How the UK Shaped Hong Kong’s Unique Democratic Sensitivity

Many look at Hong Kong’s politics now and wonder how Hong Kong got into such a mess. As some may know, in addition to it being a shopping and cuisine paradise, Hong Kong is a has a special political and legal status . Alongside Macau, Hong Kong is run under the principles of ‘one country, two systems’. In other words, though Hong Kong is a part of socialist China, it operates under a capitalist system. This is a compromise agreed between the British Colonial Government and China in 1997 when the British control of Hong Kong ended. Whether the Chinese government is maintaining the principle well is not the question to be discussed here). Instead, this article will  explore the British Colonial government’s impact on shaping Hong Kong people’s unique democratic sensitivity, which has certainly contributed to the recent clash between the Hong Kong government and its people. 

The impact of shaping Hong Kong people’s democratic sensitivity can first be explored by the British Colonial government’s localisation policies. In 1967, there was a very serious riot throughout Hong Kong. This was a wake-up call to the British Colonial government that they had to change their way of administration by catering to the local people’s needs better. The British Colonial government thus started to implement a series of socio-economic policies, such as providing affordable housing and free and compulsory education. With a better living environment, Hong Kong people were able to spend more on learning instead of merely focusing on escaping poverty. Generations of improvement in education led to a Hong Kong population with a very high level of education. As a result, more locals were capable and eligible to work in the government. There was rapid localisation of governmental personnel including an increase of over 50% of Hong Kong civil servants from 1980 to 1990. There was an increased number of Hong Kong Administrative Officers. Similarly, more Hong Kong people were promoted to senior and even top governmental positions. For example, Anson Chan Fang On Sang became the first Chinese Chief Secretary and Donald Tsang Yam Kuen became the first Chinese Financial Secretary in the 1980s and 90s. Over the years towards the transfer of Hong Kong, more Chinese ‘secretaries’ emerged. More Hong Kong people learned the British democratic way of governance and were trained in this way. 

The Pro-Beijing government forces facing protestors, 1967. (Credit: Hong Kong Free Press)

As the transfer approached , the British Colonial government implemented an even more significant attempt at ‘localisation’: increasing  Hong Kong people’s democratic sensitivity. Towards the second half of the twentieth century, China had emerged as a stronger nation running under a socialist system. The British Colonial government feared that Hong Kong would become a socialist city under the CCP. As a result, in the 1990s, it greatly localised the government by promoting more locals into the administration. The British colonial government hoped that by doing so, these Hong Kong people would already be trained to manage their government in a democratic way when the transfer happens. Also, the fact that these capable Hong Kong people are already occupying government positions means that there would not be many vacancies when the British Colonial government was ‘out’ in 1997. The Chinese government would not, the thought went, send their own personnel (who are trained and worked under a socialist system) to manage the government. 

The impacts of the localisation measures had been effective in realising the British Colonial government’s democratic intentions. For example, in the early years of the twenty-first century, many Hong Kong people trained under the British democratic system still occupied most government positions. They pushed for further democratic reform after the transfer to ensure  democratic education to the new generations. The creation of the secondary school subject ‘Liberal Studies’, which educated youngsters on the ‘one country, two systems’ and one’s political rights, is a clear illustration of these efforts. These in turn trained a new generation of millennials who had lived and known democracy their whole life. These generations of youngsters clearly know what their political rights are and are willing to participate in defending their rights or pushing for democratic reforms. Under the education of liberal ideas, they are also capable of critically challenging government actions. Thus, it is not hard to understand why these democratically sensitive generations of youngsters felt threatened and protested when more pro-China politicians are taking up government positions and more pro-China policies are implemented in recent years. 

Hong Kong people’s unique democratic sensitivity can also be explored by another policy of the British Colonial government: the creation of representative governance. The China government’s autocratic rule during the Cultural Revolution really ‘freaked out’ the British Colonial government. It was determined to build Hong Kong a steadfast democratic foundation through increasing the electoral elements in Hong Kong’s political structure. In the Legislative Council, the first indirect election in 1985 marked the start of a gradual change, and was soon followed by the first direct election for 18 seats by the method of ‘one person, one vote’ in 1991 and the abolition of all official seats in 1995 by Governor Chris Patten. At last, the president of the Legislative council was no longer the Governor but elected among the Legislative council’s elected counsellors. In the District Council, the first direct election was held in 1982 and all official seats were abolished in 1985. All appointed seats were abolished in 1994 and the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 years old. More people were eligible to participate in voicing their opinions by being able to vote for politicians that represent their views. In the Urban and Regional Councils, there were gradual elections and the abolishment of appointed seats. More people could vote and more were eligible to stand in elections. 

As Hong Kong moved into the twenty-first century, these elections were already present. The current  generations are used to having their say and participating in politics by voting and choosing their representatives. On the other side, more young people choose to participate in community affairs by standing in District Councilors’ elections, which are open to voting to everyone aged above 18. Some other young people choose to become a Legislative Councilor to have their opinions regarding the future development of Hong Kong valued. Thus, it is not hard to understand why youngsters are willing to protest, even resolve to radical actions, in face of the narrowing of electoral choices and rights in recent years. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena

Home Ownership: is it the key in Britain’s inequality crisis?

