Should American Nonprofits Work In China? with Freedom House's Michael Abramowitz

Jun 27, 2022 48 min listen

For decades, American nonprofits and philanthropies worked with Chinese citizens and the Chinese Communist Party. In ways large and small, they’ve helped build civil society in the country. But over the last several years especially, the space for foreign NGOs to operate in China has increasingly shrunk. COVID restrictions, paranoia about Western influence, and an American public suspicious of Beijing have made it far more difficult for organizations to work with or in China.

Should nonprofits and philanthropies continue to engage with a China ruled by an increasingly hostile Party? What ethical compromises must they make to maintain their presence in China, and are those compromises worth it? And what work can and should they do, if any, to push back against the Party’s influence globally?

Freedom House's Michael Abramowitz and Strategy Risks' Isaac Stone Fish discuss these questions and more.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Hi. I'm Isaac Stone Fish. I'm very excited to have Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, here for our third installation of a really fascinating series we've been doing, the China Boundaries series, with Carnegie Council, where we debate questions of: Where do you draw the line with China?

Today the question is: Should American Nonprofits Work in China? Michael is really the ideal person to be having this conversation with me. I'm very excited to be joined with him.

He and I were talking about what's a good place to start this, and thought about a trip that Michael had to Beijing when he was a journalist with The Washington Post in 2008 for the Olympics and an interview he had with former President George H. W. Bush while he was there.

Michael, I'd like to have you start us off there and talk about where things were in 2008 with U.S. perceptions on China as a way of talking about where things have gotten to now.

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: Sure. Thank you, Isaac, and it's really great to be with you, and thank you for inviting me on this webinar. I really appreciate it.

2008 was only 14 years ago, but in some ways it feels like 100 years ago with respect to U.S.-China relations. At the time I was a journalist for The Washington Post, where I was before I moved into the nonprofit sector and now as president of Freedom House. I was the White House correspondent for The Post at the time. In 2008 President Bush went to the Olympics in person to represent the United States at the opening of the games, and he attended a number of events, including the Dream Team U.S. basketball team contest against China.

There was some debate in the administration about whether the United States should even attend the Olympics, given China's poor human rights record, but President Bush was pretty clear that he wanted to go and that he thought that China was really moving in a very positive direction and he wanted to recognize that by attending the Games in person.

You can debate that in retrospect, but I think at the time it might have been a reasonable thing to do because at the time China was opening up, it was moving in a positive direction. It wasn't a liberal democracy by any means, but it was beginning to be more greatly integrated with the global economy. I think what we've seen in the past 14 years has been really a dramatic reversal of that situation—and we can go into that—but I think at the time it was a reasonable decision for the President to make.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Let's talk about what has changed since then, especially how things have been for the last several years. How do you contextualize where China is in terms of the ways that various nonprofit institutions, have the ability to engage with it?

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: First, let me just say that I'm not a China exert. I run a human rights organization for which China is a very major topic of concern, and I have a great set of colleagues who work on China.

I think your listeners should know, first of all, a bit about Freedom House. I'm guessing some people do. We're an organization that is both kind of a think-tank and do-tank. We are probably best known for our assessments of political rights and civil liberties in every country in the world. Every year for the past 50 years we have released something called Freedom in the World, which is an assessment of the state of freedom in every country in the world. We also do other things you can get into.

Our first engagement and interest in China really comes from Freedom in the World. I think what's very interesting is that from a very low base China has really deteriorated in terms of its respect for political rights and civil liberties under President Xi.

In 2011–12 when we looked at China, China scored 17 on a global scale of 0–100, which is a pretty low bar, but, as I said, there was some reason to think that China was moving in a better direction. Since then freedom has really deteriorated in China, so when we last did Freedom of the World just a few months ago in February, China scored 9 on a scale of 0–100, so that's an almost 50 percent drop from a very low base.

Things like freedom of the media, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, transparency, rule of law—all these areas are areas that we look at, in which China has been deteriorating under President Xi Jinping. It's really one of the least free countries in the world from the point of view of human rights.

