Political Editors / June 15, 2021

In Brief: Reagan’s ‘Tear Down This Wall’ Model for China

H.R. McMaster says the power of Reagan’s 1987 Berlin Wall speech endures.

Retired U.S. Army LtGen. and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster took part in an “essay series on presidential principles and beliefs” for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute. In his entry, McMaster argues, “The president’s message of Western resolve in the face of Soviet communism is applicable to today’s threat from China.” Specifically the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

While analogies between the 21st-century competition with the CCP and the 20th-century competition with the Soviet Union are imperfect, America’s experience during the Cold War demonstrated that prevailing in competitions abroad requires confidence in democratic principles and institutions at home.

President Ronald Reagan’s speech in June 1987, delivered in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, is immortalized because of the exhortation, “Mr. Gobachev, tear down this wall.” Those words and that speech are often credited with accelerating the collapse of the Soviet Union and the West’s triumph over communist totalitarianism because they invoked confidence that freedom would triumph over tyranny. The Berlin Wall is an apt, albeit inexact, analogy for the Great Firewall of China, the combination of laws and technologies designed to isolate the realm of the Chinese Communist Party from outside influences. One was meant to keep people in, and the other is designed to stifle freedom and prevent unsupervised personal interactions that might spark opposition to authoritarian regimes. To understand how to compete effectively with today’s most powerful authoritarian regime, leaders across the free world might reflect on how Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate clarified the nature of the competition with the Soviet Union, drew a strong contrast between democracy and autocracy, provided a positive vision for the future, and spoke directly to the people on the other side of the wall.

Some 1.4 billion Chinese people live under a repressive tyranny, and they deserve our support.

The Berlin speech is remembered because it exposed, with a direct challenge, the nature of the free world’s competition with the Soviet Union: “There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Today, leaders across the free world have an opportunity to clarify, with a similar exhortation to Chairman Xi Jinping, what is at stake in the competition with the CCP: Tear down the Great Firewall and the many walls behind which the CCP interns its political prisoners, forced laborers, and oppressed minorities.

Reagan used the physical wall to illuminate the stark contrast between two systems, leaving little room for moral equivalence. He described the wall and the border complex that comprised the Iron Curtain as an “instrument to impose upon ordinary men and women the will of a totalitarian state” and observed that the “news photo and the television screen have imprinted this brutal division of a continent upon the mind of the world.” He made that barrier and the oppression it represented important to all people.

Similarly, the oppression of the CCP has afflicted not just the Chinese people but caused the deaths of 3.7 million people worldwide. Countering that threat and damage by remembering Reagan’s wisdom is a great start.

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