War II by an international panel chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. Chang, who was by then a veteran diplomat representing China, was a member of the panel. The declaration’s aim was to prevent despotism and war by morally obligating governments to respect fundamental rights. The rights enshrined in the 1948 declaration include life, liberty, and security; the right not to be held in slavery or subjected to torture; the right to freedom of religion; and the right to freedom of thought.

“Marrying Western belief in the primacy of the individual with Chinese concern for the greater good” Chang helped craft a document that would be relevant to all nations, John Pomfret wrote. A declaration on human rights was not simply about the rights of the individual, in Chang’s view. It was also about the individual’s obligations to society.

Chang’s biographer, Hans Ingvar Roth of Stockholm University, highlighted the weight of Chang’s contributions to the Declaration: “Chang stands out as the key figure for all of the attributes now considered significant for this document: its universality, its religious neutrality, and its focus on the fundamental needs and the dignity of individual human beings.”

A few short years after the Declaration was adopted by the United Nations, Chang resigned his post as a Chinese diplomat, having grown dismayed by the lack of democracy in China. In diagnosing the problem, it is easy to imagine P.C. Chang prescribing a closer reading not of ancient Greek philosophy, but of traditional Chinese ideals about virtuous leadership. The cliché that Chinese people can’t be trusted with democracy was, as both P.C. Chang and Hu Shih knew, the most unpatriotic idea of all. Taiwan today is a living repudiation of that threadbare mistruth.

So who embodies the May Fourth spirit in China today? To my mind, the heirs of May Fourth are civic-minded citizens who commit small acts of bravery. And sometimes big acts of bravery. Dr. Li Wenliang was such a person. Dr. Li wasn’t a demagogue in search of a new ideology that might save China. He was an ophthalmologist and a young father [End Page 181] who committed a small act of bravery and then a big act of bravery. His small act of bravery, in late December, was to pass along a warning via WeChat to his former medical school classmates that patients afflicted by a dangerous new virus were turning up in Wuhan hospitals. He urged his friends to protect their families.

When his warning circulated more widely than he intended, Dr. Li was upset and anxious—and with good reason. Supervisors at his hospital quickly admonished him for leaking word of the coronavirus cases. Dr. Li was then interrogated by the police, made to sign a “confession,” and threatened with prosecution if he spoke out again. Anyone tempted to believe this was just a case of overzealous local police, take note: China’s central government aired a news story about Dr. Li’s “rumor-mongering.”

Then Dr. Li did a big brave thing. He went public with his experience of being silenced by the police. The whole world paid close attention. By this time, Dr. Li had contracted the disease he’d warned about. His death on February 7 felt like the loss of a relative for people around the world. Dr. Li’s comment to a reporter from his deathbed still rings in our ears: “I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society, and I don’t approve of using public power for excessive interference.” Dr. Li was using Hu Shih-style “plain speech” to make a practical point.

It takes courage to speak to a reporter—or to work as one—in today’s China. Even finding an investigative reporter in China, foreign or local, is getting hard. Citizen journalists who tried to shed light on the outbreak in Wuhan went missing, including Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin, and Li Zehua. More foreign reporters were expelled in recent months than the Soviet Union expelled over decades. Dr. Ai Fen, a colleague of Dr. Li Wenliang who also raised the alarm about the outbreak in Wuhan, reportedly can no longer appear in public after she spoke to a reporter.

When small acts of bravery are stamped out by governments, big acts of bravery follow.

We have seen big acts of moral and physical courage recently by people pursuing the ideals that Hu Shih and P.C. Chang championed a century ago. Some are political insiders; some have devoted their lives to God. Others follow the long tradition of scholars serving as China’s conscience. Many are regular citizens. Xu Zhangrun, Ren Zhiqiang, Xu Zhiyong, Ilham Tohti, Fang Fang, twenty Catholic priests who have refused to subordinate God to the Communist Party, and the millions of Hong Kong citizens who peacefully demonstrated for the rule of law last year. The list goes on.

