On this week’s episode, Miles Yu joins to discuss the ongoing tension in China and the rise of the Chinese protestor. We talk about reasons why people are putting their lives on the line to defy the China regime: is it all about the zero-COVID policies instituted by President Xi Jinping? We also focus on President Biden and his administration’s response to the Chinese protestor. Has the narrative, or lack thereof, been a help or a hindrance? What does effective diplomacy look like?

Miles Yu is a senior fellow and director of the China Center at Hudson Institute and co-host of its new China Insider podcast. He is also a professor of East Asia and military and naval history at the United States Naval Academy. During the Trump administration, he served as the China policy adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In that capacity, he advised the secretary on all China-related issues, helped overhaul U.S. policy toward China, and participated in key U.S. government interagency deliberations on major policy and government actions with regard to China and other East Asian countries.


Beverly Hallberg:

And welcome to She Thinks, a podcast where you’re allowed to think for yourself. I’m your host, Beverly Hallberg, and today’s episode is timely.

We’ll discuss the ongoing tension in China and the rise of the Chinese protestor. We’ll get into the reasons why people are putting their lives on the line to defy the China regime. Is it all about the zero COVID policies instituted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, or are there other factors?

We’re also going to delve into President Biden and his administration’s response to the Chinese protestor. Has the narrative, or lack thereof, been a help or a hindrance? What does effective diplomacy look like?

Well, we have a wonderful guest to break that all down. Miles Yu joins us.

Miles Yu is a senior fellow and director of the China Center at Hudson Institute and cohost of its new China Insider podcast. He is also a professor of East Asia and military naval history at the United States Naval Academy.

During the Trump administration, he served as a China policy advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In that capacity, he advised the secretary on all China-related issues and helped overhaul US policy towards China.

It is an honor and pleasure to have you on She Thinks today, Miles Yu. Thank you for joining us.

Miles Yu:

Thank you for having me, Beverly.

Beverly Hallberg:

And in reading so much of what you’ve written over the years, I think one of the things that’s most interesting is you are writing about it from the perspective of somebody who was raised in China. You understand the Chinese very well.

I thought we would just start by talking about your background, and how you go from being born and raised in China to working for the Secretary of State.

Miles Yu:

Well, I was going to say I was born and raised in China, and I came here to the United States in 1985 as an exchange student to the little tiny college in Pennsylvania called the Swarthmore College.

And after that, I went to a wonderful, great school on the West Coast with some dubious reputation of radical activism. It’s called the University of California at the Berkeley.

So I got my doctorate degree there in military history and diplomacy, and came to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1994. So I have been a professor here in Annapolis for a long time.

And then basically, when the Trump administration came along, I performed a duty as a citizen of the United States and I served as Secretary Pompeo’s China policy advisor. And we had a wonderful time, as you indicated in your introductory remarks, and we did tremendous things. We changed the direction of our policy toward China. And that change, I think, has some permanency in there.

Beverly Hallberg:

And you wrote a great op-ed this week that was published in the New York Post, and you talked about the Chinese protestor and really what they’re thinking, what it is that they’re doing.

Before we get into some of the specifics and these most recent protests, just give us a general understanding of the Chinese people; what their view is of the current China regime and what their view is of the United States.

Miles Yu:

I think China is a big country, but a big country that has basically a most fundamental reality that is, the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people, they have separated and gone their own way a long time ago, in about 20, 30 years. But the Chinese Communist Party is a party of a monopoly of all powers in China. So they hold the key to major aspects of the human existence in China, for example.

So that’s why you don’t see the daily sort of confrontation between the government and the Chinese people.

And number one, people no longer believe in communism. The Chinese Communist Party is a die hard devout believer and a practitioner of Marxism and Leninism. But the Chinese people, they’re doing their own way. They’re pursuing all the status symbols of the western lifestyle. They try their best to send their kids overseas. They try to make money, and once again, make money and get out of China in all possible means.

So the impetus for confrontation between the people yearning for freedom and the government, basically experts specializing in social control, is always there.

The only thing that matters is opportunities. I think the COVID lockdown, the draconian COVID-zero policy, provides just that opportunity.

