Short Reviews

Inside the Divisions Wracking the US

Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury

By Evan Osnos

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 480 pages, $16.95 (Hardcover)

As leaders and publics across Asia struggle to come to grips with the changes underfoot in the United States and what it portends for its future role in the “Indo-Pacific,” Wildland is an essential read.

An artfully constructed and vividly written portrait of a nation wracked by division and seething with discontent, it is a book of unusual provenance. Evan Osnos made his reputation as one of his generation’s leading China Hands, weaving eight years of reporting from Beijing for The New Yorker into the prize-winning book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. Now the foreign correspondent goes home, documenting the slowburn “institutional disrepair” and smoldering divisions of race and class that made for a bonfire after the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

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Osnos charts America’s transformation at the grassroots with shoe-leather reporting in places he knows best — the hedge-fund suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut, where he grew up; the small town of Clarksburg, West Virginia, where he got his first job out of college; the metropolis of Chicago where he made it on the staff of a national newspaper. Interlaced throughout are freshly-minted observations from Washington, where Osnos has been based since returning from China. Comfortable interviewing future presidents or mingling with the crowd at the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, Osnos gets inside the skin of Trump’s America and defines Joe Biden’s challenge in recapturing “the soul of America.”

Reviewed by John Delury, Professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies and Global Asia Associate Managing Editor.

Adventures in Chinese Fiction

The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Matters

By Megan Walsh

Global Columbia Reports, 2022, 136 pages, $16 (Paperback)

As Chinese netizens recede behind the Great Firewall and Americans come to see China through the prism of rivalry, the Anglophone world increasingly needs ways to pierce the Sinosphere’s veil. Enter Megan Walsh, London-based writer, journalist and adept reader of Chinese-language fiction. The Subplot, her first book, offers a portal into people’s hearts and minds by exploring contemporary Chinese literature.

From acclaimed dystopian novels by Mo Yan and Yan Lianke to wildly popular web fiction (choosing among 24 million titles available to Chinese readers), Walsh revels in the diversity of reading tastes. She also identifies some bounds beyond which authors and publishers cannot stray, and the political effort to shape the literary world, with Communist Party bureaucrats “rectifying” the literary efforts of factory workers. The market is as powerful a shaping force as the state, as Walsh shows in explaining the inner workings of the gargantuan Chinese Literature online platform, with its Brave New World-esque motto “live your dreams, don’t waste your youth.”

The Subplot reminds us that Chinese writers’ fictional worlds, explored by tens of millions, are full of contradiction, complexity and humanity. Ironically, it is just this side of Chinese culture to which the world could relate, not the artificial ideal of a loveable “China story” created by propaganda organs.

Reviewed by John Delury

Words to Describe China’s Evolution

Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution that Made China Modern

By Jing Tsu

Riverhead Books, 2022, 366 pages, $28 (Hardcover)

It was perhaps not an obvious choice for NBC to ask a professor of comparative literature to serve as live television commentator for the Beijing Winter Olympics opening ceremony. But reading Jing Tsu’s marvelous new book, one can imagine the Yale scholar having something illuminating to say on just about any topic related to modern Chinese culture. In Kingdom of Characters, she uses the lens of language reform to rethink the meaning of Chinese modernity and retell the story of 20th-century China.

Tsu gives a fascinating account of the breakthroughs, and the failures, that taken together amounted to a “language revolution.” It is, paradoxically, a conservative revolution, one that preserved the core of Chinese civilization, a writing system based on thousands of characters codified two millennia ago. Tsu narrates the abstract and highly technical story of linguistic adaptation through life-size portraits of the individuals, Chinese and foreign, who devoted their careers and sometimes their lives to unifying, simplifying and standardizing language. Starting with international telegraphy and Chinese typewriters, the book ends with the techno-surveillance state of today’s Great Firewalled China. Tsu concludes on a foreboding note, observing how “Chinese script has been sharpened and upgraded into a technology intended as a first step, a basis for building an entire ecology of Chinese digital nationalism.” The next chapter would seem to be no longer how Chinese adapts to international standards, but rather how the global technology of information, communication and language itself adapts to it.