Housing reform is necessary. That, as a statement, is perhaps one of the few things undisputed between the major parties in Westminster. Not enough affordable homes are accessible, leaving many within a rent trap, never quite managing to make it onto the housing ladder. Yet under the surface issue of getting the next generation onto the housing ladder lies an issue of greater concern. If left unchecked, the imbalance within the housing market, coupled with long-time economic woe for lenders, could be Britain’s next ticking time bomb and have disastrous socio-political consequences.

The catalyst of this socio-political crisis that is beginning to brew is economic. Following the 2008 Financial Crash, economic growth in the UK has struggled to get back onto its feet. Productivity remains stagnant and lags behind other G7 nations. Attempting to stimulate economic growth, the central bank has, throughout the decade, maintained low interest rates to persuade people to spend rather than save. The rationale is straightforward enough. More gets produced if money is being spent, and not sitting in current accounts accruing interest. Yet, so far, such a strategy is yet to bear fruit.

A house left derelict in Brixton, London. Mercury Press & Media (Credit: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/crumbling-home-abandoned-30-years-22352062)

There is, however, a further, longer-term issue with the central bank’s policy on interest rates which is of greater concern. Ever since the UK government brought in inflation targeting in 1992, an economic policy where the central bank targets a certain inflation rate, interest rates have trended consistently downwards. Whilst great for home-owners with mortgages, for young people looking to save it is increasingly difficult to build up the finances required for the deposit to a house.

What does this have to do with an impending socio-political catastrophe? Simply put, right now there is no way for young people to reach the housing ladder, being perpetually stuck within the renting market. This, by itself, is not damaging to the socio-political situation within the UK. Other developed European countries across the continent have renting cultures and, if anything, dismantling the constructed expectation to house-own would likely be an improvement to British culture.

However, it is not certain that the impending economic change will achieve such a culture shift, and the consequences of retaining a house owning culture within a renting society are worrying.

Even ignoring, momentarily, the short-term recorrection of the market that would occur when demand for houses is outstripped by supply as a largely property-owning baby boomer generation passes away, unattainably expensive houses for the generations following will still remain. Instead, the most worrying concern is the impact it could have on an already expanding inequality within the UK.

This is because the gap between those who have and those who have not will become unbridgeable. With an inability to save for that deposit, those with parents who already own houses may find that inheritance is the only way onto the property ladder. Owning a house will become a sign of significant family wealth and concentrate privilege to an ever-decreasing minority, whilst those stuck with the financial pressures of paying rent will fall further and further behind.

And, as history points out repeatedly, such unsustainable inequality leads to increased political extremism and conflict. It would be naïve of us to assume that we would not be subjected to the same increase in political extremism that defined the French Revolution, the formation of the Soviet Union, and 1930s Germany. Indeed, in the 19th century there was a fear that Britain would follow a similar path to the examples listed above, as events such as the Peterloo Massacre and the Hyde Park Riots threatened to be the UK’s own Storming of the Bastille, as protestors demonstrated against the inequality within Victorian Britain.

Disraeli and Gladstone can be largely applauded for quelling such extremist politics with their reformative platforms. So what ,then, do we do about our modern conundrum? Well, were we to copy from the economist’s textbook, there would be one of two options: change the government’s fiscal policy or change its monetary policy. Either the government could go down a monetary route, scrapping inflation targeting and artificially raising interest rates. Or it could go down the fiscal route of greater spending, through the building of more affordable homes.

Yet, whilst the causes of this crisis may be down to our economic history, we must take a more socio-political approach in attempting to prevent such a crisis.

In contrast to the Victorian reformists Disraeli and Gladstone, who both passed Reform Acts focused on expanding suffrage within the UK, political reform should be prioritised in an act of preparation for, rather than reaction to, this crisis. Focus should, instead, be placed in two directions. Firstly, upon making central government contracts more transparent and meritocratic, the result of this being greater political pressure for a larger percentage of housing developments to be affordable. Secondly, the remit of local governments should be altered, increasing control over the rewarding of contracts, whilst simultaneously completing the shift towards housing associations owning social housing. Such a move would give councils and metropolitan areas greater control of how much housing is built, whilst protecting them from the unaffordable and uneconomical costs which come from development.

The housing crisis, although economically caused, must rely on contemporary political solutions to prevent socio-political catastrophe. We cannot be lulled into either thinking the UK is immune from the multiple historical examples of political extremism that accompany greater inequality, or that implementing the same economic policies repeatedly will provide a different result. Without expansive political reforms to housing, transferring power towards local governments, and increasing transparency in government, the UK will only step closer towards socio-political disaster.

Matthew Lambert, Summer Writer

Temporal over Spiritual Power in the Medieval Church? Part III: Dissent and the Call for Reform

The Great Papal Schism ultimately had devastating ramifications for both the papacy and the Catholic Church as a whole. Dissent was on the rise, as discontent with the actions and behaviour of the papacy, and the harm that it had inflicted upon the institution of the Church, began to cause wider problems. As the conflict within the papacy raged, theologians who opposed this state of affairs made themselves known, putting forward their own interpretations of the scripture, many of which laid the foundations for what would later be termed Protestantism. Men such as John Wycliffe and Jan Hus argued against the extravagancies of the Church, whereas wider movements such as conciliarism sought to challenge the supremacy of the papacy over all other ecclesiastical bodies, and bring about a more democratic era for the Church. Despite its internal strife, the Church was determined to brook no challenge to the authority of the Pope, and sought to quash all hints of dissent, though its efficacy in this gave the lie to its apparent strength.

