When it came to the Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan said America should “trust, but verify.” Now, as the Chinese Communist Party has broken promise after promise, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calls for a policy of “distrust and verify.”
In this episode, we sit down with Sec. Pompeo to discuss why it is important to distinguish between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese nation, why religious freedom is at the core of U.S. foreign policy, and what it will take to protect the American republic from the Chinese communist regime.
This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Secretary Mike Pompeo, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Sec. Mike Pompeo: It’s great to be with you. Thanks for the invitation to be here and have this great conversation today.
Mr. Jekielek: When you were out speaking at the Nixon Library in this speech that kind of capped off this series of four about the approach to China, you mentioned that Chinese dissidents had been warning for decades about the nature of the Chinese Communist Party, but were largely ignored. You’ve changed this to some extent. You’ve welcomed a range of dissidents to basically speak with you and then learn about these things. And on International Human Rights Day, you actually sanctioned a Chinese official for gross human rights violations against Falun Gong practitioners, which marks the first in the 21 years of persecution of this group in China. We wrote an editorial about it; we’ve been covering this issue extensively. So why do you think it took so long?
Sec. Pompeo: Goodness, that’s a complicated question. You go back all the way to Tiananmen Square. We’ve known the nature of this regime, and frankly, freedom-loving people across the world have known the nature of authoritarian regimes throughout history. And yet we ignored it.
We ignored it in part because we had a foreign policy establishment that believed deeply that if we traded enough stuff with them, if we engage with them, that some of the Chinese Communist Party would engage, at least externally in the world on a fair and reciprocal basis. And that was patently false all the way through, and yet the resistance from lots of quarters was enormous for a host of reasons, some of them economic, some of them just truly are people who thought they could get to a better place. It’s clearly not true.
President Trump recognized that when he began his campaign and then when he took office. We’ve now changed fundamentally how I think the West looks at China, not just the United States. Even when you look at Europe and Australia and Southeast Asia, they know, too. They know that the Chinese Communist Party is up to no good. And so while these dissidents were ringing the bell and telling us of these problems, we looked past them. We had other challenges.
We were involved in a very serious counterterrorism campaign—appropriately so—and we took our eye off this enormous threat, and it’s now upon us. It’s now inside the gates. The Chinese Communist Party is here in America, and the Trump administration has begun in every dimension to turn the ship in the right direction to get America to once again do the right thing and protect itself from this communist threat in China.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve focused more than any Secretary of State that I can remember on religious freedom. Of course, this dimension fits into the Chinese question dramatically. Again, why is that? Why is that important?
Sec. Pompeo: It’s at the center of every civilization, this idea that human beings have inherent dignity because of their humaneness. And if you get that piece wrong, bad things flow from that, lots of diplomatic things, some military, lots of bad things flow from that. So we, under President Trump’s leadership, have focused on religious freedom not just in China, but elsewhere.
But particularly with the Chinese Communist Party, we’ve seen what they’re doing to the Uyghurs in the western part of the country. We’ve seen what they’ve done to Tibetans. We now see them doing the same thing to other ethnic minorities, including the people in Mongolia and the north part of China. And then Christians throughout the entire country, right, the sinicization of the Bible, these things that are fundamental affronts to human dignity and something that is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes, and General Secretary Xi Jinping is no different.
He knows that he has to extend ever-increasing power and control in order to maintain his capacity to rule. And that shuts out the important space that religious freedom should have for every human being in the world. And we’ve done our best to try and shine a light on that, whether it was speaking to the leadership in the Vatican or speaking to religious leaders in other parts of the world and to, for me personally, get a chance to meet with some of these people who have been persecuted or had their families persecuted, has been a wonderful personal experience as well to see these noble, amazing people who simply want the capacity to exercise their own conscience rights.
