When the World Wasn’t Looking: How Authoritarian States Have Taken Advantage of the Covid-19 Crisis

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: When the World Wasn’t Looking: How Authoritarian States Have Taken Advantage of the Covid-19 Crisis

DATE: 14th May 2020, 3.00pm – 4.00pm

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Dr Daniel Twining, Dr Alan Mendoza, Bill Browder, Laura Rosenberger



Dr Alan Mendoza 00:47

I think we will kick off as the numbers are rising rapidly. Good afternoon from London from the Henry Jackson Society. We are delighted to bring to you yet another one of our very popular virtual meetings and today’s topic “When the world wasn’t looking and how authoritarian states have taken advantage of the Covid-19 crisis”. And we’ve got a really stellar panel to discuss this issue today. We’ve got personal experience as well as professional about how authoritarian states are one of the authoritarians have been acting during this time. We start with Bill Browder. Bill is the founder and CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, which was of course the largest foreign investment fund in Russia until 2005 until Bill was declared a national security threat. He has since been campaigning for justice on corruption issues in Russia, but also the originator of the global Sergei Magnitsky campaign, after the lawyer who was murdered who tried to fight for justice on behalf of hermitage in Russia. And we’ve seen a huge success there. So welcome to Bill who’s no stranger to our screens, and indeed to the Henry Jackson society. Laura Rosenberger is the director of the Alliance for securing democracy and a senior fellow at the German Marshall fund of the United States. Before she joined GMF, she was foreign policy adviser to Hillary for America. She had a key pivotal role in the campaign and had a series of positions at the State Department and the White House’s National Security Council, and particularly of note, I think, was chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, who of course, is now Joe Biden’s foreign policy lead advisor. So Laura, welcome and from Washington, and thank you for joining us. And last but certainly not least, Dr Daniel Twining, who is the president of IRI International Republican Institute. And he’s led that since September 2017. The institute advances democracy and freedom around the world. It’s got a team of nearly 600 Global experts looking at democracy issues. And before that, was at the Asia program of the German Marshall fund over us again in Washington, DC and had been part of the US Secretary of State policy planning staff and was involved with senator John McCain working for him beforehand. So a very distinguished panel and we are delighted that Bill, Laura and Daniel are with us today. And we’re going to kick off everyone with just turning it open to our three panellists and asking, essentially, while we’ve not been looking, authoritarian states have been taking advantage or people looking in an authoritative vein, and Bill, I’m going to start with you give us your opening thoughts on this.

Bill Browder 03:44

So I’m going to speak about Russia today. As many of you know, I’ve been fighting with Vladimir Putin for nearly two decades and have become an expert in all of his dirty deeds and how he goes about doing things. And I would say that Russia is on one hand, using the coronavirus as an opportunity. On the other hand, it’s probably one of the biggest single biggest threats to the regime that’s ever existed in the time that I’ve been involved in Russia. On how Putin sees this crisis as opportunity, the answer is that in his perfect world, he would have a true totalitarian regime. And at the same time, if he hasn’t been able to implement a true totalitarian regime has been an authoritarian regime up till now. And the reason it hasn’t been become a true totalitarian regime is that all the things that you would have to do to truly make a totalitarian would upset the people so much that even in an undemocratic process that Russia has, where they don’t have fair elections, even in a situation like that, he would be afraid to put things in place. All of a sudden now, with the with the Coronavirus, they can ban travel, they can ban meetings, they passed a law recently which says that anybody who says with any kind of quote, disinformation, about Coronavirus can be arrested. And now banning travel in many meetings is what’s happening everywhere else in the world. But what is going to happen in Russia is that they won’t lift those bans or if they do, it’ll be very much more gradual than then they need to. They can use these meeting bans and travel bans well into the future in the way that a good totalitarian dictator would love to use. There’s another interesting angle to this whole thing, which is that they have these QR codes, like China’s using, in order to track people’s movements. I don’t actually know about China, but all that information that’s being gathered is for sale to the highest bidder and to any criminal group in order to use it or to any, any government organization that wants to track their enemies or track dissidents or track opposition figures. Everyone says this crisis sort of accelerates everything, and it’s accelerated all the totalitarian instincts of Vladimir Putin. I want to mention, I think, even more importantly, on the negative side with this with this crisis is doing because that’s really important. As many people know, Russia is effectively just a gas and international gas station, Some unbelievably large proportion of the government budget, I believe it’s 75% comes from oil and gas and other natural resources. Even before Coronavirus, people stopped flying and driving their cars and so on which collapsed the price of oil, Russia had begun to engage in a price war with Saudi Arabia. So in a country which totally and absolutely relies on the price of oil, and the price of oil has collapsed, Russia’s in a desperate financial situation right now. And they have to decide what to do because on one hand, if they don’t do things to help people, whatever fake approval ratings Putin has right now, they’re going to be much lower. And it may be even more difficult to rig an election going forward or rigor of referendum for permanent presidency or whatever he’s trying to do. And, and so they have a lot of money on the side, they have I think $176 billion in a rainy-day fund and half a trillion dollars of foreign currency reserves. But they may have to burn through that money at some point in order to support themselves and to support the debt, budget deficit, etc.  As a result of that, in terms of their own bailout, you know, the US is putting together trillion-dollar bailout programs. The Russian bailout program so far, has allocated something like a little bit more than $1 billion for small and medium-sized businesses. On average, if you look at the how much savings the Russian population has, they have, I think something like 42% of the population has savings that would allow them to survive for a month. It’s a very, very desperate situation. People may not have strong political beliefs in Russia, a lot of people just give up on having political beliefs, but they have extremely strong economic beliefs. And those beliefs, like feeding themselves, will cause a real threat to Vladimir Putin’s longevity. I will leave it at that.

