In June 1997 the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was on the congressional chopping block, its funding zeroed out by the Senate Appropriations Committee. Created to promote democracy around the globe, the endowment seemed about to fall victim to an argument that was potent from the early 1990s through September 10, 2001: that, with the cold war over, democracy faced no serious threat.
But exiled Chinese dissident Wu Xuecan begged to differ. Testifying before a hearing on Chinese human rights abuses held by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Wu, a former editor of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, recounted being imprisoned in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. (Wu had published an essay in support of the demonstrators by a member of the Communist regime.) After he was released in 1993 and fled to the United States, Wu kept up the fight for democracy in his homeland. He joined a dissident think tank in Washington called the China Strategic Institute (CSI), where he edited China Watch, a Chinese-language, pro- democracy bimonthly newsletter aimed at intellectuals and Communist Party members and mailed into China in bulk. The institute had been receiving around $150,000 per year from the NED since the mid-’90s, and the NED’s supporters pointed to it as a prime example of how the endowment brought the message of freedom to people in even the most closed societies. Less than one month after Wu testified, the full Senate voted 72-27 to restore to the NED the money the Appropriations Committee had eliminated.
Not long after he testified, however, Wu saw his own group’s funding eliminated. The NED gave CSI a mere $10,000 in 1998 and nothing at all after that. In late 2000 the institute folded. The 50-year-old Wu, once an editor at the largest newspaper in China, now does janitorial work at a Catholic school in Alexandria, Virginia.
What happened in the intervening years? For one thing, in October 1997 Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited the United States, and President Clinton spoke of a “constructive strategic partnership” between the two countries. Coming from a man who in 1992 attacked George H.W. Bush for kowtowing to the “butchers of Beijing” and who early in his administration tried to link trade with China to human rights, this represented a major shift in U.S. policy. Not even Richard Nixon had referred to China as a “partner.” And though the NED is technically independent, Chinese dissidents and congressional critics speculate that it has been unwilling to contradict such a key pillar of American policy. There is considerable evidence, in fact, that the endowment, whose independence is supposed to allow it to promote democracy more aggressively than official U. S. policy will allow, has in recent years become little more than another way for the United States to engage the dictatorship in Beijing. In so doing, the NED has abandoned dissidents like Wu and the very mandate that justifies its existence.
ESTABLISHED BY CONGRESS in 1983 at the Reagan administration’s behest, the NED was set up as a private nonprofit with an independent board of directors and president. The goal was to fund resistance movements in Communist dictatorships in ways the U.S. government itself could not. The NED (which can seek private contributions, but according to its 2000 annual report still gets more than 99 percent of its funding from Congress) supported Solidarity in Poland and Violeta Chamorro’s opposition newspaper, La Prensa, in Nicaragua. While the Reagan administration weakened communism through military buildups and targeted economic sanctions, the NED ensured that pro-democracy groups remained financially stable even as their countries’ economies collapsed. Not confining itself to anti-Communist movements, the NED also funded opposition to military dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile in the late 1980s.
But when the cold war ended, lawmakers on both the left and the right suggested that the NED had outlived its usefulness. And throughout the ‘90s budget hawks tried to abolish it. In 1993 Representative Paul Kanjorski, a Pennsylvania Democrat, asked in a “Dear Colleague” letter: “Now that the Berlin Wall has fallen and democracy has taken hold throughout the globe, is NED still necessary?” His measure to cut off the NED’s funding passed the House of Representatives before being quashed in the Senate. The next year Representative Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican, revived the issue. “The Cold War is over,” he wrote in a letter to his colleagues. “Our deficit lives on.”
But the NED beat back these efforts—in part because of its record in China. “The NED has been able to support strong and influential work by Chinese activists, even while they operate under severe constraints,” Louisa Coan Greve, the NED’s senior program officer for Asia, told the House International Relations Committee in 1999. In fact, the legislation granting China permanent normal trade relations in 2000 explicitly included a promise of additional funds for the NED to help Chinese dissidents. Two staunch critics of the Chinese regime, Virginia Republican Frank Wolf and California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, sit on the House Appropriations subcommittees responsible for the endowment’s funding. And they have repeatedly pointed to its work on China as evidence of its enduring relevance.