ISAAC STONE FISH: One of the reasons I wanted to have you on this is because it feels like in the question of "how do nonprofits work in China?" most people just come to the conclusion, "Well, China can't be ignored, therefore, we have to try to be in China." Whereas I feel like part of what you guys do is say, "China can't be ignored, therefore, let us continue to do very critical research on China, but not necessarily in China."

Can you talk about how Freedom House manages with all of the external pressures and all of the external stakeholders who are, frankly, afraid of offending Beijing and offending the Chinese Communist Party? How do you keep your organization separate in a way from those issues, or how do you manage those tradeoffs?

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: You said something at the beginning, Isaac, which I just wanted to emphasize. We don't work inside China. I personally have been banned from China essentially and my organization has been banned. We were sanctioned officially by the Chinese government a couple of years ago. So even if we wanted to, we would not be able to work inside China. I do think that if we worked inside China it would be very dangerous for anyone who wanted to work with us. I just wanted to say that up-front.

That said, you can work on China, and I do think from the numbers that I said, Isaac, that China is one of the most serious questions for those of us in the world who care about human rights and freedom. I mean it's not just what's happening in Xinjiang Province, it's not just what's happening in Hong Kong, it's not just threats to Taiwan, but it's also the threats to things like religious liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought inside China, and I would say the increasing propensity of the Chinese government to try to export its version of repression.

We have done several reports on an issue that we call transnational repression. This is where authoritarian governments like China, like Russia, like Saudi Arabia, not only limit human rights within their borders, but they are increasingly trying to shape the external environment and in some cases repress people who have fled the country to essentially free countries. If you think just about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at a Turkish consulate a few years ago by the Saudi government, that kind of practice has gone kind of global.

China we found is one of the half-dozen most serious violators of what we call transnational repression, where they are intimidating, harassing, surveilling, and in some cases rendering back to their own country people who are their critics in exile. So really what is happening in China is not just staying in China anymore, it's being exported, and that's something that we're very concerned about.

I think for any group—whether it's a business, whether it's a nonprofit, whether it's a university, whether it's an NBA team—you have to understand about working inside China now that you are going to expose yourself to certain risks that you might not have exposed yourself to maybe 10–15 years ago.

I'm not here to tell anyone how to run their own business or how to run their own nonprofit. I just think people need to be aware of the risks now of working with China that I think are not the same as they were 15 or 20 years ago.

ISAAC FISH STONE: I think that's really well said.

Now I'd love to hear your thoughts on your sense of where the nonprofit community is vis-à-vis China. There's this sense in DC and among some communities in the United States that they a really growing more aware of how China has changed and how the U.S.–China relationship has changed, especially with the genocide in Xinjiang and further digital repression in China. Hollywood I would argue is not there, Wall Street is not there.

I would love for you to take the temperature of the nonprofit world. What's the sense of where folks that you talk to are on China?

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: I do think, Isaac, that there is growing awareness of the risks and challenges of working with China. I think you have to have your head under a rock or in a cave somewhere to not be aware of that.

I'm part of the human rights community, the democracy community, so we are perhaps most aware of that. We have to be extremely cautious about engaging with China. I'm always constantly worried about cyber-risk to my organization and things like that. So I think the human rights community is very well aware of what the challenges are of working with China—groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, National Democratic Institute, and International Republican Institute, and Freedom House. This is a major issue now for anyone who cares about human rights, and I think we all recognize how challenging it is.

I think maybe the more interesting issues now involve other types of nonprofits—for instance, universities or other organizations for which human rights may not be the major issue but they are interested in cultural exchanges or things like that.

I think, Isaac—and you and I have been involved in some of these conversations—there is a growing awareness of the challenges there. Being the head of Freedom House, I've ended up speaking on varying college campuses over the last number of years where I get invited, and in talking to professors and administrators at some of these universities, I think there is a widespread appreciation of the challenges of what had maybe 10–15 years ago been an easier call—"Yeah, we're going to set up a campus in this city or that city." I think people are now recognizing that there are more challenges that are associated with that.

ISAAC STONE FISH: I'm going to ask you a question that I myself don't know the answer to, and it's something I debate a lot. Are there situations where you feel it's ethical for a global nonprofit to maintain a China office or China presence or a China branch campus?

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: You know, Isaac, there's not a "one size fits all" answer to your question. There's no question that in some cases there is value that comes from these kinds of presences, from these kinds of relationships, but they also come with a cost.

The way I think about it is that there are maybe two basic issues that any nonprofit has to think about.

One would be: What's your theory of change? What's your goal with China itself? Can you help contribute to positive change, educational, social, and other changes? I think we have to recognize that that's possible, although I do think we have to be very humble about the ability of outsiders to have much influence in a country of close to 2 billion people that has done very well for itself economically. I think we have to be very humble about our ability to influence events there.

The second area that I'm personally concerned about is: What [audio glitch] citizens of America or citizens of the world? In America, for instance, we have very strong protection of free speech rights through the First Amendment. To what extent are American institutions going to have to give up the right to criticize, which could be part of the situation if you engage with China in a certain way? If you open up an office and you start talking about history or things in a way that is different than the Chinese government is comfortable with, you may find yourself faced with the question: The price of you staying is you shutting up on those issues that are core to your values.

I think different people are going to answer questions different ways. We are a freedom of speech/freedom of conscience/freedom of religion freedom organization, so we are going to answer that question a certain way. Others may have other objectives.

ISAAC STONE FISH: I like that. I think that's really nicely said. One of my frustrations with nonprofits in China is that they are not up-front about the tradeoffs that they're making and they sometimes mislead their stakeholders.

Universities: For example, one of the vice deans of New York University about five-six years ago said, "We're having a campus in China and we are going to uphold the same values of freedom of speech that we do in New York." That's false. That's just not possible in China.

I would support an institution there that says, "Listen, we can't keep the same level of freedom of speech because of Chinese laws and Chinese norms. Our campus is going to be very heavily censored and very heavily monitored. Do we like that? No. Do we feel like that is a sacrifice we must make so that people can have access and exposure to China? Yes."

I worry sometimes about the way that nonprofits and academic institutions engage with China in that they make people think that China is different than it actually is, that you can do these things and keep your values. You can't. That doesn't mean you shouldn't necessarily be there—there are a lot of great arguments for being there—but I think we have to be up-front about those issues.

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: That's very well said, Isaac, and I agree with you. I think just being honest about what the situation is, that if you work in China or have people inside China, you will not have the same kind of ability to be open, honest, and critical as you would normally.

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think that's a good segue to Wall Street and the business community. When you start out talking to me here and described yourself as a human rights organization, I think for our listeners who aren't familiar with China, organizations that explicitly describe themselves as human rights organizations tend to have more problems in China because of the way the Communist Party views those terms.

I'm wondering what can we do and what can listeners to this event do to make it so that Wall Street, big businesses, your "average American" can very freely support organizations like yours without being afraid of reprisal from Beijing?

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: It's a great question. I think to make explicit what you are making implicit, I do think that there is a huge amount of global money and U.S. money that is now parked inside China. I think that's a reality. I think it makes certain firms—I'm not going to name names—nervous about supporting groups like Freedom House. There are some that do, but it's a complicating factor.

I think the [audio glitch] you have addressed is I do think there has been a movement towards environmental, social, and governance (ESG), more responsible investment. I think a lot of the concerns of American businesses have really revolved around environmental standards, sustainable development, and governance questions, having an adequate representation of racial diversity.

The issue that I think has become increasingly front-and-center for Americans and American companies is: What are the risks of investing in authoritarian countries? Are your investments going to be treated fairly? Is there going to be a rule of law that is going to uphold this? That's a question that I think businesses have to really think carefully about.

