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While governments around the world struggle with COVID-19, dissidents and civil society leaders continue their fight for freedom and democracy under increasingly difficult conditions. HRF recently hosted its first virtual conference,...

While governments around the world struggle with COVID-19, dissidents and civil society leaders continue their fight for freedom and democracy under increasingly difficult conditions.

HRF recently hosted its first virtual conference, which examined how authoritarian governments sparked the pandemic through censorship and are currently exploiting the virus to grab emergency powers and crack down on free speech and individual rights.

We plan to continue our virtual programming and keep giving voice to those living under closed societies in a time when the devastating social effects of dictatorship are being made vividly clear.

Here are the full session videos from COVIDCon. Watch, share, and enjoy!


Censorship in China: The Pandemic Spark

British investigative reporter Ian Birrell presents on how the novel coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan and describes in riveting detail how the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship and culture of secrecy sparked the pandemic. He takes us on a tour of the virus’s timeline and shows how CCP officials intentionally hid the outbreak from the world during its most critical stages of growth.

How Democracies and Dictatorships are Reacting to the Virus

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, Axios China reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, and Deutsche Welle COVID-19 correspondent William Yang join HRF’s Alex Gladstein to discuss how democracies and dictatorships have handled the coronavirus outbreak. They compare the reactions of the Chinese Communist Party to those of the Taiwanese government, and review the crackdown on civil liberties everywhere from Venezuela to Iran, questioning how much faith we should put into data from dictatorships and whether or not we need mass surveillance to fight the virus.

The Chinese Communist Party: Savior or Culprit?

Yang Jianli is a Chinese human rights activist, former political prisoner, and survivor of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. In his COVIDCon talk, Yang explains how Xi Jinping’s regime silenced whistleblowers and dissidents in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. He demonstrates a stark contrast to what is portrayed by Chinese state media and asks: was China’s role that of savior or culprit?

Eight Questions with Ai Weiwei

Chinese artist and global icon Ai Weiwei speaks with HRF president Thor Halvorssen about art, dissent, and freedom of expression in China. He gives his personal perspective on the reality of dissent for Chinese citizens: “To be an individual mind or a critical voice, it’s like suicide in China. It’s not possible. And the government knows it well.”

What the Pandemic has Revealed about Chinese Economic Dominance

Kyle Bass, founder of Hayman Capital Management and expert on the US-China financial relationship, talks with Melissa Chen, New York editor of Spectator USA and founder of Ideas Beyond Borders, about why China’s economic power is in many ways a facade, why it might be wise for democracies to reduce their reliance on Chinese supply chains, and what China’s regime may do as it gets increasingly desperate and isolated.

The Increasing Risk of Synthetic Biology

Futurist and author of “After On” Rob Reid holds a wide-ranging conversation with HRF president Thor Halvorssen covering the future of pandemics and biotechnology. At times fascinating, at times terrifying, Reid’s work shows that synthetic biology is advancing rapidly and presents increasing risks to individuals and nation states around the world. He talks to us about how our societies can best prepare for an upcoming wave of new infectious diseases and pandemics.

Iran’s Criminal Negligence: COVID-19’s Gateway to the Middle East

Iranian-American journalist, author, and activist Masih Alinejad speaks out on how Iran’s dictatorship covered up its COVID-19 outbreak and became the virus’s gateway to the Middle East and Europe. Alinejad shares powerful videos and testimonies from Iranians, showing how they have been silenced by the regime as they try to speak out in the name of science and truth.

Pandemic Power Grab: State Abuse of Emergency Laws

Hungarian free speech advocate Péter Krekó, Russian democracy advocate and HRF chairman Garry Kasparov, and Pulitzer-Prize winning author and The Atlantic columnist Anne Applebaum speak out on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s moves to consolidate power and rule by decree as the coronavirus spreads across Europe. They draw on their vast experience of documenting and challenging the Soviet Union to discuss how governments across the world are abusing emergency laws to grab power, and examine what citizens can do to fight back.

Authoritarianism and Public Health in Times of Pandemic
BBC correspondent Philippa Thomas speaks with Cambodian human rights activist and political opposition leader Mu Sochua, Venezuelan opposition leader Miguel Pizarro, and Kenyan political analyst Nanjala Nyabola about authoritarianism, public health vulnerabilities, and crises of care in times of pandemic. They discuss the impact of the virus on vulnerable populations in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa and talk about some of the failures and victories in each particular region.

How China’s Disinformation Has Weakened and Divided the West

Iranian-Norwegian politician and intelligence and security analyst Mahmoud Faramand speaks with HRF president Thor Halvorssen about how the Chinese dictatorship’s expansion of its hard and soft power abroad is harming free governments. Faramand gives us insight into how the Norwegian government and its allies in Europe are fighting Chinese propaganda and struggling to uphold their own narratives at a time of mass public confusion.

Keeping Protest Movements Alive During the Pandemic

Bloomberg columnist Bobby Ghosh moderates a lively panel and Q&A discussion with activists Evan Mawarire from Zimbabwe, Frances Hui from Hong Kong, and Rania Aziz from Sudan about how the pandemic has affected protest movements and how protesters are adapting to the circumstances and keeping their movements alive. They cover the latest tactics and strategies employed by civil society groups fighting this new invisible enemy.

How the Pandemic Changes the Relationship Between Citizen, Technology, and State

Tech entrepreneur, investor, and AngelList founder Naval Ravikant talks with HRF president Thor Halvorssen about how COVID-19 has already started to change our societies in big ways. They review some of the more alarming and exciting trends that are emerging as societies and governments respond to the virus, and discuss how democracies and human rights activists can innovate and thrive while relying on technology, even as governments seek to restrict freedom.