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August 25, 2020
Missing America
3. Authoritarianism

In This Episode

Are we headed for a new world order where the Chinese model of authoritarianism becomes the norm? China has asserted itself at home and abroad, filling a void left by Trump’s America First retrenchment. China’s growing power can be seen as far away as Africa, even as people closer to home – in Hong Kong – have sounded the alarm. 

Host Ben Rhodes talks to experts, human rights activists and Hong Kong protesters about the nature of China’s model, and what America should think – and do – about it.






November, 2017. And I’m accompanying the now-*former* President Barack Obama to Shanghai, China.


NEWS REPORT CLIP: Former President Barack Obama will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping according to a reporter with the Associated Press….


He’s giving speeches. Meeting privately with leaders. I have very little to do. It’s a lot less stressful than when we were actually in government.


Then one night, at 10pm…. 




….the phone wakes me up in my hotel room.




It’s the front desk. Someone from the Chinese Foreign Ministry wants to talk to me… *now.* 


I quickly tidy up, and a few minutes later, two Chinese officials are sitting awkwardly in my room. 


Only one of them speaks. A senior diplomat. 




For a few minutes, he makes the diplomatic small talk I’d grown accustomed to. Praising the past cooperation between President Obama and President Xi Jinping. 


And just as I’m wondering why he’s here, he gets to the point. 


“Is President Obama traveling to Delhi next?” he asks. 


“Yes,” I say. 


He says it’s his understanding that President Obama is considering meeting, in Delhi, with….”the leader of the Tibetan opposition in exile.”


That’s how China’s government refers to the Dalai Lama.  To them, he’s a kind of Tibetan terrorist. 


The official very carefully explains that Obama should *not* meet with the Dalai Lama.    


He says if he does, the Chinese people will be greatly offended. Including Xi Jinping. 


The whole time this diplomat’s talking, the other guy just sits and watches him. Silently.


From my years in government, I’m used to getting this kind of message. I patiently say that we appreciate the request…but President Obama will meet with whomever he wants.


And with that…the meeting is over.




Here’s why I’m telling you this story. 


We had not *announced* the meeting with the Dalai Lama. 


I’d only just been put in contact with his staff myself. 




What my visitors were doing, in no uncertain terms, was letting me know: 


The Chinese government was monitoring my conversations.


I’m Ben Rhodes, and this is Missing America. A look at the political afflictions spreading unchecked around the world… in the absence of American leadership.


Today: the Chinese model of authoritarianism.  


In which citizens give up their rights, and submit to constant surveillance… in exchange for a promise of safety and prosperity.


We’ll learn about just how totalitarian the Chinese system is becoming. How it may be spreading. And how we could be headed for a world order where it’s all just business as usual.


POWER: They want to change the standard. They want to change the rules and to lower the bar on what constitutes humane, decent and stabilizing behavior in the international system.


Then, we’ll learn why and how millions of people in Hong Kong have fought back…


NG: I don’t know whether I will win or lose, but at least right before I die, I have to try and struggle and fight against it. 


…And how the United States should be inspired by them, and help people like them. Not by starting a new Cold War. But by living up to our own standards.


The democratic example that America needs to be — or else…on this episode of Missing America.






So, you’re probably not surprised to hear that China… is not the most free and open society in the world.


In fact, my generation’s first memory of Chinese politics was 1989. When the Communist government crushed pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.


NEWS REPORT CLIP: BROKAW: Good evening. We all knew it couldn’t go on forever, but no one thought it would come to this. A brutal massacre of Chinese students and other protesters by the Chinese army.


NEWS REPORT CLIP: From Tiananmen Square. The sound of gunfire sounded like a battle. But it was one sided.


NEWS REPORT CLIP: The Chinese Red Cross says at least 2600 people were killed. The students claim thousands of others were wounded.


But that was thirty years ago, right?  


Since then, China’s gone through an historic economic expansion. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. The country opened up to Western businesses, culture, and tourists.   


And there *hasn’t* been another violent military crackdown on the scale of Tiananmen.


From the outside, China seems… at least a *little* freer.   


Sad to say… it isn’t.  We just can’t see the shackles as easily.

Jeff Prescott was a member of the National Security Council under Obama.  He lived in China for years.

He says when Xi Jinping took power? An already restrictive country… got worse. 