We've had a great real-life example of this, I think, over the last four or five months with the wholesale flight of Western capital from Russia because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I think Russia has not been the kind of gravy train for businesses that China has been, but I think there have been investments there. But I think people are now realizing that there is a risk to having this kind of presence in authoritarian settings.

You've had a situation in China—and I don't know all the details—but we haven't heard so much from Jack Ma in the last year or two, and he is someone who was one of the most successful entrepreneurs in China. We don't know exactly what's going on with his company, but I think the point is that as problematic as things are sometimes in our own countries in the West, I think businesses are coming to realize the problems potentially with investments in China, in Russia, and in other authoritarian settings.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Just a reminder to those listening that you can send in questions in the chat that you want me to ask Mike and we'll turn to those in a bit.

I think you brought up a lot of really good points. I'm glad you brought up ESG, which is this relatively new idea of corporate social responsibility of companies acting in the better interest of the global or the American good. It really butts up against people's perception of China, and I'd say it's one of the mean reasons that a lot of people denigrate ESG in the investment space.

I run a research company, and one of the reasons why I say I founded the company was because I got frustrated with the ESG space where a company like HiteVision could have good climate policies or good gender diversity among its senior staff but make surveillance cameras for concentration camps and still have a high ESG score.

I think this brings up really important issues about where corporate America is going. We have seen that with activism after the Roe v. Wade overturning. We've seen that with the Trump administration. We've seen a lot of people in the Republican Party be quite frustrated at companies like Disney that have values that they are trying to implement in the United States and then partner very closely with the Chinese Communist Party in China in ways that allow for very gleeful denunciations of hypocrisy.

We are in a world where there's a pretty decent sized intersection between the nonprofit world and the government world. People will say, "Oh well, the trend debate is the one true area of bipartisan concern." Obviously it's a lot more complicated than that.

I'm wondering, as someone who has been in the DC area for quite some time, if you could untangle that for folks and walk through your perception of bipartisanship or partisanship in the China issues especially as it relates to nonprofits.

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: I've been in Washington for a long time, in the swamp so to speak, as a reporter here, then I've had different jobs in the nonprofit sector, and now I'm at Freedom House. To me there is no question that there is much greater suspicion and hostility perhaps toward China than there would have been maybe 10–15 years ago.

When I was at The Washington Post, I very much remember being involved in The Washington Post's coverage of the decision to allow China to come into the World Trade Organization (WTO). There really was sort of a consensus—not everybody—about whether that was the right thing to do, that China was opening up, that China would benefit and would grow more liberal, maybe not become a liberal democracy, with greater integration with the world economy. That has really not proved to be the case.

I do think that you find more common cause about China. You see people like, on the one hand, Nancy Pelosi, who is one of the fiercest defenders of human rights on China and critics of the Chinese government, but also people like Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, and Marco Rubio. That's interesting. I think there is very much of a bipartisan concern about China's human rights practices. I think also increasingly there is bipartisan concern about China's economic practices.

I do think there is probably less discontinuity between the Trump administration and the Biden administration on China relative to other issues. I'm still struck that at his confirmation hearing Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked point-blank, "Do you think that genocide is taking place in Xinjiang?" and he said, "Yes," and there had just been a similar finding from Mike Pompeo.

So I do think that you have a growing kind of bipartisan understanding about the threats from China, about the human rights abuses, about China's belligerent behavior in other countries. I think that is certainly something that people in both parties recognize.

I think where we are perhaps struggling is what to do about it. China's still the second-biggest economy in the world and could probably overtake the United States at some point. China is still very important in dealing with substantial global challenges like climate change. So really the question is: How can you engage China but also stand up for your values at the same time?

I think you can do both. I think we showed during the Cold War that we were able to do that with respect to the Soviet Empire. I think we're going to have to think about how to do that today.

