US ambassador to China says democracy ‘under assault’ by authoritarian countries

In a stark warning to Harvard graduates on Wednesday, US ambassador to China Nicholas Burns described democracy as “under assault” by authoritarian countries, while emphasising a need for society to embrace the art of respectful disagreement.

“Democracy is under assault in the United States and other countries: challenged from within in many cases by anti-democratic forces and challenged from without by authoritarian countries trying to change the world order,” he said, without naming specific countries.

Burns delivered the graduation address to 659 graduates of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he taught for 13 years before being appointed his current role in 2021.

The attack on democracy was among several challenges graduates would confront in the coming decade, he said. Burns also highlighted climate change and the risks of artificial intelligence as well as stopping armed conflict and other transnational problems.
Burns addresses graduates at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Wednesday.

In addition, Burns in his 37-minute address urged graduates representing 87 countries to learn “how to disagree”.

“Find the humanity in the person that you’re arguing with, debating with, maybe shouting at,” the diplomat said.

Citing a quote by former US president John Kennedy uttered at the height of the Cold War, Burns stressed the importance of expanding the space for diverse voices.

“Here’s what he said about what happens when you demonise someone … ‘For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.’”

Burns’ comments came amid ongoing polarisation on US campuses tied to America’s actions in the Israel-Gaza war, a conflict he referred to as the “elephant in the room” on Wednesday.
They also occur as numerous challenges persist between the US and China despite concerted efforts to stabilise the bilateral relationship.

Burns invoked some of those challenges, such as managing the rapid advancement of emerging technology, while others went unmentioned.

Just last week, US President Joe Biden unveiled a sweeping tariff hike on a range of Chinese imports that is projected to affect US$18 billion in current annual imports. Beijing decried the move as contrary to fair competition.

Burns on Wednesday limited his direct references to China, yet chose to acknowledge the Kennedy School’s 25 Chinese graduates this year.

“Thank you for being 25 of the 300,000 Chinese students in the United States. You’re very welcome in our country,” he said.

Douglas Elmendorf, dean of Harvard Kennedy School, noted Burns’s commitment to promoting student and academic exchange between the two countries, encouragement that comes amid State Department travel warnings and reduced US government funding for Americans studying there.

In a speech last Thursday, Xie Feng, China’s ambassador to the US, promoted the Chinese government’s new Young Envoys Scholarship, saying it had already supported waves of visits by American high-school and university students.

“The goodwill between our peoples should not be hijacked by the so-called political correctness,” Xie said. “Nor should the atmosphere of people-to-people exchanges be poisoned by the China-bashing rhetoric.”


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