Xi’s government was determined to crush dissent — but with an evolution of tactics. From the brute, in-your-face force of the Tiananmen era, to less visible weapons.

Like technology.   

PRESCOTT: You know, China has had closed circuit televisions for a long time. If you became a political dissident in China someone would come to your street corner and put up a bunch of cameras so they can monitor your house in real time. What’s new, is that they’ve combined that with all of the computing power that the modern information apparatus provides.

So, you probably know China’s on the cutting edge of tech innovation. Surpassing the U.S. in artificial Intelligence, high-speed 5G wireless networks, and more.

Well, the government invested in that tech, not just to sell it. But also to *use* it — to spy on its own citizens.  

With an efficiency and a scope that’s never been seen before. 

PRESCOTT: So you can have all of your personal data online. The government can monitor that in real time. And when you add new technologies like facial recognition, like real-time artificial intelligence-based tracking of different data sets, they can essentially track a person in real time across a city, across the country. 

They can also track your movements across the internet. 

Like for instance if you download a muslim sermon… and you happen to be a Uigher.  

Uighers are a predominantly muslim ethnic group in Western China. More than one million have been put in Chinese concentration camps. The government says it’s to fight extremism, but most of these Uighers have never been charged with a crime.


PRESCOTT: What we’re seeing now with these vast reeducation camps and concentration camps in Xinjiang is people being identified for suspicious behavior like their online activity, like the use of their phone, the kind of apps that they’re using, the Internet searches that they’re doing… feeding into this kind of surveillance database, so they can then be picked up off the street and sent away for some kind of re-education or punishment.

And if that isn’t Orwellian enough for you? The Chinese government is scaling up its surveillance capabilities across the country. For a project it calls a “Social Credit System.”

PRESCOTT:  Which is not really fully operational at this point. But you just imagine your kind of credit report, you know, every transaction that you’ve made, your banking history.  Banks use that in our country to figure out whether they should give you a loan, whether you’re a safe bet financially. China’s trying to use that to kind of evaluate a citizen by you know, how patriotic they are, how much they follow the rules, whether the emails and Internet posts that they make are  sufficiently, um, laudatory of the Communist Party. There is a sort of pretty chilling way in which these technologies could be used to track people and score them over time.

If you earn a *high* social-credit score?  Maybe the government makes sure you get a decent job. Or your kid gets into a decent school. 

Get a *low* score? And maybe those opportunities dry up. Or worse…you get a knock on the door.

There’s an episode of the TV show “Black Mirror” about a society that does something similar:

BLACK MIRROR CLIP: AGENT: That’s reserved for members of our Prime flight program. You’ve gotta be a 4 point 2 or over to qualify. 

LACIE:  Oh. I’m a 4 point 2.

 WOMAN: I’m afraid you’re actually a 4 point but 1 8 3 



“Well” — you might say — that’s just China for you, right? It’s been a closed society for decades. That’s their choice. Why should the rest of the world worry?  

Here’s why: 

Increasingly China’s expanding its influence *beyond* its borders.

Including to a continent many Westerners don’t pay much attention to.  But really, really should.

DELLE: So my name is… I’m Sangu Delle from Ghana, and I am an entrepreneur, early stage tech investor, and an author. 


I met up with Sangu Delle last year in Johannesburg.  He was about to publish a book of interviews, conducted with people he’d met after visiting tech startups in every corner of Africa.


DELLE: You’re seeing incredible innovation come out of all the different parts. I was in Rwanda the last time, and you’ve seen incredible innovation come out of some of the tech entrepreneurs there, that are building tech tools that are adapted to their local problems. Right? And so I’m very optimistic about that side of things.


Delle’s not the only one bullish on Africa.  


True — some African countries struggle with corrupt leaders, human rights abuses and terrorism.  


But the continent is also home to some of the fastest-growing economies on the planet. And the reason is Africa’s young people.

DELLE: Look, in 2050, we’re going to be… 1 in 4 people will be African. And more importantly, 70 percent of the world’s youth will be in Africa. The rest of the world will be aging. And so, to me, I see that as a real asset and a real  opportunity, if we do the right things — and we have the right conducive environment to leverage that. 

Creating that environment will take investment — in roads, infrastructure, wireless networks, bandwidth, education.  Investments many African nations can’t afford right now.