ISAAC STONE FISH: On that question, which I think you framed very nicely, Carnegie is an ethics organization, and I'd love to hear from you with your leadership of Freedom House hat on: How do you deal with these issues ethically and what are some of the ethical minefields that your organization or other organizations face when thinking about the China question?

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: To be honest, Isaac, for us I don't there are really major ethical challenges. I think we're pretty clear about how we feel about what's happening with human rights in China. We have not shied away from that. We've been very clear about that.

But we do think about making sure that our involvement or our partnerships with groups do not make life difficult for them. That's something that I think about. People have to be able to make their own judgments about who they're going to work with. I would acknowledge that for some people a partnership with Freedom House might present some problems, and I respect that.

I think you start from a proposition of "do no harm," so you want to do anything you can to do no harm.

ISAAC STONE FISH: You mentioned that organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have handled these issues gracefully. I tend to push on the negative, but I think we can celebrate folks as well. Are there other organizations or individuals who you feel have handled these ethical challenges with grace or integrity?

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: They're not really an organization, but I happened to be in Lithuania recently. I was in Eastern Europe because Freedom House also does a lot of work and has interest in what's happening in Eastern Europe. It's very interesting that the Lithuanian government welcomed an office from Taiwan in Vilnius really at great economic cost to Lithuania. They lost pretty much all their—it wasn't a huge amount of money, but it was not insignificant. I admire Lithuania for standing up for its values very much with respect to its foreign policy.

I also think about the Women's Tennis Association, which, very bravely I thought, put its own business in China at risk by speaking out very forcefully about the threats to Peng Shuai, a prominent women tennis player. That got a lot of attention four or five months ago.

I think there are countries, institutions, and groups that can stand up for their values and continue to do their work. I think it's better that all of us do that. I think what the Chinese do is kind of pick off some of us, so they will go after a specific company and try to make a specific example of it and try to keep other companies in line.

If everybody said, "Hey, we are not going to police the free speech rights of our employees. They can say what they want. We're happy to work in China, but you've got to know that if we're going to work in China we're not going to tell our employees on their own time not to say what they want to say about human rights in China," I think that would be a great thing for corporate America to do.

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think that's really nicely said.

I think it's funny that whenever we plan as an organization, you make these plans and then reality happens and scoffs at your plans. Sometimes it's helpful and sometimes it's not. I wonder how for Freedom House the Russian invasion changed both how the organization functions or reacts in general, and also changed your perception of China, if in any way.

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: I wouldn't say that it has really changed things appreciably. I think we have been well aware at Freedom House, because we've been tracking it for quite some time, the kind of authoritarian resurgence.

For background, we've been tracking this for 50 years, and every year for the past 16 years there are more countries that are less respectful of human rights and civil liberties than there are those that respect them. We're quite concerned about that general trend.

I think with Russia it's not that we had blinders or rose-colored glasses on, but I think it's hard to look at Russia now and to think that they are going to change their behavior. Over the last 20 years they have intervened very bloodily in Syria, they have grabbed Crimea, they've invaded Georgia, now the Ukraine invasion. There had been a hope that one could engage Russia, and I think that hope has kind of dissipated.

I guess the big question with China is what they plan to do on Taiwan. You and I have talked about that some over the last few months. I would be quite worried about a military invasion by China at some point because I think that President Xi has kind of made it clear that he sees bringing all Chinese groups under Mainland China's control—whether it's Tibet, Hong Kong—and now the next big one, the only one remaining, is really Taiwan. That should be of great concern.

I really think the question would be: How much would he be deterred by seeing how the West and the business community reacted to Ukraine? I think he might have some second thoughts. I don't know for sure. I think you can argue it two ways. But I think there has been a pretty massive effort to make Russia a pariah state—not in the entire world, but among many—and the question is: How long will it last? I would think that President Xi might have some questions about what would happen if he tried to invade Taiwan. I hope he would.

ISAAC STONE FISH: I hope so too. Elite politics in China is such a black box, it's so difficult to know exactly how the Politburo Standing Committee and the leading generals are viewing the situation.

