The following is the English-language version of “The Importance of Being Candid,” a speech delivered by Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger in Mandarin Chinese from the White House during a video conference hosted by Policy Exchange in London. Click here for Mandarin version.
I’d like to thank Dean Godson and Policy Exchange for inviting me to deliver the ninth annual Colin Cramphorn lecture. We all look forward to a time when we can gather again in person for events like this. With new vaccines and therapeutics on the near horizon, I’m optimistic that day will soon arrive. In the meantime, let’s pretend we’re at the Red Lion pub and enjoy this convivial, trans-Atlantic video conference between Westminster and the White House. I’m betting on a lively discussion following my set remarks.
As most of you know, England and America are two countries separated by a common language. In order to bridge that divide, I’ve decided to give my remarks in Mandarin.
Truth be told, Dean Godson asked me to bust out my Chinese for the sake of higher ratings. Dean knew that a video of an earlier speech I delivered in Mandarin, about China’s May Fourth movement, was viewed more than one million times. Dean may have also known that a subsequent video I recorded in English for the Ronald Reagan Institute was, by contrast, barely noticed by even my own staff.
Naturally, Dean calculated that a white guy speaking in stilted Mandarin would be a bigger box-office draw than whatever message the white guy might be trying to convey.
So be it. As a character on The Simpsons once put it: “Come for the freak, stay for the food.”
Delivering these remarks in Mandarin has another benefit: It allows friends in China to join a conversation that is taking place with increasing regularity around the globe: A conversation about China’s relationship with the rest of the world.
FOREIGN INTERFERENCE IN HISTORY
But first, a smidgen of history to underscore what’s at stake.
Near the end of the 18th century, across the water and many miles from England, a group of visionary men drew up a constitution. The document they framed was designed to limit the powers of government, assert the rights of the people, and chart a path toward what they hoped would be a lasting democracy.
I’m talking, of course, about… Poland.
“Poland?” you ask. Don’t be embarrassed if 1790s Poland didn’t turn up in your high-school textbooks. Unlike the more famous U.S. Constitution, which was adopted just a few years earlier and still serves as the supreme law of the American republic, the Polish experiment with constitutional government was strangled in its infancy.
The problem was foreign interference. A faction of the Polish nobility felt threatened by the influence they would lose under the new constitution. So they sought Russian help in reestablishing the old order. Catherine the Great seized the opportunity to invade and then partition Poland—she took the east and Prussia took the west.
Then, after defeating a revolt led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish military hero of the American Revolution, Russia—along with Prussia and Austria—carried out a final partition of Poland-Lithuania in 1795. The young Commonwealth was erased from the map altogether.
I mention Poland’s failed experiment for two reasons: First, it’s a reminder that democracy, while unrivaled in terms of legitimacy and results, is neither invincible nor inevitable. Second, interference in the affairs of free societies by autocratic regimes is a phenomenon that is waxing, not waning.
To stave off meddling, it never hurts to have favorable geography—a luxury Poland didn’t enjoy. Poland’s 18th Century neighbors were powerful European monarchies. America’s neighbors, by contrast, were the two best friends a fledgling democracy could ever ask for—the Atlantic and the Pacific.
FOREIGN INTERFERENCE IN THE CYBER AGE
But in the cyber age, autocratic governments can concoct disinformation, inject it into the public discourse of nations, and amplify it through self-improving algorithms from the other side of the earth. Are the blessings of oceans and channels sufficient barriers against this sort of meddling?
Not if the citizens of free and sovereign nations yield to complacency. Nations, including democracies, are undergoing the first stage of a real-life “stress test” of their ability to withstand covert, coercive, and corrupt influence by high-tech autocracies.
This may seem odd, because the autocracies are so vastly outnumbered. But they compensate by marshalling the full resources of their states, by learning from one another’s successes and failures, and sometimes by coordinating with one another.
Economic strength isn’t a prerequisite for waging cyber warfare. Thus, we see hackers tasked by Moscow and Tehran attempting to undermine confidence in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. But no regime has more riding on its ability to influence the perceptions, policies and priorities of foreign populations than the Chinese Communist Party.
THE PARTY’S “MAGIC WEAPON”
In truth, we should’ve expected this. The Communist Party’s victory in the Chinese civil war owed less to its combat prowess against superior Nationalist forces than to its ability to infiltrate and manipulate the language, thinking, and actions of its adversaries. This is why the current Party leadership is redoubling its emphasis on “United Front” work.