But there’s one country that’s been *more* than willing to help out.  

Spoiler alert — it’s *not* the United States. 

NEWS REPORT CLIP: When the newly-inaugurated President Trump unveiled his “America First” approach, it wasn’t long before his budget team proposed deep cuts that would hit Africa the hardest. 

NEWS REPORT CLIP:  The President’s stated goal in his inaugural address of “America First” may instead mean “America Alone,” and particularly in the context of Africa, may mean “America left behind.”

In fact, under Trump’s isolationist, anti-immigrant vision, the United States has gone out of its way to *alienate* Africa —  *and* the young Africans who used to dream of studying and working in America. 

NBC NEWS CLIP:  Using vulgar language, President Trump today questioned why the United States would allow people from Haiti and Africa into the country. 

CBC NEWS CLIP:  He apparently said — this is a quote — “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”  

This all puzzles Sangu Delle.  Especially given what it’s led to.

DELLE: So to me, I think it’s a huge missed opportunity that the U.S. is not focused on more sustained engagement with Africa. And what’s interesting is, with that absence, guess who’s filling that void?  RHODES & DELLE SIMULTANEOUSLY: China! [AS THEY LAUGH:]


DELLE: Right!  Look, I’ve now spent time in 47 African countries. The 47th country I was in recently was Sao Tome and Principe…I mean, the island of Principe has only eight thousand people.  And the Chinese are already there!

By “already there,” Delle means: they’re aggressively investing.  Providing development loans, technology, and sending in thousands of Chinese workers to build infrastructure across Africa.  

And all signs — *literally* — point to how huge an impact that this is already having. 

DELLE: The way I best explain it to a friend the other time, was I said I was driving on a street in Accra. And I saw a sign in Chinese. And then I knew… they’ve arrived. Right?! When you start seeing signs in Chinese, you know they’ve arrived.

All this investment isn’t just China’s way to get first crack at Africa’s resources. It’s not even limited to Africa. It’s all part of an ambitious global plan… that is also going to increase China’s political leverage around the world. 

It’s called “The Belt Road Initiative.”

Jake Sullivan was Vice President Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor.

SULLIVAN: Very simply, what the Belt Road Initiative is, is an effort to build forms of infrastructure: ports, railroads, roads, airports —  That’s on the physical side — and then on the digital side, basically building the Internet backbone and the 5G backbone across all of Asia, all of Europe, all of Africa and eventually around the world.  All built to tie countries to Chinese influence in a variety of different ways. And then beyond that, they’re trying to structure economic relationships with all of the major economies of the world outside of the United States, where those countries become increasingly dependent on China.

And the multi-billion-dollar question is, once that happens — once China has all that leverage… 

…What are they going to do with it?


For his part, Jake… doesn’t think the goal is to create little Chinas all over the world, the way the Soviet Union tried to export its brand of Communism.   

In fact, he thinks the Belt Road Initiative … is intended to shore up China’s power at home.

SULLIVAN:  It is defensive in nature, In my view.  It is not evangelizing. But it’s so they can neutralize the capacity of any of those countries to put any pressure on China. 

Jake says once nations are financially beholden to China? They’ll be more likely to look the other way when China… say, puts a million people in concentration camps.

But in the process, I think it’s also *inevitable* that other governments will become more like China’s. 

Why? First of all, because of the technology China’s exporting along the belt road. 

The same tech they use to spy on their people at home.

POWER: China’s exerting influence as an “enabler”…

Samantha Power has the same fear. She was America’s Ambassador to the UN under Obama.

POWER: And here I think that there is just a core fact, irrespective of what China’s intentions are — whether it wants to make the world safe for authoritarianism or autocracy or not — the fact that it is introducing into the free market globally, surveillance technologies, machine learning, A.I. tactics, I mean, these are now services and goods that are available with no strings attached, to any government that seeks to do a deal with China. The Chinese government is extremely explicit about not being at all curious about how these tools are being used. And indeed that is going to give those leaders who want to control dissent, who want to wipe out opposition, it is going to give them resources that they have not had at their disposal. 

There are plenty of those kind of leaders. In places like Africa, or Asia, or Latin America, or – as we heard last week – Europe. Leaders happy to turn their nations into Chinese-style surveillance states. 

And maybe even more chilling — China isn’t just winning over governments…it’s also winning the hearts and minds of people. 