So in other words, the current wave of social protest in China started a protest but didn’t cause the protest. The cause is much more fundamental, much more ideological, much more subterranean.

Beverly Hallberg:

And we do know that, in China, information flow is restricted, there is censorship.

How are the Chinese people still understanding the ideas of freedom? Is it because we’ve exported democracy in other ways, either through our products or our programming? How is it that they’re learning about the American way? What is the censorship level like of the Chinese government?

Miles Yu:

So one of the most interesting phenomenon of China’s relationship with the rest of the world in the past, I would say, 30 something years, is a massive economic engagement.

The Chinese government’s approach is to basically extend that economic engagement, but exert extraordinary political control, including information control.

But economic engagement could also be risky for the Chinese government as well. Because when you have economic engagement, for example, you have Apple, you have a Walmart in China, it’s almost impossible to completely cut off the information flow, because Apple has to communicate with its headquarters in California, Apple has a lot of employees and workers, so there is a VPN.

There is always the issue of Twitter, right? Twitter is banned, like all other social media outlets in the West, including Facebook, including Google. But that sort of Great Firewall of China could also be porous.

If you’re a person with decent knowledge of IT technology, you can easily sign on Twitter anonymously in China, even though, if the [inaudible 00:06:59] wants to get it at you, they’re always going to find you.

But what I’m saying here is that, in China, you may know information, but the problem is you cannot really spread or use that information to make your own political expression. And that could be very risky.

So it is not that the Chinese people cannot say anything that the government doesn’t like, it’s the consequence. The consequence is very immediate and it’s very, very Draconian.

So that’s why the Chinese government rules China by fear.

Beverly Hallberg:


And what’s been so impressive and really a sign of their bravery is to see the protestors who are willing to take on the Chinese regime, even knowing that the repercussions could be very dire for them.

Talk to us a little bit about the history of uprisings and protests in China. Is this something that happens often that just doesn’t get the same type of worldwide coverage we’re seeing right now with COVID, or is there something really unique going on right now?

Miles Yu:

Social protest in the public arena is very rare. It’s also not really allowed, because really, the first social protest in public square took place just a little over a hundred years ago in what we call the May Fourth Movement of 1919. So for about 30 years after that, the Chinese people did have the right, did have the opportunity to stage all kinds of social protests.

And of course, the Chinese Communist Party usurped that form of political expression and they used this social protest as a way to topple their opponent, which is the nationalist government.

So in 1949, partly because of this kind of usurpation of the social protest, the Chinese Communist Party came to power. And after 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party came to power, all form of social protest has been banned. And if you do, you have to suffer severe consequences. So all form of public expression of political views in China are impossible basically. But it is impossible directly. There are always other ways of oblique dissent, oblique resistance of citizens.

One of the very progressive ways of passive resistance was just to try to get out of China. So that’s why the longest line in the world is the line of people waiting for exit visas from the western embassies and consulates in China, particularly the American Consulate in China.

So that’s one of the ways.

Another way is basically to sort of have a massive disengagement with the authorities. If the Chinese government wants you to do one thing, the people do not resist you, but they just do not care. They’ll walk away. Right?

So that’s basically … In China, there’s an expression called ‘tang ping’, which means ‘lie flat.’ You don’t really stand up to engage with the party, you just line flat doing nothing.

It’s like a dropout, like the hippies in the 1960s.

Beverly Hallberg:

And it seems that it was the COVID-zero policies that maybe those people who just wanted to drop out and not engage, they had no choice but to engage because the government could have come to their home and said, “you’re not allowed to leave. You’re not allowed to do X, Y and Z.”

So did this really engage a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily view themselves as somebody who wanted to be an activist against the government?

And also, on that note, how large are these protests and what have been some of the repercussions for people who have spoken out?

Miles Yu:

Well, this is actually very interesting.

COVID protest is different. It’s slightly different in a way that, in the past, the main target of the Chinese government’s repression were the people at the lower layers of the social stratification. That means the migrant workers, the rural poor; the hundreds of millions of people who are categorized in a different kind of households registration system.

