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 , one directed at 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 record defending American values against 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 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 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:
"We believe in the dignity of each man, woman, and child. Our entire system is founded on an appreciation of the special genius of each individual, and of his special right to make his own decisions and lead his own life.
"We believe—and we believe it so deeply that Americans know these words by heart—we believe ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among those are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ … They are from the document by which we created our nation, the Declaration of Independence.
"We elect our government by the vote of the people. That is how we choose our Congress and our President. We say of our country, ‘Here the People Rule,’ and it is so."
This was political sustenance to a people that since 1949 had been shackled by totalitarianism, by Marxist leaders that 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’s women.
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:
"There is one other part of our national character I wish to speak of. Religion and faith are very important to us. We’re a nation of many religions. But most Americans derive their religious belief from the Bible of Moses, who delivered a people from slavery; the Bible of Jesus Christ, who told us to love thy neighbor as thyself, to do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you.
"And this, too, has formed us. It’s why we wish well for others. It’s why it grieves us when we hear of people who cannot live up to their full potential and who cannot live in peace."
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 committed 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 . That was obviously so toward Soviet communism and the Eastern European countries. Yet, it also applied to communist China, which, in 1984, was barely emerging from Mao’s recent death.
Reagan had begun that particular year, 1984, with a heightened purpose relating to his desire to advance the twin pillars of faith and freedom. On January 30 of that year, he addressed the National Religious Broadcasters, where he made a telling pronouncement:
"Our mission extends far beyond our borders; God’s family knows no borders. In your life you face daily trials, but millions of believers in other lands face far worse. They are mocked and persecuted for the crime of loving God. To every religious dissident trapped in that cold, cruel existence, we send our love and support. Our message? You are not alone; you are not forgotten; do not lose your faith and hope because someday you, too, will be free."
It was that mission that Reagan took inside 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, in November 2009, likewise mentioned slavery to the Chinese, but did so as an inward 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 in the gut. A believer needs to be a true believer before he can proclaim liberty to the captives.