October 18, 2023 | The China Forum 2023

Remarks by Matt Pottinger at Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation’s China Forum 2023

October 18, 2023 | The China Forum 2023

Remarks by Matt Pottinger at Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation’s China Forum 2023

Matt Pottinger:

Thanks, Abraham, for that kind introduction. I’d like to recognize Andrew Bremberg.  Andrew did a great job serving as U.S. ambassador to various international organizations based in Geneva, combatting the autocracies that worked to corrupt and coopt UN organizations that were founded on democratic principles. It’s up to all of us to fight for the souls of these organizations. And Andrew, that’s exactly what you did.

I’d like to congratulate the Foundation for the essential work you’ve been doing. I’d like to recognize especially the work of Dr. Adrian Zenz and his team who have done so much to document and expose Beijing’s crimes against humanity against ethnic Uyghurs and other minority groups. 

I’ve long admired the mission of your Foundation, which is to educate future generations about the suffering inflicted on people by Communist regimes. Your mission to never let us forget the atrocities of the last century is now compounded by new work:  The essential task of documenting atrocities attributable to Communism in this century. 

Back in the 20th Century, Communist regimes inflicted 100 million untimely deaths worldwide. The Chinese Communist Party accounted for more than half of the total. I’m sorry to report that so far in the 21st Century, the Chinese Communist Party appears to be on pace to meet or beat its 20th Century death toll. The difference is that mass suffering isn’t kept within China’s borders anymore—it is something the Communist Party exports.

The Economist last week estimated that 27 million people have died worldwide as a direct or indirect result of Covid-19.  The regime that rules China is at least partly responsible for those deaths. Recall that in late 2019 and early 2020, Communist officials detained and muzzled doctors who raised the alarm about a mysterious outbreak of severe pneumonia in Wuhan. Authorities covered up the early cases. Then they blocked the sharing of samples with other countries. They provided false assurances about how contagious the virus was. And they channeled misleading data to the World Health Organization that downplayed the virus’s unusual efficiency at spreading through the air from people exhibiting no symptoms.  Countries around the world had little notion of what was about to hit them.

If the pandemic resulted from a lab leak in China, Beijing’s culpability is even greater. The FBI and the U.S. Department of Energy believe an accidental lab leak is, more likely than not, the way this pandemic started. The Department of Energy, by the way, supervises our national laboratories and arguably is the most qualified U.S. agency to make a judgment about the origins of Covid.  

Beijing also bears some responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of Americans and Canadians who have died in recent years from illicit fentanyl—the synthetic opioids exported here by Chinese state-owned companies or produced by Mexican drug cartels using Chinese precursor chemicals.  Reporting by journalists at ProPublica shows that Chinese organized crime groups, which can operate only with Beijing’s forbearance, are now the primary launderers of illicit drug money in North America. 

Then there is the unknown death toll from Beijing’s crimes against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities inside China.  Several democracies, including our own, have formally determined that Beijing is committing genocide. Millions of people have been stuffed into concentration camps, sent into forced labor programs, and deprived of the ability to have children.  For children already born, many have been taken from their parents and shipped off to squalid, government-run orphanages where they are indoctrinated to forget their language, their faith, and their families.  

These and related truths will be the subject of panels at this conference today. You have an excellent line-up of speakers who will give us ideas for how to respond to the harm Beijing is inflicting.

But allow me to add one recommendation to the list of things we should do:  I think we should have a good laugh.  No, really. We should find the inspiration to laugh.  It’s not that genocide and pandemics are funny. They’re not, any more than Hamas’s terrorist assault—and the intense suffering it has brought to Israelis and Palestinians—is a laughing matter.  But totalitarian systems—whether they are “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” or Russia’s blood-soaked reenactment of Tsarism, or Iran’s pseudo-religious terrorism franchise—are all, let’s face it, a bit farcical.  At the very least, these regimes, and the humorless men who lead them, are worthy of our scorn, our satire, and our laughter.  Let me explain.

The late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo once wrote: “I see political humor as an important and widespread form of popular resistance in post-totalitarian society. It played a similar role in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe before the great change-over that occurred there….  [Political satire] in Chinese popular culture has shown a creativity, and an authenticity, that the solemn face of officialdom lacks….

“[T]he more serious the face of the government, the more people (can only) laugh.”

What does this Chinese political humor look like in practice?  It’s a rich tradition, from folk rhymes and hilarious jingles that skewer pretentious officials, to “e gao”—the sport of creatively lampooning bureaucracy and other daily indignities online. 

A small but telling example:  Today, typing the name of China’s supreme leader on social media can be almost impossible without getting censored. As a result, a cat and mouse game requiring ever more ingenious nicknames for Xi Jinping has ensued. Some referred to him as bao zi, or Steamed Bun, after he made a choreographed visit to a food stall early in his tenure.  Now “steamed bun” is a illicit term that can suddenly vaporize from the sentences you write, even when you’re not referring to Xi.  

Winnie the Pooh, or Wei Ni Xiong, became so popular a moniker for Xi that old Pooh Bear is now virtually extinct on the Chinese Internet.

Lately, Xi has been referred to as “that person” (na ge ren), and “a guy in Beijing” (Beijing mou nanzi), and as “You Know Who” (Shei). He’s even called simply, if somewhat ambiguously, “him” (ta).  Some netizens tried to get around censors by substituting numbers for letters, calling Xi “Eleven,” because that’s what his surname would spell if it were a roman numeral. That worked, until it didn’t. Then people used “2-4-2,” because it represents the Mandarin-language tones that accompany the Chinese characters for his name. Think about that. This would be the equivalent of writing Morse Code to approximate the number of syllables for “Joe Biden.”  Even so, the Chinese censors eventually caught on and banned those numbers.

Writing numbers online in China can be quite risky, since so many combinations add up to the dates of atrocities committed by the Chinese Communist Party.  Just a few weeks ago, China had to expunge from the Internet a nice photo of two Chinese athletes hugging each other to celebrate a victory at the recent Asian Games, because the numbers on their uniforms combined to make “6-4”—which is also shorthand for June 4th, the date in of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.  Even writing “89” can get you in choppy waters.

When I think of Chinese censors, I’m reminded of the Syrian officials who, early in Assad’s war against his own citizens, had to scurry around picking up hundreds of ping pong balls that protestors would roll down hilly streets in Damascus. The balls had anti-regime slogans written on them.  There’s a comic symmetry:  In an Arab dictatorship, officials run around hiding ping pong balls, while in China, censors run around hiding Arabic numerals.    

Satire as a form of resistance featured during China’s draconian Zero Covid lockdowns throughout 2022, and appear to have contributed to Xi Jinping’s ultimate decision to abandon the policy. In Shanghai, a young cinematographer was driven to the edge of his sanity by the incessant, bedtime recorded-announcements that echoed through his apartment and his neighborhood, summoning people to report for daily Covid tests.  So he decided to run an experiment: He typed out the text of dozens of these official announcements and then ran them through Google’s Random Generator, to scramble the words into entirely new and utterly nonsensical phrases.  He then recorded and broadcast the phrases—pure gobbledygook—to his neighborhood through loudspeakers.  His neighbors were so conditioned to tune out the inane real announcements, that they didn’t notice that the filmmaker’s official-sounding announcements were in fact total gibberish.  The video he posted of the episode quickly garnered cheers of approval across the Chinese web, according to an account in the New York Times.

Chinese netizens don’t have a monopoly on political satire of course.  When the dour, bloodthirsty regime in Iran boasted that its cabinet members had more PhDs than their U.S. government counterparts, Iranians citizens responded that, in Iran, “PhD” must stand for “Passed High School with Difficulty.”