Dr Alan Mendoza 09:08

Thank you, a very helpful start examining internal and political and economic developments. Thank you.  Laura, I’m going to kick it over to you next, to give your opening thoughts.

Laura Rosenberger 09:19

Well, thanks so much, to Alan and Henry Jackson Society for pulling together this important conversation and great to join both Bill and Dan today along with you Alan. I’m going to follow on Bill’s remarks about Russia. And actually, I’m going to focus on China. And where I’d like to start actually is from a similar premise from where Bill started, which is that COVID-19 actually poses a significant challenge to the Chinese Communist Party. And while a lot of what we have seen, externally, which I’ll speak about is, is the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party seeking to take advantage of the crisis for its own purposes. I think it’s really important that we understand that what often appears to be external assertiveness, maybe from a position of strength, is actually really rooted in insecurity and weakness at home. Earlier on in the coronavirus outbreak, the party’s response was very delayed. People have seen, I’m sure the coverage of the crackdowns on the early people, the whistle-blowers who were reporting on the viruses outbreak, and when one of those whistle-blowers, Dr. Li Wenliang, actually passed away from the virus itself, huge outpouring online that really overwhelmed China’s censors in the very famous, Great Firewall system, with people actually really directly invoking calls for free speech and making very direct challenges to the way the party exerts control. While what we’ve seen externally is the Chinese Communist Party seeking to spread its influence and take advantage of the fact that the United States and many European countries have been really consumed by our own responses at home. A lot of that effort is about the party trying to show its people internally, that China is the model for the world, that China is the partner of first resort. And frankly, when we see racism and xenophobia tropes being invoked around discussion of the virus, the party is able to use that at home to say, “we are the ones defending the pride of the Chinese people”, “we are defending against racism”, “we are defending our people”, and that allows the party to whip up nationalism at home, which of course, is a great friend to any authoritarian regime. Just to spend a couple minutes on what we’ve seen externally, as I mentioned, one is this very assertive combination of the provision of assistance with an aggressive messaging campaign about set assistance, a lot of that assistance has actually not been what we traditionally think of as aid. Some of it has been purchases and sales. Some of it’s been other kinds of transfers of goods, some of which have proven to be defective. This has been accompanied by not your sort of traditional humanitarian goodwill gesture but bullying and coercing different governments into putting out statements praising the receipt of that aid, praising the CCP or Chinese corporate entities for the provision of that aid. And alongside that, we’ve seen an aggressive disinformation campaign. And we can go into this more in Q&A if you’d like. But the pattern that we’ve seen of the party states external messaging has departed from what’s been its previous practice, which has been traditionally to develop a positive image of the party externally, and to suppress content that’s negative about the party. Instead, we’ve seen the party state and its outlet media outlets adopting a much more Russian like information strategy, sowing disinformation, directly, multiple conflicting conspiracy theories, coordinated use of its accounts online, to really drive much more negative and destructive kind of messaging. I also think one interesting parallel to what Bill was mentioning well, is that China has been very aggressively using domestically, surveillance technology for control and manipulation of its population. COVID-19 has provided a justification, an additional justification for the party to be using those technologies for public health purposes. But candidly, I also think this is an area where authoritarian norms as I would characterize them around the use of surveillance technology, that are creeping up in democracies pose a real problem for the normalization of that kind of practice and the spread of surveillance technology as a means of grounding authoritarian forms of governance. Things that the EU, for instance, has been doing to develop principles around the use of surveillance technology even in a public health crisis, are really important in order to enable us to use these technologies in a way that is consistent with democratic principles and doesn’t actually further enable authoritarianism. I will pause there and a lot more for us to come back to you in Q&A.

Dr Alan Mendoza 14:33

Thanks, Laura, you’ve taken quite a lot of topics. And I’m sure we will indeed return back to those. Dan you’ve had Russia and China, you’re welcome to return to those topics or take us to the rest of the world as well.

Dan Twining 14:46

Okay, thanks, Alan. I’m just such a big supporter of the work of the Henry Jackson society and everything you do your vital contributions to the debate, not just in Britain, but in America and across the west. So thank you and your constituency and your great staff. Look, Bill said essentially, that COVID has accelerated all sorts of pre-existing trends. One of the important trends we should not lose sight of was that in the year running up to this pandemic, people power was on the move around the world in a way it had not been, essentially since 1989, since the fall of the wall, right. It wasn’t happening simply in it wasn’t happening in, you know, the modern equivalent of the Czechoslovakia is of the world as an 89. It was happening in very tough places. Hong Kong, Sudan, Russia, right, Algeria. In some sense, in an important sense, the pandemic has created a perfect cover for authoritarians to step up against their own populations in the face of this growing internal dissent and to step out against the democratic world, as Laura was mentioning with CCP propaganda and information warfare frankly against America and the democracies. Now we’ve seen we’ve seen all sorts of authoritarians. I mean, just to give a couple of examples. This is very early on in the crisis. llham Alyev, who was a notorious dictator in Azerbaijan said the political opposition in Azerbaijan is a public health menace, just by virtue of the fact that they are peaceful political dissidents, they are a public health menace. You’ve seen leaders like Duterte in the Philippines like Hun Sen in Cambodia accumulate emergency powers to further repress their own citizens. I mean, in Cambodia, it’s quite amazing because the leader there Hun Sen controls every seat in Parliament – he prevented the opposition from running in the last elections and he threw the head of the opposition in prison. Somehow that’s not enough. You know, these strong men leaders always want more You’ve seen what’s happening closer to home and countries like Hungary and countries like Serbia. This isn’t simply a question of what’s happening out there. It’s happening in Europe; it’s happening in the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere. I think the question is, what does this all mean? I know we’re going to talk more about it. It does not mean to me that authoritarians are winning.  As both Laura and Bill suggested authoritarians are under significant pressure, including great power, authoritarians of Russia and China, as well as the pettier sort. I think there’s a role for all of us to think about how to support small ‘d’ democrats and democracy writ large. That also includes I think, importantly, not just out in the world where Russia and China other malign actors are trying to manipulate the crisis, to build out coercive spheres of influence over time that undercut everything we believe in and in the West. But it also includes I mean, I think, in democratic societies, it is not normal for governments to run the economy, it is not normal for governments to dictate whether your cleaner can visit your house or whether you can visit your parents or whatever it may be. I think that even in our own democracies, we’re going to have a big job ahead of us as citizens in making sure that we rewrite the balance between state and society. It is not just a question of what’s happening in authoritarian countries, but finally, in authoritarian countries, just a reminder, that this is fundamentally a political crisis, not simply a crisis of global health, and that we need some political solutions, which includes obviously, greater transparency, greater accountability, if there was ever a time for citizens to be able to hold their leaders accountable, it’s now. If there was ever a time when we needed effective parliamentary oversight, effective free media to report on shortcomings. It’s right now.

Dr Alan Mendoza 18:46

Thank you, very impassioned contribution and statement to the end, which again, we’ll return to. What we’re going to do is I’m going to ask each panellist a question or two about what they said, in their openers. And I can see some questions already coming in on the Q&A, we will then move to Q&A. And we’ll try and gather questions together on similar topics.  Do put your comment in, of course, we’ve got a lot of people on the call. We may not be able to get to everyone if I won’t be able to, but we’ll try and pick out themes and through those to the panellists. So let me start back with you, Bill. You mentioned that you painted a pretty frightening picture of Russia’s economic potential collapse on the gas and oil price scenario, as well as of course, the fact it’s a regime under pressure. What happens if the regime does get put under the kind of pressure that could be led onto it? In the past, we’ve seen it lash out with foreign adventurism and attacking neighbours near or far. What would your fear be there? And could this level up quite quickly, seeing as how the economy is very unbalanced over that?

Bill Browder 19:56

Exactly. My fear is that.  Machiavelli 101 says that, you know, if your population is angry with you deflect their anger towards a foreign enemy. And that’s what Putin did back in 2014, you know, his popularity was waning, the economy hadn’t been growing, it wasn’t collapsing like it is now, it’s just sort of stagnating, people were getting angrier and more bitter. He completely out of nowhere, created a foreign enemy, the Ukrainians are not the furthest thing from an enemy to Russia, that there could be. But Vladimir Putin, you know, created a propaganda campaign to say that Ukrainians were enemies that they were anti-Russian and as a humanitarian mission to go and save Russian speaking people in eastern Ukraine, they were going to go in and they took Crimea. And his approval ratings went up dramatically went up to 88%. In a situation where people are going to be hating him, and by the way, is on based on the official approval ratings, which are never accurate, because I don’t know why any Russian would tell the truth to a pollster, because not bad things would happen to them if they do but, based on those approval ratings, his approval ratings have dropped to the lowest level in his entire presidency at 59%. And I’m sure it’s much lower than that. So that’s, that’s what he’ll do, he’s going to repress like hell at home. And he can use these new tools to do that. And he’s going to start trouble abroad. And one thing I want to say is really important is that the economic sort of disintegration that could happen in Russia because of oil prices is not going to happen right away, they do have a lot of money on the side, they have, you know, hundreds of billions of dollars of reserves and rainy-day money to draw on. But I think that at these prices, they will burn through that money quickly. Russia also has a much lower debt to GDP ratio than most other countries, and therefore, in theory, they could they have the capacity to borrow because they defaulted on their debt 20 years ago. They do have things they can do, it’s not going to turn into like mass starvation or anything like that. However, it is going to be extremely tough, they don’t have enough money to keep everybody happy. And, and the result will be this, this sort of ugly, clamp down in in the country and troublemaking outside the country. One last thing before I let someone else step in, which is that the troublemaking that they’re going to do outside the country is not going to be military invasions, for the most part, Russia has got the military budget equal to the size of the British military budget, and 80% of that military budget gets stolen through graft and fraud. Anything that the Russians do has to be asymmetric. They have to they will do e.g., hacking, you know, trolling, assassinations, poisoning, all this stuff that they can’t be directly blamed for they don’t require large armies to do that. And what they what’s been proven from 2016 is that they can spend $50 million on a on a hacking campaign that has 100 times the impact of anything they could do militarily. You can be sure that they’re going to be getting Angela Merkel’s emails again and getting everybody else’s emails and exposing them and trolling and whipping up trouble in a very asymmetric, plausibly deniable way in the future.

Dr Alan Mendoza 23:40

Thank you Bill, very interesting.  Laura is sort of the inverse of that. I mean, you mentioned, if you’d like the rationalization of China’s disinformation campaign. But is it possible we’re seeing if Russia was no longer militarily capable? Trying to teams could be, could you see an attempted rollback in its near neighbourhood China? Firstly, in Hong Kong, we can look at the Hong Kong situation, I’m sure you’ve got something to say on that, in terms of the robot there. But also, they’ve been worrying statements about Taiwan as well. Could China and again, an authoritarian regime under pressure, could it react militarily, or I tried to choke out the life of remaining democratic helpers near to it?

Laura Rosenberger 24:24

Thanks, Alan, for that, look, I think I mean, certainly, as Bill mentioned, in the Russia context, the idea of, you know, regimes lashing out externally, when they face challenges at home is, is always a real concern. And I don’t want to be dismissive of the idea that China could do that in a more aggressive military way. But I have to say I see that as a as a sort of low probability scenario. And I think let me sort of unpack a couple of different pieces here. One is you mentioned Hong Kong, and obviously, there’s been enormous pressure on Hong Kong over the past year. By the by the mainland. as Dan mentioned, we saw enormous citizen pushback in Hong Kong that, frankly, was quite inspirational there. And I think that, um, you know, we’ve seen already in the past couple months, and Beijing taking a few steps with respect to Hong Kong, in terms of increased, you know, power over and influence in in Hong Kong, while the world has been distracted. And I think that we may continue to see some of those things. This is an area where I would say it falls into the bucket of accelerating trends that were underway; Beijing’s attempts to squeeze democratic space in Hong Kong has been underway for quite some time. And I think that we could see an acceleration there with respect to Taiwan. And, you know, I think that a lot of what we are seeing from Beijing right now is nationalistic saber rattling, it is a very, very easy way of stirring up support for the regime at home, to be able to invoke nationalist concerns around Taiwan. So, you know, it would be a very high-risk scenario for Beijing to make a move on Taiwan, even in this moment. Again, while I never want to rule anything out, and it’s certainly something that we need to continue to remain very focused on. In the US and elsewhere, I don’t necessarily see an aggressive move toward Taiwan as being a major risk. But we do see Beijing doing other things in the region as well, including in both sort of military but also more hybrid space. So for instance, in the South China Sea, and we do see, you know, Beijing, again, continuing in that accelerated way, to be making moves to exert greater power and control in the South China Sea. It doesn’t help that a number of the key US Naval assets that typically are key in that region and would be key in that region right now have been hit by COVID outbreaks on the on the vessels. And, you know, I would note in that context, linking this back to the propaganda question that Beijing has sought to really take advantage of that. Drawing implicit contrasts in its propaganda between its ability to control outbreaks amongst its military and that its naval capacity hasn’t been impacted, while the US actually has experienced these significant outbreaks, on many of its vessels, and on top of that, in what I would call a classic, what about us move. Beijing has a times the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson condemned how the US has treated whistle-blowers like Captain Crozier, who was the naval Captain removed from command of the Teddy Roosevelt’s, basically to criticize the United States. Projection here, right? The Chinese Communist Party has, you know, silenced its own whistle-blowers at home. But when we in democracies take steps that give fodder for them to be able to deflect, we undermine our own ability to push back on those moves. SI will just stop there.

Dr Alan Mendoza 28:34

Thank you. A very good point in terms of the undermining at the end. Dan, you mentioned at the start that we had seen the marshall people power, which, of course, has now been stopped in its tracks by control measures. How do you think people in authoritarian countries or countries where they may not return be able to return to the streets? Because there’s been a lot going on you suggested governments may keep these parts for longer. How do you think people can organize? How can they start to push back once the health risks are over?

