Claudia Rosett is a former staff writer for the Wall Street Journal. She was the editorial page editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal and covered the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989. Ms. Rosett spoke Sept. 17 on campus. Her speech, titled “Why Hong Kong’s Freedom Matters,” explained the current protests in Hong Kong which she reported on first hand this summer.
Why did you go to Yale?
Both my parents grew up in the slums of Baltimore and they both ended up there. My father went there for graduate school and so did my mom. I guess I grew up thinking, since they went there, that was where I wanted to go.
I was told in high school that Yale didn’t take women –or girls, as I thought I was at the time — and as I was graduating from high school they started taking women.
What’s the most interesting story you covered?
That was Tienanmen. It was the most haunting and compelling. It was so big. What happened there was huge. It was the first time a communist state had really lost control of its own capital. And it wasn’t a small state, it was China, the world’s most populous country. It was heartbreaking. It was people asking for something that everybody deserves. They wanted freedom, they wanted a voice in their own government and an end to the official lies. And they were shut down and shut up.
What were your first steps into writing professionally?
Some people sail through in this great golden glow. That wasn’t me. You just keep writing and you keep asking people for work. I wrote some things for student newspapers, I got an internship at the Wall Street Journal, and when that didn’t lead to a full-time job on staff, I just began writing wherever I could. I went in to Business Week and asked if they needed a stringer. It was just going in, asking if they needed something or if I could write something for them. And just keep writing, and you will get there.
Then I had the luck with the WSJ to review Dr. Seuss’s Nuclear Deterrence Book, in Dr. Seuss rhyme, and they hired me.
What are some key pieces of history or information that newer generations don’t know?
World War II. We ended up with WWII because everybody just thought we could sit down and cut deals with ambitious predator totalitarians. We should not think that the world is now immune to that. One of the lessons of great poetry and history is that it comes around and around again.
What went so wrong that this incredible conflict broke out and we let it happen? We need to be careful that we don’t end up there again, that we don’t end up with rising powers like China, or Russia, which is a mess internally but has serious weapons.
With China, we should take to heart the lesson of Tiananmen. I wrote a piece in the Journal recently saying the circumstances are different, the people are different, the location is slightly different, but what’s happening in Hong Kong is the same showdown. It is this ruthless, Chinese Communist Party power that does not permit any competition or rivalry. We know what they did in Beijing years ago they are going to try to crush this in Hong Kong. I don’t know if they’ll do this with guns or if they’ll do it behind the scenes.
Do you think China’s regime could ever fall?
Sure. It’s a question of when. It won’t last forever. It’s a terrible system of government and it turns people into slaves. The reason they have all those security measures and the reason you can speak up in Hong Kong and march in the streets – and it’s not over yet – it’s a cliffhanger. You don’t know how this story turns out. Not yet. But the reason they have huge security every year on June 4 is so nobody can start a protest in Tienanmen Square in China. The government is afraid of what people will do. They know people aren’t happy. People like being able to say what they want.
So could it happen someday, yeah. Is it going to happen the way it happened in Germany and Japan at the end of a terrible war? Or is there some process with the Soviet Union it collapsed? Or can it somehow evolve? The problem is relatively more benign dictatorships evolve away from communism but the controls are still enormous. With that kind of system, the history isn’t wonderful for peaceful evolution.
What’s your advice for college students?
Read real books, write with real pens. Before you do anything else, get to know the smell of paper and the feel of ink. Read widely. Read the eclectic, crazy stuff. Read books for fun. Read books to get you places you wouldn’t go. Read novels, thrillers, mystery. Read poetry, whether you like it or not. Look for the things you would really find interesting in these.
Keep your powder dry.
And don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions.