Sport as Conflict

Sport fulfils a number of roles in society: it unifies people and nations behind a team, it provides children with role models, and often brings the international community together through tournaments. It could be said that it has another role— a less violent alternative to war. Nuclear deterrents, increased globalisation, effective international organisations, and a desire not repeat the horrors of the World Wars have made nations unprecedentedly reluctant to engage in warfare. So much so that a border skirmish or an invasion of national airspace causes anxiety. And so, nations have to find a new way to obtain the ends traditionally achieved by large scale war. Proxy wars, economic sanctions, and cyberwarfare do generally fill this void, but a more peaceful alternative is sport. Usually, international competitions are played in good spirit between friendly nations, but often they are politicised by nations seeking to dominate or get back at their rivals, demonstrate supposed superiority, or boost national pride. Ends traditionally achieved by warfare.

The Olympics have repeatedly been used as an outlet for nations to demonstrate supposed superiority. Infamously, Nazi Germany tried and failed to use the 1936 Munich Olympics to showcase ‘Aryan dominance’ only for African American Jesse Owens to win four gold medals. More recently, Communist China has seemingly viewed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as an outlet to demonstrate national and ideological superiority. The ideological aspect was plain to see in the furore caused by two Chinese cyclists wearing pins of Mao Zedong after winning gold. In wearing those pins, the cyclists made clear for what and for whom they were winning their medals.

The Olympics have also been used by major powers in conflict. During the Cold War, the US and its allies famously boycotted Moscow 1980, to which the USSR and its allies retaliated by not attending Los Angeles 1984. In organising boycotts, the two superpowers both voiced their opposition to their rival and also showcased their global influence through the amount of countries they got on board with the boycott. With the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics approaching, worsening relations between China and the West have led to some figures in the US, UK, and Australia to call for a boycott of those games. Once again, conflict between major powers is accompanied by Olympic boycotts.

The 1980 Moscow Olympics. (Credit)

Fortunes on the battlefield were historically tied to national pride. Trafalgar made Nelson a national hero in Britain; Ataturk’s victories mean he is still revered in Turkey. Nowadays, sport has a similar, if not quite as strong, link. Italy’s Euro increases perceptions of 2021 being a good year for them. They have also won Eurovision and are having a political and economic turnaround under new Prime Minister Mario Draghi. Likewise, England reaching the Euros final for the first time coincided with the end of lockdown. The UK was seen as being on an uptick— a reversal of fortunes after a devastating pandemic and sporting failure for the last few decades. The unifying effect the football tournament had, and how many commentators argued that the England team came to ‘embody Englishness’, is testimony to the powerful effect of sport. England’s national pride was inexorably tied to football.

On the flip side, losing competitions to major rivals can wound national pride. The Tokyo Olympics once again provide an example of this when the Taiwanese badminton team beat the reigning Chinese champions. This provoked outrage among Chinese nationalists at the thought of being beaten by a country which they perceive as a breakaway province.

On that note, sporting competitions provide an opportunity for revanchism and to ‘get back’ at countries which players’ nations have been in conflict with. Famously this occurred in the 1956 Olympics during a water polo match between Hungary and the USSR. Hungary had recently been invaded by Soviet forces, something the Hungarian water polo team witnessed. When the competition went ahead, the match turned violent and a Hungarian player left with a bloody gash on his head, leading to it being dubbed the ‘Blood in the Water’ match. Recent controversy was abound in the Euros when Serbian-Austrian striker Marko Arnautovic made derogatory comments to the North Macedonian football team. The Balkan country has recently had tense relations with Serbia over its decision to support Kosovo.

And so, there are clearly ways in which nations use sport to fulfil the traditional role of conflict. Sports allow nations to best their rivals in a way that they cannot with other alternatives to conflict (such as proxy wars, cyberwarfare or sanctions). Likewise, sporting dominance is an alternate way to boost national pride in a similar way that military dominance did so in previous centuries. Nonetheless, sports between actual rival nations does not negate conflict, but rather creates another outlet for it. Taiwan may have beaten the PRC in a badminton match, but this does not mean actual war between the two countries may not break out. The US and USSR did boycott each other’s Olympics, but this did not negate that they were always at the brink of war. International tournaments, in many scenarios, are simply the modern, peaceful rendition of the age-old desire for nations to best each other.

Jonas Balkus, Summer Writer

​​Has the United States Fallen Victim to the Graveyard of Empires?

Recent events in Afghanistan have been tinged with a saddening inevitability. After twenty years, the United States are withdrawing from Afghanistan, and in concurrence the Afghan government they propped up has fallen to the Taliban. It seems that everything the US had set out to do in Afghanistan has been undone, and the US’ worldwide reputation has been gravely damaged. A look at Afghanistan’s history makes the events of the last few months seem like a familiar story in the so-called ‘Graveyard of Empires’. This sobriquet has been applied to Afghanistan due to the immense difficulty foreign powers face in trying to completely conquer and administer it. 