Dan Twining 29:09

One thing you’ve seen Alan, and all of these countries, not just in those countries, but in all of our countries is really citizen-led efforts to fill governance gaps, citizen-led efforts to pressure governments and institutions to do more to do better in the context of the pandemic, citizen and civil society-led efforts in Africa in other sort of poor parts of the world to deliver some, essentially health and public services that governments have no capacity to deliver. The same thing I think is true in kind of the broader political context in the democracy space, which is that there is a top-down phenomenon happening, being strong leaders tightening their grip on power. There is also a bottom -up phenomenon of citizens organizing of citizens working beyond the boundaries of the state or the one party that may rule them to devise solutions, often at the very local level. This is much harder for authoritarian regimes to control. That’s also true of reporting and other measures. We’ve seen, you know, very outstanding independent reporting from behind the Great Firewall in China, from behind kind of a Russian internet space of, journalists and investigative reporters who want to tell the truth. You’ve seen it in the Middle East, in countries like Egypt and elsewhere. We haven’t talked about the fact that, you know, many societies suffered from pre-existing conditions that really have been aggravated by COVID. So Egypt has over 100,000 political prisoners being held in terrible conditions, their political prisoners, they’re not criminals. And of course, if you wanted to create a breeding ground for a pandemic, to be even more virulent, it would be in one of those spaces, I suspect or in some of the re-education camps in Xinjiang where the Chinese regime is holding, you know, more than a million Chinese citizens. Look at Venezuela, a country where before the crisis, just a governance collapse, a narco-kleptocracy had run that country under Maduro into the ground to the point where 90% of people in Venezuela, which was once the richest country in Latin America, didn’t have enough to eat that was before the pandemic. Thinking about all the stresses and strains that this health emergency is putting on countries underlines how important these public institutions are and how desperate citizens become when their governments are oriented around political elite issues rather than citizen responsiveness.

Dr Alan Mendoza 31:51

Thank you. Very helpful, indeed. Okay, what we’ll do is because we’ve got so many questions, I’m going to kick it open to the audience. When your name is called, you’ll be unmuted briefly to issue your question, please do ask just a question, and not give a thesis of your thoughts around the question. And then we will move over to our panellists. And you’re all of course invited to answer any of the questions you would like of the three, the selection three you get. So in our first round, we’re going to start with a said trying to find the question. We’re going to start with Kyle Matthews.

Kyle Matthews 32:40

My question is, we’re seeing an increasingly coordinated disinformation campaigns by authoritarian governments, notably China, Russia, and Iran, against Western countries democracies. And I’m wondering what could government’s society do in their response? Because we don’t have a really coordinated response to this information. And I’m wondering if anyone could talk about what could be some strategies that we could pursue together.

Dr Alan Mendoza 33:09

Thanks very much. So that’s the first question. We’ll move over now to Henry Hogger.

Henry Hogger 33:20

Thank you, Alan. Yeah, it’s a question for Laura, in light of what she said about the Chinese disinformation campaign becoming gradually more aggressive, if you like. I wondered what you thought of the approach of the current US administration in response to that and towards China in general. Which to simplify, it probably seems to be largely to give back in kind in terms of aggressiveness. Is that the right policy to deal with a more aggressive China? Or is there a case or any point in a slightly softer and more policy of greater engagement?

Dr Alan Mendoza 33:58

Great, thank you very much. And now over to David MacDonald, David, if you just unmute yourself, you will be live.

David Macdonald 34:11

My first question is how do you see restrictive measures being rolled back and democratic states, particularly those in East Asia, who have been so successful in addressing the pandemic?

Dr Alan Mendoza 34:29

Good. Okay. Three questions that I’m going to start off relative to Laura first.

Laura Rosenberger 34:37

Great, thank you so much. Henry and Kyle, your questions kind of dovetail with one another. How should we be responding and maybe is what we’re seeing, not the right response. I’m going to actually pull those two together. I’ve written pretty extensively on my view that democratic countries cannot win the information contest if we adopt authoritarian tactics or play on authoritarian terms (these are by definition, asymmetric tactics.) Therefore, when we are playing on the battlefield as it’s been laid out for us, we are aplaying into our competitors’ hands. And, you know, my own view is that the tactics that authoritarian regimes Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and others are using in the information space, are not just tactics for themselves, but are part of a larger strategy to create a more controlled and manipulated information environments. The more that democracies actually enable those sorts of tactics or use them ourselves, the more we actually accelerate the creation of the polluted, discredited, controlled information space that our authoritarian competitors seek. What we should be doing, I believe, is developing our own affirmative information strategy that harnesses truth and transparency, that works together with our democratic partners and allies, that bolsters the role of the kinds of things Dan was talking about in terms of independent media, local voices, right? We need to be actually embracing openness but doing so in a way that empowers the voices of truth, and that facilitates greater transparency. I do believe that we need to be pushing back aggressively on what the Chinese Communist Party is trying to do. But that doesn’t mean weaponizing information ourselves. And I mentioned earlier that one of my concerns is watching how the CCP has been able internally to use charges of racism, xenophobia, to its own advantage. And I think it’s important that in responding to the kinds of things we’re seeing from the CCP, in particular, but frankly, the same goes for Russia and Tehran, that we be extremely careful to differentiate between the regime and the people. Because it is the regime that is in each of these cases, that is using these tactics, and it is the people who ultimately are the ones where we can find a receptive audience if we play this right. And, you know, I could go through a whole list of things about, frankly, how social media architecture or enable some of these tactics and the kinds of things we need to be doing there, I think we need to be pushing back much more aggressively on, particularly the PR sees efforts to spread its own indigenous technology to other countries on things like, you know, there was a really great study, just last week, out of a group called Citizen Lab up in Canada, about how China’s conducting surveillance on WeChat users outside of China, there’s a lot of similar concerns about the platform TikTok, and how it may be being used. I think those are the places where we also need to be very aggressively pushing back. But that requires working again, hand in glove with our partners and allies, not really seeing the kinds of rifts we’ve been, you know, leaning into with across the transatlantic space. I’ll leave it there. Great. Thank you.