I’m proud of the work that the State Department’s done. I’m proud of what President Trump and our administration has done. And I am confident that the world will keep up this drumbeat, demanding simply that the Chinese Communist Party permit people to exercise their God-given rights to practice and not practice their faith in the way that they so choose.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve gone to great pains, it seems to me anyway, to separate the concept of the Chinese nation and the Chinese Communist Party in people’s minds, and presumably here at the State Department. Why is that so important to you?
Sec. Pompeo: Well, there’s a lot of history. The dynasties in China, the history of this place is long and storied. And the people who occupy this place are good people. Sadly, they live under the jackboot of an authoritarian regime that denies them the capacity to grow their families. For the longest time, they were denied the capacity even to have children in the way that they wanted to. There was selective abortion taking place.
Some of the greatest tragedies of civilization of the last 50 years have taken place inside of China. But it’s not the people driving that. It’s these leaders who are stealing money, driving state-owned enterprises to do things that are disconnected from the way the world ought to operate and denying—while lifting some folks out of poverty, to be sure—denying the basic political freedoms that every human being is entitled to.
And so I admire the Chinese people. I am confident that the Chinese people want a different path forward. They want their freedoms. And it is the Chinese Communist Party denying them. It is important to keep them separate. There are great Chinese people who live all across the world, including here in the United States of America. We want to honor them, and we admire them. And we hope that they, too, will join the call to change the nature of how this regime behaves in its international activities.
Mr. Jekielek: So you’ve said that, at this point, we can never really go back to the status quo with respect to China, which is essentially what was the status quo for four or five years ago. The question is, I think you’re the 70th Secretary of State, there’s a larger turnover than presidents.
Sec. Pompeo: Yes, I joke about that all the time, yes.
Mr. Jekielek: So, what can ensure that this type of approach to the Chinese Communist Party is maintained whenever it is that the next rotation happens?
Sec. Pompeo: I think people all across the world aren’t going to let this happen. I certainly think Americans are now more attuned to this threat. For a long time, America’s leaders denied that this was taking place. I think people couldn’t see it or feel it or their leaders were telling them, “No, it’s okay if they steal millions of jobs from people in Kansas or Iowa who invented something or they steal some technology invented in the Silicon Valley or in the Boston corridor.” American leaders said, “That’s okay. We’re going to go make a pretty penny, don’t worry.”
Those days are gone. And I think people saw, too, with this Wuhan virus. I think they saw the nature of the regime up close all across the world. And I’ve seen in polling data, but more importantly, as I’ve traveled the world and spoken with people, I think they understand the nature of this regime in ways that they didn’t three, four, or five years ago. I think we are in part responsible for that.
But no one’s going back. No human being who can see, whether they’re in Indonesia or Vietnam or in Singapore, no one’s going to ever acknowledge again that the Chinese Communist Party isn’t up to no good. They see it. They see it plainly, and so I’m confident that this pressure that is now on the Chinese Communist Party is real. And not just because leaders are demanding it. Because people all across the world can see it. The true face of the Chinese Communist Party has been exposed.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m inclined to believe that. I’ve certainly seen a lot of shifts in thinking, but then I’m scratching my head here at this agreement on an EU-China treaty that, of course, I’m sure you’re extremely aware of. I think you’ve even said that people in Brussels told you, “We’re not going to go back to the status quo.” This treaty, if it actually goes through, seems to me like the opposite, like, exceeding the status quo in the other direction.
Sec. Pompeo: Remember, trading with China is okay. If they’re selling us widgets and we’re purchasing widgets, and it’s fair and equitable and on a reciprocal basis, if an American company or European company can invest in China with the same rules that they can invest here, and it doesn’t impact American national security, that’s fine.
What we can’t do is what we—we the world, can’t do—is what we’ve done for 50 years, which is every time the Chinese demand an exception, whether that’s an exception to national security policy, or a set of trade rules at the WTO, or [when they say,] “You know, the World Health Organization is interesting, but frankly, we’re just simply not going to do what they asked us to do. We’ll co-opt them and politicize them.” Those are the things we have to stop.
