Prevaricating Pol George Santos Bad for Democracy, Good for China | Opinion

As a Chinese scholar and human rights activist who has benefited from America's fine tradition of championing freedom and democracy, I have held up American democracy as an ideal in my work to advance freedom in China. In the past three decades, I have advocated for our cause with the U.S. Congress as an exemplar. I have been grateful and inspired each time a member expressed support for human rights in China.

Now, I'd rather some members of Congress refrain from offering their support for the cause of human rights and democracy in my home because it would hurt more than help. I particularly dread a scene where Rep. George Santos (R-NY) stands in front of cameras and "eloquently" speaks for us with a straight face.

The autocratic rulers in Beijing would not miss the opportunity to discredit our cause were it trumpeted by a renowned liar. China has been waging a global disinformation war that both exploits and heightens scandals and failures of American democracy. In China, this disinformation war aims to suppress demands for democratic reforms by destroying the appeal of democracy among the people. Santos' whoppers offer a perfect coup for the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda machine.

Santos Sits in Congress
George Santos looks on as the House of Representatives convenes for the 118th Congress at the Capitol in Washington, DC, Jan. 3. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

While embarrassing, the election of Santos as a member of House of Representatives is not necessarily a failure of American democracy. But once the extent of his fabrications came to light, the unwillingness—or inability—of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and the Congress as a whole to remove him is certainly a failure of the American system.

Fortunately, not all Republican leaders are so conflicted. Many of us witnessed the testy exchange between Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Santos at the State of the Union address, in which Romney said directly "You don't belong here." But, as a further demonstration of shamelessness, Santos replied, "Go tell that to the 142,000 that voted for me."

I guess even idealistic human rights activists like me must come to terms with the fact that virtually all politicians lie to an extent. But for democracy to operate appropriately, we, both collectively and individually, must hold honesty as virtue and strive to keep lying, and its deleterious effects, in check.

We see a dangerous tendency in American politics to allow lies to flourish and brazenness to grow. The trend, if allowed to evolve freely, will override freedom, fairness, and civility, leading to the fundamental failure of democracy.

In 1989, the protesters in Tiananmen Square—like myself—were, in part, motivated by our view of American democracy as an inspiration. It is strange now that we political refugees, students of democracy, for us to be "lecturing" our teachers of democracy on how democracy should operate.

Perhaps, at this consequential junction, we should ask the blessing of Václav Havel, a Czech playwright and democratic opposition leader who became his country's leader as the Iron Curtain fell. Havel led the democratic opposition to the Czechoslovakian Communist regime in the 1970's and 80's with the central idea of "living in the truth." He spoke of the power to act of those who consider themselves powerless.

To stop living within a lie, one must withdraw cooperation from the liars and the institutionalization of lies. Living in truth lets citizens repossess their humanity and take responsibility. Havel said the power that comes with living in truth is the power to overturn repressive structures and undermine dictatorships. Such power resides within each person living in an autocracy as well as in a democracy.

Havel's appeal "to live in the truth" helped to vanquish the communist specter haunting Europe. I hope and believe it can help to vanquish the specters that are currently haunting American democracy. The lies that George Santos embodies.

If American democracy is to serve our cause and win the battle for global soft power, it must be strengthened at home. Santos must go.

Jianli Yang, a former political prisoner of China and survivor of the Tiananmen Square massacre, is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for Chinaand the author of For Us, the Living: A Journey to Shine the Light on Truth.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.