An American soldier in combat gear. (Credit: Image: The US Army via Creative Commons.)

Afghanistan has proven a difficult challenge for many empires. Alexander the Great’s army suffered immense casualties in taking Afghanistan. During the Muslim conquests, it took two centuries for Arab Muslims to defeat the Zunbils of Afghanistan whereas it had taken only decades for them to bring down the empires which had dominated the Middle East since antiquity. When the Mongols swept through Asia and Europe, they faced strong and effective resistance from the groups living in Afghanistan. The casualties inflicted upon the Mongols included Genghis Khan’s favourite grandson. 

In more modern times, the British waged three disastrous Anglo-Afghan wars from 1839 to 1919 while competing with Russia over influence in Central Asia. The most infamous of these conflicts was the Second Anglo-Afghan War, in which the entire British force in Afghanistan— which totalled about 16,000 people— was completely wiped out in their retreat bar one survivor. In the end, the British failed to take Afghanistan, only making pyrrhic gains which were undone following the Third War in 1919.The Russians subsequently also suffered defeat in Afghanistan. In 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan to support the newly-established Communist government against insurgents. Like the British, the Soviets suffered heavy casualties against local guerrilla fighters, with their death toll reaching 15,000 with 35,000 wounded by the end of the war. In both instances, the invading forces heavily outnumbered the local fighters and yet they still took huge casualties. 

Similar patterns played out in 2001, when a coalition of Western powers, led by the United States invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban government, which had been hosting terrorist groups including Al-Qaeda. Western troops faced difficult resistance from the Taliban, who, once routed, waged war sheltered in fortified Afghan hills, from where they were ultimately unable to dislodge them. And yet, the US, unlike the British or the Russians, was able to take Afghanistan and establish a new government there. Yet this government collapsed eventually and was only ever nominally in control of the entire country. So, to affirm whether the US’ defeat is simply due to the factors which plagued previous invading powers, whether it was a victim of the ‘Graveyard of Empires’, warrants examination of why Afghanistan has been awarded that title.

In conquering and administering Afghanistan, the key challenge is terrain. Afghanistan hosts some of the highest mountains in the world. The Hindu Kush mountain range runs through the country, isolating communities and dotting the map with caves and easily fortifiable positions. This isolation makes it difficult for a central government to have control over local areas. Communities have tribal power structures and local tribal leaders are the power brokers. But this Afghan tribalism is primarily a product of Afghanistan’s vast diversity. 

Through the centuries, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and other ethnic groups have all settled in Afghanistan and thus have produced a very divided nation. Many Afghans identify with their local ethno-cultural group rather than the nation of Afghanistan, which grew out of an eighteenth century empire rather than being formed from nationalist ideas and shared culture such as Italy or Germany. In earlier centuries, diversity resulted in lots of conflict, and so much of rural Afghanistan is heavily fortified. This has been exacerbated due to Afghanistan being in constant state of conflict since the 1970s. And so, Afghanistan is hard to administer, traverse, and conquer, and its people are hard to unite, especially behind a central government such as the US-backed Republic.

These factors may suggest that American failure was inevitable and a prolonged presence in Afghanistan was folly. Yet this is not necessarily the case. Many empires in the past did manage to conquer and administer Afghanistan. Indeed, for most of its history, it has been a part of a foreign empire. It’s more successful rulers, such as the aforementioned Mughals, understood and took advantage of local culture and power relations and governed Afghanistan quite loosely. While the United States did attempt to use local power relations to their advantage, these attempts, such as supporting local warlords, often backfired and undermined confidence in the central government.

But more damagingly, the US’ main focus was to transplant an American-style political system and social structure to a country where it was fundamentally alien. The recent report published by SIGAR— the body which oversaw the US’ reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan— details numerous instances where the Americans in dealing with corruption, solving local disputes, and training the army among other things, assumed that such issues could be dealt with in Afghanistan in the same manner as they would in the United States. The US did construct a more democratic Afghan state and there were improvements under this state, but it was dysfunctional and it would have been perpetually reliant on the US. If the US had been more attuned to local culture, they would have still made an improvement in Afghanistan, which, importantly, would have been far more sustainable. The general difficulties encountered by foreign states in Afghanistan did make administering the country a hard task for the US, but it was their own approach to doing so which led to their failure. The United States has not fallen victim to ‘the Graveyard of Empires’ but rather to a serious deficit in pragmatism.

Jonas Balkus

Disraeli’s Public Health Reforms: How to Improve Social Care Today.

The Coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the realities of a struggling care sector unable to cope with the demands of an ever-aging society. Despite Health Minister Sajid Javid’s full job title being the Secretary of State for Health and Social Services, a chronic imbalance between his two briefs has grown and has highlighted that action needs to be taken. Using the lessons of Disraeli’s ground-breaking public health reform in the 1870s, this article makes the case that the time is now for a National Care Service.

Development in British public health policy has a gradual beginning, with its roots in the 1848 Public Health Act. Spearheaded by the work of Edwin Chadwick and following the particularly severe outbreak of cholera in the same year, the act created a Central Board for Health, and became the first law within Britain regarding public health. 

PM Disraeli. (Credit: James Gardiner Collection)

Public health policy really began to evolve in the early 1870s when Prime Minister Disraeli’s reformative government sought to further address the issue of poor public sanitation. Both the Public Health and Artisans’ Dwellings acts were passed in 1875, beginning the first concerted push to improve public health. Provisions were made to build housing with running water and to enable local authorities to begin replacing slums with better quality housing. Progress was slow, but was nevertheless a radical first step forward in the context of Victorian Britain, which was lauded by early trade unionists who recognised the government’s actions as extensively improving the public health of the masses.

What brought about such radical reform? The source of Disraeli’s public health reform can be found from two places. The first, necessity. The second, external pressure. The first is perhaps self-explanatory. Poor sanitation amongst the working classes helped no one. In fact, as Edwin Chadwick had noted in his commission on working class sanitary conditions back in 1842, families of working men who got sick were more likely to need the government’s poor relief. 

However, it was the large human cost of repeated outbreaks of disease that ultimately forced the government to act. The 1860s saw a significant push for greater rights for the working classes. In 1866, as Parliament discussed expanding the voting franchise, 200,000 protested in Hyde Park. Furthermore, Marx’s Das Kapital had its first volume published in 1867, and philosophers-turn-parliamentarians such as John Stuart Mill were influentially bringing their ideas into the public foreground. The government, undoubtedly casting their mind back to continental Europe 1848, conceded that public health had to become a political priority. 

How, however, can we apply such lessons from Disraeli’s reformative public health policies to a contemporary, 21st century setting? If sanitation was the central public health issue plaguing Disraeli’s government, what then is Johnson’s public health dilemma (putting aside momentarily the overtly obvious answer of the pandemic)? 

The answer is social care. The century-and-a-half following Disraeli has seen significant progress in the forum of public health. Sanitation and hygiene have been expanded to the point where all have access to clean water, a working sewer system, and are free of poor-hygiene related outbreaks of disease. And of course, the jewel in the British state, the National Health Service, founded through the necessity of rebuilding after the War, and the external pressure economic advisors such as Beveridge placed on the government, has provided access to free healthcare for everyone. 

Social care, however, has been largely untouched. As a private industry, it has often remained out of reach of the less privileged within our society, much as basic sanitation remained out of reach for the working classes of Disraeli’s day. Consequently, as our country’s population continues to age and a greater proportion of us reach the stage where we require assistance to carry out some of our basic functions, many are being priced out of having a meaningful last few years of their lives. 

In other words, as our country ages, we will reach a point where it is unsustainable not to approach the issue of social care. As was the case in 1875, reform is necessary. A lack of social care services only serves to provide greater pressure on the NHS, which often cannot discharge patients due to limited support. 

This reform should take place in the form of the creation of a National Care Service. A radical assumption of responsibility by government, as with Disraeli’s public health policies, will better organise social care. The pitiful distribution of PPE during the pandemic within care homes shows that a market model is not just pricing many out of social care, but also failing to properly supply those who can afford it. 

When Jeremy Hunt proposed a National Care Service as part of his campaign to become Conservative Party leader in 2019, that urgent need to reform was there, yes, but the external pressure that Disraeli’s government had was not. Whilst Corbyn’s Labour Party included plans for a National Care Service within both their 2017 and 2019 manifestos, these pledges were often overshadowed, both by other manifesto pledges which gained greater media attention, such as free tuition, and the ubiquitous topic of Brexit. 

Covid’s refocusing of the political lens from issues surrounding exiting the European Union to those surrounding public health has finally provided the opportunity to pressure the government into action. As the NHS was built from the recovery of the War, so too must the National Care Service be built from the recovery from the pandemic. 

Overall, Disraeli’s example is one that must be followed. Social care reform must start. The creation of a National Care Service will serve to help address the issues of our increasingly aging and unequal population, just as Disraeli’s reforms did 150 years ago.

Matthew Lambert, History in Politics Summer Writer

Hong Kong issues: Brief summary of how the UK ruled Hong Kong during the early 20th century


Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 to 1997. How it was actually run is rarely discussed, especially nowadays. Let’s look at four main features of the British administration in the early 20th century (1900 – 1941). 

The view from Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. (Credit: China Highlights)

Executive-led government 

During the period, the whole government was mainly led by the executive branch, i.e. the Governor. The Governor was the president of councils and had the right to appoint and dismiss members of the legislative and executive council. Governor-led government secretaries make and propose all bills and policies. The councils played merely consultative and not binding roles. Ultimately, legislation was proposed, approved and passed by the executive branch. Then it was ‘rubber-stamped’ by the legislative council.