As the May Fourth Movement today marks the inaugural year of its second century, what will its ultimate legacy be? It is a question only the Chinese people themselves can answer. The May Fourth Movement belongs to them. Will the movement’s democratic aspirations remain unfulfilled for another century? Will its core ideas be deleted or distorted through official censorship and disinformation? Will its champions be slandered as “unpatriotic,” “pro-American,” “subversive”? We [End Page 182] know the Communist Party will do its best to make it so. After all, Mao Zedong had limited tolerance even for Lu Xun, China’s most celebrated modern writer and one of the minority of May Fourth heroes whose writing wasn’t heavily censored by the Party. In 1957, an official named Luo Jinan asked Chairman Mao: “What if Lu Xun were alive today?” Mao’s reply about the national hero surprised many in the audience: “He could either sit in jail or continue to write or he could remain silent.”

Those with the fortitude to seek and speak the truth in China today may take comfort, however, in something Lu Xun wrote: “Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood.”


On March 19, David Kaye, United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of expression; Harlem Désir, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe representative on freedom of the media; and Edison Lanza, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights special rapporteur for freedom of expression, issued a joint statement on protecting the free flow of information during the covid-19 pandemic. Their statement is excerpted below:

We share the grave concern of people everywhere in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. At a moment of such gravity, we fully understand and support the efforts of public health professionals and governments to develop and implement strategies to protect human health and human life. The fundamental and nonderogable right to life is at stake, and governments are obligated to ensure its protection.

Human health depends not only on readily accessible health care. It also depends on access to accurate information about the nature of the threats and the means to protect oneself, one’s family, and one’s community. The right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, through any media, applies to everyone, everywhere, and may only be subject to narrow restrictions. In this connection, we urge the following:

First, it is essential that governments provide truthful information about the nature of the threat posed by the coronavirus. Governments everywhere are obligated under human rights law to provide reliable information in accessible formats to all, with particular focus on ensuring access to information by those with limited internet access or where disability makes access challenging.

Second, internet access is critical at a time of crisis. It is essential that governments refrain from blocking internet access. . . . Especially at a time of emergency, when access to information is of critical importance, broad restrictions on access to the internet cannot be justified on public order or national security grounds. [End Page 183]

Third, the right of access to information means that governments must be making exceptional efforts to protect the work of journalists. Journalism serves a crucial function at a moment of public health emergency, particularly when it aims to inform the public of critical information and monitors government actions. We urge all governments to robustly implement their freedom of information laws to ensure that all individuals, especially journalists, have access to information.

Fourth, we share the concern that false information about the pandemic could lead to health concerns, panic and disorder. In this connection, it is essential that governments and internet companies address disinformation in the first instance by themselves providing reliable information. . . .

Resorting to other measures, such as content take-downs and censorship, may result in limiting access to important information for public health and should only be undertaken where they meet the standards of necessity and proportionality. Any attempts to criminalize information relating to the pandemic may create distrust in institutional information, delay access to reliable information and have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

Fifth, we are aware of growing use of tools of surveillance technology to track the spread of the coronavirus. While we understand and support the need for active efforts to confront the pandemic, it is also crucial that such tools be limited in use, both in terms of purpose and time, and that individual rights to privacy, nondiscrimination, the protection of journalistic sources and other freedoms be rigorously protected. States must also protect the personal information of patients. We strongly urge that any use of such technology abide by the strictest protections and only be available according to domestic law that is consistent with international human rights standards.


On April 14, well-known academic and Dalit-rights activist Anand Teltumbde was arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Teltumbde has been accused, along with other Dalit- and indigenous-rights activists, of fomenting violence and plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, charges which human-rights groups such as Amnesty International claim are designed to stifle dissent. The day before his arrest, Teltumbde wrote an open letter which is excerpted below:

I am aware that this may be completely drowned in the motivated cacophony of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh combine and the subservient media, but I still think it may be worth talking to you as I do not know whether I would get another opportunity.

Since August 2018, when the police raided my house in the faculty [End Page 184] housing complex of the Goa Institute of Management, my world has turned completely topsy-turvy. . . .