Dan Twining 38:21

I’ll be quick because I know you have a queue here. Alan, I would just like to take the last question. And I appreciate the mention of these democratic success stories in East Asia. You know, the single best retort to the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda that only their authoritarian solutions work is the Taiwan example. Right? Where a an equally Chinese society except one that has free media, elected representation at all levels, independent institutions, rule of law, that free society has handled the pandemic as well as probably any society. I think some lessons for us in the West as we emerge out of this, in terms of contact tracing in terms of empowering the right kind of health interventions, without enabling authoritarian abuse of people’s personal data, those sorts of measures, we can learn a lot from in our own countries – the Taiwan example in particular. I also just want to mention on China, you know, in response to the second question, or, I mean, I think Laura agrees on this. We don’t want China to become a partisan issue in American foreign policy. You know, there’s a strategic competitor out there on the landscape that wants to build a world order that is frankly hostile to the interests and values of the West. We need to navigate and manage that very smartly through a complex policy toolkit. But in fact, we don’t want there to be kind of a republican hardline on China and a Democratic Party soft line. We don’t want to see, you know, a great pivot happens every time we change administrations and change congresses. I think there’s a growing bipartisan consensus in the United States. And I, you know, I think we’re feeling it in Britain and elsewhere, that we all need a bit of a new look. And we all need to modernize and update our policies in light of how frankly aggressive and ambitious the Chinese Communist Party’s international trajectory has become. Thank you.

Dr Alan Mendoza 40:34

I think that’s a really important point applauded by Laura, I notice as well, and one that’s probably not recognized that often in Europe where it’s deemed to be that it’s a particular issue. But it’s not, it’s not just quite interesting, Bill, I’m able to use your thoughts on these creative questions.

Bill Browder 40:50

I’m just going to be quick. But I just wanted to follow up on one of the one of the strands that Laura took.  From my perspective, having watched Russia and watched what Russia did in 2016 and on a daily basis, in front and trying to spread just information to discredit me just try to stop the Magnitsky act from moving forward, that there’s a serious problem with all these new technologies, all the social media that, that they’re able to exploit. And I agree that we don’t want to become inflammation to create inflammation walls.  The great thing about democracy and free society is open ideas. However, the architecture of these social media platforms lends itself to this type of abuse. And it’s pretty simple. On Twitter, for example, in the St. Petersburg troll factories, they’ll set up 10,000, fake Twitter accounts. If every person on Twitter was required to be a person, whether it’s in public, or just to Twitter, where you have to prove that you exist as a person, that whole thing was stopped in a second. And we would have none of that. And with political advertising on Facebook, they could just stop it entirely. Now you don’t need to have it. I asked a Facebook executive, what percentage of their revenues come from political advertising is less than 1%. So there’s some really quick fixes that could fix a lot of this foreign meddling. And if you look at like, where you know, where the majority of it comes from, I believe that it’s all these new platforms.  We’re going to fix those things. We’ll come up with new platforms, but we should be doing something. And since 2016 and since the Brexit decision in Britain, nothing has been fixed. Everyone’s talked about it a little bit, but nothing’s been fixed and it should be fixed. And that would stop a lot of this nasty stuff from happening.

Dr Alan Mendoza 43:12

Thank you, and good answers again, and very simple fixes, as you suggest. Right, we’re going to move to three new questions from different abroad asking questions about different parts of the world. We’re going to start with Robin Ashley, then Ali Yildaz, and then Nicola Marsh. So we’re starting with Robin Ashley, Robin, are you joining us? Remember, unmute yourself, please. Right. Robin, I’ll ask your question for you. It was aimed at Dan, but it can be for all of you. Is the new authoritarianism in Eastern Europe an existential threat to the EU? It’s a question for you, but others feel free to comment. We’re going to move to Ali yielders. I’ll ask the question again. There was a question for Bill. But again, I think you should all answered particularly as it relates to something Laura spoke about. Turkey’s president Erdogan sent medical supplies to 54 countries including the UK and US, and he’s effectively using the crisis for this new type diplomacy. Do you think this new diplomacy tool could help him to repair his image? So suppose as a question taking on the points here, we’re looking at Turkey. And a final question from Nicola Marsh, I see you’re with us. Can you unmute?

Nicola Marsh 45:04

Some great discussion from everyone. But I think so far, quite a lot of focus naturally on China and Russia would be great just to hear whether the current pandemic has had any impacts on stability of leadership in the Middle East.

Dr Alan Mendoza 45:22

Thank you very much, Nicola. So, questions on the EU, on Turkey and on the Middle East more generally. We’ll start this round with you, Dan.