The executive branch also had enormous power spanning a vast range of areas. The Governor exercised tremendous judicial powers by having the power to dismiss and appoint judges and grant amnesty to prisoners. Being the Commander-in-chief of the British force in Hong Kong, the Governor was also in charge of military and foreign affairs. There was no separation of powers for smooth administration. It is fair to say that the government was led by the executive and was a ‘one branch band’.

Lacked legitimacy 

The legitimacy of a government refers to the approval by a majority of the population. During the period, the nature of the British colonial government led to its low legitimacy. At that time, 98% of the population were Chinese and only 2% were foreigners. Also, it was the early years of the British government officially taking over the whole administration. It is expected that local Chinese did not trust the British colonial government. What is more, the reason the British government occupied Hong Kong is that China lost a war against the British. In the minds of the Chinese in Hong Kong, the British were enemies that invaded their motherland; some Chinese in Hong Kong hated the British administration. 

The local Chinese did not feel that the Governor cared about them. The Letters patent, Royal instructions and Colonial Regulations guaranteed the Governor’s ruling power. This means that he was not empowered by the general public. The Governor was also nominated by, thus answerable to, the British Prime Minister, and not the people. It was simply impossible for a local Chinese to relate to or feel represented by the government. 

Nor were British administration willing to let locals participate in the governance in any meaningful sense. Elections were only held in one council, the Urban Council, and only for 2 of the 13 seats. It was also hard for local Chinese to actually be inside the administration, as shown by the lack of Chinese personnel. Local Chinese had no representation in the government who could voice their demands. Officials were usually British merchants. The civil service was also monopolised by British people with key positions all occupied by British people. 

Indirect rule featuring control and conciliation 

The low legitimacy of the British colonial administration led to riots and strikes in the early years. For example, there was the Seamen’s Strike in 1922 and the Guangdong Hong Kong General Strike in 1925. The British administration also suffered ineffective implementation of policies as the local Chinese simply did not support the policies. For instance, the local inhabitants in the New Territories firmly resisted the UK’s Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. In 1923, they strongly resisted the policy regulating the building of houses. All these incidents forced the British administration to come up with new measures to maintain peace and order. 

The first measure was indirect ruling featuring control. Western education was carried out and local Chinese had to learn English. The second measure was indirect ruling featuring conciliation. Small groups of influential Chinese elites and businessmen were allowed to participate in politics to smooth tensions regarding the lack of Chinese representatives. For instance, Mr Chow Shouson, an influential Chinese man, was a consultant and mediator for the government. The government also placed heavy emphasis on these people’s opinions as they understand the local culture better. The local Chinese’s resentment towards western officials was mitigated in this way. The government also set up channels to listen to the needs of the local Chinese. For example, in 1926, Heung Yee Kuk was set up to deal with affairs in the New Territories. The British colonial government hoped that the local Chinese would feel valued and their disobedience would reduce. Other conciliatory measures were implemented, with permission given for firecrackers to be set off in the New Territories during the Lunar New Year as one illustration of how the British administration would avoid meddling in the Chinese traditional lifestyle. In addition, all male indigenous residents were allowed to own a piece of land in the New Territories, another measure by the British administration to please the local Chinese. 

Discrimination against Chinese 

The last feature of the early British colonial administration is that most measures discriminated against local Chinese. Discrimination was serious within the government. As mentioned above, local Chinese had no representation in the government as officials were usually foreigners. In the civil service, British civil servants had higher salaries and better benefits compared to Chinese civil servants of the same rank. 

In socio-economic policies, discrimination was equally clear. For example, the Peak District Reservation Ordinance restricted local Chinese from living in the Peak District which had a cooler temperature and excellent views of the city. Clubs such as The Hong Kong Club and Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club only served whites. Perhaps most strikingly, English was the only official language and the legal system was all in English. As a result, local Chinese would be greatly disadvantaged in trials as they could not even understand the language. It is shown that most policies were highly discriminating against local Chinese. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena

Is ‘Ever-Closer Union’ The Right Path for the EU’s Survival?

Depending on whether you supported the UK leaving or remaining in the European Union, you might presume that the EU is either an undemocratic mess destined to fail, or an international organisation bound to grow and strengthen in a world where cooperation is key. The problem is, in the long-run, it really is impossible to tell which possibility will prevail. 

One the one hand, this last decade has seen a rise in nationalistic sentiment and a resurgent hunger for the principles of sovereign independence; Brexit, the election of Donald Trump accompanied by the slogan ‘America first’, and Orbán’s rule in Hungary serve as just a handful of examples of such a sentiment. On the other hand, it may seem impossible that any nation could fully address its challenges alone in an age of unprecedented interdependence and interconnectedness (and the pandemic speaks for itself here). 

Since its beginning, the EU has been guided by the latter view; states must share resources, work collaboratively under formal rules, and pool their sovereignty in order to survive and prosper in a globalised world. Indeed, the European Coal and Steel Community, which evolved into what we know today as the European Union, was formally established in 1951 with the aim of regional integration in order to avoid war between France and Germany following the horrific conflict of World War II. Underlying all this was a simple perspective: without internationally agreed rules and standards, states would inevitably compete and conflict, and so overarching structures were necessary to prevent this. 

