Born in China, raised in Brooklyn, Bette Bao Lord has explored the political currents of Chinese communism and American democracy in her fiction and non-fiction.
Author of the bestselling novel Spring Moon and other books, she looks at the U.S. through the eyes of an immigrant who arrived with her parents when she was eight years old, leaving her younger sister to grow up in a Communist society.
In her testimony to the Committee on Foreign Affairs on March 10, 1993, Lord argues that freedom is not a Westernized value — it’s a universal one. She describes the qualities that make America, a country of immigrants, a beacon for people around the world, and the need for America to “stay engaged” and promote democracy and human rights.
She sees Americans as a nation of self-reliant, frontier-seeking individualists — who settled the West and lived hundreds of miles from their loved ones. The Chinese, by contrast, prefer to sit for hours with family at thee kitchen table, drink tea, and tell stories.
“America Must Invest in Freedom”
by Bette Bao Lord
March 10, 1993 — Committee on Foreign Affairs, US House of Representatives, Washington DC
As an immigrant, I have a singular honor to testify before this committee. As the chairman of Freedom House, I have the opportunity to speak on behalf of a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded fifty years ago by Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Wilkie, on the subject that is our reason for being, promoting democracy and human rights.
While my written statement addresses your important questions in a more orthodox way, permit me to speak personally. I do so to provide a different perspective, one that native-born Americans cannot offer naturally. Taught to question every premise, they do not flinch from dissecting America’s failings. It is a most admirable trait. But such clinical probes overlook the intangibles through which people living in distant lands discern America. I know. I am able to disappear among them and eavesdrop.
To the masses denied dignity by their rulers, America is not just another country with material goods that they covet. It is the embodiment of intangibles — liberty, conscience, hope. The sun we enjoy blithely, they behold as a beacon from afar.
I recall how curious my Chinese friends were watching our presidential debates, but what they viewed as an earth-shaking phenomenon totally escaped even me. They were awestruck by the fact that a lowly TV journalist — apologies to Dan, Tom, and Peter — could politely, but in no uncertain terms, tell the paramount leader of the most powerful nation in the world that his time was up.
How confounding, just when technology and humanity’s newest trials mock walls, borders, and oceans, some extol the efficacy of withdrawing to our shores or, worse, ethically correct enclaves. Just when human rights, however mislabeled or mangled, must be given lip service by even the most repressive regimes, some Americans balk at invoking them at all. Just when there is but one superpower left, some question America’s need to stay engaged.
How ironic, just when totalitarian states have imploded and democracy holds sway among more peoples than ever before, Americans are losing faith in the wisdom of promoting freedom and human rights abroad.
Some wonder if certain peoples will always be incapable or averse to ruling themselves. They fail to acknowledge that no man or woman has ever aspired to be a pawn. On the contrary, regardless of culture and history, everyone yearns to be the master of his or her own fate.
Some consider it culturally chauvinistic to project our own values elsewhere. They fail to understand that freedom is not a matter of “Westernization,” it is the core of modernization. They also fail to recognize that human rights are not made in America, that they are universal, that every nation belonging to the United Nations has pledged to honor them, that international organizations from the CSCE to the OAS invoke them in their work.
Some fret that promoting democracy and human rights is a luxury we can ill afford. They fail to understand that this pursuit not only serves our values but interests. Spreading democracy not only warms American hearts but cools foreign threats. What hundreds of billions worth of arms failed to do, rallies of converts did. Gone, the Berlin Wall, gone, the Warsaw Pact. Democracies do not war against one another, democracies make better partners. Democracies do not ignore the environment, shelter terrorists, or spawn refugees. Democracies honor human rights.
Now, for the third time in this century, destiny calls. America must step forth. We must earn the right to enjoy our myriad blessings. I speak about only two. First, the vitality of Americans. Where does it come from? From everywhere. Apologies to Michael Jackson; We are the world. Second, the stature of America. Believe me, despite all the venom the most arrogant dictators may spew they care profoundly where Uncle Sam points a finger, shakes hands, or pats them on the back. They hate losing face, but they crave respectability.
Thus, vitality and stature endow America with extraordinary gifts for making a difference in the world. Like liberty, conscience, hope, they are intangibles. To be true to our legacy, to enrich our future, America must invest in freedom.
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