I’m optimistic that there is subversive satire occurring even in despotic outer planets like North Korea – though I have to confess I had trouble finding any evidence of it while doing research to prepare this speech.  If we can’t laugh with the North Korean people, we should at least laugh on their behalf—as their proxies. 

Chinese netizens do sometimes step up and serve as proxies for the gagged masses of North Korea.  In a phrase that skewers the regimes in Pyongyang and Beijing simultaneously, they refer to China as “Xi Chaoxian”—West Korea.

Liu Xiaobo, the Noble Laureate, cautions that we should be on guard against letting satire breed cynicism.  But he says the risks of “parody, mockery, ridicule, and insolence” towards the state are, on balance, worth the costs.  They are a powerful form of resistance.  He said, “Satire of what is wrong implies that something else is right; [satire] tears things down for the sake of rebirth.”

So, we should laugh at totalitarian regimes, laugh with those who are living under those regimes, and—in places that lack even an ounce of freedom—we should laugh on behalf of those who can’t laugh for themselves. 

There are corners of the world so dark—where the concrete cell floors are so thick—that even humor can’t sprout, but rather goes dormant, like grass in winter.  The Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut Izgil described in a recent interview his journey, step by step, into deeper and deeper persecution and repression in Xinjiang, until finally he was locked up in a Chinese labor camp. 

“After mass internments began,” Tahir said, “we felt humor was lost. It was even hard to imagine beautiful things like writing poetry.” In that nearly hopeless situation, he said: “We chose silence.”

When he eventually got out of the camp and immigrated to the United States, Tahir said his ability to experience humor gradually blossomed again. Humor, he said, “gives reality back to us. Reality is what an oppressive government is afraid of.”

Liu Xiaobo knew what those darkest corners of human existence were like.  He was jailed repeatedly, and for more than a dozen years in all, as punishment for his clear and beautiful writing about human dignity, and the need for a Chinese system of government that protects that dignity with rights.  In 2017, Liu Xiaobo became only the second Nobel Peace Prize winner ever to die while a political prisoner.  The first was Carl von Ossietzky, who the Nazis arrested for his journalism exposing Hitler’s secret military buildup.

Liu wrote that “some people say that political humor tore the Iron Curtain down. This may be giving it a bit too much credit, but there can be no doubt that truth-telling and joke-making have worked hand-in-hand to dismantle post-totalitarian dictatorships.” 

A recent example of truth-tellers and joke-makers working hand in hand and making a difference occurred just last year. 

The truth-teller was Peng Lifa, a brave man who dressed like a construction worker last October and hung a banner on a Beijing overpass that called for an end to Zero Covid and the beginning of political change in China. Peng, who was nominated last week for a Nobel Peace Prize, was detained on the spot and hasn’t been heard from since.

Then there were the joke-tellers, of a sort.  By last November, people were fed up with being confined to their homes like zoo animals under the Zero Covid policy. After a deadly fire ripped through a locked-down apartment block in the city of Urumqi, street protests erupted in numerous cities, with students and other citizens chanting slogans targeting the central government. The last time that happened was probably three decades earlier, in 1989. The joke was the symbol the chose for their protests:  They simply held up blank sheets of paper. This was a brilliant use of satire.  The protesters didn’t need to say anything in order to say everything.

Jimmy Lai, another brave political prisoner sitting in solitary confinement in Hong Kong on preposterous charges, helped to expose something that Beijing hopes few other people, inside and outside of China, stop to ponder.  The Chinese Communist Party claims to speak for all Chinese citizens, all the time, on all matters.  But Jimmy pointed out that people have a God-given will of their own.  He’s a living embodiment of that fact.  As he used to put it:

“Just because you make all the shoes, doesn’t mean you own all the feet.” That’s satire of the most dangerous kinds. As the renaissance philosopher and Catholic saint, Thomas More, once put it:  “The devil… the proud spirit … cannot endure to be mocked.”