POWER: China is an example to voters, to governments of all regime types, that you can actually pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, you can fuel economic growth, at the same time you violate civil and political rights. 

That is a powerful rebuttal to an argument that has undergirded U.S. diplomacy and U.S. rhetoric for a very long time: Which is that democracy and economic prosperity go hand in hand. And that is exerting, a powerful appeal for citizens who may be disillusioned with the returns that democracy has offered them in their lives.

Don’t believe people would willingly choose a promise of stability and economic security over democracy and human rights?  

Well, people around the world are willing to consider it.

SWANIKER: I think what you’re finding increasingly in Africa is that citizens are demanding performance.

Fred Swaniker is another entrepreneur from Ghana, and he works with young people all across Africa – the continent’s future leaders. 

SWANIKER: One can argue with China and say, well, China is not democratic and so on. But again, when you look at the results… and, you know, hundreds of millions of people brought outta poverty in a very short period of time, One must say, OK, how can we learn from the way that has happened? And you know, when you look at many of the countries that we look at today as role models of development, like Singapore and so forth, they didn’t necessarily have democratic governments. But they’re effective governments.

Technology entrepreneur and activist Paul Duan understands that mindset, too. He runs an NGO called “Bayes Impact” that uses tech to solve social problems. He also happens to be the French-born son of Chinese immigrants.

DUAN: We talk a lot about China’s use of A.I. for surveillance, or even we talk about the social credit system in China that is very in many ways, “Black Mirror”-esque. 

RHODES (ON TAPE): It feels dystopian. Yeah. 

DUAN: Right? But, you know, it’s funny, I talk to a lot of people in China, in fact.  Talked to my family, too. And I’ve talked to people who’ve been Western-educated. I’ve talked to peoplewho know about Tiananmen,and some of them will actually defend the social credit system, which is mind boggling, right? Because from our Western armchairs, it’s easy to think that this is impossible. But one thing they will tell you is: “We know it’s a tradeoff in terms of civil liberties. But we also know what we’re getting from it.”


Duan says, they get a sense of actual, physical safety.  ‘Cause when the authorities monitor everyone’s every move… it’s way easier to stop crime.

DUAN: Because of that, we see the immediate advantage of having surveillance systems that help you find whoever stole your bike within hours. Or you also have people who they’ve lived through famine. They lived through hunger. They lived through cases where people died because they didn’t have the right resources, and… they will look at you with a straight face, like, “Well, how can you tell me about human rights when human life is not even viable? And so I’m fully willing to to live in a society where I will relinquish some of my, what you consider to be the most important rights.”

Samantha Power says there’s an important way for democracies to combat that way of thinking.

POWER: We are going to have to make a more powerful argument for our model. And part of that argument is going to have to be that the system, and the respect for human rights, deliver for our citizens.

But at this very moment? Let’s face it. The United States, under Trump, is not making the most convincing argument that democracy is effective.


The coronavirus pandemic exposed all the weaknesses of the American system — all at once:  

A country wealthier than any on the planet… that struggled for months to produce enough testing kits to even tell who’s sick. 

A country with an ineffectual federal government — that left states to fend for themselves. 

A country of massive inequality, where the poorer and browner you are, the more likely you are to die of COVID-19.

A country with more deaths from that disease than anywhere else on Earth.

COVID NEWS REPORT CLIP: The CDC is now projecting, the US could see up to 200K total deaths in a matter of weeks…

COVID NEWS REPORT CLIP: We’re still averaging more than 1000 lives lost every day to this virus.

As for China? It’s authoritarian system made it easy to lock down huge parts of the country, and quickly scale up testing and tracking.  

China has reported fewer deaths than many Western democracies — despite a population that dwarfs all of them. 

And China’s gone out of its way to publicize its cooperation with the WHO, and the donations of masks and ventilators to other countries.   

If you’re watching all this from Africa… 

With Chinese money building your country a high-speed rail system, and the American President literally calling your country a shithole…


Which system might *you* choose?  

 So what happens in a world where citizens want Chinese-syle prosperity, and leaders want Chinese-style control? 

You get a world order that looks more like the Chinese Communist Party. Especially when the American President tells the rest of the world he could care less about them….that he’s all about “America First.” 

