War brings people together. War gets dissenters thrown in prison.


Eugene V. Debs- socialist, labor organizers, snappy dresser, jailed for opposing World War I.
Eugene V. Debs- socialist, labor organizers, snappy dresser, jailed for opposing World War I.

Hopefully this will be part of a trend towards a more critical approach to how World War I affected the United States: The Atlantic published “Why Wars Always End Up Hurting the Most Vulnerable Americans” yesterday. A choice quote:

Most Americans have forgotten how repressive a period World War I was. “You can’t even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage,” quipped the writer Max Eastman. “They give you ninety days for quoting the Declaration of Independence, six months for quoting the Bible.” Walter Lippmann said Woodrow Wilson’s administration had “done more to endanger fundamental American liberties than any group of men for a hundred years.”

What it comes down to is that there are two sides to any event, like a war or a terrorist attack, which rallies people together. There is union, but also violence and repression to those that are in the wrong place (or of the wrong race, or nationality) at the wrong time. Triumph over Nazi Germany and imperial Japan gets so much romanticism, but for 100,000+ Japanese-Americans who were herded into camps, they suffered because of the drive to war. Intellectuals of both liberal and conservative background have often welcomed war as an engine for social good, but as Randolph Bourne thought, “using war powers to achieve domestic reform is like using a firehose to fill a water glass”. Social solidarity in wartime comes with special symptoms: jingoism, inflexibility, and mob sanction.

1917 wasn’t just about giving the Kaiser a good licking, it was about government-led oppression against trade unionists, socialists, and anyone who opposed the war. That legacy remains with us- Edward Snowden, should he end up in US custody, would face charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, which doesn’t even allow him any kind of legal defense. Any justification, no matter how good, is irrelevant. That was the dark mentality of America at the time. You’re with us, or against us. No extenuating circumstances, no middle ground.

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.