Flags at the European Union headquarters in Brussels. (Credit: Wiktor Dabkowski, action press, via Flickr)

This may appear surprising, as in recent years we’ve often heard from leave campaigners that the EU was originally a mere free trade bloc which morphed into a political union over time. However, the language of ‘political union’ and ‘ever-closer union’ has been in the treaties right from the start, and those ideas have increasingly manifested themselves. Illustrating this, just recently the German Foreign Minister went so far as to call on the EU to abolish the veto power of individual member states when it comes to foreign policy. It seems, therefore, that the EU is set to continue on its pathway towards ever-closer union and increased integration between its member-states. But is that the right path for the union to follow?? 

Despite major challenges – namely the eurozone crisis, the migration crisis, and even Brexit – the EU has succeeded on its slow march towards integration and expansion, and public support across the region has held steady. Whatsmore, continued access to the world’s largest single market area is a great benefit of EU membership, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic and its economic effects. The EU also remains a key player in global governance, attending and influencing the G7, giving the member-states a collective power that they would otherwise lack as independent nations. 

However, increased integration and ever-closer union are not guaranteed to succeed. There is t a possibility that continued allegiance to those principles could prove to be the Achilles’ heel of the EU. Vaccine access and roll-out across the EU during the pandemic highlighted the weakness of the EU in dealing with crises as a large collective, resulting in major dissatisfaction with its leaders, as well as reducing public confidence in the vaccine itself. 

Furthermore, the UK’s future success or lack-thereof as a post-Brexit independent nation will play an important role in shaping perceptions about the benefits of an ever-closer union. If the UK is seen to succeed as a nation unbound by a supranational authority in areas of trade, security, and global leadership, then the integrationist approach of the EU will be put under the spotlight.

Crucially, the sense of Europeanism among the population will likely play the key role in determining just how much further EU integration can go, whilst succeeding. If there is a strong enough European identity, as there is now, then further integration is likely to succeed. However, as we witnessed with Brexit, the electorates of Europe will not sit quietly if they feel that their national identity is being significantly displaced on the altar of ever-closer union. For now it seems as though the current path is working, and public support is holding steady. However, in the long term, the future of the EU is impossible to predict.

Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer

NATO summit: How to Avoid a New Cold War?

The 28th NATO summit on Monday, 14 June 2021, saw the members of the Organization step up their tone regarding China and Russia. Both powers have demonstrated a certain aggressiveness in their foreign policies while also forming alliances that pose threats to the international alliance of 30 European and North American nations.  

The summit could certainly be deemed successful from a diplomatic point of view: the essential task of agreeing a common strategy until 2030 between the Allies was completed. NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg noted that “[t]o do more, Allies agreed that we need to invest more together in NATO”. This investment is to be made in the military, civil and infrastructural sectors of the alliance to ensure it is ready to “face the challenges of today and tomorrow”. 

NATO summit in Brussels, 14 June 2021. (Credit: CSactu)

Among these challenges feature cybersecurity, terrorism and the rise of authoritarianism. The summit centered on the imminent problems relating to Russia and China in particular. Notable among these is their aggressiveness on the international scene and the threat they pose to European and American security. The Allies however reaffirmed the importance of defending “our values and interests”, especially “at a time when authoritarian regimes like Russia and China challenge the rules-based order”. This strong separation between Russia and China on one side and NATO countries on the other hand is polarising; the words “Cold War” do not seem that far out of reach. 

When looking back at history, we can notice an astounding number of parallels, but also of differences, with the political tensions of today. The Cold War was born out ofof the most horrifying conflict of the twentieth century and left the world barely a minute of peace before the separation into Eastern and Western blocs began. Yet as in the twentieth century, political powers find themselves in similar camps: the influence of the US under Biden has grown, and its alliance with Europe is thus stable; Russia, successor to the Soviet Union, stands again in defiance of the traditionally “Western” nations, and large parts of Africa and South America function once more as zones of influence and battlefields of obscure conflicts between the two traditional opponents. Of course, there are differences between the civil war in Syria, which sees Russia aiding the regime and Western powers indirectly supporting rebel forces, and the Vietnam War; yet they both fall into the category of proxy wars, which, ultimately, are a sign of continuing tensions between Western and Eastern powers through their relations to respective opponents in such national conflicts. One difference that must be noted however, is the threat of nuclear war so directly associated with the Cold War. While this threat has, in relative terms, not at all diminished today, nuclear armament became a symbol of the period between 1950 and 1970, when notably the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

With these events still very much present in the political and military memory, communication from NATO during the 2021 Summit has thus been very specific: a new Cold War is to be avoided at all costs. Ideally, this would best work through cooperation with respective opposing powers to ensure global peace as effectively as possible. Cooperation is however not always a given, especially with regards to China and Russia. NATO thus faces a difficult balancing act between marking its territory on the international scene and de-escalating potential conflicts with aggressive counterparts. 