Samantha Power says that as Trump has pulled away… China has capitalized.

POWER: China is taking advantage of the vacuum left by the U.S. retreat from leadership at organizations like the U.N. and slowly, they are inserting into various U.N. resolutions, words that look warm and fuzzy as motherhood and apple pie. But all of that language is meant to chip away at the international human rights regime that has been built over the last three quarters of a century. 

Since World War Two, Power says, it’s been understood that whatever a country’s laws may be, everyone has inherent rights that can not be violated — under penalty of *international* law.  But…

POWER:  The language that the Chinese diplomats insert is code for, individuals have whatever rights or privileges the state decides that they have.  I think that is the long game for China: They want to change the standard. They want to change the rules and lower the bar on what constitutes humane, decent and stabilizing behavior in the international system.

And even if China’s doing this mainly so its own government can do whatever it wants at *home?* 

It’ll end up endangering everyone’s rights. Everywhere.


But they say the coronavirus is an equalizer.  And in at least one way… maybe it is. 

Because as much as it exposed the failings of *America’s* model… it also drew back the curtain on *China’s.*

NEWS REPORT CLIP: LIWENLIANG: “One of the first Chinese doctors who tried to warn the world about a new coronavirus, died on Friday from the illness…”

When Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang sounded the alarm about the outbreak online, the government was still trying to keep it a secret.  

So their first move was typical: They sent the cops to his home, forced him to publicly recant, and deleted his posts. 

But when he died of COVID, he became a martyr.  News of his death drew 1 point 5 *billion* views on Chinese social media. The hashtag “We Want Freedom of Speech” also started trending.  

The government deleted *those* posts too. 

But not before governments and citizens around the world saw them, and started to think: ….”maybe China’s model isn’t such a good bet after all? Maybe we *don’t* want to live under the thumb of those guys any more than we want to live at the whim of Trump’s tweets? 

POWER: So many countries are hedging right now and not wanting to alienate China — a country of such potency and leverage — but also fundamentally recognizing that nothing that China has said speaks to the aspirations of young people in their countries. And it is really important right now to bear in mind the opening that exists for the United States around the world. I mean, we have now in the last two years experienced more political protests in more places than at any point in modern recorded history. I mean, people are taking the fates of their countries, of their families, of future generations into their hands.

 People like *these*:


SOUND CLIP:  HONGKONG: (Protestors CHANT) Resist Beijing! Liberate Hong Kong! Resist Beijing! Liberate Hong Kong!

The protestors of Hong Kong.  

It is the one city in the world where people literally have the choice to opt-in to the Chinese model…and they’re rejecting it.

America should see their movement as both a warning and opportunity,…to learn from them…and to be reminded of why certain values are worth standing up for – at home and around the world. 

The history of the Hong Kong protests, and the future of America’s resistance to authoritarianism… when “Missing America” continues. 



—– AD—–




For years, Chinese leaders have justified their authoritarian system by saying it’s just better for China…that there’s something about being Chinese that suggests a preference for centralized control. Yaqui Wang is with Human Rights Watch — she was born in mainland China.

WANG: The Chinese government has been promoting this narrative. You know: Chinese people are suitable for the Chinese model. We don’t get to have democracy. We don’t get to have freedom, but we get to have economic development.

But last year, the people of Hong Kong put the lie to that idea.

WANG: Hong Kong, you know, they are ethnically Chinese. And those people are rising up because they want freedom, they want democracy. 

And that’s why the story of Hong Kong’s protests is so important — even though the Chinese government has cracked down hard….Because the protesters have already undermined the core argument of the Chinese Communist Party: 

That people – especially Chinese people – prefer stability to liberty. 

And the protests offer lessons for how citizens can stand up to even the most repressive regimes. 


The story began back in 1997.

HONG KONG HANDOVER CEREMONY: (Band Leader calls out in Chinese) (Military band plays Chinese national anthem) 

That year, the UK relinquished control of colonial Hong Kong. At the ceremony, Prince Charles watched the British flag come down, and the Chinese flag go up.   

Now the city would be a “special administrative region” of China. The deal was: For fifty years, Hong Kong would be autonomous. With its own laws, and its own democratic government. 

“One country, two systems” was the slogan.

Senya Ng is a human rights lawyer in Hong Kong. She says people were… hopeful.