The defining feature of United Front work is that it’s not transparent. The clue is in the name.
China’s United Front Work system is a gigantic government function with no analogue in democracies. China’s leaders call it a “magic weapon,” and the Party’s 90 million members are required to support its activities. While the system has many branches, the United Front Work Department alone has four times as many cadres as the U.S. State Department has foreign-service officers. But instead of practicing diplomacy with foreign governments—the Chinese foreign ministry handles that—the United Front gathers intelligence about, and works to influence, private citizens overseas. The focus is on foreign elites and the organizations they run. Think of a United Front worker as a cross between an intelligence collector, a propagandist, and a psychologist.
I know that sounds like the opening line to a joke. But United Front work is serious business, and it affects you and me. After all, the raw material for psychologists is data about their patients. The Party is compiling digital dossiers on millions of foreign citizens around the world. The exposure last month of a Chinese database on at least 2.4 million people around the world—including many of us on this call—speaks to the Party’s sheer ambition to wed traditional Leninist techniques with powerful new tools of digital surveillance.
The company building these dossiers, Shenzhen Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co, supports what its CEO reportedly calls “psychological warfare.” Zhenhua harvests and organizes public and private data about us for exploitation by its clients, which are organs of the Chinese security apparatus, according to its website.
The dossiers Zhenhua is compiling include people in virtually every country on earth, no matter how small. They include members of royal families and members of parliament, judges and clerks, tech mavens and budding entrepreneurs, four-star admirals and the crewmembers of warships, professors and think-tankers, and national and local officials. They also include children, who are fair game under Beijing’s rules of political warfare. No one is too prominent or too obscure.
Zhenhua isn’t a particularly large or sophisticated actor in the United Front world. It may even be acting opportunistically, because it thinks the Party will reward it. Far more powerful tech firms, including famous Chinese app developers, play a much bigger role in this kind of work.
Assembling dossiers has always been a feature of Leninist regimes. The material is used now, as before, to influence and intimidate, reward and blackmail, flatter and humiliate, divide and conquer. What’s new is how easy we’ve made it for autocrats to accumulate so much intimate data about ourselves—even people who’ve never set foot in China. We leave our intellectual property, our official documents, and our private lives on the table like open books. The smart phones we use all day to chat, search, buy, view, bank, navigate, network, worship and confide make our thoughts and actions as plain to cyber spooks as the plumes of exhaust from a vintage double-decker bus.
The Chinese Communist Party has reorganized its national strategy around harnessing that digital exhaust to expand the Party’s power and reach.
THE PARTY’S GOALS
But what’s the ultimate point of all the data collection and exploitation? What is Beijing trying to influence us to do? The Party’s goal, in short, is to co-opt or bully people—and even nations—into a particular frame of mind that’s conducive to Beijing’s grand ambitions. It’s a paradoxical mindset—a state of cognitive dissonance that is at once credulous and fearful, complacent and defeatist. It’s a mindset that on Monday says “It’s too early to say whether Beijing poses a threat,” and by Friday says “They’re a threat, all right, but it’s too late to do anything about it now.” To be coaxed into such a mindset is to be seduced into submission—like taking the “blue pill” in The Matrix.
How does Beijing do it? This is where United Front propaganda and psychology come into play. The Party’s overseas propaganda has two consistent themes: “We own the future, so make your adjustments now.” And: “We’re just like you, so try not to worry.” Together, these assertions form the elaborate con at the heart of all Leninist movements.
The Kiwi scholar Anne-Marie Brady, a pioneer in sussing out United Front ploys, points to the Party’s global campaigns—“One Belt, One Road” and the “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind”—as classic specimens of the genre.
Brady calls United Front work a “tool to corrode and corrupt our political system, to weaken and divide us against each other, to erode the critical voice of our media, and turn our elites into clients of the Chinese Communist Party, their mouths stuffed with cash.”
The con doesn’t always work, of course. Facts sometimes get in the way. The profound waste and corruption of many One Belt, One Road projects is an example. When the con doesn’t induce acquiescence, the Party often resorts to intimidation and repression.
Take Hong Kong, where demonstrators took to the streets by the millions last year to protest Beijing’s efforts to undermine Hong Kong’s rule of law. If “socialism with Chinese characteristics” was the future, the demonstrators seemed to prefer staying firmly in the present.
