Hong Kong- a frontline in the fight for democracy

A protester at the July 1st anniversary of Hong Kong's handover. (Hongwrong.com)
A protester at the July 1st anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover. (Hongwrong.com)

Hong Kong has only recently entered into international focus. Several weeks ago, NSA analyst Edward Snowden began to divulge information about American surveillance programs against foreign and domestic targets. He did so from a hotel in Hong Kong, and the next month was a media circus over who Snowden was and whether he would be extradited to the United States.

Ultimately, the struggle over Snowden is not the major struggle involving Hong Kong. On July 1st, 1997, sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, which made the territory a Special Administrative Region (SAR). The agreement between the two countries made explicit that Hong Kong was to enjoy fundamental freedoms that the rest of Chinese citizens do not have. This dichotomy, part of Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” policy, is reflected in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which in part reads:

Article 5 The socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.

Despite these legal provisions, Hong Kong is a frontline in the battle for democratic rule and civil rights. Though this fifty year guarantee is written into law, the history of post-handover Hong Kong is not one of democratic rule. The executive head of a the area was picked by the Beijing political elite and though “Beijing has promised that Hong Kong citizens will be able to pick their own chief executive …no later than 2017 and pick an entire legislature by 2020” it would be ill-advised to expect an authoritarian state to give full democracy to a part of its people.

However, Hong Kong still enjoys more press and protest rights than the rest of China, which has led to the largest vigils in remembrance of the 1989 pro-reform and pro-democracy movement that was brutally crushed in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing, as well as hundreds of other Chinese cities.

Vigil in remembrance of the Tiananmen Square massacre. June 4th, 2013.
Vigil in remembrance of the Tiananmen Square massacre. June 4th, 2013 (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

July 1st has also been  key anniversary, and brings together of groups that oppose the current government of Hong Kong, the Chinese government, or lament that handover from Britain. Despite monsoon rains, at least 100,000 people marched.

A major demonstration on July 1st, the 16th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong
A major demonstration on July 1st, the 16th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong

The battle for justice and civil rights does not just go through Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Burma. It goes through Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore- where highly-developed free market capitalism is stubbornly married to intrusive, strong-armed governments. Though political scientists have correlated certain types of wealth to more pluralistic and free societies, there are always exceptions.

Hong Kong is held between two worlds. The PRC every day looks more economically similar, the charade of democracy is still there. The wealthy capitalist countries of Europe have the same gleaming skyscrapers and business cultures, but they also have universal suffrage and imperfect, but working democracies.

Every great march in Hong Kong could be its last. With these calls for reform, democracy, and civil rights we see 1989 again. The failure, the blood, and promise that never again will such change be turned away with armored cars and rifle butts. This July 1st, those in the past and those yet to come, are a reminder.

The dream is not dead yet.

A major step back for voting rights in America

In light of today’s Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act ruled the method of determining which areas need to pre-clear new voting laws due to a past of discrimination, this is a post I wrote on the matter on March 6th, 2013.

The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1870. It was the last of the “Reconstruction Amendments” that fundamentally changed how race was viewed in the eyes of the law. The Thirteenth Amendment, recently given spotlight as the focus of Spielberg’s blockbuster film Lincoln, abolished slavery. The Fourteenth is complex but contained the Due Process Clause, which led to protections of individual rights by applying the Bill of Rights to states in addition to the federal government.

The Fifteenth is about voting, as racial equality must also mean political equality. It reads:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

While this amendment was not truly realized until the civil right movement and federal intervention in the 1960s, it is key to understanding the debate about the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that exists, and the potentially drastic changes that could result from a Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder.

The Voting Rights Act was one of several federal laws aimed at desegregation and racial equality. Since its passage in 1965, has been reauthorized on several occasions, most recently in 2006. Much of the Act is not cause for controversy- Section 2 simply echoes the text of the Fifteenth; however Section 5 has continually caused friction and legal challenge.