NG: So that concept: “one country, two systems.” I do think that in that historical time they were quite optimistic about it. People in Hong Kong, I think probably in the rest of the world as well thought that China’s opening up, and they will accept Western liberal values: protection of rights, democratic systems, respect for the people. 

China, in other words, would become more like Hong Kong – and not the other way around.



NG: And I think no one really saw this authoritarian system control coming until it really hit in recent years.


When it did hit, it hit hard. After Xi Jingping became the leader of the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party, his government did not act like Hong Kong was gonna remain autonomous for long.

It pushed for so-called “patriotic education” in Hong Kong schools.

It started turning local media into a CCP propaganda machine. 

And in twenty-fourteen, the CCP insisted that any political candidate running for Hong Kong’s highest office? Had to be approved by China.  

So outraged students rose up. And formed “The Umbrella Movement” — A sort of Hong Kong version of Occupy Wall Street.

VICE ARCHIVAL: So this is no longer just students causing a bit of a hassle. This is people joining them and taking over the whole city — they’re blocking everything off in this whole financial district… 

NG: The Umbrella Movement. It was one of the most important fights for democracy in Hong Kong. So it was the Occupy movement for 78 days… 


NG: …But we achieved nothing from that. And that energy, it just died down. People lost hope after 2014. And in the past few years, after the Umbrella Movement, people just went back to their lives. They didn’t care that much anymore. They felt too helpless.

Apathy set in. Election turnout plunged. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy party started losing elections. And the CCP started to assert itself more in Hong Kong life. 

NG: And all of a sudden… this extradition bill came along.

The extradition bill. It was introduced last year, by Hong Kong politicians friendly to Beijing.  

It would’ve allowed Hong Kong citizens accused of crimes… to be shipped off to stand trial in mainland China. And you can probably guess how fair the courts are in mainland China.


NG: So this created severe fear inside the hearts of the people and especially the younger generation. They were thinking, ‘This is my last fight. I have no future anyway. Hong Kong is going to become just like China. I don’t know whether I will win or lose, but at least right before I die, I have to try and struggle and fight against it.

So on June 9th, 2019… 


...Came public protests the likes of which the city had never seen before.

Austin Ramzy was there. He’s the Hong Kong bureau chief for the New York Times.

RAMZY:  You know I’d covered many, many marches in Hong Kong sort of along that same route. But it was clear, that this was very, very different. There’s just this wide road. four or six lanes. It was just completely filled with people moving very slowly. And I went with them to the government headquarters, which took a while. And then I sort of doubled back , got to the point where I’d started about 3 hours after I had last been there…And it was the same size mass of people filling up all these lanes. that was when it really hit home for me — that this is just a huge number of people that’d turned out. 

 A *million* people. About fifteen percent of Hong Kong’s entire population. Three days later?  Another protest.  With even more people.  


Some of them clashed with the police. Among them was a student that we’ll call John. He asked us not to use his real voice.

JOHN: In the early protests, the police were mainly using teargas? But they fired a lot of teargas.  People are leaving the scene, but the police still try to fire tear gas. And even they tried to fire rubber bullets and other forms of different kinds of bullets. And it’s really… it’s really ridiculous.

Hong Kong is a peaceful city. They’re not used to seeing violence, especially not from their own police. Soon they weren’t just protesting the *bill.* They were protesting the Chinese Communist Party. 

JOHN: The root problem, the root cause of all this mess is not about the extradition bill or whatever. It’s about the mistrust of the government or the CCP. It’s about the tightening grasp of CCP on Hong Kong. It’s about any government in Hong Kong prioritizing the CCP wishes or demands over Hong Kongers’ interests.


And the protests were happening all over the city. All the time.

Small, peaceful protests would appear out of nowhere in the middle of a work day. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets on weekends. Meanwhile students barricaded themselves in universities, where battles raged for days.


JOHN: You constantly hear teargas firings — Bom bom bom bom! — And you constantly hear people screaming: screaming for help, screaming for first aiders, screaming for backups. It… it almost feels like a battle ground.

And, even when they *weren’t* … Austin Ramzy says there was a sense of the resistance everywhere.

RAMZY: The city was covered  with images, with posters, with graffiti. Just, you know, filling subway underpasses with just huge amounts of imagery and messages and slogans and things like that…


RAMZY: There were songs and protest anthems that sprung out of this… 


RAMZY: So, yeah, you can see, even when protests aren’t happening, you can still see signs of it on the streets every day. 