Painting of Jan Hus in the Council of Constance by Václav Brožík (1851-1901) © Wikipedia Commons https://museeprotestant.org/en/notice/jan-hus-1369-1415-and-the-hussite-wars-1419-1436/

Initially gaining traction during the fourteenth century with the discontent arising from the Avignon Papacy, and later the papal schism, the movement known as conciliarism opposed the supremacy of the papacy, arguing that as the pope was not infallible, and that as the pope was chosen by a council, this council should hold power over him and be able to act if the pope was unfit for office. This stood in stark contrast to the policy of papal supremacy, which argued that as the inheritor of the mantle of the Bishop of Rome, as handed down by Saint Peter, the Pope’s decree was sacrosanct and could not be overruled by others. It cited many of the Church’s most important decisions having been made in council, such as the defining council at Nicaea in 325, and thus, there was precedent and logic behind such a move. Rising high in the early fifteenth century, conciliarism was buoyed by its success at the Council of Constance, which ended the papal schism, as this proved to them that the council of cardinals was capable of effecting change in the stead of the pope. However, the subsequent lack of reform from the papal curia convinced many of them that this that their efforts were not working, with the Council of Basel seeing a radicalisation within the movement that, although initially popular, swiftly caused it to fall from favour, and by the beginning of the sixteenth century, it was a dying movement, with its condemnation at the Fifth Lateran Council of 1512-1517 serving as its final death knell. Although the doctrine of papal infallibility would only be formally codified centuries later in 1870 at the First Vatican Council, this was merely the continuation and culmination of the centuries-long belief in papal supremacy that was already very much in effect even in this early period. Therefore, this demonstrates how this concern over the temporal power of the pope continued to occupy a place of concern in the Church’s mind long after this period.

One of the earlier figures in the wider movement for reform within the Catholic Church was Jan Hus, a Czech whose opposition to the Church in Bohemia led him to preach a creed that stood against many of the excesses of the priesthood, such as indulgences and simony. These ideas incorporated many of the criticisms previously propagated by Wycliffe in England.  Although Hus was burned at the stake for heresy in 1415, this only served to martyr him in the eyes of his followers, who continued to propagate his beliefs rapidly through the Czech population of Bohemia, despite attempts at suppression by Wenceslaus IV, the King of Bohemia at the time. Following the death of Wenceslaus in 1419, tensions escalated between the Hussites and the wider Catholic population as Wenceslaus’ brother and successor Sigismund decided to take decisive action. The Hussite Wars, as the conflict became known, raged for fifteen years from 1419 to 1434, and were not only a civil conflict, but also incorporated a series of five papal crusades that lasted from 1420-1431, each ending in defeat for the papal forces. Despite some setbacks for the Hussite forces, they consistently managed to retake lost ground, taking advantage of the disunity of the papal forces. However, in the end, the wars only reached a conclusion following a schism within the Hussites themselves that saw the radical Taborites purged by the moderate Ultraquists, who were then able to reach an accommodation with the Catholic Church. The fact that the papacy was forced to agree to terms with the moderate Hussites and permit them to practice their own rites in return for their submission, rather than continuing efforts to hunt them to extinction as had previously been done to heretical groups, emphasises the truth by this point that the Catholic Church had been weakened, and was no longer able to exert the same level of temporal power that it had previously been able to.

Dissent against the Catholic Church in the late medieval period largely revolved around the words of learned theologians, many of whom believed that the extravagant trappings that the priesthood had surrounded themselves with rendered them unfit to tend to the faithful, focussing on their own temporal power over spiritual concerns. Alongside this came the doubt cast on the pope’s capability as the leader of the Church after the actions of the cardinals in the Schism. The Church’s response to this, while heavy-handed in places, was more moderate than it would have been in preceding centuries – showing that its temporal power had been severely weakened by both internal and external conflicts. These concerns left an indelible mark on the Church that would eventually pave the way towards the Reformation, which challenged both the temporal and spiritual authority of the Church and led to a schism within Christianity itself on a scale that had not been seen since the split of Catholicism and Orthodoxy centuries prior. This shows that although the Church may have prized the temporal power that its spiritual authority afforded it, it was ironically this misguided priority and the neglect of its spiritual power that ultimately led to the diminishment of its temporal power.

Henry Miller, Summer Writer

Weaponising ‘safety’: Laws of displacement and the crisis faced by Syrian Refugees in Denmark

In March 2021 the government of Denmark announced that the Damascus region of Syria, a state still gripped by the civil war which broke out in 2011, was ‘safe’ for human habitation. The claim not only shows Denmark’s support for Assad’s regime which now controls the territory but has enormous implications on the status of the 35,000 Syrians who fled to the Scandinavian state to restart their lives in the wake of the violence. In lieu of the capital’s ‘safety’ Denmark is revoking the residency of many Syrians and embarking on schemes of deportation and repatriation, generating outcries from global charities advocating for the rights of the displaced. As of early October 2021, stories are appearing in Middle Eastern newspapers claiming that those fearful of being sent back to Syria are fleeing Denmark for the Netherlands and becoming, once again, displaced. As claims to asylum are reportedly being made against Denmark itself due to the verdict, the situation raises questions which those concerned in the histories of international migration and human rights law must address; is the host-state’s right to declare a refugee’s homeland ‘safe’ ever appropriate? Does current legislation confine refugees to a permanent state of flux? 