Ironically, however, even as members of Congress like Wolf and Pelosi have celebrated the NED’s work, in recent years the endowment’s commitment to the most aggressive anti-Beijing activists has begun to evaporate. In her 1999 testimony before Congress, for instance, Greve mentioned Chinese VIP Reference, which she called one of “the best-known independent news-service operations” in China. Run by a Tiananmen Square demonstrator who fled to the United States and changed his name to Richard Long, VIP Reference has funneled criticism of the Chinese government into China despite Beijing’s best efforts. Long “spams” news reports into China in such a way that recipients can claim ignorance of their origin. A few people caught reading and distributing Long’s e-mails have been arrested, but hundreds of thousands more have received them undetected.
In front of Congress, Greve held up VIP Reference as the kind of valuable work the NED funds in China. And in its 1998 annual report, the NED claims it gave the group $40,000. But in fact, Greve acknowledges that VIP Reference never received a dime. Greve says the NED closed VIP Reference’s grant because Long didn’t come up with the necessary documentation in time. “We extended the grant,” she said. “We gave him fifteen months, and he never came through with any of the paperwork, and so we had to close the grant.” Greve claims that the NED tried to help Long with the paperwork and warned him that the grant was about to expire. “Through in-person meetings, written letters, faxes, and e- mails, [the NED] tried to help him to fill out the paperwork that’s necessary.”
But Long says he received no warning that the grant was about to expire and believes the NED deliberately created bureaucratic hurdles to keep him from getting funded. “My understanding was that she was trying to make the situation hard for us, so that we couldn’t use the money,” he says. Perhaps more importantly, Long says the NED pushed him to use much of the grant not to reach China through the Internet, but to hold conferences and print monographs for American audiences. (Greve strongly denies this.) Long also says he applied again, in 2000 and 2001, and had his grant requests rejected (Greve maintains he has never applied again).
Wei Jingsheng’s experience is similar. The father of the Chinese Democracy movement, he was imprisoned for nearly 20 years after he posted his 1978 essay “The Fifth Modernization: Democracy” on a wall in Beijing. In 1998, after China released Wei on “medical parole” and he came to the United States, the NED held a banquet in his honor. There it presented him its annual Democracy Award, which came with a check for $16,000. But since then, the NED has rejected every grant application Wei has presented. “More than three years have passed, and I never received a penny from NED,” Wei says. The rejected proposals, some of which Wei is now funding himself from lecture fees, include educating workers in independent Chinese unions, providing humanitarian assistance to the families of political prisoners, and strengthening publications not supported by the Chinese government. Like Long and Wu, Wei thinks the reason is that the NED fears offending the Chinese government. Greve declined comment on why Wei’s requests have been rejected and did not get into specifics about the proposal from Wu’s group. “It’s just very difficult for us to comment on why specific proposals may not get funding,” she said.
Other dissidents in exile who participate in a coalition called the Free China Movement also say they were strung along when they applied for grants and, after requests for revisions in their proposals, were ultimately turned down. Shengde Lian, a student leader of the Tiananmen protests who fled to the United States three years after Chinese authorities released him from jail in 1991, wanted to help the underground China Democratic Party organize Chinese laborers into a nonviolent movement reminiscent of Solidarity in Poland. But while the NED assisted Solidarity, Lian says that in China the endowment hasn’t supported effective nonviolent methods to topple a repressive Communist regime. (Greve again declined comment.)
IT’S TRUE, OF COURSE, that with $2.4 million allocated for programs in China in fiscal year 2001, the NED cannot fund all deserving groups. But there is reason to believe that Wei, Long, and Wu failed to receive grants for reasons other than a mere shortage of resources. A glance at the NED’s annual reports from 1998 onward reveals that the endowment favors markedly different programs in China from those it supports in other repressive countries. While money for projects in Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia went almost exclusively to democratic anti-government activists, the NED’s most recent annual report, covering fiscal year 2000, shows that more than 60 percent of the NED’s China funding goes, in the NED’s words, “to implement programs in China in line with official Chinese reform policies.”
In fact, the NED’s biggest project in China is observance of the Beijing government’s so-called village-level elections. In 2000 the NED gave the International Republican Institute more than $1 million to monitor and offer technical advice on elections for Chinese village committees. Greve defends the funding as “helping to institutionalize familiarity with and experience with certain procedures which taken together will be important for people to continue to use when there is a further opening of the system.” But as tnr’s Lawrence F. Kaplan has pointed out (See “Trade Barrier,” July 9, 2001), the elections hardly institutionalize a familiarity with democracy, since the Chinese Communist Party carefully screens candidates and generally uses the elections to tighten its control over the countryside.