In October 2019, Hong Kong’s leadership formally withdrew the extradition bill. 

In November, pro-Democracy activists won overwhelming victories in local Hong Kong elections. 

But under the cover of the COVID pandemic, this summer, the Chinese Communist Party decided to change the laws anyway…as a new national security law was rammed through, which gives the government broad powers to crack down. 


The hard truth is that not every mass movement succeeds the first time, or even the second….

But there’s still much to learn from what did happen. How did Hong Kongers keep these protests going? What lessons can other movements draw from their experience? 

I talked to Senia Ng last year, as the protests rolled on. She said the key tactic, pretty simply? was flexibility.  

NG: One of the failures of the Umbrella Movement was that during that 79-day movement, we had to stop our lives because we were protecting that occupied area. People had to stop working. They had to give up classes, jobs. And it just couldn’t work. It was not sustainable. So, for example, nowadays the working class? They go to work and for lunchtime, they just have a spontaneous protest right in the middle of Central. And then they go back to their offices and work. And this is a continuous movement for weeks now.

That tactic hints at one of the biggest reasons these protests continued. Everybody was welcome to contribute however they could, even if they didn’t agree about everything.

NG: So what’s successful this time is that we always remind ourselves and  remind each other that, “No, we are in this together, we cannot afford to split.”  The working class, they have families to take care of. They can’t afford to get arrested. So they will take a peaceful role and the younger generation, maybe they feel that, I want to be more radical.’ So they will take what we call the “frontline protesters” role. We are all cooperating. We are not blaming each other. Don’t segregate. Don’t divide. 

The impact of their example has already rippled out beyond Hong Kong..

You see, just as authoritarian governments learn from one another, so do citizens who resist them.

Across Asia, democracy activists are already teaching Hong Kong tactics to local protestors.  And last fall…the people of Taiwan deployed those tactics themselves.

ABC CLIP:  (PROTESTOR CHANTS) REPORTER: Typhoon rains weren’t enough to extinguish the passion felt by the tens of thousands of protestors here…

A few months later? The pro-independence leader Tsai Ing-Wen won Taiwan’s Presidential election. By a landslide.


But in Hong Kong, protestors knew their movement faced long odds. Here’s John, the student protester, speaking before China passed those laws this summer, meant to snuff out the protests: 

JOHN: There are two possible futures for Hong Kong. The first way is the CCP continues to crack down on people’s freedom, on these kinds of rallies and stuff. And actually as normal citizens, we have no power. We don’t have guns. We cannot have a civil war. So the inevitable end is we get controlled by the CCP and they swallow Hong Kong. 

And the second possible future is that maybe these kinds of foreign countries like the US that have shown an ability to negotiate with China and help Hong Kong. If they see interest in Hong Kong and they are able to help Hong Kong, I think Hong Kong can still enjoy freedom of speech, and a similar level of freedom compared to before.

For now, it’s clear the CCP is sticking with the first option: where they swallow up Hong Kong.   So what should the U.S. do about it, and about the challenge of authoritarianism more broadly? 

For pretty much any President, supporting these protests would have been a no-brainer. But as the protests grew, Trump remained silent. 

Last November, just to make it easy on Trump, Congress almost unanimously passed a bill *mandating* sanctions against China if it threatens Hong Kong’s human rights. Would Trump sign it?

FOX & FRIENDS ARCHIVE: TRUMP: Well, I tell you, look, we have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine, he’s an incredible guy, and we have to stand, but I’d like to see them work it out, okay? 

Trump *did* sign the bill. Eventually. And more than six months later….after China passed its National Security Law, Trump imposed some sanctions. But not only was it too little too late…it ignored something that’s more powerful than sanctions: America’s own example.  

MURPHY: The world pays attention to what America does much more so than they pay attention to what we say. And so the visual of an American military force clearing out peaceful protesters with pepper spray is absolutely devastating to our attempts to try to stand up for democracy abroad. 

That’s Senator Chris Murphy, who notes that just when Trump started speaking up more about freedom in Hong Kong, he was undermining freedom in America. 