Firstly, it has been claimed that the Danish government’s decision defies the principle of non-Refoulement embedded in international human rights law. Following the drafting and implementation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, international legislation forbids states from deporting refugees to countries in which the ‘danger of persecution’ would still pose a threat to their life. Under Denmark’s claim that Assad’s Damascus is ‘safe’, such a principle would not apply, but activists within the Syrian diaspora and global rights agencies are denying that this ‘safety’ is a material reality on the ground. UK-based international justice chamber’s Guernica 37, for example, released a statement in July which claimed that Syrians forcibly sent to Syria would no doubt face scrutiny and even violent punishment from the ruling powers. They also worriedly noted the ‘precedent’ of acceptability  such deportations may set and the implications that this would have on all of those displaced globally. 

A sculpture named “The Refugee Ship” by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt. Credit: Jens Galschiøt via Wikimedia Commons

We must therefore acknowledge that the crisis faced by Syrians in Denmark is reflective of the possibilities for misuse allowed for within current international rights legislation. The Danish government’s ability to declare a region ‘safe’ and deport residents accordingly, despite said ‘safety’ not being accepted on the international stage, shows the worrying potential for a weaponised notion of ‘safety’ in state’s dealings with asylum claims. 

It is important to consider the theoretical issues raised by the deportation of Syrian residents from a state in which their presence had previously been accepted. If those with accepted claims to asylum who have built livelihoods, raised families and become members of vibrant communities can have their right to remain in their new home stripped away so easily, the question remains as to whether international legislation is really doing enough to protect them. The act of deportation is a conscious distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’, but to suggest that Danish Syrians had not viewed themselves as part of the same community as their fellow Danes is a reductive view of national identity. Their status as legal Danish residents went from being unquestionably accepted to being stripped at the whim of a declaration of their previous place of residence’s ‘safety’ by the state in which they made their new home. One cannot imagine the emotional turmoil caused by such a situation, and the proactive conversations which centre Syrian voices emerging across the diaspora must be taken into consideration by those considering the legality of the situation. 

By George R. Evans, Summer Contributor

Cornish Independence: dream or future political force?

‘You wouldn’t want to mention it in the pub, for a start.’ By this, Cornwall-born Johnny refers to Cornish nationalism, a highly contested topic that has drastically shaped how Cornwall views its place on the map. Though dismissed by some as little more than a political farce, Cornish support for its independence has deeply historic roots, predating Roman times. Demonstrated by those who fly St Piran’s flag, nationalist dreams of sovereignty permeate Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, reflecting its original Celtic culture.

Known politically as the ‘Case for Cornwall’, full Cornish independence from England would likely entail the creation of a devolved Cornish Assembly, harking back to the original Stannary Parliament and holding the same powers as in Wales or in Northern Ireland. The closest Cornwall has come to this status so far is the 2015 ‘Devolution Deal’, authorising Cornish control over its health and social care services, transport, and enterprise and skills funding policies. However, for nationalists, this is not enough. Dick Cole, leader of Mebyon Kernow, the Cornish nationalist party, argues for future amendments to the elements overlooked in the Deal such as housing and planning. His demands also include more Cornish autonomy over its governance, comparable to the contemporary political independence debates within Scotland. His critique  demonstrates the ongoing tussle for Cornwall’s national status to be recognised.

Moreover, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent ’Levelling Up’ speech announced the revival of Cornish and other County Deals, sparking debate over whether Cornwall should have an elected Mayor as a further sign of devolved political power de jure. Derek Thomas, MP for St Ives, argued for Cornwall’s deal to be named a ‘Duchy Deal’, referring to Cornwall’s constitutional ‘Duchy’ status, thereby reminding the government of Cornwall’s legal authority to veto Westminster legislation. Thus, in his adamant conviction for this ‘Levelling Up’ policy to be beneficial for Cornish nationalism, Thomas poses a stark challenge to the English government.

Portloe, Cornwall. Credit: Edward Webb via Wikimedia

However, today’s reality is still far from Cornish nationalists’ dream of independence. Even by accommodating this County Deal, Cornwall implicitly accepts the authority of the English government over its own. Importantly, where does this dream of independence stem from?

Cornish nationalism majorly relies upon the recognition of a distinctly Celtic identity, originating from early first century Dumnonii Celtic populations. This cultural and political identity was threatened by Roman rule, until their retreat back across the Channel in the 410s. Though far from fellow Celtic nations like Brittany, the renewal of Celtic culture and Cornish political sovereignty after the Romans left illustrates the determination and individualistic natures of the Cornish people at that time. As John Reuben Davis argues, Cornwall ‘remained as an independent British territory in the face of pressure from Wessex,’ over the next several hundred years. This subsequent revival of Celtic culture into the sixth century draws parallels with the contemporary Cornish struggle against controlling governance.

Cornish political alliances made with ‘othered’ fighting forces, including Scandinavian raiding parties, highlight their struggle for political sovereignty when facing the most powerful governing force of this time, Wessex. Most notably, the 838 Battle of Hingston Down, where a Viking ship of men aided the Cornish in their final recorded battle against Wessex, parallels modern Cornish alliances with smaller forces, in order to challenge centralised political systems. One example of this is its celebrated place among the Six Celtic Nations as a recognised Celtic political and cultural polity.