Concerning Russia, NATO is trying to follow a dual approach of diplomatic dialogue and defence. The effectiveness of this approach has however been less than satisfactory until now; it has neither deterred Russia from attacking Georgia in 2008, nor annexing Crimea and supporting separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. While NATO troops are present in the Baltic states and Poland to defend Europe’s borders, this has not kept Moscow from conducting menacing military manoeuvres on its side of the frontier.

China on the other hand is a relatively new and different threat, as its power has considerably increased over the last few decades in comparison to its role in the Cold War. In stark contrast to the 1970s, China is now being considered an actual enemy by the US and Europe, whereas it was once seen as a possible ally against the Soviet Republic. Nowadays, China does not share a direct border with NATO members, unlike Russia; yet this does not mean that it has not become a military threat. While it does not have the traditional status like Russia of being the “West’s” – and especially America’s – enemy, it has shown the same expansionary ambitions and defiance as Moscow. The situation today is thus different from the second half of the twentieth century; China has taken over Russia’s role as the communist power defying the US, yet has to co-exist with Moscow, which has only stepped up its expansionary attempts. In a bid to compete, Chinese aggressions reach from territorial threats towards Taiwan and Hongkong to oppressing the Uyghur minority; China thus makes clear that the world is no longer led by a “small group of countries”, as Chinese officials said following criticism from the G7.

There lies perhaps another problem. Even though NATO is formed of nations with similar interests and sometimes long-standing histories of alliance, it is far from unified. Its individual member states still have differing objectives and approaches to foreign policy and matters of defence. This makes a globalised approach to security concerns difficult. The agreement on the 2030 Agenda suggests however a willingness for more cooperation and more specific goals for the alliance. It is to be hoped that nobody outside NATO seeks military escalation; after all, a new Cold War would be in nobody’s interest. Not even Russia and China, ostensibly aggressive, would wish for a global conflict on that scale, contrary to the escalations between 1950 and 1960, when the threat of war became once again very real for the world. However, it will take a joint effort from NATO and those outside of the alliance to ensure global peace as it is now.

Cristina Coellen, History in Politics Contributor

Work Environment and Culture

With workplace culture once again becoming important as people begin returning to the workplace, it is the perfect time to examine the differences between working in Asia and the UK. Despite inter-country disparities, work cultures in Asia share quite a few common traits. For one, employees in Asian countries such as India, China, Taiwan and Singapore work an average of 2100+ hours per year, compared to the 1700~ average in the UK. This amounts to an extra 8 hours per week. The culture of Asian countries offers a partial explanation where there is a heavier emphasis on work and less so on having a fulfilling work-life balance. Starting work at 9am and finishing at 9pm is often the norm, especially in places that have seen drastic economic improvements, such as China and Singapore. What results from this ‘pressure cooker’ work culture is that employees often report consistent poor physical and mental health, as reported in a study by Rand Europe. 

In tandem with the mental health stigma in many Asian countries, workers avoid seeking professional diagnosis or help for fear of social ostracisation. The culmination is a lack of productive labour and low living standards. Whereas in the UK, labour productivity is significantly higher than its Asian counterparts despite much lower working hours. In fact, research conducted by the OECD into the most labour-productive countries, only 2 Asian countries featured in the top 15. This is despite their consistently ranking high for number of hours worked annually. 

Street to Askakusa Shrine (Credit: roger4336, via Flickr)

Beyond employment, Asian living standards are comparatively lower than in the UK. This is partially caused by an intense work culture and exacerbated by high living costs in densely populated areas, such as Hong Kong and Tokyo, leading to young people being unable to purchase property, having poorer physical health and experiencing a generally lower standard of living.

Rare, tragic cases like that of Nayoa Nishigaki, where overworking has led to their death, are still prevalent in several Asian countries. Despite some countries’ labour laws prohibiting employers from requiring their employees to work beyond a certain number of hours, the corporate cultural difference in how an employee is valued leads to employers and employees correlating hours worked with dedication and usefulness.

The intense work culture and social stigma around mental health issues all further contribute to the mental health crisis in Asia, with many Asian countries having a high proportion of their population suffering from mental health disorders yet never receiving treatment. A particularly severe example is South Korea, which has the highest suicide rate amongst OECD countries, and the second-highest number of hours worked.

It seems the occasionally toxic work environment and culture will not see any improvement until the fundamental culture surrounding work in Asia is changed. This could be done only through collective action, forcing a whole new mindset on work, its role in leading a productive and fulfilling life, and destigmatising the conversation around mental health. With the normal habits of work being disrupted worldwide due to Covid-19, it seems now is the best time to ignite the conversation around existing work culture and its priority in our lives.