Passing a discriminatory voting law, at any level in the United States, is illegal and the VRA gives the Attorney General wide authority to challenge such laws if there is good evidence that it has a discriminatory effect. Section 5 requires certain states and local jurisdictions to pre-clear any new election statutes, provided they have a recorded history of voter discrimination. This includes several states of the formerly segregated South, Alaska, and specific counties in other states. A place does not need to have a Jim Crow past to be listed– Monterey County, California, near where I live, is listed and has been for decades. And this section is not purely historical- hundreds of cases have been brought to federal court under the VRA in the past two decades. A major case against Texas was brought before the Supreme Court prior to Shelby County. The 2012 election saw Voter ID laws being passed, often very close to the election date. Preventing last-minute tricks is a key reason Section 5 exists and has been kept beyond its initial lifespan.

Now to segue to the talk of race itself. Chief Justice Roberts mentioned to US Solicitor General Donal Verilli Jr. that minority registration and turnout was often worse in states like Massachusetts than regulated states like Mississippi. He also asked if racism in the South was really worse at this point than racism in the North.

These two points have the same dangerous confusion- they use the term “racism” to conflate two related but separate concepts- prejudice and discrimination. They are not, and never will be, the same. When talking about the North versus the South in terms of racism, one is discussing prejudice. There are large numbers of people in states like Massachusetts, or Oregon, or Hawai’i that believe in racial superiority and inequality, and that is a problem that needs to be addressed. However, the point of the VRA is that certain groups in certain areas put their prejudices into policy- that is discrimination and it is the relevant behavior when discussing Section 5. As George Washington University law professor Spencer Overton points out, “covered jurisdictions account for less than twenty-five percent of the nation’s population, but they account for fifty-six percent of successful Section 2 litigation.” There is ample evidence that the covered states have continuing issues with Fifteenth Amendment compliance.

When Associate Justice Scalia spoke, he said that the 2006 renewal of the VRA was due “to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement…Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.” It seems strange that voting could be tied to racial entitlement, something Elizabeth Wydra (who wrote an amicus brief in favor of the government’s position) agrees with. Even if it was true, and Congress has been less than exacting in their renewals, to overrule their votes is a clear case of judicial activism. Firstly, there exists copious evidence that the 2006 renewal was carefully reviewed- Overton retorts

In considering whether to reauthorize, Congress held twenty-one hearings, heard from over ninety witnesses, and assembled a fifteen-thousand-page record. Congress did not simply rely on the existing coverage formula, but instead was guided by the extensive evidentiary record that showed contemporary discrimination in voting remains concentrated in covered jurisdictions.

And the Fifteenth Amendment could not be clearer- the first section outlines a goal, and the second gives Congress the sole power to figure out effective methods to realize it. And despite misgivings about Congress, their eventual overwhelming approval in 2006 (similar in support to the original 1965 bill) shows bipartisan consensus has endured. For the judicial branch to interfere with that would be bold, and without much evidence that Congress has been negligent or themselves discriminatory.

The VRA is not a fossil of the Civil Rights era- it is a mechanism to keep the goals of the social movements alive, as we do not live in a race-neutral country and each year is a fight to progress closer to the mountaintop.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech is known primarily for its stirring ending. But the buildup to that phrase has some of the clearest explanation of what the country needed to rise above in the 60s. He asserts that “We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (text)

Indeed, as long as people cannot vote, there is no satisfaction. And if a black citizen’s vote is diluted by racially-motivated gerrymandering- in New York or Mississippi- the job is still undone.

The last straw

I think the issue of bad and expensive public transportation was the last straw…But what bothers me even more is that our government isn’t providing for us more generally. Not in schools. Not in hospitals. We have huge levels of social inequality and violence.

-Priscila Passareli, Brazilian protester

Quote comes from a story in the Los Angeles Times.

In Turkey, it was redevelopment eliminating green space. In Brazil, it was a transit fare hike. These are the vanguard issues, the ones that break people out of complacency. The hundreds of thousands of people are not there solely because the bus is more expensive- they come together in dozens of cities because they feel the government has failed them.

