Thank you very much, Professor Zhu.
I am so pleased to be back at Renmin University before my tenure as United States Ambassador to China ends. Some of my most memorable experiences in China have been visits to universities, and I particularly enjoyed speaking at the Moot Court competition here last year.
As some of you may know, I will soon be rejoining my family back in the U.S. so that my two oldest children can complete their high school education there. Moving the family back to the U.S. was not an easy decision, but it was one that my family and I made together. My wife and children were sad to leave; the Chinese people have been so warm and friendly. Our family had some great and exciting learning about and exploring the country of their ancestors.
Before leaving China, I want to say a few words about a couple of topics of particular importance to me and China: the importance of rule of law and freedom of expression to the formation of a progressive and stable society.
Together, rule of law and freedom of speech have been responsible for making America such a successful, innovative, dynamic and stable society, one that has attracted and continues to attract people from all around the world.
Let me first say a few words about rule of law. As you may know, I got my start as a lawyer working for four years as a criminal prosecutor in my hometown of Seattle, Washington. I prosecuted people charged with burglary, robbery, drug trafficking and murder.
My passion for the law has continued throughout my career. I briefly served as a part-time judge. As governor of the State of Washington my work often involved matters of the law.
In America’s criminal justice system, whether a minor break-in or a life-and-death prosecution, everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. And moreover, everyone – big guys and little guys, rich or poor, famous or unknown – has a fair shot and is treated equally.
The rights of the little guy are the very foundation of the American legal system. Back in the 1700s, few people would have predicted that a rag-tag coalition of 13 colonies on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean could somehow gain their independence from Great Britain. But those colonies prevailed. And as a young America went on about the hard work of forming a new nation, our founding fathers ensured that our constitution protected the rights of the little guy.
Through the generations, our courts in America have established that no one is above the law, not even the President of the United States. In 1974 in United States v. Nixon, the Supreme Court ordered the White House, over President Nixon’s strenuous objections, to release audiotapes of recorded conversations taken inside the President’s Office. Information revealed in the tapes led to the discovery of a cover-up of illegal activities in the White House, which eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon. Once again, our legal and political system proved that no one, not even the most powerful person in America, was above the law.
This concept of equality before the law is found in China’s own legal traditions and history, which go back much farther than ours and differ in many ways from America’s. As far back as the 4th Century BC in the state of Qin, a famous Chinese statesman and reformer named Shang Yang elaborated on his legal philosophy in the Book of Lord Shang. One of the most important doctrines he established was reflected in his well-known saying, “When the prince violates the law, the crime he commits is the same as that of the common people.” So more than 2,300 years ago in China, the principle that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law was already put forth and well recognized.
The United States Constitution is the foundation of our legal system. It has proven so invaluable in part because it is adaptable to the social changes that will inevitably occur over time. In that sense, it is self-correcting. From time to time we have amended our Constitution to more accurately reflect our country’s values and to bring more people under its protection – people who have been previously excluded. African-Americans were not considered full and free citizens of the United States until the passage of three constitutional amendments almost 100 years after the founding of our nation. Similarly, women were not allowed to vote until the approval of the 19th Amendment in 1920. And as further evidence of how far we have come, in 2008 Barack Obama was elected as our first African-American president.
In my own country’s experience, the rule of law gives the government greater legitimacy because people have confidence that there are fair and transparent ways to redress concerns. Rule of law does not necessarily ensure a favorable outcome for any particular individual. Losing parties in a court case won’t agree with the outcome of the case, but they walk away believing they had their day in court – a fair day in court. They walk away with confidence in the basic integrity of the legal process.
Just as a sporting event, you might not always agree with the decision of the referee, but players and fans can accept the outcome of the game, even if their side loses, if everyone plays by the rules and if everyone believes that the referees have been fair. What isn’t accepted, however, is when referees ignore the rules or bend them in favor of one side or one player.
A recent example of this confidence and faith in our legal system took place during the 2000 U.S. presidential elections – in the case of Governor George Bush v. Vice President Al Gore. For the first time in American history the outcome of a presidential election came down to just nine votes – the votes of the nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices. They had to decide what procedures should be followed to count and recount some very confusing ballots in Florida – a decision that everyone knew at the time would determine the Presidency of the United States, given how closely the vote was divided in that state. Their decision on how to count the disputed ballots in Florida favored George W. Bush, even though some groups believed that Vice President Al Gore actually received more votes in Florida and thus should have been declared the next President.
But while the Court’s decision was extremely controversial, Vice President Gore and his supporters accepted the Court’s decision because they believed in the integrity of our legal institutions and our legal process and the need for finality. In many other countries, such a close and hotly contested presidential election would have resulted in angry mobs in the streets, revolution, or even the military seizing power. The American people’s acceptance of the Court’s determination of who would be the next president is a clear testament to the value and stabilizing power of a strong rule of law.
Another force of stability in American society is freedom of speech. We view freedom of expression as a universal right, and indeed it is enshrined in China’s constitution as well as our own. It is an integral part of the American Constitution’s First Amendment, which sets forth our basic freedoms of speech, religious belief and assembly.
The protection of free speech offered by the First Amendment is not just for speech that reflects majority opinion or the government position. More importantly, it protects the expression of ideas that do not represent the mainstream, and that are often unpopular. Yet society benefits greatly from the airing of those views. They can provoke much-needed discussion of important topics. They can inform and influence the opinions of the majority, and in doing so they can bring about policy changes that improves society.