This time is different. The current wave of protest was led by the, what we might call, middle class, because those are people who own properties in the urban centers in Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangdong. So those are people who have substantial means and they own properties. The reason why they rose up is because they are also the victims of the lockdowns. When they say zero COVID lockdown, that means basically nobody can get out. So that’s why the middle-class people in China do not even have the space and private space not to engage with the Chinese Communist Party. So they were basically having no other way but to rise up and lead the social protests. When they did that, all other sectors of Chinese society joined them. You can see the rural poor joined them. You can see the intelligensia, particularly the university professors and students. And they provided a different flavor to the protests, which is more direct and more politically charged.

Beverly Hallberg:

And the news breaking this morning … And just so our listeners know, we’re recording this on a very historic day, December 7th. So this is Wednesday. One of the things that we’re hearing is that the Chinese government is changing some of their policies in relation to the COVID lockdowns.

So why are we seeing this easing of restrictions? And it’s really been incremental. We’ve seen this, I believe, three times in the past four weeks or so now, where they’ve started easing some of the restrictions. Is this because of the pressure of the protests?

Miles Yu:

Well, absolutely.

I mean, I think for the government historically, their preferred way of dealing with an issue like this is basically use power; use machine guns and tanks. But this time it’s very different because the protest was so widespread, even some of the region base was motivated to rise up.

So I think they’re scared. And instead of using tanks and machine guns, this time they use this relative sort of ease to diffuse the tension.

The degree of outrage against the current stupid policy of a zero lockdown is just astonishing. The communist party knows this. So what they’re trying to do is to ease the lockdown and allowing people to go out. But in practice, they are still implementing the draconian measures, demanding everyone to have daily tests, for example. And they’re still not providing the infrastructure to allow people to have access to food and medicine.

So the police are still everywhere in China. So that’s why what’s going to happen in the next few weeks is very crucial.

So the Chinese government, they’ve only loosened the leash, but the leash is still on your neck.

Beverly Hallberg:

And one of the things I found fascinating that you wrote about is what some of the Chinese protestors are saying: “Give me liberty or give me death”, for example.

Can you give us some of those anecdotes of what you’ve been hearing on the ground there and how the protestors have been speaking out?

Miles Yu:

Well, I think seemingly the reason for people to go out down the street is the COVID policy, but obviously, the intelligentsia is turning it into political. So people know this is really a battle between liberty and communism.

So you might say the intellectual source of this is multifaceted.

First of all, it came from one guy in early October who unfurled a banner in Beijing. Now that single act of protest in a totalitarian regime like China is very significant, because first of all, the bravery is just astonishing, and then secondly, it’s the message. The message is that, “Listen, give me liberty. Don’t give me lockdown.” Right? And it’s very, very simple.

So that’s why the phrase ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’, zìyóu in Chinese, is the most popular decided slogan in all protests across China.

Secondly, I will say the protestors drew their intellectual source, inspiration from the protestors of Hong Kong three years ago. The Hong Kong protests is nothing but about freedom.

So for example, the most popular, the widely used battle hymn, if you will, on the street in China in the last several weeks is exactly the same battle hymn used by the Hong Kong protestors, which is basically the song from the very popular Broadway blockbuster Les Miserables, ‘Can You Hear The People Sing?’. And it’s very powerful and inspirational.

Of course, there’s always this very clever way of using the Chinese Communist Party’s own tool of propaganda to destroy the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda. And that is if you the Chinese national anthem, for example; the March of the Volunteers, it’s called.

The first line of the Chinese national anthem goes something like this: “Arise those who refuse to be slaves.”

Beverly Hallberg:


Miles Yu:

So this first line also is repeatedly used by protestors all over China.

Of course, being a communist country, there’s always this communist internationale. In China, it’s called the [inaudible 00:17:41]. Everybody knows how to sing it.

I mean, the lyrics there are pretty subversive, even though it was meant for the proletariat to overthrow the capitalist system. But the proletariat in China used that to overthrow the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is the Chinese Communist Party.

Beverly Hallberg:

Well, I want to take a brief moment to talk to you, our listeners.