Reviewed by John Delury

America’s Haunting Nuclear Legacy

Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders

By Walter Pincus

Diversion Books, 2021, 416 pages, $29.99 (Hardcover)

Pacific islanders gather every March 1 for Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day, marking the anniversary of the US military’s devastating atomic bomb test in the Marshall Islands. On that infamous day in 1954, a nuclear detonation known as the Castle Bravo test — 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima — laid waste to pristine Bikini Atoll. Proudly advertised to international media as a warning to the Soviets and a demonstration of American ingenuity and power, it was one of 60 atomic tests carried out in the Pacific Proving Grounds until 1958. Today, most US citizens are blithely unaware of their country’s nuclear legacy in the Pacific, despite generations of efforts by Marshall Islanders and their advocates to draw attention to the long-term devastation to their land, seas and bodies. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Pincus hopes to redress the national amnesia with Blown to Hell. It is a heart-wrenching and infuriating account of the tests, the havoc they wrought, and the way their victims were ignored and betrayed. As Washington tries to pivot to the Indo-Pacific and step up its presence in Oceania, Americans will have to reckon with their imperial and militarist past if they want to understand regional priorities and perceptions. They, and any reader interested in nuclear security, would do well to sit down with Pincus’s book.

Reviewed by John Delury

Close Study of Xi’s Strategic Ambitions

The World According to China

By Elizabeth C. Economy

Polity Press, 2022, 304 pages, $32.28 (Hardcover)

Does China aspire to a radically transformed world? The vision is well manifested in Xi Jinping’s proclaimed role for China — “leading in the reform of [the] global governance system.” Elizabeth Economy’s core message in this book: Celebrate China’s centrality as a geographic, as well as political and economic, construct, one that leaves little room for the US, its allies and the values and norms they support. With this key message, she explores in detail how Xi has adapted, or “exported,” his domestic governance model in the pursuit of his strategic ambitions.

The book outlines how China utilizes soft, sharp and hard power to shape the perceptions and policy preferences of other actors; how Beijing realizes its sovereignty claims in Hong Kong, the South China Sea and Taiwan; in what ways Beijing is selling its model through the Belt and Road Initiative; its global technology push; and its efforts to realign the international system to reflect Chinese norms, values, policy preferences and institutions.

How should the US and the rest of the world respond? Economy suggests a norms and values frame: the central challenge Beijing poses is a value- and norm-based one and not, as is often asserted, one defined by a rising power vs. an established power. Thus, she argues the Biden administration’s renewed focus on values provides a useful starting point for reconceptualizing the China challenge, and that a framework that embraces values and norms is also more likely to engage US allies and partners.

Reviewed by Taehwan Kim, Professor at The Korea National Diplomatic Academy and book reviews co-editor for Global Asia.

How Is America Exceptional?

American Exceptionalism: A New History of an Old Idea

By Ian Tyrrell

University of Chicago Press, 2022, 288 pages, $35.00 (Hardcover)

Ian Tyrrell, history professor at the University of New South Wales, traces the evolution of two aspects of American exceptionalism — factual, empirical reality and mythical belief systems — seeing it as best understood as a blend of myth and social experience. He argues that its concrete expression has been a creed of national beliefs, values and ideals — most notably, specific ideological and political content involving individualism, egalitarianism and related liberal and democratic values. America has been exceptional only because so many have “believed” it to be so, he contends, deeply influencing its behavior. In the 20th century, Wilsonian internationalism became a touchstone for the US as a liberal, exceptionalist nation and defender of democracy, while the New Deal’s American Century projected the idea of a single nation dedicated to becoming “the powerhouse from which … liberal democratic ideals spread throughout the world.” In the post-Cold War era, “the indispensable” nation was a declaration of exceptionalism as the supreme rationale for US foreign policy.

Even as Donald Trump’s America First is not an exceptionalist program per se, ethnonationalism in the past cohabited with, and sometimes absorbed or shaped, exceptionalism. In an era of great political polarization, Tyrrell sees debates over exceptionalism remaining influential for decades to come.