We started this conversation talking about some of the issues of China beyond China, that what happens in China doesn't stay in China. I'd like to pick up on some of those questions because I feel like in the context of "should nonprofits be in China" understanding what China is doing globally and how to push back on some of those negative elements is a really good way to do that.

I wonder, Mike, if you could give some examples of some of the research that you are doing and some of what you're seeing on Beijing's global footprint that you feel is a good indication of the work that nonprofits can do on China outside of China.

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: Sure. Thank you very much for that. Let me say a couple of things.

One thing that I would not give up on, Isaac, is getting accurate information in Chinese to the Chinese people. We know there are virtual private networks (VPNs) in China, we know that there's a lot of content in the West that is consumed in China—exactly how much we don't know—but I do think it's very important not to give up on getting accurate information into China. There are many different groups that are thinking about that. The U.S. government is thinking about that. But I do think that that is a really important thing.

And I do think that one thing that I was quite concerned about that happened during the Trump administration was when China booted out all the correspondents for the big global newspapersThe New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and a number of others. That was a very hard blow to the cause of transparency about what's happening inside China.

You mentioned—which I think is right—that the internal dynamics of the Chinese leadership is very hard even if you have reporters there, but there's a lot of other things that are going on in China that are happening out there in plain sight and we want to make sure that is known. That's number one.

The second point I would make, Isaac, is compared to the Cold War period China is much more active on the global stage. They are, for instance, trying to influence UN bodies. I'm always struck by the situation with respect to the Human Rights Council, where China is a member of the Human Rights Council, incredibly. In fact, about one-third of the 50 or so members of the Human Rights Council are authoritarian countries, or not "free" countries as Freedom House labels them. I think China has been increasingly active in trying to shape the UN system to its liking.

They had a big success with the really unfortunate—I'm being nice here—trip of the Human Rights Commissioner to Xinjiang, which turned out to be a complete propaganda victory for the Chinese government. I think that's something.

An issue that we are very concerned about at Freedom House is, as I mentioned, the transnational repression issue, of China's efforts to intimidate Chinese who are in the diaspora, to surveil, monitor, and watch Chinese students who are studying abroad. I think that's a big issue.

Another issue that we have been very concerned about at Freedom House is the way in which China is trying to shape the media ecosystem in other countries. We have a big report that will be coming out in the fall, headed by our wonderful China researcher Sarah Cook, which is going to look at the role that China plays in shaping the media in 30 countries around the world.

I think that's a big difference between China now and, say, China before Tiananmen Square, during the Mao period. There were a lot of bad things that were happening inside China, but China was not by and large too effective in trying to shape the climate outside of China. That's much different now.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Here is a question from the audience: We discussed China in 2008 and the potential paths that China might have taken going forward, and you talked about how some of the assumptions people had back then were reasonable despite the fact that they didn't come to pass. The future is impossible to predict.

That said, how do you see the next 10 years or the next several years unfolding as it relates to China specifically in regard to the issues that you work with in Freedom House?

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: I certainly feel that if you look at our reports, both Freedom in the World and also we do another report called Freedom of the Net, which looks at freedom of online users—and that's actually something we haven't talked much about, but that's an area where China has actually been kind of a pioneer in terms of controlling the information that gets to Chinese people.

There was a quote that Bill Clinton made in the 1990s—I'm not going to get it exactly right, but sort of directionally what he said was China's not going to be able to really control the Internet because it would be like nailing Jell-O to the wall. That has actually not proven to be the case. China has its so-called "Great Firewall," has 2 million censors, maybe more, and they have really been very successful in blocking accurate information from getting to the Chinese people. And now they are, as we said in one of our reports that we did several years ago, really stepping up efforts to export those tools of digital authoritarianism to other countries. They have been doing trainings for countries like Vietnam or other countries to help them learn how to better control the Internet.

I think that the issues of human rights, freedom, and democracy are going to be big issues going forward. I don't see things getting better for a while.