MURPHY: There was a journalist who surveyed a number of present and former Chinese leaders and all off the record. They confirmed what we knew, that China’s rooting for four more years of Donald Trump. And the reason that China’s moving so fast to push into Hong Kong right now is because they worry the clock is ticking. And they know they can get away with things under President Trump that they likely can’t get away with under a President Biden. 

So what would a real, *effective* U.S. strategy to combat authoritarianism look like?


Step one, according to Samantha Power? Demonstrate the power of democracy, by doing something they can’t do in China: Vote a corrupt leader out of office.

POWER: To tell a story about how President Trump came along and really threatened independent media, the independent judiciary, election integrity itself — and that those institutions bent, over this four year period, but did not break… The ultimate repudiation of this kind of systemic attack on democratic institutions that this corrupt, undemocratic leader of the United States embodied.

It’d be a first, necessary move. But just a first step…we have a lot more work to do to make our democracy work better at home… so we can offer a democratic example abroad. 

Step two? Champion nations that reject corrupt leaders themselves. And hold them up to the world as examples of their own.

POWER: What a post-Trump U.S. foreign policy must do, is it must have the back of those countries that have made the really hard choice to unseat a dictator, as occurred in Armenia, Ethiopia, Sudan. Those are the kinds of modern reformist leaders who should get the early Oval Office meetings with the next president of the United States.

And step three? Get back to doing what America used to do: Invest in people in places like Africa. 


Remember Fred Swaniker, from Ghana? He can tell you what the payoff is.

SWANIKER: You know, I went to the US on a scholarship. And so I left as an ambassador to the US. So much innovation that the U.S. has benefited from is because they’ve actually made it possible for the best brains to come and study there, whether it’s from India, China or even from Africa. And increasingly, more of them are having to look elsewhere. Because it’s harder for them to get visas. And those are all future African leaders that could have been influenced by the US.

And some of those people we welcome to America? Should be from Hong Kong. David Miliband was Britain’s Foreign Secretary. 

MILIBAND: I think we are confined not just to protest, but to actions that can try to protect individual Hong Kongers….If I was a Hong Konger looking just in the week that the details of the new law become clear or clearer and all the dangers that are there for Hong Kongers, who are thinking about protest or about saying anything, I think there is an important way in which the opportunity to seek a new life in a new country — it’s right for that to be available. 

Britain’s doors will be open to millions of Hong Kongers. So should America’s. 

In other words: To combat the rise of China’s political model, we don’t need more nuclear weapons. We don’t need a trade war. We need to take down Trump’s barriers between us and the world. Reach out to people with programs that prove that America is on their side as they work for a better life. Strengthen the rules that govern how nations act. And unabashedly stand up for democratic values on the world stage.

If we do, Jake Sullivan says, it’s not just people around the world who will take note…China’s government will too.


SULLIVAN: China’s also a practical country, where if they feel resistance and pushback and shaping around the rules and institutions and norms of the world, they’ll adapt. And so I think the United States needs to take a mindset that this is not Cold War 2.0, but rather that we need to be deeply focused on building our own capacities, rallying the democracies of the world, developing a clear sense of what we’re trying to lay down as the rules of the road in all of these key areas. And then talking to China about terms of coexistence, where we can each learn to live with one another as major powers and also solve the big problems that can’t be solved without us working together, climate change being at the top of that list. I think that’s all possible. It’s not easy… 

…but it’s possible.

Next week on Missing America, a virus that could keep us from executing this plan…and that cries out for a new rulebook.   

Disinformation. You may have heard about Russia’s involvement, but how about Myanmar’s?

PETERSEN: The internet had barely started taking off in Myanmar. And still there was sort of this really powerful effect of social media just amplifying something that anybody could have posted.

The damage disinformation can do… and how America’s uniquely positioned to fight it.  That’s next week.



Missing America is written and hosted by me, Ben Rhodes.

It’s a production of Crooked Media.


The show is produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein.

Rico Gagliano is our story editor.

Austin Fisher is our associate producer.

Sound design and mixing by Daniel Ramirez.

Production support and research from Nimi Uberoi and Sydney Rapp.

Fact checking by Justin Klozco 

Original music by Marty Fowler. 

The executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Lyra Smith, and Tanya Somanader.

Special thanks to Emmanuel Dzotsi, Alison Falzetta, Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett and Jon Favreau.

Thanks for listening.