The Fragility of Freedom and Democracy with Nathan Law, András Simonyi, Can Dündar

Full Transcript

Moderator: Earlier this year, the whole world was reminded of just how fragile democracy is. We all saw the scenes on television of rioters here in the US storming the US Capitol. The erosion of freedom and democracy is something we have seen in many other countries around the world. Joining me to discuss this further is Andras Simonyi, the former Hungarian ambassador to the US; Nathan Law, leader of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Opposition Movement and a former member of parliament; and Can Dundar, a Turkish journalist who was arrested and forced into exile for his brave reporting that exposed the Erdogan regime’s involvement in arming Islamist rebels in Syria. So, I want to start by asking each of you: When was the first moment that you realized that democracy was slipping away in your country? Nathan, let me start with you.

Nathan Law: Thank you. Well, Hong Kong has never been a democracy. But I’ve encountered one rather personal incident that reminds me of how fragile our system and the spirit of democracy is. So in 2016, I was elected as the youngest ever member of parliament in Hong Kong at the age of 23. But after I assumed office for nine months, the Chinese government issued a reinterpretation to apply to our constitution and to apply a new restriction on our oath-taking ceremony and to apply it retrospectively so that they could make my oath-taking session invalid. So then after I assumed office for nine months, I was disqualified, and more than 50,000 ballots were cast into the rubbish bin. So you can really see that under an authoritarian regime, even though we’ve got the veil of a semi-democratic system, the Chinese government demolished them very easily, and for me, I was disqualified regardless of so much support from the people.

Moderator: So, just for some of our viewers here who might not know, Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997. And as part of that, there were supposed to be certain freedoms that were guaranteed. Tell us a little bit about what was supposed to happen versus what happened in reality.

Nathan Law: Yeah, in 1997, Hong Kong was handed back from the British government to the Chinese government under the system “one country, two systems.” Under this framework, Hong Kong people shall enjoy their freedoms, democracy, rule of law, and autonomy, which means that Hong Kong people rule Hong Kong, and our internal affairs are not intervened by the Chinese government — except military and diplomatic ones. But increasingly, China has been interfering in our internal system and also depriving us from our basic rights — for example, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. And for Hong Kong now the “one country, two systems” basically turned into “one country, one system,” and Hong Kong is becoming another ordinary Chinese city. So that is why Hong Kong people marched down to the streets: to defend our freedom and to pressure the Chinese government to do whatever they have promised.

Moderator: So, Can, I want to come to you. In Turkey, similar to Hong Kong back in the day, everybody thought that this could go one way. Twenty or thirty years ago, Turkey was a darling of the West. It was looked at as a template for how a secular democracy could work. What went so wrong?

Can Dundar: Well, the moment I started worrying about Turkish democracy was the first shocking interview of Mr. Erdogan, which was published when he was elected as the mayor of Istanbul back in 1996. So, in this interview, he was asked about democracy, and he said his reference is not democracy but Islam. And he said democracy is just a means for him to reach his goal. And he likened democracy to a train that you can get off when you have reached your destination. So, I mean, that was clearly a message that he would use democracy to destroy it, and this was the moment I realized that we were faced with a danger, a present and clear danger for our democracy.

Moderator: And it’s gone from that to now you are being forced to flee because, actually, Erdogan himself put out a complaint against you in a court of law. And as this process was going out, you were nearly assassinated as you came out.

Can Dundar: Yeah, I’m not the only one to be honest. There are thousands of people in jail just because of their opinions, their writings, their tweets — lawyers, intellectuals, and journalists in Turkey. I mean, since then, he gradually destroyed Turkish democracy and turned it into a one-man, one-party type of system. And that’s why Turkey has become the biggest jail for journalists, for example, racing with China. And that’s of course unfortunate because democracy back then was functioning well, but now it’s at the age of destroying it.

Moderator: So, it’s interesting, with democracy slipping, there’s lots of similarities, although the cases are very different. But it’s your version of a free press, a weaponizing of a judicial system. Andras, coming to you, Hungary is slightly different because it is in the European Union, so, technically, it is a democracy. So, when did you first realize that democracy was slipping away in Hungary?