Turkey is in part about the past- the feeling that Prime Minister Erdogan has eroded at the foundation built by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk almost a century ago. In Brazil, it is about a future promised but not delivered on. Much like Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and other South America leaders, the Workers’ Party has been kept in power through a bold anti-poverty pledge. That poverty is down, but few other issues are resolved- education, transit, infrastructure, crime, inequality- has indicated to many that the party has either slowed down their promise, or stopped entirely. The huge investments in the Confederations Cup, the World Cup, and then the Summer Olympics amplify what is seen as a lack of investment in ordinary people.

Americans are often mad when cities build sports stadiums for private teams- often costing hundreds of millions of dollars. But what if we also had a poverty rate, illiteracy rate, and crime rate like Brazil? It would be enough to riot over. And Brazil is.

Helping the forgotten Rohingya- educating people on the outrage

A common word used to describe the Rohingya- a population of Muslims residing in the Buddhist-majority Rakhine State in southwestern Burma- is “forgotten.” They are a people without a country, unacknowledged by the government of Burma. After fleeing from their homes amid violence and terror,  they are seen as a nuisance to surrounding countries.

Rohingya refugees, three of thousands

I only heard of the Rohingya six months ago, thanks to an al-Jazeera English feature on their terrible plight as refugees in Bangladesh. The media focus on the people, 800,000 strong, is practically nonexistent. Political reform in Burma has often overshadowed the chaos in Rakhine. In a society where people have vowed to prevent another Rwanda, another Cambodia, it seems strange to see a lack of concentrated action against Burma and the surrounding countries to give the Rohingya some kind of political status.

A few weeks ago, I logged onto Twitter and saw that my feed was full of messages marked with the hashtag #RohingyaNOW. Organized by Anonymous, this Twitter offensive was successful in getting the Rohingya onto the global trending topics, peaking at 24,000 messages an hour. At the end of the day, a lot more people knew something about who these people were and what was happening to them.

Now in the aftermath of the Kony 2012 abomination, social media-based campaigns to highlight atrocities should be met with healthy skepticism. But Twitter is good at getting people to at least learn the basics, maybe do a bit of Googling to figure out what the fuss is about. Because one of the first steps to helping a forgotten people is to make them no longer forgotten.

The crimes against labor in Bangladesh

The tragedy of Rana Plaza

The crimes against labor in Bangladesh

A large industrial complex collapsed in Bangladesh on Thursday, with hundreds dead or stuck under the rubble. This was preceded in November by a massive garment factory fire that killed over a hundred workers. The fire started on the ground floor and spread upwards, leading several women to die after jumping from the roof, reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a disaster in 1911 New York that was a catalyst for many modern labor reforms.

Worker outrage has led to direct action, something that is now common due to these disasters, as well as poor treatment and unpaid wages. These are irregular and difficult to control because of the issues creating organized unions.

The collapse highlights how union rights are essential in developing economies. Not just to counteract insulting wages (less than $40/month to start), but because collective power is needed to improve safety. Workers in Rana Plaza had seen cracks and damage to the complex, but they were not in the position to force management to address the problems.John Sifton of Human Rights Watch says:

the disaster highlights concerns about labor rights in Bangladesh. “Had one or more of the Rana Plaza factories been unionized, its workers would have been in a position to refuse to enter the building on Wednesday morning, and thus save their lives,”

Bangladesh is the rock-bottom labor market, for companies that think China and Malaysia have grown too costly. As with many export-driven countries, the government has given manufacturers incredible deals on land and created long tax holidays. In addition, there is lax oversight and a strong independence of companies conduct business on their own terms. Local labor activists are walking a lonely road, in which the powers that be are set against them; they have been beaten, arrested, and even murdered for their efforts.

Until labor organizations can exist free from corporate or government action, there will be another Rana Plaza. Even as I write this there are buildings cracked and creaking, full of flammable dust and lint, with the fire doors barred and filled with people working an insane amount for hardly any money at all. People who believe in labor justice should help support local workers create, expand, and use their collective power. Some organizations like the International Labor Rights Forum and the AFL-CIO are supporting and documenting the movement.