We cannot permit, we can’t continue to bend a knee to the Chinese Communist Party in the way that we have for 50 years. They will take advantage of that. They will do what General Secretary Xi Jinping says he wants to do. So they will create a hegemonic capacity to have vassal states all across the world. That’s not tolerable.
The ideas of freedom and liberty that we hold dear, that our Founders held dear here in the United States, ought to be the rules, basis for how the world interacts for the next 50 years. And if we don’t stand up, if the West doesn’t stand up—and the West is an idea, not a location—if the West doesn’t stand up for the things that we know to be important, then in fact, the Chinese Communist Party will prevail, and our kids and our grandkids will live in a very different world. None of us want that.
Mr. Jekielek: Here’s a challenging question, at least to me, it’s challenging. We’re still giving here in America tens of thousands of visas to Chinese students. We already know that some of them are definitely expected by the Chinese Communist Party to basically work for them at different levels of intensity. How do we deal with that? We’re still doing this, right?
Sec. Pompeo: So that’s right. There are some 300,000-plus Chinese students on an average year that will be studying here in the United States. To the extent those students want to come here and learn and be exposed to the West, that’s fine. That’s frankly a good thing. They’ll go back to their home country and they’ll see freedom and liberty and the capacity to raise your family in the way that you want to, they’ll get a taste of that. That’s good.
What, sadly, we have experienced is the Chinese Communist Party and the MSS [Ministry of State Security] and PLA [People’s Liberation Army], the security apparatuses inside of China, have co-opted too many of these. We kicked a couple thousand of them out that we could readily identify. That hasn’t happened before. We’ve now done a lot more work in the schools to make them aware of the risks associated with grants and research projects that the Chinese Communist Party had infiltrated or at least had access to.
So we’ve put our research institutions in a better place. We’ve shut down a whole bunch of Confucius Institutes just by calling them out for what they are. And I’ve traveled the United States, sometimes been critiqued for this, but traveled the United States to tell the story. I spoke at Georgia Tech, I spoke in Wisconsin about the Chinese Communist Party inside our gates, inside our government, inside our institutions of higher learning, inside our research institutions.
If we get that right, if we control and ensure that our security elements are protected in a way that is appropriate, then having Chinese students study here is perfectly fine. But the whole world needs to do that. It’s not just U.S. institutions. They’re studying in institutions in Australia and in Europe and places around the world. This isn’t just a U.S. challenge. The whole world must take this on.
Mr. Jekielek: Of course, there have been very significant shifts exactly as you describe. At the same time, we’re seeing Wall Street or investment, as far as I can tell, full steam ahead into China as much as they can.
Sec. Pompeo: I think that has shifted a bit too, partly as a result of President Trump and the policies that he’s adopted. But I think many of them, too, saw the true face of the Chinese Communist Party during the coronavirus. They saw their institutions corrupted. They’ve now seen state-owned enterprises compete in ways even just the last couple years I think they hadn’t fully recognized. So you have begun to see supply chains shift to other places.
I think there’s a deeper recognition amongst the business community today of the political risks of operating inside of China in ways that weren’t there two or three years ago. It’s true, there’s still significant investment taking place there. I’m reminded that President Trump has said, “Great. If we do this in a fair and reciprocal way, it’s what the trade deals were designed to do. If we do this in a fair and reciprocal way, that’s fine. We have to protect our security issues.”
But I think what the investment and business communities have taken on board— the challenges from the Chinese Communist Party, and while change is often slow, and sometimes one step forward and a couple steps sideways—I think they, too, have acknowledged this and will begin to move in a direction that performs the central function, which is protecting Americans and our security here at home. That’s a military component and a deep economic component. We want to make sure that people have good high paying jobs here in the United States and that the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t steal them from us by doing things that are just completely unacceptable.
Mr. Jekielek: So you’ve identified this approach of “distrust and verify,” I suppose modeled on or based on Reagan’s approach. Some people think this is too antagonistic a language to speak to another nation, especially a large one like China.
