The Week of May 21st, 2012

Demonstration against Bill 78 in Quebec, Canada on May 22, 2012. Creative Commons photo by Socialist Canada.

1. Quebec Student Strikes Continue
Unrest continues in Quebec in the wake of proposed tuition increases and the subsequent student strike. Last Wednesday, almost 700 students were arrested after a night of protesting resulted in violence and attempts to settle protesters. The reviled hikes would increase tuition rates by 75 percent, but would still keep the tuition in Quebec among the lowest in the country. These protests have rallied around 21 year-old University of Quebec student Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, who represents the militant student group CLASSE in the student strikes. The provincial government responded with an emergency law, Bill 78, which “prohibits freedom of assembly, protest, or picketing” throughout Quebec without approval.  Despite this crackdown, student groups, including CLASSE, have continued to express a willingness to continue talks with the government even if Bill 78 remained in force.

The student strikes in Quebec mirror similar student movements in Chile that have occurred in 2006, 2008, and 2011 through the current day. They also resemble British student protests in 2010. Like Chile, a large number of students have managed to organize and disrupt the school year in opposition to education policies. This resulted in both some compromises from the government and crackdowns by police forces. However, these protests were against the status quo rather than proposed changes. In Britain, the response to proposed tuition increases was protests as well, but they were not as persistent as their western hemisphere counterparts. The patterns of these protests show that young people, though considered an apathetic political group in the US, have the ability to mobilize when their interests are threatened. In an era of austerity and slashing deficits, even a policy change as mundane as a tuition hike can prompt a backlash difficult for the government to handle.

2. Saudi’s Push for Regional Power
Over the past year, the political dominance of Saudi Arabia has been challenged within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Arab League, as the Qataris have taken the lead on issues such as the Libyan and Syrian rebellions. However, recent moves by the Saudi government suggest a reassertion and consolidation of their influence over the region. For the Saudi government, the uprisings and protests that swept the Middle East last year represent some of the most formidable threats to their regional influence and their own internal stability. Because of this, they have committed significant resources to dispersing unrest in other Middle Eastern nations.

This week, Saudi Arabia announced it would dedicate $3.25 billion to Yemen, a move designed to stabilize the troubled nation on the verge of famine. Violence in Yemen has spilled over the border multiple times, and the Saudis have a clear interest in maintaining stability on the Arabian Peninsula, as well as a history of doing so. When Bahrain’s Shiite population took to the streets last year, the Saudis sent military support to stop the protest. The Saudi government is now taking it a step further by trying to create a Saudi-Bahrain union that would help implement more military and foreign policy cooperation. The union would be designed to replace the GCC with a more powerful body with the main goal of deterring Iranian and Shiite influence in the region. The proposed body has elicited some interest from the Bahraini leadership; however, it is not popular among the other Gulf states. Protestors in the mainly Shiite Bahrain took to the streets with the idea that Saudi-Bahrain Union will basically make Bahrain a Saudi satellite state. Saudi Arabia thus far has been able to maintain its regional influence and preserve internal stability, but with the ever-changing dynamics within the region it remains to be seen how the nation’s external power projection and internal power structure will hold up.

3. Al-Qaeda Responsible for Yemen Bombing
A suicide bomber killed more than 90 people in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, during rehearsals for a military parade. While Yemen is in the midst of a near civil war, instability is largely contained in country's south; an attack of this magnitude in the capital represents a major escalation. The bomber was a member of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which has also claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit in 2009 and the failed attempt to destroy two cargo aircraft via mail bombs in 2010. Based in Yemen's unstable south, AQAP is regarded as a growing threat to the region.

Al-Qaeda is no longer a single, coherent organization, having generated a series of “franchise groups” in different parts of the world which are tenuously linked to core leaders-- such as Osama bin Laden (formerly) and Ayman al-Zawahiri-- but operate autonomously. Between 2002 and 2006, these ties became almost non-existent as American led efforts to kill or capture both core and franchise group leaders isolated those who remained. AQAP shares almost nothing of substance with its namesake responsible for the attacks of September 11th. Indeed, while Al-Qaeda's core leadership has dwindled, AQAP has seen marked growth, undertaking operations against Americans outside of the Middle East and launching increasingly more attacks. AQAP is notable for its success in recruiting Americans including Anwar-al-Awlaki, an engineer turned cleric born in Las Cruces, New Mexico who was killed by a US drone strike in September 2011. While there is no longer a single Al-Qaeda, the existence of such franchise groups is an equal, if not greater, challenge to the defeat of radical Islamist terrorism.