This has happened time and again in American history. Let me give you two recent examples.
First, the Civil Rights Movement. Although President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves was issued in 1863, much of the country remained segregated over the next 100 years. Many southern states had passed laws limiting the rights of African-Americans in direct defiance of our Constitution and Lincoln’s Proclamation. These states used legal provisions to impose racial segregation and restrict the civil rights of African-Americans.
Using our constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression, civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s eloquently argued that segregation had no place in a modern, democratic society. Most influential of all was the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior, who in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” spoke of a time when, in his words, “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The moral force of that speech moved a nation and helped force politicians to act. Within two years, historic civil rights and voting rights laws were enacted by Congress, outlawing major forms of discrimination.
A second example of the critical role of free speech in modern American history is the protests against the Vietnam War. Americans used their freedom of expression to question the wisdom of sending young men into the jungles of Vietnam to fight a war they thought unnecessary.
Among those who spoke most eloquently against the war was Secretary of State John Kerry. In 1971, as a representative of the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he spoke at a congressional hearing. His testimony included the now famous quote: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
I can assure you, those were not words that President Nixon and our military leaders wanted to hear. Yet by exercising their freedom of expression, and by making a compelling case against the war, a young John Kerry and thousands of other protestors helped force the government to change course and end the fighting.
Speaking truth to those in power, as John Kerry did, is not an exclusively American trait. China itself has a saying that dates back more than 2,000 years that “honest advice, though unpleasant to the ear, benefits conduct.” This saying refers to Zhang Liang’s counsel to Liu Bang after he had conquered the capital of the state of Qin in 207 BC. Liu desperately wanted to stay in the newly captured palace with its valuable treasures and beautiful women, but Zhang told him that in doing so he risked being perceived as a vulgar person. Liu reluctantly listened to Zhang and won the support of the people.
Of course, freedom of expression is not just about making memorable speeches. It also includes the free flow of information. This unfettered unrestricted access to information is essential for societies to modernize and advance.Here in China we have seen in recent years the important and positive role that the free flow of information can have on modernizing society.
Let’s first look at the environment. In Beijing, everyone knew the air quality was bad, but they did not know just how bad it was. Americans living here were concerned, and wanted information about the quality of the air they breathed. In response, the U.S. Embassy began to offer hourly PM 2.5 readings for the use of Americans living in Beijing. This information ultimately reached a wider audience, and helped inform a public discussion amongst Chinese — online and elsewhere — about what their country should do to improve its air.
Before long, Beijing and other major Chinese cities began monitoring and publishing their own PM2.5 data. In recent months, the central and Beijing governments have further responded with comprehensive plans to improve air quality.
The free flow of information also is critical to improving governance, particularly to fighting the scourge of corruption. I have been especially impressed by how ordinary Chinese citizens in recent years have taken to the Internet to report suspected corruption. In the U.S., we also fight graft by requiring government officials to publicly report their assets every year. Requiring the release of this information makes bribery and other corrupt behaviors far more difficult to conceal.
Here in China there have been calls for similar requirements for Chinese officials. The U.S. government is especially concerned that some of the people calling for change are now facing prosecution, in retaliation for their public campaigns to expose corruption and because they peacefully expressed their views.
We also know that diversity of opinion and the free flow of ideas have never been more crucial to a country’s success than today – the age of the Internet – a time particularly suited for creativity and innovation. Vice President Biden said in Beijing last month that innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely and are able to challenge orthodoxy. It thrives where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences. We have many disagreements on some of those issues right now, including the treatment of U.S. journalists. But I and many around the world believe that China will be stronger, more stable and more innovative if it respects universal human rights.
As more people go on line, freely contributing their ideas, the more valuable the network becomes to everyone, both to the users and to society. But if people aren’t free to fully express their thoughts or participate in online discussions, then the full potential of the Internet will never be realized. So it is important that everyone should be able to express their ideas on the Internet, and to use the Internet to debate and discuss topics, even if what they say might be unpopular, even if what they say might be viewed as sensitive by some groups or individuals.
This free flow of information online has become increasingly important in a globalized world where the most pressing problems know no national boundaries, where all nations suffer when any country puts up barriers. This is particularly true when it comes to dealing with international problems such as communicable diseases, which can quickly spread from one country to another, or with food safety issues in an era of global trade.
In summary, the rule of law and free speech are essential for countries to move forward and make progress. One of the many things that makes me proud to be an American is how, through the generations of our history, Americans have continually worked to bring the United States closer to the ideal of forming “a more perfect union,” as the preamble to our Constitution says.
Free speech and the rule of law are the main pillars of this ideal. They help build a people who are united, patriotic, confident in their rights, and invested in their own country’s future.
China has a great future ahead of it, but reaching its full potential will depend on a neutral and respected judiciary, active and dedicated lawyers, wise leadership, and reverence to the rule of law. It also will depend on respect for the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech for all, an open Internet, and a well-informed citizenry willing to engage in an unrestricted dialogue on how best to build a stable and progressive future for China. A vibrant marketplace of ideas is essential to the health and progress of any country.
Let me wish you all good luck and a happy year in this year of the horse.
Thank you very much.
- Cross posted from U.S. Embassy Beijing