So Beijing resorted to Plan B. It demolished Deng Xiaoping’s “One Country, Two Systems” framework and deprived Hong Kong of the autonomy that made it the most spectacular city in Asia.
HOW WE DEFEND OURSELVES
None of this is reason for panic, mind you. It’s true the West is going through one of its periodic spells of self-doubt, when extreme political creeds surface on the left and the right, and some ideas are so foolish that, to paraphrase George Orwell, only an intellectual could believe them. So let’s pull up our socks and get back to common sense.
On the foreign policy front, President Trump has ingrained two principles worth sharing here, because they’re designed to preserve our sovereignty, promote stability, and reduce miscalculation. They are reciprocity and candor.
Reciprocity is the straightforward idea that when a country injures your interests, you return the favor. It is eminently reasonable and readily understood, including by would-be aggressors. It’s an inherently defensive approach, rooted in notions of fair play and deterrence.
Candor is the idea that democracies are safest when we speak honestly and publicly about and to our friends, our adversaries, and ourselves. This can take some getting used to. When President Reagan was preparing to give a speech in Berlin, several of his staff tried desperately to get him to remove a phrase they found embarrassing and needlessly provocative. Luckily, President Reagan went with his gut, and delivered the most famous line of his presidency: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Some will argue that confrontational rhetoric turns countries into enemies. This old chestnut of the U.S. diplomatic corps masquerades as humble policy, but is in fact quite arrogant because it presumes nations act primarily in reaction to whatever the United States says or does.
Clever adversaries use such thinking against us. By portraying truth-telling as an act of belligerence, autocrats try to badger democracies into silence—and often succeed. “This is the first and most important defeat free nations can ever suffer,” President Reagan said at Guildhall. “When free peoples cease telling the truth about and to their adversaries, they cease telling the truth to themselves.” Public candor actually promotes peace by reducing the space for strategic blunders.
Public candor applies to our internal affairs, too. There can be no double standard.
When Louis Armstrong performed in the Soviet Union as a cultural ambassador of the State Department, he spoke frankly about racial bigotry in the United States. When Reagan famously referred to the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire,” he explored America’s own “legacy of evil”—including anti-Semitism and slavery—in the very same speech.
So it is in a spirit of friendship, reflection, and, yes, candor, that I ask friends in China to research the truth about your government’s policies toward the Uyghur people and other religious minorities. Ask yourselves why the editors of The Economist, in a cover article this week, called those policies “a crime against humanity” and “the most extensive violation in the world today of the principle that individuals have a right to liberty and dignity simply because they are people.”
As a Marine who spent three combat deployments fighting terrorists, I can tell you that what is taking place in Xinjiang bears no resemblance whatsoever to an ethical counter-terrorism strategy. Such abuses are what the Chinese diplomat P.C. Chang was trying to prevent when he helped draft the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is no credible justification I can find in Chinese philosophy, religion, or moral law for the concentration camps inside your borders.
WHAT EVIL FEARS MOST
Colin Cramphorn, for whom this lecture is named, was Chief Constable of West Yorkshire before his death from cancer in 2006. Colin worked the most notorious terrorism cases in British history, from the Omagh car-bombing to the London suicide attacks of 2005. When your day job is to confront evil, it’s hard to avoid dwelling at night on big questions about the human heart. Colin, a voracious and varied reader, sometimes consulted the writings of C.S. Lewis.
I’m told he found particular solace in The Screwtape Letters—Lewis’s brilliantly imagined monologue of a demon toiling in Satan’s bureaucracy. (John Cleese recorded a pitch-perfect rendition of the book a few decades ago, by the way. It’s on YouTube. I’m told Andy Serkis has recorded a version that gives Cleese a run for his money.)
“The safest road to Hell,” old Screwtape advises his nephew, “is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
I suspect Colin drew hope and courage from the knowledge that evil, properly identified and exposed, is frail—even farcical. And that calling it out in public—giving it “signposts”—inoculates us against temptation and liberates us from fear. As my friend Tony Dolan told me: “The great paradox of institutionalized evil is that it can be enormously powerful but also enormously fragile. Thus, it is compulsively aggressive and ultimately self-destructive. It senses its own moral absurdity. It knows it is a raft on a sea of ontological good.”
“What evil fears most is the publicly spoken truth.”
So speak up, everyone. And raise a glass tonight to the good constable Colin Cramphorn and to like-minded public servants the world over. They have our love and our thanks.