In fact, assisting in government-sponsored “reforms” like the village elections is exactly what the NED is not supposed to be doing. On the endowment’s website, David Lowe, the NED’s director of government and external relations, defines the organization’s mandate this way: “As a nongovernmental organization, it could provide political assistance to democratic forces in repressive or other sensitive political situations where U.S. government support ... would be diplomatically or politically unfeasible.” But the NED’s biggest project in China could easily be carried out by the State Department. “[U.S.] Embassy officials could observe these village-level elections,” said a Senate Republican staffer well versed in China policy and in the NED’s organizational structure. “If State chose to do so, they could do it through international organizations. That is not cutting edge. NED for whatever reasons has chosen not to engage itself in more aggressive democracy-promotion programs in China.”
Why has the NED gone soft on China? Wu believes CSI lost its funding because it was too critical of the government in Beijing, and contradicted the State Department and Clinton administration’s pro-engagement line. “Maybe they were not very satisfied with our die-hard anti-Communist attitude,” Wu said through a translator in an interview last summer. “The NED likes people with a soft attitude to the Chinese regime.” Lian agrees. “I believe NED under its current real policy and practice does not support the real democratic forces,” he says. “They just want to maintain the status quo.” Greve admits that “[a] lot of people don’t do dissident programs because they would get kicked out of China.” She insists, however, that this fear hasn’t stopped the NED from funding critics of the regime, including two veteran exile groups, Harry Wu’s Laogai Research Foundation and Human Rights in China. But both these groups, while doing valuable work, do not pose as great a threat to the Chinese regime as many of the newer dissident organizations. Human Rights in China offers legal assistance to human rights victims and documents human rights abuses, but it steers clear of advocating democracy. And in a move that infuriated other dissident groups, it remained neutral on whether Beijing should host the 2008 Olympics. Harry Wu, a prisoner in a laogai—a Chinese gulag—during the Cultural Revolution, educates the West about the ongoing horrors of the laogai system. But most of his work does not penetrate into China. And there is reason to believe that in the coming years even these few remaining dissident programs might see their funding disappear. In early 2001 Anne Thurston, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies who was commissioned by the NED to review its China programs, advised the endowment in an internal memorandum to “begin planning a phaseout of some exile-based programs.” Such projects, she warned, “have implications for American policy toward China.” Thurston warned against destabilizing China, citing a statement from Kenneth Lieberthal, President Clinton’s China adviser on the National Security Council: “There is, in sum, as great a `threat’ to U.S. interests from a weak and unstable China as there is from a strong and antagonistic China.” Instead, Thurston urged the NED to continue its work with the Chinese government on projects like the village- level elections. The endowment, she argued in her review of China programs in late 1999, should work with “reformers” in the Chinese government who are “promoting slow, incremental, cumulative change” and are “more concerned with day-to-day practical issues ... than with the distant abstractions of democracy and human rights.” Programs like the NED’s village-elections project “have a multiplier effect,” she wrote, “as those trained with NED-funded programs fan out to train others, thus reaching more deeply into Chinese society.”
Yet Thurston’s “multiplier effect” didn’t work all that well in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11. While twelve years ago Chinese students built a replica of the Statue of Liberty, now many are cheering on America’s attackers. According to The Washington Post, “anti-American screeds have won hands down” on Internet bulletin boards at Beijing University. “I’m happy because I hate America,” one student wrote. “We’ve been bullied by America for too long!” stated another message. “Finally, someone helped us to vent a little.” And according to London’s Sunday Telegraph, “The Chinese state-run propaganda machine is cashing in on the terror attacks in New York and Washington, producing books, films and video games glorifying the strikes as a humbling blow against an arrogant nation.”
Meanwhile, dissident groups are withering on the vine. Many funders are willing to finance projects in collaboration with the Chinese government—the Ford Foundation, AT&T, and Chase Manhattan all support village-election projects—but few are willing to irk Beijing by supporting prodemocracy exiles. Massaging a bandage on his left hand, which he sprained moving furniture at his janitorial job, Wu Xuecan reflected last year: “I believe that a human being should have a backbone, should be steadfast in his beliefs. ... I would rather do labor [than] change my political attitude on China for grants from the NED.” Unfortunately, given the NED’s own political attitude on China, Wu is likely to be moving furniture for a long time.
This article originally ran in the March 25, 2002 issue of the magazine.