Reviewed by Taehwan Kim

Communication at Humanity Level

Boundary Spanners of Humanity: Three Logics of Communication and Public Diplomacy for Global Collaboration

By R. S. Zaharna

Oxford University Press, 2022, 268 pages, $99.00 (Hardcover)

In pointing out US public diplomacy’s failures after 9/11, R. S. Zaharna, professor of communication at the American University, examines the limits of conventional notions of communication and diplomacy. She introduces here a new framework that embodies what she calls the three logics of communication. Dominant in both Western communication theories and the practices of American public diplomacy is the “individual logic” of communication, based on individualism and assumptions of separateness and autonomy, not the connectivity of individuals. Zaharna introduces two additional logics, not simply as theoretical abstracts but through in-depth examples from the ancient world: the “relational logic,” based on the paired or dyadic relation, reflects the power of emotion and expands collaboration through empathy, while the “holistic logic,” grounded on the relational universe, reflects the power of interactivity and expands collaboration through synchrony and synergy.

Zaharna calls for our vision of communication and diplomacy to expand from an individual-level perspective to humanity level. By blending all three logics of communication, diplomats — professional and public, spanning the boundaries of different nations, identities, ideologies, interests or traditions and who use communication to mediate identities — leverage our diversity and tackle complex problems together. She calls for public diplomacy to move from state-centric advocacy, digital technologies and a competitive quest for soft power to a more expansive humanity-centered focus on problem-solving.

Reviewed by Taehwan Kim

Approaches to Tackle Online Extremism

Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing

By Chris Bail

Princeton University Press, 2020, 240 pages, $9.09 (Hardcover)

Discussions on social media increasingly focus on its dark side amid growing radicalization and political polarization. Chris Bail, Duke University professor of sociology and public policy, probes its role in amplifying political extremism and polarization. He convincingly refutes conventional views, including the notorious echo chamber, through empirical findings of social-science experiments by the Polarization Lab, which he leads. With an analytical focus on the vicious loop between identity, status seeking, and political polarization, Bail argues that people come back to social-media platforms as they help us create, revise and maintain our identities to gain social status. The tragedy, though, is what Bail calls the “social media prism” that bends and refracts our social environment, distorting our sense of ourselves and each other: Extremists turn to social media to gain a sense of status lacking in their real lives, while the far larger group of users — moderates, appalled by online extremism — stays silent, all but invisible. Bail suggests two approaches to fix this: Bottom up, hack the prism by giving people technology to use to understand how it distorts our understanding of ourselves, each other and polarization itself; top down, provide better platforms that could disrupt the feedback loop between identity, status seeking and political polarization.

Reviewed by Taehwan Kim

How the Roots of Disruption Go Deep

Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century

By Helen Thompson

Oxford University Press, 2022, 384 pages, £15.45 (Hardcover)

The last decade has been a time of fierce disruption, typically associated with shifting power balances, notably China’s rise, economic uncertainty after the global financial crash, the emergence of populist, demagogic politics, and now the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet these changes, while important, are mere manifestations of deeper structural forces. This is the crux of the argument carefully made by Cambridge political economist Helen Thompson. China’s rise has been accompanied by Beijing’s new infrastructure ambitions in Eurasia; America’s relative power has been boosted by becoming the world’s largest oil and gas producer; and Europe has remained precariously dependent on US backing for its security needs while seeing greater diversity and change in an expanded, and thus less cohesive, EU. Europe’s geopolitical vulnerabilities have been amplified by a post-2008 monetary policy environment that has stoked rising national debt levels enabling retreats from internationalism (such as Brexit) without prompting financial market corrections driven by uncertainty.

Thompson’s acute insights reach back to the 1970s to explore the history of global energy policy and emergence of green alternatives; to the 1990s and creation of the euro currency zone; and the rise of a more plutocratic form of democratic politics that stoked the embers of emerging anti-elitist populist politics in nationalist opposition to more European unity underpinned by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

Reviewed by John Nilsson-Wright, Associate Professor, University of Cambridge, Korea Foundation Fellow and Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia, Chatham House, and a regional editor for Global Asia.

