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Totalitarian Governments vs. the People

When discussing foreign adversaries, it is critical to separate governments from the people who they oppress. It’s not the Chinese people who are committing genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang or destroying democracy in Hong Kong — it is the Chinese Communist Party. When a TV broadcast shows Iranians chanting “Death to America,” viewers aren’t seeing the Iranians who protested against their government, use VPNs to communicate with people outside of the country, watch bootlegged Hollywood movies and say the Mullahs are “full of shit” behind closed doors. Viewers likely aren’t aware that even some Iranians who chant “Death to America” on TV do not believe a word they’re saying. Instead, their motivations for following the propaganda line may be sheer terror, or because they want better health benefits. It’s the Islamic Republic of Iran that’s the enemy, not the Iranian people.

In all dictatorships, there are always good people who want to fight back against vicious tyrants. When the U.S. invaded Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, my friend, Hamody Jasim, was one of the new Iraqi Army’s first volunteers. After proving himself as a courageous and selfless young man, he was recruited to do much more sensitive work and became an intelligence asset for the United States government, saving many U.S. military personnel.

The People’s Republic of China is an authoritarian state and has been under communism since 1949. Despite that, for decades, many Chinese people have attempted to fight back against the CCP, resulting in imprisonment, kangaroo courts, and massacres like what was seen in Tiananmen Square. Yet, as horrific as the Tiananmen Square Massacre was, it didn’t prevent some activists from forming the China Democracy Party in the late 90s. As expected, many of those activists lost everything fighting for ideals that threatened the CCP’s power and influence.

One such activist, Liu Xianbin, has been fighting for human rights and fundamental freedoms in China since he helped organize the protests in Tiananmen Square and the CDP chapter in the Sichuan Province in 1998. Xianbin, 52, was imprisoned multiple times for his actions, and just finished his most recent prison sentence in June 2020.

Those like Liu Xianbin are fighting for fundamental freedoms all over the world. I know a few individuals in Iran who risked everything to chant “Marg bar Khamenei” in the streets. Death to Khamenei. After U.S. military forces killed Quds Force head Qassem Soleimani, one of those Iranians asked me when the U.S. was going to invade, and he said he would volunteer to fight against the Mullahs. That same Iranian was so driven to expose his own government’s tyranny that he would offer to record footage of military bases, an offer which I declined. When I asked him why he would risk his security and safety, he had a simple answer. “I love America bro. I don’t want to be here. I want to be in a place like America.”

But before that friendship formed, my Iranian friend was skeptical of my intentions. He wondered if I thought he was a terrorist because he was Iranian. He asked if I had ill feelings about people who practice Islam. He questioned whether I, an investigative journalist at the time, was really a spy for the CIA. It wasn’t until I explained to him that it is the Mullahs that I see as evil, not the Iranian people and that I understood some of their struggle against the government, that he chose to open up to me. Behind that wall was an individual who watched bootlegged Hollywood movies, read New York Times bestselling books, loved to watch U.S. Marine Corps commercials, and quoted the TV show “Friends” frequently.

In a more recent conversation, a friend in Venezuela expressed frustration that the U.S. hadn’t come to intervene in his country’s affairs like we had done in many other Latin American nations during the 20th century. However, like my Iranian friend, it was important for my Venezuelan friend to know my intentions were sincere towards him. I explained that it was Nicolas Maduro and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela who I saw as the problem, not the Venezuelan people.

In many other similar conversations with people living in nations with constant conflict or unrest, individuals expressed just how profoundly disconnected they feel from their government/ruling parties and how badly they wished their situations were different. These people also told me that they wished that others would not associate them with their governments, and that it was highly demeaning and showed a significant lack of desire to understand them as people. But like my Iranian friend, once that wall came down, we identified common ground, friendships formed, and we could then focus on the real enemy: totalitarian governments.