November 22, 2009
Obama -- and Reagan -- Go to ChinaBy Paul Kengor
President Obama last week held a "Town Hall Meeting with Future Chinese Leaders" in the thriving city of Shanghai, itself a remarkable sign of what free-market forces can produce in a short time, even in a place that only decades ago was awash in collectivization, central planning, and death.
Obama actually gave a pretty good speech to some Chinese college students. I was pleasantly surprised to hear him refer to basic American values of liberty and free enterprise. Obama pointed to the "founding documents that guide our democracy," which "put forward a simple vision of human affairs" and "enshrine several core principles -- that all men and women are created equal and possess certain fundamental rights."
Sure, he could have said more, but given his paltry track record defending American values against foreign despotism -- remember Iran last June -- I expected much less.
Obama's speech, however, sparked a thought, particularly given those in attendance from Fudan University: It was 25 years ago that another American president, Ronald Reagan, delivered an extraordinary speech at Fudan, one virtually unknown even to Reagan devotees. It was one of the 40th president's best moments abroad, akin to his May 1988 speech at Moscow State University. Here, I would like to revisit that speech, not simply to pay due homage, but to reinforce Reagan's teachable moment -- needed in America in 2009 as much as in China in 1984 -- and perhaps to uplift conservatives in need of some political inspiration.
Reagan spoke to students at Fudan on April 30, 1984. Here was one of two particularly significant passages -- both novel and profound to the Chinese ear:
This was political sustenance to a people who since 1949 had been shackled by totalitarianism and Marxist leaders whom Reagan (in a private letter) once dubbed "a bunch of murdering bums." While some things had improved in China by 1984, others were worse, including the right to reproduce, as communists had imposed a one-child policy upon the nation.
Of course, religious persecution remained in full force as well. Reagan knew that, which brings me to the most fascinating aspect of his speech, and the most unexpected. Said Reagan:
This was spiritual sustenance, and quite bold at that. Reagan had dared to utter the words "Jesus Christ," "Moses," and the "Bible" in a nation that banned them. He was committing blasphemy in the Church of Mao.
That was strong enough, but to fully understand what Reagan did, some context is needed: Reagan saw religion as a formidable ally in his crusade to undermine atheistic communism. His intentions were obvious toward Soviet communism and the Eastern European countries. Yet they also applied to communist China, which in 1984 was barely emerging from Mao's recent death.
Reagan had begun that particular year with a heightened purpose relating to his desire to advance the twin pillars of faith and freedom. On January 30, he addressed the National Religious Broadcasters, where he made a telling pronouncement:
It was that mission that Reagan took to China four months later.
In fact, even before Reagan spoke to students at Fudan, he stood aside leaders in Beijing (April 27) and explained before the state-run TV cameras that "America was founded by people who sought freedom to worship God and to trust in Him to guide them in their daily lives."
Did this gesture annoy the Chinese leadership? You bet it did. Reagan didn't care.
After that, Reagan went to Fudan, where among other things, he condemned "slavery." In an interesting juxtaposition, President Obama likewise mentioned slavery to the Chinese in November 2009, but he did so as a condemnation of America's sins of two centuries ago. When Reagan spoke of deliverance from slavery in April 1984, he seemed to make a double-reference to Chinese life under atheistic communism. As Reagan invoked those words, there were Chinese Christians literally languishing in prison for saying far less than what the American president had just publicly proclaimed before their TV cameras.
Is there a lesson here for Reagan's successors in the Oval Office? Yes: Be not afraid to speak of America, its values, and of our eternal values -- the values that made America and made it great. When anti-democratic forces give you a public platform (China in 1984 and 2009) or afford you a chance to speak out (Iran, June 2009), seize it loudly and proudly. Use the bully pulpit to advance these timeless, universal ideals.
Of course, doing so requires believing in those principles -- in the mind, the heart, and the gut. A believer needs to be a true believer before he can proclaim liberty to the captives.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His books include God and Ronald Reagan and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.