Lasting Relevance of Cold War Lessons

The War of Nerves: Inside the Cold War Mind

By Martin Sixsmith

Wellcome Collection, 2021, 577 pages, $42.07 (Hardcover)

Former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith’s remarkably timely analysis of the Cold War reminds us that beyond material determinants of economic success or military might, just as important in shaping the two superpowers’ decisions were psychological perceptions and the battle for hearts and minds. The US and the Soviet Union had sharply contrasting psychological profiles, one rooted in individualism and political checks and balances reflecting human fallibility, the other embracing a collectivism that too often treated the individual as expendable in support of larger goals, ideological in the era of Communism, or national for the neo-Tsarist revival of Vladimir Putin.

Sixsmith’s comprehensive, fast-paced re-reading of the long Cold War addresses individual and collective psychological phenomena, including the paranoia of the McCarthyite 1950s, the acute vulnerability long felt by Russians and the existential fears of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the case of individuals such as Joseph Stalin, with neurotic visions of national greatness, or Richard Nixon with his “madman” form of nuclear brinkmanship, the destabilizing potential of Great Power conflict is all too evident. The same forces operate today, as Sixsmith aptly points out over Putin’s revanchist appeals to nostalgic and irrational goals of Russia’s geopolitical destiny that have contributed so tragically to events in today’s Ukraine.

Reviewed by John Nilsson-Wright

No Simple Answers to Identity Questions

Democratization, National Identity and Foreign Policy in Asia

Edited by Gilbert Rozman

Routledge, 2021, 241 pages, $156.14 (Hardcover)

National identity and democracy have a far from straightforward relationship. This is the core message in this timely compilation of original analysis edited by Princeton scholar Gilbert Rozman. National identity has featured heavily in international relations scholarship but less prominent among comparative political scientists working on democratization. In part, this reflects, as Aurel Croissant notes in his essay here, a lack of consensus among analysts of identity. “Modernists” focus on the symbolic, linguistic and commemorative aspects of national identity; “perennialists” give prominence to ethnic identities; “constructivists” note that national identities are mutable, emotionally conditioned and often artificial.

Drawing together European, US and Asian writers, this volume explores the shortcomings of democratization since the Cold War and how the limitations of modernization theory, overly optimistic ideological narratives of democratic triumph post-1989, and the growth of interest in culturally exclusive themes of Confucian exceptionalism have placed democracy on the defensive and sometimes contributed to “democratic backsliding.” Helpfully split into three sections — conceptual frameworks, the evolution and limitations of democratic governance in East Asia, and the experience of the region’s relatively new democracies — the book integrates identity and democracy with foreign-policy analysis. It ends with four chapters exploring obstacles to democratic consolidation in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Mongolia, reminding us that political change can be both reactionary as well as progressive.

Reviewed by John Nilsson-Wright

Modi’s Populist Power Plays

Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy

By Christophe Jaffrelot

Princeton University Press, 2021, 656 pages, $20.69 (Hardcover)

In this study of politics in India under Narendra Modi, prime minister since 2014, Christophe Jaffrelot, director of research at Paris’s Science Po and Professor of Indian Politics at King’s College London, has written a magisterial work combining sweeping historical analysis with sharp attention to the social, political, economic and cultural forces that have propelled the world’s largest democracy from universalism towards an ethnic and nationalist form of politics rooted in divisive populism. He shows how the BJP party’s success in elevating Hindu nationalism or Hindutva (dating to the 1920s) into a successful political movement has been dependent on Modi’s form of political populism. His success has included personalizing his power through skillful oratory, as well as financial power, to limit the authority of India’s political institutions, while attacking its Muslim minority with vigilantism and violent intimidation. Critically, Modi has applied a counterintuitive strategy of bolstering the economic privileges of the country’s elites, while appealing to India’s poor by enhancing their sense of dignity.

Jaffrelot’s path-breaking work reminds us that immaterial, emotional factors, especially focused on anger and resentment, can be more important than material interests when creating powerful political coalitions to support demagogic leaders’ ambitions.

Reviewed by John Nilsson-Wright

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