Sec. Pompeo: Every experience I’ve had in my six years as a member of Congress and now four years serving in the Trump administration would suggest that anything but distrusting anything that comes from the Chinese Communist Party is folly. They’ve broken promise after promise after promise, not just promises to the United States, promises to the world, promises to the people of Hong Kong, promises to their own people in mainland China, a promise to President Obama that says they wouldn’t militarize the South China Sea.
Time after time after time, the Chinese Communist Party promises that if they have a virus problem, that they’ll disclose it. The list is endless. They still, to this day, haven’t allowed the World Health Organization to begin its investigation of where this virus emanated from. And yet they promised they would. No, I don’t think describing “distrust but verify” as the core model by which the United States should interact with the Chinese Communist Party in any way misses the mark in ways that you suggest that others have said.
Mr. Jekielek: You mention China’s activities around the virus, so to speak. This is an interesting question. There’s all this talk about foreign interference in the election and so forth. We know there’s a delayed report now that’s being put together about this. From what I understand, we know the Chinese Communist Party is involved. At the very least, the way they dealt with the virus obviously had a profound impact on the election. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. Any thoughts about this?
Sec. Pompeo: I can’t say much. I’ll let the intelligence community complete their work and issue their report as appropriate, but the American people should know—I spoke about this in Wisconsin—the Chinese Communist Party is all around us. They are working in our schools. They are working in our clubs and organizations. They’ve put a face that’s called a civic organization, when in fact, it’s an element of the Chinese Communist Party information gathering efforts.
This is the kind of threat that is different, different in kind than one we have seen in an awfully long time, and the responses [that] will be required will have to be different as well. And that certainly holds true for elections. The Chinese Communist Party clearly lobbies hard, works hard. They have consulates across America where their diplomats are engaged in behavior that’s inconsistent with what we’re supposed to do as diplomats.
We shut down one of them because it was very clear that they were out running a spy operation out of the consulate in Houston. But the American people just need to be on guard, in the sense of we need to be aware that the Chinese Communist Party is not acting in a way that is in America’s interest. And the leadership of the United States has to be very clear with the American people about that.
Mr. Jekielek: We’re going to have to finish up in a little bit. But one thing I did want to ask you about is something I think a lot of people might not be aware of. It’s this “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” if I have the name correctly, that you’ve commissioned. And just very briefly, why is this so important to you, and what’s its purpose?
Sec. Pompeo: We kind of began here; this set of rights that our Founders recognized—didn’t create—they recognized that [what] God had provided to each of us is central to the American story, and the exceptional nation that we are relies on our fundamental understanding of America in the same way that our Founders did, this Judeo-Christian tradition of rights, natural rights, that to each of us are granted by God.
I watched around the world, I watched the human rights efforts that had begun in the 20th century and now into this one, and I saw it coming unglued, at least here in America, from our founding principles. And I wanted to go back and ask some experts on human rights to take a look at this, so I had impanelled a commission led by a woman named Mary Ann Glendon.
We had people from many different faiths and many different political backgrounds go back to the Founding, and say, “Tell me how our foreign policy could effectively be grounded in the American tradition.” And I asked them to do that. It was fascinating to see because they also took a look at other traditions around the world, human rights traditions, and we’ve now launched a global effort to talk about these things that matter, these intrinsic rights that matter to each of us so much. I hope your viewership will all go take a look—it’s a short report, it’s some 50 pages long—they’ll go take a look at it.
It goes back, it reminds us of the greatness of America and how smart and capable our Founders were and why that is so central to the successes that our nation has had. These rights matter. If all rights, if everything becomes a right, our foreign policy can be delivered in a way that is principled. And I wanted to get us back to that tradition.
Mr. Jekielek: Secretary Mike Pompeo, such a pleasure to have you on.
Sec. Pompeo: Thank you. Very nice to see you, too. Thank you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.