If Americans and Europeans do not see themselves in these tragedies, it is only because our generations have not paid the price. The bloody actions against miners, railroad workers, and the same garment workers who leapt from their burning factory in 1911 mirror what Bangladesh is experiencing. This is not just chaos in the developing world. It is a chance to see the horrors that activists fought and died for to end.

The fix is in

Our friend the trust is back

Matt Taibbi has released yet another feature outlining the fraud of a huge scale that large banks have engaged in. Rather than charge excessive fees or provide unrealistic mortgage terms, they engage in collusion to manipulate parts of the world economy so basic that most don’t know they exist.

First was the LIBOR scandal. LIBOR is an important interest rate, set daily, that determines what banks charge each other for short-term credit. Each large bank submits a bid on what the rate should be, and the middle 50% of bids are averaged out to become the rate of the day. Since banks lend vast amounts of money to each other, colluding to adjust the rate (usually downwards) means billions of dollars in revenue for a bank’s currency and derivatives traders.

Now, a firm called ICAP is being investigated for fixing an important rate used in interest-swaps. This has similarities to municipal bond-rigging (outlined previous by Taibbi here). Say you want to pass a large bond measure to build a hospital. Because you spend the money gradually over time, the money you haven’t spent yet gets invested through a broker, who sets up a public auction. The banks divvied up these bond projects among themselves before the auctions, then bid low interest rates. Billions of dollars were skimmed from the accounts of small towns and counties.

The last five years are a swollen river of fraud- when the latest scandal is disposed with another, bigger one comes up. Banks haven’t just been stupid, they’ve engaged in old-school trust activity straight out of the Gilded Age.

A friend did raise a point that I think is important. Did we really think that LIBOR, something set by a banking firm with the help of large financial institutions, was going to be competitive? Having such important things set by a private agreement is just asking to be disappointed. While it doesn’t detract from the terrible things these interest-fixing schemes have done to regular people and businesses looking for a loan, it also is a reminder that one shouldn’t assume that corporations are acting fairly when they deal amongst themselves.

After the game,…

After the game, the king and the pawn go into the same box. -Italian proverb

This is perhaps my favorite quote. It has a depth of meaning and summarizes some key parts of humans and society.

Several thoughts emerge from this proverb. An obvious one is that death is the grand equalizer. We do not get to take our status to the afterlife, like the Pharaohs; in contrast, the material goods we accumulate no longer matter, and thus all men die a pauper.

Another metaphor is the game itself. When pieces are placed on certain squares and rules are agreed upon, pieces gain power that they do not have prior and will not have afterwards. I see this as representing the artificial nature of life. The pawn will be less powerful than the queen, not because of merit, but because of initial status. Though chess speaks of a feudal society, it is easy to figure out who the kings, the rooks, and the pawns are in the modern era. The piece you are is a product of birth.

Now this has become less relevant in post-feudal societies, as social mobility does indeed happen. The inflexibility of the social fabric, however, remains.

Chess is also a game of inevitability. Pieces will be captured and removed, tactics will be employed, and the game will be won, lost, or drawn. When the game ends, no matter what, all distinctions end. Pieces are valued through a social agreement on what chess is and what it is not. Whether captured or remaining at the end, all things become equal once again.

If one is to perhaps over-interpret the quote (which I totally like to do), it is not just about class. Chess is a game of opposite colors; these colors are vitally important during the game. Afterwards, black and white pieces end up in the same box as well.

This proverb strikes me because it establishes a deep equality among humans. Politics, religion, sport, and the media all create distinctions and divide power in particular ways. But the power one wields is a product of social agreement (or forced acceptance) does not end forever.

The Game of Thrones television series has popularized many aspects of the book series, in particular a phrase that is very important to a select group of people. Spoken in an important but dead language, “valar morghulis means All men must die. No matter what, all beings must accept this.