Dan Twining 45.33

Okay, on Eastern Europe. So you all are a lot closer to it than we are here in the New World. But, you know, I think we should connect to the fact that there is democratic decay in countries in the east as well as in the Balkans, with vectors for malign foreign influence directly into Europe.  These factors are not unrelated, right? When you have less political transparency, when you have less political competition, when you have suppression of media and civil society, you end up with leaders that may do dodgy dealings with foreign powers, particularly in this case, Russia, in the Balkans, China, Iran.  I mean, there are all sorts of forms of intervention underway in kind of this under this part of Europe. Democracy is not simply a nice thing to have. I think what I’m trying to say here is that there is a clear connection between the integrity of national institutions, the integrity of democratic systems in Europe and the integrity of Europe, the security of Europe, the prosperity of Europe, the independence of Europe, the ability for European citizens, to have leaders that answer to them, and not to foreign countries or funny money coming from abroad, right? The kind of disinformation and malign influence operations that the Kremlin has been conducting work better in countries that are more divided, that are more polarized that are more fractious that have more extreme political voices represented in their systems. I’s not as if these are two separate things. These are one and the same thing. Thank you. Great.

Bill Browder 47:29

Let me share a real-life example of how the disintegration of legitimacy and democracy in in Central and Eastern Europe has led to real-life problems of the EU. I’ve been advocating and working on an EU Magnitsky act for the last decade. And what I’ve discovered is that within the EU, it requires unanimity in order to have this piece of legislation or any piece of foreign policy legislation. I’ve also discovered that there are certain members, member states of the EU and in our particular case, Hungary, which is run by Viktor Orban, who’s made no secret of the fact that he’s an admirer of Vladimir Putin and I’m sure there’s a lot more suspicious ties than then I can probably say, on this call. He has been blocking the EU Magnitsky act. And so, up until December of last year, Europe couldn’t move forward. Now, there’s been some movement because of other pressures put on him. But that’s a perfect example of a piece of legislation to ban tortures and murders from coming into the EU, that was blocked and stopped by one questionable EU member state where democracy and legitimacy has broken down.


Dr Alan Mendoza 49:09

Laura, you’ve got the choice of attacking the EU. But if you’d have a word on Turkey and the Middle East as well, that would be great as well.

Laura Rosenberger 49:17

Sure, well, I am going to start with the EU only because that’s where I’ve been spending a little bit more of my time and attention. I would follow on actually comments both from Dan and Bill. And I would note that that the PRC has I think been learning from Russia’s tactics about dividing the sort of consensus body from within. China’s been seeking to use a number of different approaches, whether it’s 17 plus one configuration to pull off some of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe in particular, its Belt and Road initiative, which of course Italy formerly joined last year. And I think its provision of aid has also been a little bit of cherry-picking. My team has some analysis coming out that will demonstrate how the volume of aid to European countries has not actually been aligned at all with where the need is greatest. And it seems in fact that it’s aligned with where the PRC thinks it will have the ability to gain the most leverage from a friendly, a potentially friendly regime, or to gain support for things like Huawei, his presence in 5G networks that it’s been pushing for the past couple of years. That divide and conquer approach within Europe is something that I think China is also seeking to play. I would note, by the way, that that’s a that’s an approach that China has used in other parts of the world. For those familiar with what China has done in the South China Sea, trying to pick off individual claimants to prevent a sort of block from within ASEAN, also a consensus body. And there’s a familiarity there. And so I think that that’s a really important point, many will have also seen the I think there’s been pretty extensive coverage of China’s aid in particular to Serbia and the way the Serbian leadership has embraced China’s role and greater presence there and really drawing a contrast explicitly saying China’s helped us Europe has not. And I think that’s the kind of messaging that China’s really after here. I think I’m going to leave it there in the interest of time, sorry to not be able to do any justice to Turkey or the Middle East.

Dr Alan Mendoza 51:43

Another round of questioning, we’re going to go now forgive me if I mangle your name, Lucia, whose land I think Lucia is with us. Would you like to do so? No, it looks like that’s not happening. Right? It’s a long question. So pens ready. We certainly see manifestations of citizens in authoritarian countries protesting against their governments. But in democratic nations, there seems to be a trend of citizens being okay with or even wanting more authoritarianism. Examples are big support for mandatory use of masks, even though the health requirements of the who were not mandatory surveillance to supposedly control a pandemic. How could this trend lose momentum? If it seems to be supported, particularly by elites who have access to the media to convey messaging in that way? So the question obviously is about our own societies in that regard? Okay, the second question, we’re going to move to Senton Kacaniku.

Senton Kacaniku 52:53

Thank you. If I’m allowed, I’d like to ask two questions, one to all speakers regarding what has been discussed until now disinformation campaigns, and how to undo them. What I’m really interested to talk about is about the growing isolationist tendency in the US, and the weakening of the internationalist values based foreign policy of the late senator John McCain, which used to hold a lot of weight in both parties. What is the future outlook for World democracy, if isolationism grows in the US, especially in light of the state of disarray of the European Union and the lack of a third option?

Dr Alan Mendoza 53:31

Sorry I have to cut you short, but we have to move on. We’re only six minutes left in the whole presentation. Christine?

Christine Emmett 54:12

What does the panel think we should be doing as citizens to organize ourselves to rebut the effect of the authority sharing regimes with from these discussions I find really fascinating, but very worrying. It seems we’re on a burning platform, as long as we’ve got a bucket of water, we’re not doing very much as countries.

Dr Alan Mendoza 54:33

Okay, good. Thank you, Christine. Bill over to you first thoughts on those three, whichever one you’d like to take or two or three.

Bill Browder 54:42

Let me take the third one. First, the one thing which we can do and which I’ve been working on and Henry Jackson has been helping me and various others. I think probably everybody on this call and one way or another is to create consequences for bad people doing bad things in these countries. And for the last 10 years my, my life has been devoted to creating Magnitsky acts all over the world which impose visa sanctions and asset freezes on kleptocrats and human rights violators. We now have it in United States, Canada, the UK, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. And even for the second questioner Kosovo actually has a Magnitsky Act was passed shortly before the last government ended. And the EU is on deck for a Magnitsky act, so is Australia, I’m testifying in the Australian Parliament tomorrow. And to the extent that one can put pressure on government to punish bad actors through the Magnitsky act is something that every bad actor hates, because we’re in a globalized world where they all keep their money everywhere, and they don’t want that money frozen. They all love to travel to foreign countries, and they don’t want to have that travel curtailed. I would say that support the Magnitsky act in any way you can, as many people have, and I appreciate those who have. I’ll leave it at that, because we’re running out of time.

Dr Alan Mendoza 56:08

Thank you very much, Bill. Laura, over to you.

Laura Rosenberger 56:12

Great, thanks for all those questions, I’m just going to briefly touch on primarily the second with a short bit on the third. I fully understand why there is the impression that the US is moving towards a more isolationist foreign policy, but I would reject the premise. I think that in many places, and I hope Dan will agree here, that there is actually a renewed passion for the need for American global leadership. I think it is a sense that American global leadership probably needs to look different, that the globe is shifting the geopolitical forces are moving. Frankly, the way power is exercised in the 21st century is changing. And that requires us thinking about new ways of exercising leadership.  I very much agree with Dan’s earlier point about the need for bipartisanship on China. But I will just note that I do think, a Biden foreign policy, and to be clear, I am not in any way affiliated with the campaign, would actually seek to pick up on many of the kinds of things that the late senator John McCain believes deeply in. And I think, in fact, Senator Biden and Senator McCain were often very aligned on a lot of issues. And if you look at some of the stuff that Senator and that Vice President Biden has been, has been writing about, it really has been putting democracy as a key pillar in how we think about foreign policy and the need for American leadership on that. That’s not to say there aren’t isolationist forces within the country. And we need to do a much better job as a foreign policy community, of explaining to the American people why these things matter, and why it matters to them in their lives. And so that is on us to do. But I think that the appetite is there, if we make the case, and that to the very last question on what citizens can do is one of the answers is to help us make that case on why these why these questions of democracy, and American leadership and democratic leadership are so important for us as citizens.

Dr Alan Mendoza 58:12

Good. All right. And if you have to jump off your meeting, of course, we understand. So thank you for your contributions. Dan, you’ve got the pick of everything to conclude.

Dan Twining 58:21

Well, thanks. I mean, what a gift. I spent 10 years on the staff of Senator McCain and my Institute, he was chairman for 25 years. I really appreciate just to have a minute to reflect on kind of his legacy today. And look, as Laura and Bill and you know, Alan, American history has always been a struggle between isolationism and kind of foreign engagement, right? It’s not new. You know, I think the pandemic is the latest reminder that what happens over there affects us right here at home. The malign spread of this pandemic, which was partly because Chinese Communist Party leaders repressed open reporting on it and official reporting on it – that authoritarian governance gap has changed our way of life in America and in Europe and everywhere. These are not separate things. Similarly, our prosperity is tied to the world. So are some of the economic risks associated with undue economic dependence on countries like China or on countries like Russia in the case of energy flows. Right? So I think we can make a very smart case and I would implore the question on what can we do.  Politicians rarely get asked about foreign policy. You can go to a town hall in America at any level, and nobody is asking about foreign policy. They’re all asking about very local issues, which is fair enough. Politicians need to know that there are constituencies out there that understand the link between our democracy at home and the state of the world. Right? Whether it’s refugees, whether it’s the pandemic, whether it’s International narcotics, whatever it is, those threats do not stay over there they come to us unless countries can govern themselves well and justly.

Dr Alan Mendoza 1:00:10

That’s a great way to conclude a reminder that we can’t just sit aside and watch things happen thinking they won’t affect us because they certainly do. Thank you, panellists for a brilliant discussion. I didn’t think it would be possible to do the subject justice in one hour, but you’ve given a wonderful crack at it. And I think we’ve covered vast amounts of ground in different areas. A reminder that as the pandemic rages, and others will seek to take advantage of this. And it’s incumbent on us to know what’s going on to try and push back and begin to make the case again, for renewed support for democracy, freedom, and indeed human rights. So thank you all for joining us. It’s a great thing, of course, being able to join it being joined across the world by not only the panellists, but also members of the audience. There’s another webinar at 6pm UK time on Monday, “Public attitudes towards the UK government response to the Covid-19 pandemic”. We’re looking at polling and how that reflects over there. Please do join us for that and that reminds me to thank the panellists once more and to wish you a very good day. Thank you very much.


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