Andras Simonyi: Well, first of all, I’m not supposed to be sitting here. Thirty years ago, Hungary was a thriving democracy with a bright future, and we were actually showing the way for others. But it’s a cautionary tale of how easily a democracy, with all its institutions, can slip away and how you can demolish democracy in just a couple of years. You’re quite right, Hungary is a member of the European Union, and it’s a member of NATO. And my deepest disappointment is that that in itself did not protect the country from sliding towards what I would call a hybrid system. It’s not a dictatorship. It’s not yet an autocracy, but it’s a borderline autocracy. Eleven years ago, there was an election in Hungary where the party of Mr. Viktor Orban won the elections by a two thirds majority. And I heard him speak after he had declared victory, and I said to myself: This man is never going to let go again. That was the moment when I realized that, sooner or later, Hungry is going to slide in this direction.

Moderator: It’s interesting though because there’s some people who say that you can’t compare Hungary to Turkey or to Hong Kong because it is part of the EU. But you say that Orban is actually much more sophisticated than people give him credit for. Why?

Andras Simonyi: Orban is a smart guy. And Orban is my personal biggest disappointment. In 1989, I was with Victor Orban in Spain at a big peace conference in San Sebastian. That was exactly the days of the Tiananmen Massacre. We demonstrated together. He was a Democrat, he was a liberal. And never in my dreams would I have thought that this extremely smart and bright guy would lead the country in this direction. Fast-forward, I have to say that he is brilliant — unfortunately, he is brilliant. And I would also agree that you cannot compare Hungary to Hong Kong. But you can definitely compare Mr. Orban to Erdogan. You can compare him to Vladimir Putin. Or, recently, he’s become a great fan of Xi Jinping. So while the country is not there, and I hope it will never get there, Mr. Orban can be compared to these people. They all want power, and they all want to stay in power forever.

Moderator: We’ve seen protests in all three of these countries. In Hungry, people have been out on the streets. In Turkey, we’ve seen so many people out on the streets, many of them who are now in jail. In Hong Kong, the whole world saw, especially in 2019, the constant protests that became very violent. In each case, the West has been slow to act. And why do you think this is? Nathan, let me start with you.

Nathan Law: Well, I think there is a complacency and a false perception on China’s future on hand for the past two decades. The global democracy decline has been ongoing for two decades, and last year was the very first year since 2001 that there are more authoritarian institutions than the democratic ones. So the rise of the Chinese authoritarian expansion plays at this big backdrop. And, for Hong Kong people, we are suffering from a more aggressive, assertive, and confident one-party dictatorship led by Xi Jinping. And we believe that Hong Kong people deserve democracy and freedom. And that’s why we come out to protest and to fight against all these authoritarian approaches to Hong Kong, the destruction of our free system — and also to fight for our future.

Moderator: And in Turkey’s case why do you think that the West was so slow to act there, Can?

Can Dundar: They were not slow, but they were nonexistent to be honest. Even, they were supportive to the Erdogan regime for a while, and that’s a huge disappointment for all of us. It all started with the refugee flow, I can say. In the beginning, Erdogan was pretending to be a legal guy — someone who believes in democracy — so many Western circles believed in him. And then with the Gezi protests for the first time, I guess in 2013, the world realized that he wants to be a dictator, and he smashed the whole opposition on the streets. So Western governments started criticizing him. But then the refugee crisis had started, and that helped Erdogan a lot because many Western governments were in panic, and they tried to convince Erdogan to keep the refugees in Turkey, and they made a refugee deal with him. And the deal was a kind of dirty deal. The deal was: You keep the refugees in Turkey and don’t send them to European continent, and in return we will pay you back, and we will turn a blind eye to your cruelty. And that worked very well for him.

Moderator: So I’m hearing from both of you that you’re saying that the West was complicit in both of these situations. Is that your opinion too of the situation in Hungary?

Andras Simonyi: Oh, I agree. And I really would agree that the West became too complacent after the fall of the Berlin wall. It became lazy. It did not see the democratization process through in Central and Eastern Europe. They did not understand what a difficult process it is. They did not understand the depths of the damage by communism on the minds of people. So they also thought that by pulling Hungary and other countries into the European Union and NATO, these structural changes would take care of the democracy issue. And, therefore, I would say that it’s not understanding the situation but also, because that was the easier way to deal with it. But I would also add that they have been outsmarted by Mr. Orban. Viktor Orban understands the way the West thinks. He understands that the first reaction to crises of the West is appeasement. And he’s very good at doing this. I just want to add one thing where I myself was wrong. I thought the European Union would actually be more helpful in protecting democracy, and I did not see that joining the European Union actually weakened the immune system of society to fight back early enough because they thought that the European Union would push back harder, and they actually believed the rhetoric — which was just rhetoric — that they would do something about this. And, by now, I’m afraid it’s too late.

Moderator: But does it come back to this idea of — democracy is a political idea, but in reality, is it just about trade relations? Is it, for example, the auto manufacturers — there’s trade between Hungary and Germany — so is this potentially why trade is actually becoming more of an issue than the ideal, the political idea of democracy? Can you tell me a little bit about your views on that?

Andras Simonyi: Well, let me be brutally honest. Germany bears huge responsibility for what’s going on in Hungary. It has been shielding Viktor Orban within the European Union. The interest of the German auto industry has always come before Hungary’s democratic interests. So, yes, there are people who say, “It’ll be alright. Don’t rock the boat.” And sometimes I have the feeling that policies towards Hungary are not made in Berlin but made in Munich and Stuttgart, where the big auto factories are located.

Moderator: So I have to play devil’s advocate here because it’s an interesting point that you raised, but from the EU’s point of view — from the West’s — to all of you really, isn’t there a school of thought that it’s better to keep Hungary within the European Union rather than push it towards Russia? I can say the same thing about Turkey. The European Union wants to keep deals and keep this relationship with Turkey rather than have another Iran or allow Iran’s sphere of influence. And in Hong Kong, it’s again like this battle with China. Let me start with you on, Andras — what do you say to that?

Andras Simonyi: Well, there comes a point when keeping Hungary inside these institutions — and I hate to say this — becomes a threat to the integrity of these institutions, including NATO and the European Union. Hungary is slowly becoming the Trojan horse for Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin inside these institutions, and that’s the point where both NATO and the European Union need to get tougher not in the interest of Hungary but in the interest of its own integrity and future. So, my argument is this cannot continue forever. By the way, this should have been done sooner. Viktor Orban is not a fool; he understands that he’s only interesting to Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin as long as he is inside these organizations. Once he’s outside NATO, once he’s outside the European Union, Hungary is just a tiny, tiny little country nobody will care about.

Moderator: So you don’t think that, if the European Union did take a hard line on Hungary, that it would push them?

Andras Simonyi: No, I don’t think so. I think he would want to remain in the European Union. More importantly, the majority of Hungarians want to remain within the European Union. So I don’t think Viktor Orban would ever go that far, but he loves the idea that he’s not being tested.

Moderator: That’s very interesting. Can, I want to put the same question to you. There is this argument that the EU wants to keep a friendly relationship with Turkey so as not to push them into this sphere of Iran, China, Russia, and therefore this refugee deal that you referenced earlier is part of that. You know, better the enemy you know than the enemy you don’t.

Can Dundar: I totally agree. Big companies don’t want Turkey to be another Iran, or they don’t want to push Turkey towards Russia, but they don’t want Turkey in the EU. So Turkey has been seen as a guardian of the European Union at the order of Russia. But they didn’t take Turkey as a member into the European family. So what we know is a free market would require a free society, right? That was the theory. But, in the end, what we see is they prefer stable countries. Stable means not necessarily democratic countries. You can be a stable country with an authoritarian rule. So, I guess I’m afraid they prefer countries with authoritarian rulers, which are easy to convince, instead of chaotic democratic regimes with coalition governments and too much bureaucracy, etc. So they start dealing with authoritarian leaders easily, and that means a kind of security for their investment. And I’m afraid they were ready to sacrifice the values of democratic regimes for their interests.

Moderator: Nathan, do you agree with what Can just said? We were just hearing Can talk about Turkey and him explaining about how the EU prefers a stable regime. So my question to you is: Do you think that the West is almost sacrificing Hong Kong’s democracy in order to maintain a relationship — a trade relationship, a political relationship — with China?

Nathan Law: Well, I think the West does not intend to sacrifice Hong Kong. But, in reality, their appeasement strategies towards China for the past couple of decades indeed created that result. There had been a dominant theory about China since the West started to rebuild its relationship with the regime in the 1980s. That is the modernization theory: When China’s economy grows, when it’s middle-class grows, when the demands for rule of law and an open society grow, then it will step into a modernization, democratization, and liberalization path just like it’s neighboring countries, South Korea and Japan. But, in reality, the West basically had the wrong perception. And the way that they appeased China to engage with them and to provide all their necessary needs, including access to the WTO and all the technological advancement strategies, to them became the fuel and resources for them to grow much more authoritarian. So I guess this misconception and a false protection to the path for China really grew their aggression at the cost of Hong Kong’s future and democratic institutions. So, for me, it’s rather wishful thinking from the West that created the whole situation. And, for now, they should really act much more assertively and hold China accountable. It’s the time that we should act instead of just letting China do whatever they want, and it’s the time that we seriously put human rights and the freedom situation in the country in front and center of our policies — including in trade, investment, and, of course, in human rights policies. I think this is the time the West should act and should erase this complacency.

Moderator: I’m hearing very similar things from all of you in each of your individual countries. It was appeasement that came first from the West and that it was just too slow, and it allowed the leaders to actually outsmart them or gain more power or gain more autocratic tendencies. So with the benefit of hindsight, Nathan, concretely what do you think the West could have done differently that would have led to a better outcome today?

Nathan Law: Well, first of all, we need to have a more accurate understanding on what China is up to instead of just thinking that it is a benign peacemaker and is a country that’s just focused on their internal affairs. We need to increase the expertise on understanding the dialects, the culture, and the way the Chinese government is speaking. And Western countries should really be equipped with a thorough understanding of how they infiltrate into our system — their exponential activities in our country — in order to block their ideological expansion and to protect the democracy system from being dismantled and discredited inside out. Finally, we should form an alliance as soon as possible to see the decline of global democracy as one of the major global crises, just like a climate emergency and a public health pandemic, in order to tackle it with the effort of every single democratic country. People suffer under authoritarian regimes. In Xinjiang, millions of people are being locked in concentration camps and in forced labor. In Myanmar, people are dying protesting on the street. These are appalling incidents, and we should really act by consolidating our efforts to create an alliance to tackle it. Otherwise, it will be too late, and people in democratic countries will also suffer from these authoritarian influences.

Moderator: Can, what do you say about it? What could the West have done differently in Turkey to lead to a different outcome?

Can Dundar: So Turkey is the only secular country with a huge Muslim population. So it’s a unique model that can provide the world a different approach. So Turkey’s first application to be a member in the EU is as old as me. Unfortunately, we’ve been waiting for the decision of Europe for almost sixty years now. And if Turkey had become a member of the EU, let’s say, fifty years ago, that would have changed everything, the destiny of Turkey. Turkey can be a very impressive model for the rest of the Muslim world, and we can show the world that Christians and Muslims can live together, find solutions to the problems of the world together. But denying Turkey’s application, the EU has turned into a Christian club, and it helped the polarization of the world. I guess that was the main mistake to define Turkey’s future.

Moderator: So you really think that, if Turkey was a part of the EU, things would be different?

Can Dundar: Absolutely.

Moderator: So then, Andras, what about you — because Hungary is part of the EU, and yet you’re saying that the West still should have acted quicker and stronger to actually safeguard democracy? What do you think they could have done differently within the EU itself?

Andras Simonyi: So, already 20 years ago, we said: Make sure that you have the safeguards for democracy first and foremost before you allow central European countries into the European Union and NATO. Personally, as the first Hungarian ambassador to NATO, I told my then-members — friends, members — of the alliance: Make sure that you place your demands and ask for guarantees before we join because, afterwards, you don’t have a possibility to force the new members to keep to the standards that define both the alliance and the European Union. And I was right. Once we got in, the famous Copenhagen criteria for democracy meant very little. And in hindsight, I would say both NATO and the European Union should have added a clause that, if you don’t fulfill the democratic criteria, you can be pushed out of these institutions; this is not a marriage forever. Nobody’s thought about this, and this was part of the complacency. I’d also add that I’d like to see Turkey inside the European Union. I have always advocated this because, you know, membership into European Union is, at the end of the day, about modernization. And I do believe that, if Turkey were a member of the European Union, it would have been able to modernize faster. But also I’d like to add that the caveat is: Don’t let Turkey in without foolproof guarantees that the institutions of democracy, free speech, free media, organization are protected. So that is really my response. I’d like to make one comment to my friend from Hong Kong. I totally agree with all the things that he said. And, you know, I come down on the side of those who say, “Yes, we have to work on climate with the Chinese and with the Russians but not at any cost.” because a clean world of autocracies is not a world that I’d like to live in.

Moderator: So you were an ambassador to NATO. We’ve been talking about the West. We’ve been talking about these governments. What about institutions like NATO? What about the UN and other organizations that are also supposed to safeguard democracy? Where have they been in any of these countries that we’re talking about?

Andras Simonyi: Well, they’ve been asleep.

Moderator: Would you both agree?

Can Dundar: Yeah

Nathan Law: Yeah. Properly, I would say that sometimes they’re sleeping with those regimes.

Moderator: So they’ve been ineffective in trying to safeguard any types of democracy is essentially what you’re saying. I’m interested because, Andras, you served in government, Nathan, you were in government, and there’s this argument between the three of you: Is it better to try and fight from the inside to try and change things or push for democracy or, like Can, to be on the outside, trying to hold truth to power? What’s your opinion, having served in government at the highest levels?

Andras Simonyi: You know, I don’t think it’s a matter of choice. It’s a matter of opportunity and possibilities. Hungary was a very benign communist system towards the end of the 1980s. So, honestly, it was a relatively easy choice for me to go into government and then try to change things from within and hold hands with those who were fighting on the outside. And we used to joke with each other and say, “If this goes wrong, we’ll all be in prison, and it will be the same prison whether we were serving in the regime or we were fighting the regime outside.” But I’d say that there comes a moment in the evolution of dictatorships when it is almost totally impossible to do anything from the inside. And so it all really depends on the situation. I didn’t want to be a hero. I just wanted change. The people who were fighting on the outside didn’t want to be heroes. They just wanted change. Heroes are not made; heroes happen. And this is the way I look at it, the dichotomy, you know, whether to fight inside or outside.

Moderator: That’s interesting. And Nathan, what about you? You’ve been on both sides. Did you find that it was more effective being inside government trying to change it or on the outside?

Nathan Law: Well, I would say that, if we want to achieve changes, both sides matter. It doesn’t mean that we do not need either side, but it means that in what time that for me as an activist I should be in that position. If you look at the situation of the Hong Kong government, they have been reshaping the whole election and really making the whole election into a selection and making our Legislative Council into a repressive chamber. So, at this period of time, I don’t think there is any meaningful participation in the Legislative Council because any participation will only grant legitimacy to the council. So, for now, it is better for us to organize a protest outside. But, of course, we all understand for every single ending of an authoritarian regime or dictatorship, there must be elites defecting. There must be certain cracks and divisions inside the ruling regime or conglomeration, and those are also the factors that we need to take into consideration. But, for me, it’s just not my role. We have to understand that there are lots of people in the same fight, and we stand in our own position and play our utmost influence.

Moderator: Can, you were on the outside trying to hold truth to power, trying to expose what the government was doing. Obviously it got you nearly assassinated and thrown out of the country. But did you find that being on that side was more effective?

Can Dundar: Well, I can’t say that because it’s difficult to — it’s inseparable, let’s say. They are, being inside and outside, so interrelated. Being inside in Turkey means really inside in jail. So, if you criticize the government, you can find yourself in jail the next morning. So it’s not easy to criticize the government in such a country at the moment, so that’s why, of course, at least we have a freedom to talk and reach our audience in Turkey freely from outside. But, of course, there must be a strong desire for freedom within the country that we can support from outside. So, it’s like global warming or climate change; there are no boundaries between inside and outside when it comes to defending democracy.

Moderator: So, now that you are outside the country, you’ve gone from traditional journalism to using different forms of media and now making documentaries to try and teach people or expose what’s actually happening. How effective have you found that medium to be?

Can Dundar: Very, very. To be honest, now we have two functions. One is to try to explain to the world what’s going on in our own country and at the same time trying to reach our audience within our own country. So to convince the Western world that Turkey needs help and Turkish people are really suffering and resisting and need the backing of Western people is on one side.

And on the other side is: The media is almost fully controlled by Erdogan. Now we have a kind of exile media. So mine is a radio station in Germany, and we are trying to reach our audience from afar.

Moderator: So we’ve spoken a little bit about each of your countries, but a question to all of you: There’s lots of similarities here, and there’s differences. But what do you think is leading to this rise in autocracy all over the world? Andras?

Andras Simonyi: In the case of Hungary, I think we all underestimated the role of greed and the role of corruption in poisoning society. I think what really is driving Hungary towards autocracy is this constant hunger to grab more and more and more. And that is something that is pretty special for Hungary. The one thing that we should have mentioned at the outset is that with fast economic growth comes money — lots of it. And the critical issue is: Is that going to benefit the whole of society, or is it only going to benefit a few? Because if it’s going to benefit only the few, then it will also lead to a small circle that has the control over the assets. And from economic assets, there’s only just a little step away to full control of the political assets.

Moderator: Would the other two of you agree? What in your opinion is fueling this rise and in autocracy around the world?

Can Dundar: My answer would be fear because, with the rapid changes in world politics — especially after the Syrian war, before refugees— people in every continent, but mainly in Europe, started complaining about the newcomers and were scared of losing their jobs, losing their country, losing their lifestyles. And the outsiders, the newcomers, the refugees have become an issue, and, with this fear, in many countries we saw people trying to hide under the shadow of strong leadership that they think can protect them. And this fear — this cloud of fear — changed many institutions in Europe, and it’s the same in Turkey unfortunately.

Moderator: And you, Nathan?

Nathan Law: Well, my answer would still be complacency. I think a large part of the world is being fooled by the Chinese regime. They are very good at disguising themselves under the sugar coating of a peaceful rise. But actually they are aiming at topping the world and expanding their authoritarianism through their multi-continent projects. And the world has woken up relatively late — until they have achieved so much, until the Chinese communist regime has grown into such a massive scale. And I think it really depends on whether the world now learns to cooperate with each other and to have a sense of danger that, if they do not work together, then there will be serious consequences. I think, besides that complacency, there is also a blindfolded vision that pretends that nothing is happening; but actually things are happening in front of them. Clearly it’s just a mental disregard that they have cast to it.

Moderator: So we’re hearing greed, corruption, fear, and complacency. I can certainly say here in the West, or in America, there was a feeling that all of us took democracy for granted. And so I’m interested to hear from each of you. You know, it is up to each individual citizen to safeguard their own democracy, and, a lot of times — or at least here — we haven’t been doing that. What should people be doing? What can people do to safeguard their democracy, to fight for democracy wherever they are? Nathan, I’ll start with you.

Nathan Law: Yeah, I think we really need to learn from these countries’ stories, to promote an idea that democracy and freedom are so fragile. People benefit from a free system; they have freedom of speech, they have freedom of flow, and they can enjoy their own personal safety. But those can fade in a relatively easy term, and, to be honest, not many people living in democracies understand that point. So I think these stories are really valuable to be broadcast, and people should not only be the beneficiaries of these free systems but also the guardians of it. The protection of freedom is not in the hands of the powerful people and the regimes but in the hands of the people who are recognizing the fact that there are many demagogues and greedy people that want to reap the fruits of a free society and to stay in power forever. So I think it’s important to broadcast our stories, and this is a valuable lesson to be learned from the world.

Moderator: Definitely. And Can?

Can Dundar: Well, of course I can give an example from my case. When I was in jail, the demonstrations were not allowed in front of the prison. So, one day, a veteran journalist at the age of 80 came up with a chair and sat on a chair and started reading a book. It was a very silent protest by himself, and, all of a sudden, it turned into a huge campaign for freedom of the other journalists. And from that day on, there were hundreds of people in front of the prison just sitting and reading a book. Since then, it has to become an international issue. So one man can change, one woman can change, the whole situation with just standing there reading a book. So just protest. Do something to protest. Show your solidarity with the others who are brave enough to fight for democracy. I guess this is the main thing. I mean, what we need is the braveness and the solidarity.

Moderator: Wow, incredible guy who started that. And, Andras, what do you think everyone can do to safeguard democracy?

Andras Simonyi: First of all, we keep saying, “Be careful. Don’t take democracy for granted.” But, the fact is, Western societies do take democracy for granted, and I think it’s all wrong. You know, we were very close to a disaster in the United States the last couple of years; it could have moved in a very, very bad direction. But I do believe that this is the moment of recovery. So a lot hinges on whether people in these countries see the West — Western democracies — as an example that they can follow and whether they see the West taking leadership in giving answers to the world’s big economic, social, environmental, climate issues in a democratic way or if they don’t because, if the West does not offer solutions to the individual that they can follow and they can believe in, then it’s going to be very, very hard to demand from the individual to fight these dictatorial regimes. But I would add, I like what I heard from my friend from Hong Kong and my friend from Turkey because, yes, every single individual has a responsibility. Do your job. Don’t wait for others to do it for you. And I have to say that sometimes I am surprised how little resistance Hungarians are showing, but, you know what, as much as we shouldn’t take democracy for granted, I have a message to the dictators or dictators to be: Don’t take your power for granted. It might not last forever. And I think every single individual can do their part in bringing closer the moment when dictators fall.

Moderator: Right, we all have a personal responsibility to stand up and safeguard what we believe in. You’re right, we are also at a very pivotal point I think here, especially having seen in the US the past four years and what happens next with the US being a leader or not. But I have a question for each of you: When you look at your country now, do you think it’s at the point of no return? And Can, I want to start with you.

Can Dundar: Not at all. I’m really hopeful about the future of my country. I guess we are coming to the end of this dark period of time. I’m really optimistic because, in the last elections, Erdogan lost the big cities like Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir for the first time. And now we have a kind of alliance in the opposition. For the first time, they came together to resist this authoritarian rule of Erdogan. So there are people resisting, women’s organizations, universities, students, trade unions — really a huge resistance from the people. And we are testing our power. During the last decades, people used to trust in the army to protect and safeguard the democracy. But, for the first time in our history, people now stand up and start protecting their own lifestyles, their secularism, equality of men and women. So that’s so important, and if we can pass this test, that would be a big lesson for the coming generations.

Moderator: And what about you, Andras, and Hungary?

Andras Simonyi: Of course not. I mean, this whole thing can turn, and that would be the natural thing for Hungary. Hungry belongs to the West. You know, there’s a great saying: Maybe people are not as smart as politicians say they are, but they’re a lot smarter than politicians think they are. And I think that’s the case with Hungarians. I think the Hungarian population is tired — tired of change, tired of reforms, tired of this, tired of COVID. But there will come a point when they will say, “Enough is enough.” And a lot hinges on leadership. A lot hinges on courageous people standing up and saying, “Hey, things have got to change.” And I’m very optimistic. There is a young generation growing up. And, by the way, I also see that the West is going to push back on China. The West is going to push back on Vladimir Putin. And these are the two countries that are so important from the outside supporting these regimes. And so a lot of things will happen. As far as I am concerned — I’m pretty optimistic — a lot of things can and will happen in the next couple of years. So I would certainly not say that we’ve reached a point of no return. But I could be wrong.

Moderator: Do you share Andras’s optimism, Nathan?

Nathan Law: Well, I think there are a lot of possibilities to change. Even though I would not say that it’s optimistic, it’s reality. In Hong Kong, we have had more than two million people marching down to the street in 2019, which was more than a quarter of our whole population. We’ve got a District Council election where the pro-democracy camp won a landslide victory, gaining more than 80% of the seats in the whole city. And we’ve always got more popular votes than the pro-Beijing camp in the general election. So I think, as long as Hong Kong people are there — as long as they are not giving up, they are protesting, they are upholding their values — there will be no point of no return. Actually, if the political climate changed, Hong Kong could be rebuilt in incredible speed, and the Hong Kong that we used to know would come back because people are the essence of it. I think, for the past two years of protest, more than 10,000 people were arrested. A couple of thousands of them are in trial, and hundreds of them are in jail for many years. But their effort will not go to waste. We will still be there, and, as long as Hong Kong people are there, Hong Kong will be there. There will be a free and democratic Hong Kong in the future. I genuinely believe that.

Moderator: So, if I was a genie and I could grant you three wishes — each of you — three wishes of three things that you wish the West would do before the end of the year to alter the course of democracy in your country, what would they be? Nathan?

Nathan Law: So, first of all, the Biden administration is hosting the democracy summit, hopefully in this year. The issue of Hong Kong and the issue of China should be the center of it. And people should work out a plan and a global agenda and working items in order to cut their authoritarian influence and to work together to craft a more democratic world. And, on the other hand, they should really boost their democratic defense mechanisms. One of the access points of these authoritarian regimes is their misinformation campaigns and the infiltration into democracy to discredit them. So I think it’s important that we really impose scrutiny on Chinese enterprises and Chinese government individuals and block all their exponential activities and uphold democratic values on their soil. And, lastly, there should be more interaction with the Hong Kong exile community. We’ve got all the understanding of how China is invading the society and doing a lot of terrible suppression on individuals. Those experiences are valuable, and, by interacting with us, there are more lessons to learn to understand how we can cope with the Chinese communist regime.

Moderator: And, Andras, you? Three things the West could do before the end of the year that would change what’s happening in Hungary?

Andras Simonyi: Well, the preparation for next year’s election is underway. And certainly the West should not interfere with the elections, but it should interfere in terms of creating a level playing field for everybody. That’s not the case right now. The other thing is I wish the West would go hard on corruption and stealing. It can do it. And then the third thing: My hope is there will be a change of government in Germany — a government that understands better the threat coming from authoritarian regimes, that understands that appeasing China is not an option, appeasing Russia is not an option, and appeasing the leader of Hungary, Viktor Orban, is not an option.

Moderator: And, Can, in Turkey?

Can Dundar: First, force the government to obey the rule of law and respect democracy and human rights. And second, support the people fighting for democracy. I just want to give you an example. When I was in jail, Mr. Biden was visiting Turkey as the vice president, and he had a meeting with Erdogan. And just before this meeting, he wanted to visit my family, and they met with my wife and my son. And it was a very clear message to Erdogan that the United States was backing the freedom of speech and freedom of media. And I was out in three weeks after his visit. Neither Chancellor Merkel nor the prime minister of Britain has done that. They just came to Turkey and visited Erdogan in his palace and negotiated with him and left. And you remember von der Leyen’s sofa crisis; it’s like humiliation for European leadership unfortunately. So now this should change, and the European leadership should understand that those people are risking their lives for values, so-called Western values like democracy and human rights. So there should be support from the European side for those who fight for democracy and freedom of speech.

Moderator: So to wrap this up — this has been a fascinating conversation — but to the last thing, I’m going to have one point from each of you. How can anybody that’s watching this discussion now — what’s one thing that they can do to start in solidarity with your cause? Nathan?

Nathan Law: Well, the only one thing you could do is to stay focused on what’s happening in those countries. It is not really an action, but it is a habit that could be cultivated. Don’t just look around you. Don’t just look at your phone and all those amusement apps and clips that you are used to watching. Stay your attention to what’s happening around the world, including in Hungary, in Turkey, and in Hong Kong.

Moderator: And Can?

Can Dundar: Well, if we are talking about ordinary people, if they are lawyers, get in touch with lawyers in those countries fighting for the rule of law. If they are at university, open their gates to the universities. If they are working at the municipalities, let’s do twin cities between the Western countries and those countries suffering from authoritarian regimes. Or if you’re a publisher in your country, let the other writers be published in your country, in your language. I mean, we need this solidarity. We need this support from the others. I don’t trust the governments anymore, but I trust the wheel of the people so that we can work together, fight together. We have a common ground with the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, and we are facing a global threat to our freedoms, and our response should be global as well.

Moderator: Last word to you, Andras.

Andras Simonyi: The next election could be the moment when we either slide into the Hong Kong and Turkey camp or we move in the other direction and save our democracy. It might be the last opportunity. And so therefore go out and work hard and campaign for the opposition leaders. Don’t let yourself be intimidated. Don’t be silent. And do what you can and what you have to because the future, your future, and the future of your children depend on it.

Moderator: This has been a great conversation. It’s true that, especially in the West, we have taken democracy for granted. But it’s also good to be reminded from each of you that we all have power, wherever we are. Each individual has the power to safeguard their democracy, to stand in solidarity with each of these countries, to stand in solidarity — whatever your profession is — to work across boundaries to help other people in those countries. And we can all make a difference. Thank you all very much.


Speakers and Participants

Can Dündar

Leading Turkish journalist arrested and forced into exile for his brave reporting

Nathan Law

Hong Kong student leader of the Umbrella Movement, former Member of Hong Kong Legislative Council who fled arrest



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