May Lam, History in Politics Contributor

Wuhan and China: the Pandemic and its Past

China’s history presents an interesting counterpoint to the West, revealing as much about our prejudices as another’s past. Often presented, from a Western perspective, as a place with continuous history until Western intervention in the form of the Opium Wars and Communist ideology, it is intriguing to see how China presents its own history in political situations. Does it return to this supposed stability to prove its historic greatness, as Britain does with the World Wars? Or, instead, does it focus on the future, using its technological shifts to ignore aspects of the past, such as Mao’s famines, or the 1931 Central China Flood, unknown inside and outside China but the cause of over two million deaths? As Dr. Chris Courtney, who has researched the Flood, was keen to emphasise when answering these questions in our podcast Dead Current, it is often hard to gain access to these histories given the Communist Party’s policy of preventing historians’ archival access or the liberty to criticise. Dr. Courtney’s claim for the need to dismantle the monolithic historical narrative that the Party promotes feels relevant to all strands of history, but especially the construction of Wuhan during the pandemic. 

Aerial view of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province. (Credit: sleepingpanda, via Shutterstock.)

Of course, we could not interview Dr. Courtney without relating his specialism of Wuhan to the current global pandemic. Wuhan is a vibrant city; an industrial and financial hub with a vast cultural heritage, serving briefly as China’s war-time capital in both 1927 and 1937. The Wuchang Uprising in 1911 – which catalysed the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, starting the Xinhai Revolution – occurred in the Wuchang District of Wuhan. Yet, its spotlight on the global stage roots the pandemic in its wet markets.

Wet markets are not unique to Wuhan or China. Spread across much of Asia, the name comes from how perishable goods are sold, in contrast to dry markets’ electronics or clothes. Whilst the food in wet markets may not always resemble a local farmers’ market, they have more similarities to these than the health code violation they are presented as. When discussing this with Dr. Courtney, it was clear that there needs to be an acknowledgement that food practices in China are not perfect – the 2002 SARS outbreak began in Guandong’s food industry. However, as he emphasised, this should not allow a return to racist stereotypes. Passively accepting these concepts can lead to a reinforcement of racist stereotypes about China’s eating patterns from the twentieth century. 

Our food patterns reflect our history. For example, many in Britain find eating dogs abhorrent; biologically edible, their role as our ‘best friend’ means they are not, to use Poon’s term, ‘culturally edible’. Likewise, at the beginning of the twentieth century, few in China ate beef, as oxen played a central role in agriculture. Yet, as industry rose and agricultural techniques shifted, so that someone would not be spending all day with one animal, the taboo no longer exists and China’s beef consumption per capita has risen to rates equal to Britain or the USA. 

These shifting food patterns emphasise the mutability of what is deemed acceptable to eat, and how it is not a universal standard, but a reflection of personal history. Criticism can be made to the stalling in China’s post-SARS food reforms, but this should not be couched in racist rhetoric, which is a sign of ignorance that weakens the argument.

To hear more about how the Chinese Communist Party utilises history, how this compares to Britain, and how Covid-19 reflects and is changing this, listen to our new podcast with Dr. Chris Courtney, Durham University’s Assistant Professor in Modern Chinese History, available on Spotify on Dead Current.

Eleanor Williams-Brown, Senior Editor, History in Politics

Recycling Political Establishments?

The announcement made by Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019 proclaiming his candidacy for a fifth presidential term ignited an ocean of furious Algerians opposing the monotonous and stagnant regime under his rule. Since Algeria’s independence in 1962, the nature of its political system under Bouteflika’s neo-patrimonial and authoritarian rule led to a disruption of the country’s social contract resulting in a loss of legitimacy for its rulers. Algerian protestors peacefully took to the streets against Bouteflika’s bid, the pressure placed by the Hirak movement alongside the military led to the resignation of Bouteflika, restoring a sense of hope and new beginnings for the Algerian people. The resignation of Bouteflika allowed for the disclosure of the profound fractures within the Algerian organization but also led to uncertainty between political actors on how to progress in a post-Bouteflika regime. 

The goals of the Hirak had endured a rancorous end as the country’s military leadership rebuffed any additional concessions, overlooking all calls necessary for an essential transition period. Algeria’s political establishment instead, marshalled propaganda and authoritarianism  to force the presidential elections in December 2019, resulting in the presidency of former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Algeria has continued to struggle politically over the past two years with the Hirak movement gradually losing momentum, political stability still being seen to be lacking in the country as a vicious cycle of tainted political actors continually suspend urgently needed political and economic reforms. The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened the economic and political struggles of the country, potentially entering a state of multifaceted chaotic crisis, one would not be surprised to see the character of Algeria during the Arab Spring being brought back to life in upcoming years as the people’s needs are dismissed by Algeria’s political elite. (or something like this) 

Painted portrait of Abdelaziz Bouteflika. (Credit: Abode of Chaos, via Flickr)

The Hirak has become irrevocably divided as groups no longer share consistent socio-political aspirations, most notably the divide between the new-reformist camp. The internal weaknesses of the Hirak have meant that there has been a failure of agenda establishment regarding what exactly it is the movement seeks to achieve. Dialogue between the Hirak is a necessary channel to any form of success yet it is overdue, unless Algeria faces an existential threat that would push the system to engage collectively it seems there will be no progression for its political and economic placement.