Interestingly, the fight for modern Cornish nationalism also subtly materialises within alternative portrayals of the ninth-century subduing of Cornwall, after Hingston Down. In spite of the 927 expulsion of Cornish forces from Exeter, as described by William of Malmesbury, Davis argues for the continuation of a distinctive Cornish identity with the subsequent creation of a separate bishopric for Cornwall as well as a fixed Cornish border at the Tamar. Furthermore, Davis’s championing of the underdog reflects a modern historiographical trend toward studying the Cornish revolt as part of Cornish cultural and political identity in itself. As Mark Stoyle identifies, Cornish revolts are now seen as ‘part of a continuum,’ that goes on long past medieval times, into the Tudor period and beyond. Thus, this historic and unique Cornish identity perseveres across history.In short, contemporary nationalist demands echo the distinct and rebellious nature of the Cornish identity. Their independent streak may continue to be revealed through the sui generis nature of the local governance of the Isles of Scilly. Scilly’s partial devolution from Cornwall, recognised as a separate local authority under the 1930 Isles of Scilly Order, with its own county council to match,bypasses Cornish removal of English authority, thereby moving towards a different kind of independence. Like Scilly then, Cornwall may look to more creative methods to reinstate local governance. Cornwall’s dreams of reinstating its sovereignty may never come to fruition. Yet, the echoes of its recalcitrant past undoubtedly remain key to its fight for independence today.

By Sophie Bodenham, Summer Writer

Belarus: A Conflict of Histories

The summer of 2020 marked the beginning of the largest anti-government protests in Belarusian history. Fuelled by the clear rigging of the 2020 presidential election, these protests have rocked Alexander Lukashenko’s regime and terrified him with the possibility of his overthrow . And so, the President has cracked down heavily on these protestors, leading to numerous arrests, violence, extraditions and deaths. At the same time, Russian influence within the country has been ramped up, as reports of Russian government personnel clashing with protestors have emerged, and recently, Russia and Belarus have participated in continuous, joint military exercises that have effectively established a permanent Russian military presence in the country.

This increased Russian presence could be said to have been somewhat of an inevitability. The 1999 Union State Treaty was signed between Russia and Belarus with the final aim of integrating both countries into a political union. Or, more realistically, to integrate Belarus into Russia. Alexander Lukashenko, one of the original signatories, has remained in power ever since then. Lukashenko and Russia have sought to achieve this union in the past two decades through creeping economic integration. Russian businesses operate extensively within Belarus, Russia is the biggest buyer of Belarusian goods and Belarus can purchase essentials, such as Russian oil, at a lower price than the rest of the world. Such privileges are threatened to be revoked by the Kremlin should Belarus ever dare to step out of line. 

An interesting aspect of Russian integration efforts however, is the cultural part Russia aims not only to integrate Belarus economically and politically, but also culturally. Russian propaganda outlets espouse a narrative of Belarusian history which suggests that integration is natural. According to this narrative, Belarusians are simply Russians who have been artificially separated from the motherland. Any differences in culture and language are simply aberrations brought about by the subjugation of the Belarusians by foreign powers while  the Belarusian state itself is seen as an artificial creation from the Soviet era. However, messages to promote integration are mingled with Soviet nostalgia; they tap into some of the older generations’ desire to once again be part of a superpower and their general longing for things to be as they were before. 

Lukashenko has naturally been complicit in promoting this narrative. During his presidency, he has suppressed the Belarusian language to the extent that reportedly only 4% of Belarusians use Belarusian in everyday speech. He has also reinstated the old Byelorussian SSR’s flag and anthem. The whole tone of Lukashenko’s administration has been one of Soviet nostalgia and close ties to Russia. In erasing distinctive Belarusian identity, Lukashenko and Russia are slowly eroding  any arguments against integration.

Nonetheless, only 7.7% of Belarusians support a full union with Russia, and 77% have a positive or neutral image of the European Union. It is clear that the propaganda campaign of Lukashenko and Russia has failed to have a significant effect on the Belarusian people. In fact, a contrary narrative of Belarusian history has emerged among the opponents of Lukashenko and the younger generation as a whole.

This narrative sees the formative years of the Belarusian nation when it was part of the medieval Duchy of Polotsk and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Polotsk was a Rus (not to be confused with Russian) realm that was somewhat distinct from Kievan Rus (the medieval Rus confederation centred in Ukraine from which Eastern Slavic groups claim cultural descent). Polotsk later became a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, under which Belarusian language, culture, and literature developed and flourished. This continued under the relatively tolerant Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. At the same time, Muscovy, which would become the Russian heartland, fell under the control of the Mongols. And so, the Rus of Belarus and Muscovy further diverged culturally and politically.

The ongoing Belarusian national revival began in the nineteenth century while Belarus was ruled by the Russian Empire. Nationalists harnessed the heritage of medieval and early modern Belarusians and the distinctiveness their culture had from Russian culture. This growing nationalism influenced the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) in 1918, which many opposition members view as an inspiration for an alternate Belarusian state.

Historical view of Karl Marx street in Belarus’ capital, Minsk. (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

The opponents to Lukashenko’s regime harness this narrative of Belarusian history to create an attractive ideology behind their movement and a counter-narrative to resist integration and reject Russian and state propaganda. Symbols of Belarusian history are ubiquitous among the protestors. The emblem of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Vytis or the Pahonia) is regularly flown along with the red-striped flag of the BPR. Patriotic songs written in the 1910, such as Pahonia and the BPR national anthem Vajacki marš are sung at demonstrations, the former of which to the tune of revolutionary anthem La Marseillaise. The protestors feel pride at their nation’s distinctiveness from Russia, and see their time under Lithuanian and Polish rule as a time for the emergence of a distinct and unique culture, rather than a tragic separation from a ‘greater Slavic people’.

Regimes are often upheld by the confidence of their people. The government is therefore required to maintain a popular and believable ideology to justify their rule and prevent their overthrow. The ideological basis for Lukashenko’s government and Russian integration, espoused by propaganda networks, is not in tune with  most Belarusians, and which contrasts starkly with the dynamic and distinct national identity many derive from their history and which the opposition promotes. 

As in Russia itself, the old Soviet tropes of longing for empire, and a fear of the West, have little effect on younger generations who have never experienced life under the USSR. While brutal crackdowns and Russian intervention may stymie the demise of Europe’s last dictator, popular support for it has crumbled, and thus the only way it can be maintained is through fear.

Jonas Balkus, Summer Writer

Is Russia’s Foreign Agent Law Destroying Russian Journalism?

Life as a journalist or within the media in Russia has historically been far from easy. With Putin’s highly centralised authoritarian regime, any formation of media outlets are strictly limited. Over 20 journalists are estimated to have been murdered since 2000 for reporting on events or topics that in any way cross the blurred line of what Putin’s government sees fit to be circulated. Within the past month, however, the government has chosen to elevate this media crackdown further. Some of Russia’s pre-eminent media outlets have now either been banned outright or have been pinned as ‘foreign agents’, detaching them from the country and coining them to the likes of being the ‘enemy’.

Restrictions and hostility towards journalists and the media can be traced back across the last ten years and beyond. The Russian government has been after the independent media for a while, with many independent journalists critical of the regime being eradicated by state owners. Journalists such as these had no choice but to find new jobs and try to continue their careers under ever tightening policing.

Vladimir Putin. (Credit: theglobalpanorama via Creative Commons.)

Recent hostility towards the media, however, has only continued from this, with a recent crackdown across the past year making lives for journalists even more of a struggle. Particularly significant is Russia’s law on foreign agents, of which was adopted in 2012 and has been frequently modified since , repeatedly broadening the scope of who should be defined as a foreign agent. It has been looming as an indefinite threat over Russian journalists since. When it was initially introduced in 2012, it was targeted at suppressing human rights work, or those involved in sharing details of civic information. However, this changed in 2017 when the legislation was amended to include the phrase ‘foreign agent media’, alongside creating a blacklist of foreign agents. It requires non-profit organisations that partake in ‘political activity’ to both register and declare themselves as foreign agents. Essentially, the Ministry of Justice assumes journalists are engaged with some form of political activity within their journalism, be it foreign intelligence or other. This means that every small action and move made under this law is closely monitored, even including spending. Roman Anin, a veteran investigative journalist and founder of a Russian media outlet expressed how “this is a law that basically bans the profession. It’s not a law about foreign agents, it’s a ban on independent journalism”.

The consequences of this law become most evident, however, when considered alongside its penalties of non-compliance, and these are what have amplified alongside changes made to the law this year. As of March 2021, journalists who fail to submit their reports to the Ministry of Justice can look to face five years imprisonment.

However, Russia’s authoritarian regime has not prevented media outlets from using their platforms to protest against these restrictions, and the recent crackdowns in particular. Over twelve independent media platforms have recently signed an open letter, demanding a demise to the designating of journalists and outlets as ‘foreign agents’. The letter read that the outlets are collectively “convinced that these events are part of a coordinated campaign to destroy independent Russian media”. Equally, Radio Liberty, one of the media outlets which has been faced with 520 violations and over $2 million in fines, has also argued against the crackdowns. The company appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in April this year, arguing that Russia’s actions violate freedom of speech highlighted in Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Nothing, however, has come from this protest in terms of the law changing in any way.

Subsequently, it can be questioned what the future holds for Russia’s independent media. Despite urges fired at Putin to stop these crackdowns, the nature and reputation of his government does not make the ceasing of these measures likely. Only time will tell if freedom of press and speech will ever truly be allowed for journalists in Russia.

Miriam Shelley, Summer Writer

When Bad History Leads to Bad Politics: ‘The Graveyard of Empires’

When a major political event happens, politicians and scholars usually cram desperately to fit the event into a simple framework: ideological, historical, or another type. Sometimes this is done to explain the events in a general pattern. Alternatively, it is done to fit the event into a set worldview (something often done by politicians). ‘The Graveyard of Empires’ is one such example of a thesis used to explain political events. This theory has been an essential part of the Western understanding of Afghanistan since its conception in 2001 by Milton Bearden. Bearden, reflecting mainly on the experiences of the British and Soviet Empires, asserted that the unruly geography and peoples of the country made any imperial project in Afghanistan doomed to fail. Contextually, he wrote this thesis around the start of the US invasion as a warning for the dangers of US intervention in the country, a warning that has formed a crucial part of the Western understanding of Afghanistan. President Biden, for instance, directly used the thesis to explain why his withdrawal of US troops was necessary. In his speech recently he echoed Bearden and attributed the clear failure of US statecraft in Afghanistan to the ungovernable nature of the land itself.

There are multiple issues here, all stemming from one major problem that is often overlooked: the thesis is not true. Afghanistan, over its history, has not been a ‘Graveyard of Empires’, indeed it has been far from it. Professor Alexander Hainy-Khaleeli has shown how the country was the heartland of many great empires across history, including even empires often used as supporting evidence for proponents of Bearden’s thesis. Alexander the Great’s empire, used by Bearden as an example in favour of his argument, successfully ruled Afghanistan for over one hundred years, and the often-cited British experience ignores the broad success of British policy after the Third Afghan War. When imperial missions did fail, it was not due to the overriding lawlessness of the Afghan terrain or peoples but instead a variety of case-specific factors.

Thus, Bearden’s thesis is a case of bad history, with Afghanistan’s past stuffed into an overly simplistic historical framework. Its usage by politicians is therefore problematic, as it means public policy and discourse is based on incorrect perceptions and knowledge. For example, by describing Afghanistan as ‘the Graveyard of Empires’, Biden oversimplifies the complex failure of the American project in Afghanistan. It assumes that the failure of American statecraft is not a failure of Washington but a result of Afghanistan’s unique nature. By imposing Bearden’s framework, it assumes no imperial policy in Afghanistan could ever be successful regardless of what the imperial power does. Biden’s speech was overwhelmingly centred around this idea – an inevitability of failure that no policy of his could ever rectify. 

US and UK troops leaving Afghanistan. (Credit: U.S. Department of Defence)

This has three significant implications, demonstrating the danger of basing politics on flawed historical theory. Firstly, it stifles the development of effective policy. When addressing an issue that you deem impossible to benefit from, policy becomes solely about mitigation. Biden’s long-held belief that the US was doomed to fail in Afghanistan in line with Bearden’s thesis means that he has approached Afghanistan from a position that the US needed to leave the ‘graveyard’ irrespective of the consequences, explaining, for instance, the unnecessary withdrawal of American contractors that led to the complete collapse of the Afghan army. It also explains the frantic nature of the evacuation effort because the clear urge to withdraw as soon as possible meant that there was little planning for, say, the evacuation of the Afghans who had helped US personnel. 

Further, through basing politics on a largely flawed historical framework, there is a real possibility that we will not learn the correct lessons from the Afghan war. By attributing blame for the operation’s failures on the nature of Afghanistan and not bad policy, the US risks failing to understand the reasons for the failures in the country over the last twenty years, and thus fail to make the necessary changes. In an era where the American Empire is under threat from another would-be hegemony China, failing to learn the correct lessons could be costly. As such, it is more important than ever that the US takes a nuanced look at its role and activity in the global system, which will be significantly hindered by viewing its largest single project over the last two decades through an overly simplified and ignorant framework.

Finally, the oversimplification of Afghanistan and the blaming of it for the West’s failures is deeply immoral. The graveyard thesis crams Afghan history into how it relates to predominantly European Empires, denying it credit outside the framework of imperial history. In reality, Afghanistan has had a fascinating and proud history outside of its relations with the European powers, and thus the promulgation of this thesis risks making discourse around Afghanistan incredibly demeaning. Moreover, calling it the ‘Graveyard of Empires’ suggests that the primary victims of imperial projects in the country are the Empires – British, Soviet, and now American – and not the people of Afghanistan. The country’s people have faced endless war and persecution due to Imperial ends and are the actual victims of the country’s recent past. By framing Afghan history as a one of imperial failure, political discourse is prejudiced in favour of the West at the expense of the true victims of imperial policy. 

These are, unfortunately, inevitable consequences of applying a single and incorrect historical framework to contemporary politics: it can be profoundly immoral but also practically ruinous. Further, it can cloud the judgement of policy makers looking to draw lessons from past failures. As such, while there are good reasons to base politics on history, when that history is incorrect, the results can be ruinous.

Julius Balchin, Summer Writer

Let the Games Begin: Olympics, Sports and Supremacy in the Prewar World

This summer’s Olympic Games were for many a much-needed respite from a pandemic of which we have  all grown weary. Tuning in to watch our athletes fighting it out has for many revived the sense of national pride  that had taken something of a battering from the political whirlwind of the last few years. For most of us, this is harmless fun, but it can be all too easy to forget that beneath the cultural posturing and showmanship that Ben Carter has explored in the article he has written for this blog, there lies the prerequisite competitive nationalism that inspired the fascist preoccupation with the Olympics throughout the 1930s and ‘40s. As David Goldblatt, author of The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, has pointed out, the very spectacle of the Olympic Games as we know them today has its roots in Leni Riefenstahl’s, a German film producer active in the production of Nazi propaganda, Olympia. This film featured now outdated anthropological concepts about race as central themes. It is a heritage that can be hard for us to reconcile, and which is often hidden from view as a result.

(Credit: France 1976, via Creative Commons)

Demonstratively, Hitler’s 1936 Games began a new phase in Olympic history, one stemmed only by the outbreak of the Second World War and the aversion to nationalism that arose from it. A phase in which the gentlemanly, largely aristocratic sporting values envisaged by the modern Games’ founder, Baron de Coubertin, were replaced by the nationalist application of social Darwinism that so characterised early twentieth century thought. The school of thought which bred, and was intensified by, the worldwide rise of fascism; most notably in Germany, Spain, Italy and Japan. It is no coincidence that the ‘Phantom Olympics’ of 1940 were due to be held in Tokyo, capital of the increasingly authoritarian and supremacist Japanese Empire, or that their fellow fascists, the Italians, had a gentleman’s agreement with the Japanese to refrain from proposing Rome as a host – Mussolini was subsequently thanked by the Japanese for the ‘generous understanding’ he had shown them. Rome was in fact later put forward as a candidate for the 1944 Games which again never went ahead – losing out in the end to, somewhat prophetically, London.

Contemporaries were well aware of the potential the Olympics held as a political battleground. Barcelona’s Popular Olympics of 1936 were set up in direct opposition to the Berlin Olympics, the rejection of fascism its founding purpose. This wasn’t a fringe movement either – over 20,000 fans and athletes attended the Games. Funding came in from all over Europe, from as far afield as Scandinavia – they were funded by idealogues, not bureaucrats. The Popular Games were ended before they ever began by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil ar, but their anti-fascist legacy didn’t peter out with them. Two hundred of the athletes would later fight alongside the Popular Front against Franco’s government during the Civil War. The Games were ideologically charged at their birth and remained so after their death. These Games were more than a protest. They were a response to the allegations of impotence and antiquity levelled by the fascists against the forces of democracy. They were a demonstration of the virility and youth of the anti-fascist movement. In the 1930s, physical force and political power were inseparable – the Popular Olympians were fighting fire with fire.

Samuel Lake

Politics meets religion: The Ayodhya dispute

Religious violence and contention is by no means unfamiliar to India. Conflicting religious beliefs have been rife for centuries, with historians tracing problematic relations between Hindus and Muslims in the country as far back as the thirteenth century, the time in which the formation of Islamic communities in India began. There is equally a consensus, however, that significant Hindu-Islamic tension is a more recent by-product of Partition in 1947, an event in itself driven by contemporary religious disputes. Nevertheless, conflict between the two religions in India is not confined to history, as recent controversies make it more pertinent than ever in the twenty-first century.

A specific conflict over land, known as the Ayodhya dispute, serves to prove this. A dispute prolific for causing riots and political tension over the last century or so in India, it has arguably caused the most political rupture within the past three decades. This one hundred and fifty year old debate between Hindus and Muslims across India concerns a disputed sacred area of land in Ayodhya, a city in Uttar Pradesh, the northern region of the country. The debate involved a supreme court case in which members of the two religions were both fighting for control and authority over this same plot of land. Indian Muslims are of the belief that a mosque was built on the site by a commander of Babur in the sixteenth century, and thus the site is sacred to them. However, the site is equally sacred to Hindus, as they believe the same site was the birthplace of Lord Ram, a sacred Hindu deity and reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Not unlike other examples of Hindu-Islamic contention across India’s history, violence has been central to this specific dispute from the very beginning. Fears of an outbreak over the case were evident in 1949 when the Indian government made orders denying permission for Muslims to be within two-hundred yards of the site. Concern over potential outbreak turned to violence in 1992, when unrest over the lack of progress in the case broke, and the sacred Ayodhya mosque was torn down and destroyed by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu activist group, acting under the belief that the site was rightfully theirs. This event had national repercussions, triggering a mass of communal riots which left over 2000 dead, most of them Muslims. The Indian government even detained crowds of citizens in Ayodhya amid fears of violence following the final court ruling in 2019.

Hanuman Garhi, a major Hindu temple in Ayodhya close to the site mentioned in this article. Credit

The official end to this case shows the deeply political roots of Hindu-Islamic antagonism. The dispute came to an end in the eyes of the government in 2019, when India’s supreme court finally ruled in favour of the Hindus. This result was no surprise, however, considering the lack of independence of the Indian judiciary – former chief justice Ranjan Gogoi having been appointed by Modi – coupled with the aims of India’s ruling right-wing political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, to define a national doctrine characterised by Hindu nationalism. Thus, it can be argued that this lengthy dispute illustrates a deep modern politicisation of India’s religious conflict, and furthermore, it has infiltrated the heart of the nation’s identity politics. Following the 2019 ruling, Modi, the Prime Minister of India, tweeted that the verdict “shouldn’t be seen as a win or loss for anybody”. Considering this concerns a debate that has severely exemplified the continuation of the polarisation of the country’s two dominating religions in the modern day, this statement blatantly implies sympathies towards Hindu nationalism, particularly as social and religious divisions have only deepened nationally since the BJP came into power in 2014.

Therefore, tensions between the two religions in India are undoubtedly far from over, and mosque-temple disputes are still central to Indian Hindu supremacist politics. Since 2019, other examples of similarly structured temple disputes have risen over similar issues, such as recent court orders in Varanasi this year to investigate whether there is any structural overlapping between Gyanvapi mosque which is adjacent to a Hindu temple. This particular example has unsurprisingly been a decision made by the court following petitions from Hindu nationalist groups, claiming a Muslim emperor demolished part of the Hindu temple in the seventeenth century to build a mosque.

Although antagonism between the two religions is clearly historically rooted in India, right-wing Hindu nationalism is what is continuing to fuel this conflict in the modern day. Thus, until crucial notions of right-wing Hindu nationalism cease to dominate the political landscape of India, further antagonism between the two religions will only continue. 

By Miriam Shelley, Summer Writer