I would just say that I tend to be sort of a hopeful person, and in general I do think democratic change moves in waves if you look at history. We are going now through a particular downturn, but I do think that in the long term people do not want to be controlled. I think the human heart demands freedom. It's not a Western value, it's a global value.

I just look at what has happened in Taiwan, which has been one of the biggest freedom success stories over the last 30 years. Those are Chinese people, and they now have one of the world's most thriving democracies after have had a military dictatorship there for a long time after the fall of the Kuomintang on the Mainland in 1950.

I do feel hopeful in the long term. Again I'm not a China expert, but when you talk to people who are experts on China, I think they often will emphasize the idea that many of us don't really know how brittle things are inside China from the outside.

Xi Jinping is under the same pressures that President Biden is—he has to deliver economic results, he has to deliver economic growth, he has to deliver transparency, and corruption can be very corrosive. When you look at what has happened in Shanghai with the COVID-19 lockdowns over the last few months, I have to imagine that that is not making the Chinese government too popular right now among the Chinese people.

I think it's important not to lose hope. We have our own problems in our own country of course, not anywhere near as severe as the problems in China. I do feel hopeful in the long term, but I think we're going to have some bumpiness going forward. I hope that's responsive to the question that was asked.

ISAAC STONE FISH: That's a fantastic answer, and I think that sets us up for what I'd like us to conclude on. We just looked at what the future may be. I'm wondering what you think the most helpful past analogy is. People will talk about the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, people will talk about the situation in Nazi Germany, possibly in the 1930s in Germany, with Hollywood possibly with the situation in Xinjiang; people will talk about the concentration camps that the Germans had in Namibia in the earlier part of the 20th century or the camps at the U.S. border under the Trump administration; or the divestment movements either against Israel or against South Africa in the 1980s. I'm wondering if any of those comparisons you found helpful in understanding and guiding Freedom House as it tries to untangle the situation with China, or if you feel there's another framework that you like to use to think about U.S.–China and all of these really big issues.

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: It's a good question. I think historical analogies are really bad sometimes. Although history sometimes rhymes, I certainly steer away from Hitler or Nazi analogies. I worked for the Holocaust Museum for many years, and those tend to be usually overstated.

There are two things that are a little bit different that I would put on the table. One is that I think democracy is by definition a very fragile flower, if you will, and I think we should not take it for granted. It has to be struggled for and fought for. It can be with us and then in certain countries it could be lost without really recognizing it.

I do think that history tells us that directionally we are moving in a good direction with respect to democracy and freedom, but we have to be really on our guard and vigilant to make sure that we are not taking it for granted.

The other issue that I also have thought a lot about is the role of corruption and the role of the news media. It seems to me that one of the Achilles' heels for authoritarian countries is the fact that if you tend to look deeply into it—and I think Russia would be a good example, possibly China as well, and you might know more about this—these authoritarian leaders tend to hold on to power by indulging or allowing a fair amount of state plunder, a fair amount of giving certain State assets to people who are very politically well connected. I think that eventually comes back to bite you.

If Alexei Navalny has one issue that has helped propel him, it's that he has really put a finger on the corruption that is basic to the Putin regime. That is going to really create increasingly disaffection, I think, with the Russian people. You are seeing this happen all over the world.

It seems to me that a real strategy for combatting authoritarian power ought to be really focusing on the exposure of corruption, the exposure of State capture, and really doing everything you can to help journalists and human rights defenders. They have to do it themselves, but they need support to expose what's going on.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Thank you, Mike. I think that was a great note to end on. I think this has been a fantastic guide on how to cover China and make change involving China as a nonprofit from outside of China. I really appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts and insights.

Thanks to the Carnegie Council as always for hosting this. We really appreciate everyone joining and listening.

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: Thanks a lot. It was fun to be with you. I appreciate the good questions.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Thanks, Mike. Take care. Have a good day.

[SH1]also referred to as the Guomindang

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