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Now, Miles, I want to circle back to what you said earlier, and that is the importance of the next few weeks.

So what’s going to happen as far as the lockdowns continue, how these protests are going to be viewed, and I’m assuming how diplomats across the world respond to this as well.

Can you tell us just a little bit about what the President Biden administration has done so far? If anything, they’ve been fairly silent. And what does that mean, not only to encourage or discourage the Chinese protestor, but what does that say to the Chinese regime?

Miles Yu:

Before I answer your question directly, I might want to add something that you usually refer to; that is the role of women in the social protest in this particular incident.

It’s extraordinary. Women demonstrate amazing courage. And in many incidents, when the Chinese police tried to arrest protestors, normally it’s the women; brave women who stood up to confront the police. And they were the ones who rescued the protestors in danger of being arrested.

The most famous example was the protestor in my hometown, Chongqing. When he was surrounded by the police, who tried to arrest him after he gave a very inspirational speech, the women basically shouted at the police and pushed the police away and successfully rescued him.

This reminds me of the role played by women during many of the momentous revolutions, particularly the French Revolution of 1789.

So I just want to add that. The power of women in China is amazing.

Beverly Hallberg:

And then talk about President Biden and his response, or lack thereof, so far.

Miles Yu:

President Biden and the White House issued a very lukewarm response and very general. It was saying that, “We support everybody’s right to peacefully protest.” And that’s basically … It’s a softball. It did not really address the real issue.

It is a great opportunity for the United States to stand up for freedom as a champion for the struggling by the Chinese people.

It is very important for us to understand what the United States means to hundreds of millions of people in China yearning for freedom. It is the inspiration, it is a beacon of freedom. People aspire for the United States to lead the cause of liberty globally.

And that leadership role has always been there. The reason why the Chinese Communist Party hates the United States, it’s not because who is in charge at the White House, it’s because the very existence of the United States scares the Chinese government, because they know the United States’ power of inspiration for the Chinese people is enormous. If the Chinese people all wanted the same thing that Americans want, then the government of China will not be communist.

So that’s why they understand this.

And I think sitting in the White House, any leader should really, really understand our own power. And I think very few leader knows that completely.

Ronald Reagan did that. He understood why the United States is morally superior, why the United States is actually the inspirational source for millions of dissidents within the evil empire in the Soviet Union Eastern bloc. And that’s why he stood firmly, firmly behind the dissidents in the Soviet Union.

And I think because of the large number of immigrants from the Soviet Union, from Eastern Europe, they inform the American government what the American policy should be.

And I think a similar thing is happening in the United States. You have a large number of Chinese immigrants, like myself, who could provide some insights on what’s going on in China, what’s at stake.

Now hopefully, and we did that during the Trump administration, I hope that the Biden administration could be more direct, could basically seize this opportunity to stand on the right side of history like President Ronald Reagan did.

Beverly Hallberg:

Well, before you go, first of all, just want to say it’s really important information that you’re bringing to us, and I know that you’re continuing to do that. As I said before, you are the director of the China Center at the Hudson Institute.

But you also have a new podcast that you launched this week called The China Insider. Can you tell us a little bit about that podcast and what people could get from that?

Miles Yu:

Well, China Insider is a project under the aegis of the China Center at the Hudson Institute.

What we’re trying to do is we’re going to provide weekly analysis of news, of events and anything related to China and the US/China relations from the perspective of the China Center.

So we believe we try to sort of analyze China from inside out rather than outside in. Many think tanks and many institutions in the United States, particularly in Washington DC, tend to sort of examine ourself extensively without considering what’s really going on in China.

So we debate on how tough we should be toward China without really understanding why we should be taking certain particular policy in the context of Chinese view, Chinese strategic culture vis-à-vis the United States.

So we’re trying to provide something very different, unique and timely.

Beverly Hallberg:

Absolutely. And people can get that wherever they get their most up to date podcast. It’s called The China Insider.

Miles Yu with the Hudson Institute. Really a pleasure to have you on the program. Thank you so much for sharing your insight.

Miles Yu:

Thank you for having me.

Beverly Hallberg:

And thank you all for joining us.

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