I have been a simple person who has been earning his bread honestly and helping people to the extent possible with my knowledge through his writings. I have an unblemished record of service for nearly five decades to this country in various roles in the corporate world, as a teacher, as a civil rights activist and a public intellectual.

In my voluminous writings comprising over thirty books, and numerous papers, articles, comments, columns, interviews, published internationally, not an insinuation of support to violence or any subversive movement could be found. But at the fag end of my life, I am being charged with heinous crimes under the draconian UAPA.

An individual like me obviously cannot counter the spirited propaganda of the government and its subservient media. The details of the case are strewn across the internet and are enough for any person to see that it is a clumsy and criminal fabrication. . . .

The case may be depicted for your understanding as follows:

Suddenly, a police posse descends down on your residence and ransacks your house without showing any warrant. At the end, they arrest you and lodge you in the police lockup. In the court, they would say that while investigating a theft (or any other complaint) case in xxx place (substitute any place in India) police recovered a pen drive or a computer from yyy (substitute any name) in which some letters written by a supposed member of some banned organization were recovered that had a mention of zzz who according to the police is none other than you.

They present you as part of a deep conspiracy. Suddenly, you find your world turned topsy-turvy, your job gone, family losing house, media defaming you, about which you cannot do a damn thing. Police will produce “sealed envelopes” to convince judges that there was a prima facie case against you that needs custodial interrogation. No arguments about there being no evidence would be entertained as judges would answer that this would be looked into during the trial. After custodial interrogation, you will be sent to jail. You beg for bail and the courts will reject your petition as historical data shows that the average period of incarceration ranged from four to ten years before they got bail or acquitted.

And this can happen literally to anyone. In the name of the ‘nation’, such draconian laws that denude innocent people of their liberties and all constitutional rights are constitutionally validated. The jingoist nation and nationalism have got weaponized by the political class to destroy dissent and polarize people. . . .

As I see my India being ruined, it is with a feeble hope that I write to you at such a grim moment. Well, I am off to [National Investigation Agency] custody and do not know when I shall be able to talk to you again. However, I earnestly hope that you will speak out before your turn comes. [End Page 185]

Hong Kong

On June 8, Joshua Wong (@joshuawongcf), activist and secretary-general of the prodemocracy party Demosisto, tweeted his reflections on the future of the prodemocracy protest movement in the face of the new national-security law that Beijing is seeking to impose in Hong Kong. Wong’s tweets are reproduced below:

1/. Tomorrow will be the first anniversary of our anti-extradition bill movement since June. Over the past year, Hongkongers and the world have been bearing witness to the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong, with Beijing tightening its grip over the city’s liberties.

2/. Step by step, Beijing is putting this global business center under its direct control, from suppressing dissents’ voices with excessive police forces, scrapping the 1 Country Countries [sic] framework to guarantee supervisory power to China’s Liaison Office.

3/. Beijing proposed a [Chinese Communist Party]–led secret police intelligence agency under the ill-defined national security law. Similar to how it treats dissidents in China, Beijing is staging the biggest crackdown in the city after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, in a silent but violent manner.

4/. Without legislative scrutiny and public consultation, Beijing is now unilaterally imposing its authoritarian regime on Hong Kong against the will of the people. Even for pro-Beijing side, about 30 percent of the progovernment supporters oppose a law without legislative scrutiny.

5/. For any institutional factors that contribute to the success of the international city, from free-flow of information, press freedom, freedoms of speech, and human rights protection, China reads them in its tyrannical mindset and views them as a threat to its autocratic control.

6/. The law may raise the costs in the future protests, but Hongkongers will not step down, just like those who fight for freedoms and political reforms under authoritarian rules and places before democratization. The atrocity ahead only makes our democratic crusades inevitable.

7/. Since the freedoms and human rights of our generations are not values that we can compromise, Hongkongers have no way back. Just like the recent Tiananmen candlelight vigil, law and barricades will not put an end to the city’s spirit of resistance.

8/. I have strong confidence in Hongkongers that we will have ways to resist and defy. Moreover, I hope the world can stand with Hong Kong and protect the city from falling. [End Page 186]