4. Immigration Crackdown in China
The government of Beijing, China's capital, is part way into a 100-day crackdown on illegal immigrants. Started on May 15, the campaign was probably sparked, although officials deny this, by a viral video in which a British tourist assaults a Chinese woman. From now until August, policemen will scour neighborhoods with foreigner majorities and mandate visitors to carry their visas at all times. It is unclear what is considered as illegal residence, or what sort of prosecution will be enacted; for example, an American hired as an English tutor by an unauthorized company can be immediately detained. Nevertheless, the crackdown enjoys public support and several cities are following suit.

The campaign is a belated response to an exponential growth in immigration corresponding to the city's expansion. The Chinese public, ingrained with a distrust of foreigners, has long been frightened by images of drunken expats and imported criminals. Increasing corruption and public disorder has led to calls for a war on crime. Reporting on crime in China is difficult, and although Beijing has not seen increases in violent crime, cases of theft seem to be on the rise due to increasing inequality. The government had to act after the spread of the previously mentioned viral video. Even if the party is daunted by the logistics of the crackdown or the risk to China's foreign image, a wide majority supports action, and the internet is abuzz with why punishments for illegal immigration aren't harsh enough. The crackdown can be thought of as a populist policy that skirts controversial domestic politics, unlike the ousted Bo Xilai's nostalgia for Mao. If inequality and crime continues to increase under the next generation of Communist Party leaders, expect the immigrants to be targeted first.

5. JPMorgan Probed for Trading Loss
In the days following JPMorgan Chase’s $2 billion trading loss, both the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission have announced that they will be investigating the bank. The loss has left JPMorgan under particularly heavy scrutiny because it was intended to hedge against other investments, and is being pointed to by proponents of regulation who state that the Dodd-Frank Act, or possibly more stringent regulation, could have prevented this loss. The Dodd-Frank Act was designed to increase banking regulation and improve regulators’ abilities to do their jobs more efficiently. The law aims to create new regulation to increase transparency in the derivatives market-- the same financial instrument that JPMorgan bet so poorly on.

However, not everyone is in agreement that Dodd-Frank would be good for the banking industry. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan, has repeatedly criticized Congress’ attempts to regulate banks. As CEO of the only bank to remain profitable during the 2008 recession, Dimon gained a substantial amount of credibility and used it to lobby against banking reform. Dimon has most strongly criticized the Volcker Rule. Named after former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, this clause in the Dodd-Frank Act is intended to prevent commercial banks from proprietary trading. Critics such as Dimon perceive this law as unnecessary and discouraging to banks trying to make a profit. They are also quick to point out that the Dodd-Frank Act would not have prevented the loss, because the trades were executed with JPMorgan’s own funds and not with commercial deposits. Although Dimon has been influential in fighting against further regulation, this loss may lessen his prestige in the capital.

Don’t Care
0. NATO Protests Ruffle Few
This weekend Chicago survived its foray into international politics with only a few scrapes and bruises. After months of preparation, the NATO summit went off without a hitch. There had been fears of wide-scale protests and violence-- in part spurred by the memories of other international summits such as the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999-- however, these fears were not manifested. The protests that did take place were mostly peaceful, and largely inconsequential. Whereas in previous cases, like the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto, protests have cast a shadow on events, things in Chicago were mostly anti-climactic. Both the protesters and police alike were wary of violence, and except for a few individuals, the two groups kept a peaceful distance.

There was some controversy over terrorism related arrests. In the lead-up to the summit, three men were arrested in a terrorist conspiracy involving Molotov cocktails, but according to their attorney, they were set up by undercover police officers. It is possible that the police wanted to use this arrest to make a statement to other would be offenders. As the weekend progressed, the police arrested Sebastian Senakiewicz, of the anarchist “Black Bloc,” but his offense amounted to nothing more than drunken threats. In the months leading up to NATO, we were led to expect the worst from protesters, but what we got was far from it. With Chicago on lockdown, was it really a surprise that nothing happened?