Despite the Hirak not having achieved its major goals the opposition movement has sparked a genuine desire and need for political and social progression; however, this may take years to attain, and time is not on Algeria’s side given its serious economic and political challenges. The abandonment of Algeria by the international community has further complicated matters since 2019, Algeria is a regular when it comes to favouring the status-quo and may very well reject any interference with their internal affairs. However, the international community could afford the country a course of internal dialogue or aid the Hirak with its organizational process via encouraging greater civil and political freedoms. Algeria may not be of priority for the Biden-Harris administration, nonetheless, hand in hand with its recently reinforced relations with European governments the United States have a greater potential to revive a collective effort towards a transition period for Algeria. The June 12th snap election has not instigated any meaningful change so far with the majority of the population even boycotting the election as the military remains in control. Although it would be precarious to call for radical and instant changes it is necessary that Algeria gradually works on reciprocally beneficial reforms for both the opposition and the system.

Lydia Benaicha, History in Politics Contributor

The Politics of the Past: How Divergent Interpretations of History Shape East Asian Diplomatic Relations in the Present

David Cameron’s refusal to remove his poppy for his 2010 visit to China was revealing of a stark contrast in the significance granted to history in politics between himself (and the British political establishment as a whole) and his hosts. Whilst history has often played the role of a footnote to contemporary politics in the UK – as reflected by the severe lack of meaningful authority being granted to historians in any government department barring the Foreign Office, and even then only recently – it is central to the national self-portrayal of the Chinese nation. The ‘Century of Humiliation’ narrative that plays such a pivotal role in the story of the nation, as painted by the Chinese Communist Party, is one that the West would do well to take more notice of. Meanwhile, in Japan and Korea, the legacy of the Japanese colonial project looms large in contemporary relations. Perhaps as the ‘victors’ of modern history it is easy to relegate the past to that which went before. In Asia, where the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were ones of humiliation and soul-searching, it is impossible to simply sequester the past – it is intricately bound to the politics of the present.

China’s relations with the West underwent a radical shift in the Great Divergence of the nineteenth century, as European powers and the United States came to dominate the globalising world order. The reversal in fortunes suffered by the Qing Empire and, later, the modern Chinese state, has served to inform Chinese foreign policy and education ever since. Chairman Mao linked the Japanese imperialism of the early twentieth century to the Opium Wars of the nineteenth, and the same wars were used to justify Communist China’s ‘reaction’ against their Western oppressors. The Chinese national imagining has therefore come to be defined in opposition to, and in competition with, a West that remains stained by its past, a point of nuance that David Cameron failed so visibly to grasp in 2010, and one that continues to underlie the diplomatic fallacy that we are able to negotiate any sort of equal standing with the Chinese government. A competitive national consciousness has been fostered that means that ‘the West’ will always be cast as the natural point of comparison for China’s past failures and current successes, leaving them and the likes of the UK at polar ends of a dichotomy that western governments, until very recently, have failed to fully grasp.

A Nationalist officer guarding women prisoners likely to be comfort women used by the Communists, 1948.
(Credit: Jack Birns, The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images)

Elsewhere in East Asia, the memory of the Japanese military’s ‘comfort women’, who were drawn from across the Empire through the course of the Second World War and forced into what can only be described as sexual slavery, retains a pervasive political potency. The majority of these women were Korean and though estimates vary, they seem to have numbered in at least the tens, possibly hundreds of thousands. Indeed, such a range in estimates comes as a result of the topic’s controversial nature in the context of the countries’ poor diplomatic relations in recent years. The plight of the comfort women and the allocation of responsibility for the crimes against them has come to represent a clearly drawn battle line between the two countries – Japanese nationalists, the recently departed Shinzo Abe amongst them, seeking to play down the extent of official sanction for such atrocities, whilst Koreans pursue justice not only for the victims, but for the Korean nation as a whole. In order for the nations’ relations to reach some level of normality, the governments of both must look to find a compromise between what are currently polarised memories of the Japanese Empire. Forgetting those years is a luxury that only the oppressors may take, yet it is clear that in Korea too a way must be found for the nation to move on from the scars of their past.

Both of these cases demonstrate the historical dimension of diplomacy in the East Asian political sphere. A history of ruptures, clean breaks and colonial exploitation has bred national imaginings in which the traumas of the past play a central role. This significance is one that can be easily underestimated by those of us in the West for whom history has taken on an almost trivial status, as a backdrop to the present. Cameron underestimated it and it appears that our current leaders are also misunderstanding the inescapable threat posed by a Chinese leadership that places itself firmly in the context of historical competition with Western ‘imperialists’. Such cultural ignorance not only offends those whose culture is being ignored, but also hamstrings those guilty of that ignorance. Without a clear understanding of the other side’s thinking, diplomatic blunders like the poppy controversy are not likely to go anywhere anytime soon.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer