HomeFinanceVictims of Communism Museum's CEO discusses its first year, his China boycott

Victims of Communism Museum’s CEO discusses its first year, his China boycott

One foundation thought so, and nearly a year ago opened its Victims of Communism Museum at McPherson Square, complementing a statue dedicated to those victims that has stood near Union Station since 2007.

It certainly feels like reading the room correctly, so to speak, to set up a new facility that’s highly skeptical of China and focused in part on Russia’s history of aggression toward its neighbors.

The CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which runs the museum that launched last June, spoke with MarketWatch earlier this week about how he and his colleagues aim to help Americans respond to Beijing’s growing influence and Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The CEO, Ken Pope, also talked about his personal attempts to avoid buying Chinese products and the foundation’s efforts to influence what’s taught in U.S. schools.

He said highlights from the museum’s first year have ranged from hosting the new House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party’s inaugural event to welcoming Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, who accepted a human-rights award on behalf of her country’s embattled people. 

The Q&A below with Pope — who served in the U.S. Army and was a professor and consultant before joining the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation — has been edited for clarity and length. The foundation was established in 1993 by a unanimous act of Congress that then-President Bill Clinton signed into law. [[Source[s] of funding? Federal money? Not part of Smithsonian, right? … Seeing that’s answered lower.]]

MarketWatch: The museum has been open since last June. How has the first year gone?

Pope: We’ve had a lot of incredible events here. With the China issue, we had the first meeting with Chairman Mike Gallagher and his Democratic counterpart [ranking member Raja Krishnamoorthi] here in the museum a few weeks ago. So it kicked that committee off. We’ve talked about some of the key moments in the history of communism — we had a Katyn Forest Massacre event with Polish representatives a few weeks ago.

Are things changing in China rapidly enough? Probably not. But we’re getting a story out there, and hopefully what we do will have an impact on people’s lives, which is really the goal, especially with human rights.

Ken Pope is the CEO of the foundation that runs the Victims of Communism Museum, which opened its doors in June 2022.

Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation

MarketWatch: One of your colleagues, Adrian Zenz, is an expert on how China treats its minorities, and he has helped expose what’s happening to Uyghurs in Xinjiang. One development in that area was enactment of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which has affected American companies’ supply chains. What’s your view on the effects of that law so far?

Pope: It’s somewhat effective. Any step in that direction is very, very helpful. I think the problem is this uneven enforcement across the West. Companies, when given an opportunity — in some cases, not all — some companies will try to skirt those laws.

In my view, it’s a twofold thing. We’ve got to get the government working on these initiatives, these laws that tell companies what they’re going have to do in these cases. But it’s also people have to stop buying goods from these companies that are doing this, and that’s where I think we’re really failing in a lot of areas. The public just isn’t aware enough of what’s going on, and we’re still buying all this stuff.

My wife and I got on this bandwagon — we’re not buying anything from China anymore. Try to do that. Try to live that. It is incredibly hard. You think you’ve ordered something that’s not “Made in China,” then you get it, you unwrap it, [and] — “You’ve got to be kidding me!” — it’s there.

Related: VW’s shareholder meeting disrupted by protests over factory in China province Xinjiang

Also read: Chinese fast-fashion retailer Shein draws scrutiny amid Uyghur concerns

MarketWatch: There is lots of attention on China now in Washington and in the media, whether it has to do with spy balloons, TikTok or an upcoming executive order to limit some U.S. investments in China
Overall, how would you describe what you and your colleagues are doing to help Americans figure out how to respond to China?

Pope: Our goal really is education. That’s the purpose of the museum and the foundation — educating people about this whole concept called communism. On the China-specific piece, it’s trying to enlighten people about what the real danger of China is. China to me is what the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. It is that level of threat, probably even much more significant, because they are so intertwined in every aspect of our society. Think of it — political, diplomatic, economic, informational, cyber. They’re basically into everything, and they don’t have our best interests at heart.

So our goal is shining a light on it, plus all the nefarious practices — the forced labor, the organ harvesting, their treatment of the Uyghurs. Our job is trying to shine a light on some of these key problem areas, and let people make informed decisions based on facts.

MarketWatch: Russian President Vladimir Putin seems nostalgic for his country’s communist era. He wants some of that empire back, and so the world has been dealing for more than a year with his invasion of Ukraine. As this war keeps going, what do you and your colleagues aim to do in response to it?

Pope: I spoke at American University on the topic. I’ve done a couple podcasts on the topic. So we do focus on that in speaking engagements, but also with what we do with our teachers’ seminar here. And last year, Ukraine’s first lady came, and we presented her with an award. We gave the Ukrainian people our Dissident Human Rights Award to recognize their struggle.

As you mentioned, it’s a year in. [The war in Ukraine is] starting to move to the backburner of people’s attention, but it’s still a critical issue.

MarketWatch: You were focused on Russia and Eastern Europe while you were in the U.S. Army, so you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that part of the world and conflicts there. Do you think there are some ways that Americans are misunderstanding the Russia-Ukraine war?

Pope: What people don’t realize is the nature of totalitarian regimes or authoritarians is they want something, and common sense doesn’t really play a key role in it. So Putin has made a decision he wants a portion of Ukraine, or all of Ukraine. He’s probably coming to the realization that he can’t get all of it, but he’s going to fight to retain everything that he has, because if he fails then his tenure is probably very limited. For those guys to retain power, they have to be seen as this successful strongman. He kind of envisions himself as a Stalin, maybe a “Stalin Light.” I don’t think the West really fully understands that, because we come from a different form of government.

Putin has convinced his people. If you look at the polls in the country, probably 85% to 90% of the people buy his rationale for the war. They support it. Until we can figure out a way to break into that information cycle in their country, we’re probably not going to change it. Really change is going to have to happen internally.

Standing before the Victims of Communism Memorial near Union Station in Washington last June 3, a leader of the Tiananmen Square protests, Wang Dan, spoke at a vigil marking the 33rd anniversary of the massacre at that public plaza in central Beijing.

AFP via Getty Images

MarketWatch: The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation used to put out an annual poll on communism and socialism, and it often showed increased support for those philosophies, and the foundation would have a comment saying something like, “Historical amnesia about the dangers of communism and socialism is on full display in this year’s report.” Why isn’t that survey being done anymore?

Pope: It’s something that we want to do. We’ve taken a pause on it for a couple of years. Probably next year we’re going to do it again.

I would argue it’s not historical amnesia. I think it’s historical ignorance, complete ignorance. I’ve been asked to evaluate or review academic standards, K through 12, in history, civics and social studies across a number of different states. It’s just not in there anymore. They’re not teaching about communism. One I looked at — it was probably the most egregious — [had] zero mention of Lenin whatsoever. Nothing on the Bolshevik Revolution. Nothing on the gulags. Nothing about Stalin, other than his name was in Stalingrad.

MarketWatch: You have educational programs so teachers at the secondary and university levels incorporate the impacts of communism into their curriculums. It seems like that could be an uphill battle, since many teachers must feel like they don’t have that much bandwidth for adding material. How are those efforts going?

Pope: We don’t have pushback typically. They want to know how to teach about communism. We’ve got a good program, and we created an online variant of that, so that teachers could take the same course, but not be here for a week in July. It gives them 24 hours of professional development credit, which is something that’s important for promotions and raises.

But also just people are looking for help. So they want either for us to come out there and give them a course or a talk on communism and why it’s important to talk about it, or to give them some curriculum that they can use and adopt into their programs. Actually, there’s kind of a hunger for it now. Different educational groups or, frankly, parents are going in front of these boards, trying to get some of the stuff that’s being taught replaced by something that actually makes sense. And so the boards in a lot of cases will ask them, “Well, what do you propose?” Then they can give them our materials.

MarketWatch: The Smithsonian museums in Washington can be entered for free, but there are others that charge admission, like the Spy Museum. Why did you decide not to have a required entrance fee, but rather a suggested donation?

Pope: It wasn’t an easy question to answer. We wrestled with that at both the senior staff level and at the board level, trying to figure out what’s the best model. And we just figured that a lot of the museums here are free.

We don’t have the draw of the Spy Museum based on just the volume of things that that they have. We have a smaller museum that has an incredible story to tell, and we just thought that it made more sense at least initially to have a suggested donation. We’re probably going to take a look at it again, over the next few months— kind of study it.

MarketWatch: How have you done with attracting visitors?

Pope: Visitation is going quite well. We have a steady flow every day. A lot of it is just based on location. We’re two blocks from the White House. We’ve got a Metro stop right behind us. So that makes it very easy. We think about 55% of the people who come in — basically they walked by, they saw the sign out there advertising “Victims of Communism Museum,” they’re curious, they come in.

We’re advertising it more and more around the local area, trying to figure out better ways to get more people in. That’s always a challenge. You want more visitors, obviously.

MarketWatch: Your foundation’s chairman emeritus was a leader of the conservative Heritage Foundation, and the foundation’s leadership includes people who served in the Trump administration. Why aren’t there Republicans, Democrats and independents in somewhat equal numbers in the leadership, and how do you think people should think about that?

Pope: It’s people who fought the Cold War, have a firm set of beliefs about communism in general, because they lived it, they saw it. I served in the Army during the Cold War, got to travel in the East and saw what it was like — for 400 million people in the Soviet case, 400 million people behind a fence for a system that was said to be so good.

We’re a nonpartisan nonprofit. We invite anybody who wants to work with us from either side of the aisle. We just ask that they support the view that communism is bad, and that we stand against that. We do have Democrats who join us for events. We don’t have any on our board now. We used to. We’re trying to rectify that and bring some folks on our board from all persuasions.

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