Category Archives: China

1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen

1946: The Making of the Modern WorldI’m a huge sucker for books about a single year in history. Some of my favorites have been 1959, 1968 and 1973. Last year I read 1945 in addition to not one but two books titled 1913. Over the last year or so, I kept seeing a book at my public library called 1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen. However, despite my love for these single year books I never felt compelled to grab a copy. Sadly, I’m embarrassed to say I never did so because I disliked the book’s cover. Then one afternoon I came to my senses, put my petty prejudices behind me and helped myself to an available copy. I’m sure glad I did.

1946, while it might not make my year-end Best of List, could very well end up being one of my pleasant surprises of 2017. Made up of short chapters and employing a direct writing style, Sebestyen’s informative book makes for quick, but fascinating reading. Structured chronologically, it skips around the globe, largely ignoring Africa and the Americas and spending the bulk of time discussing seminal events and developments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Sebestyen’s 1946 chronicles a world in transition. With Nazi German and much of Europe in ruins, the United States and the Soviet Union have emerged as superpowers and their ensuing rivalry would eventually morph into the Cold War. On the other side of the world, Imperial Japan lies defeated, occupied and no longer able to impose its will on East Asia. In Japan’s place is a regional power vacuum with America to a degree the USSR to a slightly lesser degree rushing to fill the void. On a related note, with Japan vanquished Chinese Communists and Nationalists could now be freely fight each other for mastery of the country. Also in Asia, the sun began setting on the British Empire as India/Pakistan moved towards independence and in the Middle East armed Zionists intensified their fight for a modern State of Israel born from the ashes of the Holocaust. Lastly, Britain’s eclipse as a colonial power was part of a larger global trend in anti-colonialism that would in the coming years drive France from Indochina and Holland from Indonesia.

If you end up reading 1946 and would like follow-up books to read let me offer the following suggestions. I would start with Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945. From there I would proceed directly to Keith Lowe’s masterpiece Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II and then to Anne Applebaum’s outstanding book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956

Oh, and one last thing. Don’t me like me. Try not to judge a book by its cover.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Japan, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

About Time I Read It: The J Curve by Ian Bremmer

The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and FallBack in 2010 while TV channel surfing I happened to land on PBS in the middle of Charlie Rose interviewing a geopolitical thinker/writer named Ian Bremmer. Bremmer had just written a book called The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and the two of them discussed recent global economic developments and China’s rise as an international power. As I sat watching the interview I found myself intrigued by Bremmer’s insights and vowed to read his recently published book. Later that year I did. But sadly, as much as I valued Bremmer’s take on the state of the world I never got around to reading more of his stuff.

Fast forward to this past summer, I happened to stumble across Bremmer’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Watching his posted videos and reading his tweets rekindled my appreciation of him. (He’s also probably the only international mover and shaker with a muppet created in his own likeness.) So much so when I discovered my public library had an available copy of his book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall I snatched it up. Unfortunately, it took me a bit longer than it should had for me to make it through his book because I kept getting distracted by other books I was reading at the time. Eventually, I  made my way through it. Overall, I enjoyed it even though I did have one minor problem with it.

That problem, which believe me isn’t a fault of Bremmer’s. The J Curve was published in 2006, making it a decade old. Therefore, the whole time I was reading the J Curve I kept asking myself how relevant his book could be. After all, much has changed since 2006. We’ve seen both the Arab Spring and the coming of ISIS. Dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il have all passed away. (Chavez and Castro’s deaths could lead to greater openness in their respective countries. On the other hand, it looks like Kim Jong-il’s death has led to even more oppression and insanity.) Lastly, in recent years we’ve experienced a global rise in old school nationalism with the passing of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But in spite of all this, happily, I can say yes, The J Curve is still relevant to today’s world.

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The J Curve – Stability versus Openness

Bremmer, in his book The J Curve addresses that age-old question we, especially those involved in the fields of international politics and diplomacy have been asking for years: how does an authoritarian regime liberalize without becoming so unstable it descends into chaos resulting in political fragmentation or worse, yet another authoritarian regime. According to Bremmer, it’s no easy challenge. (Throughout the book he refers to this relationship between political stability and openness as something that can be plotted on a graph, hence the term “J Curve.”)  Over the years, Western nations like the United States has preferred to isolate authoritarian regimes like Iran, Cuba and North Korea with sanctions and censure in hopes of promoting regime change. In Bremmer’s opinion such measures end up being counter productive because the more isolated and impoverished the citizens are in these countries become, the easier it is for those running these regimes to manipulate the masses and thus stay in power. In The J Curve Bremmer looks at different authoritarian countries which succesful liberalized like South Africa, imploded like Yugoslavia and Iraq, and liberalized, imploded and then returned to authoritarianism like the Soviet Union/Russia.

My only knock on this book, really in reality is an unfair one in that it’s 10 years old. But like I said earlier, for a book a book that was published a decade ago it still feels relevant. The portions discussing challenges facing Saudi Arabia, Israel, and especially China look spot on even 10 years after he wrote them. Perhaps because of it’s relevancy after reading the J Curve I’m now inspired to read more of Bremmer’s stuff. So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if you see more of his stuff like Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World and Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World reviewed on my blog.

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Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

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I’m probably not alone in assuming when people rebel against the establishment they’re usually thought of as progressives or modernizers. These individuals see the old order as being, well, old. Sick of dealing with antiquated governance and out of step leaders, such agents for change want to move forward by bringing about needed reforms or even wholesale revolutions. What then do you make of those who, when taking on those in power, look not to the future for inspiration but to the past?

That is the question asked and answered by Christian Caryl in his 2013 book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. It’s a book that’s been on my list to read for several years, ever since I read about it on Goodreads. I felt myself drawn to Strange Rebels because I came of age during this time. Of the many events he recalls, so many of them I watched unfold on the evening TV news. Not long ago my book group opted to read it and I couldn’t have been happier. I’m also happy to report it’s an excellent book.

To Caryl, 1979 was a pivotal year like few others. Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, an avowed conservative who moved the United Kingdom away kicking and screaming from a pro-union, Socialist-style system to free-market, Chicago School of Economics-oriented nation. On the other side of the globe, Deng Xiaoping sought to modernize China and raise living standards by bringing the nation into the global economy through embracing capitalism. In an age when many forward thinking intellectuals thought little of religion, especially conservative Catholicism, Pope John II believed the moral and intellectual strength of Christianity could bring about the end of Soviet oppression. Also in opposition to Soviet-sponsored oppression were the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, who had religious motivations of their own, drawing from their Islamic heritage. Lastly, in neighboring Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow revolutionaries established the world’s first Islamic Republic. By doing so they abruptly ended the Shah’s attempts to make Iran a modern, Westernized (albeit authoritarian) nation.

Through Caryl’s eyes these strange rebels share striking similarities. Thatcher and Deng felt the only way their respective nations could prosper was to embrace free market reforms and lessen the state’s role in the economy. Khomeini, the Mujahideen and John Paul II all had religious motivations to replace the old order with one more in line with those beliefs. Both John Paul II and Khomeini’s religious views were shaped by their philosophical studies: John Paul II augmented his Christian beliefs with modern European philosophy while Khomeini was heavily influenced by Platonic thought, as well as the writings of the Red Shia Ali Shariati. Even though they were Sunnis and not Shias, the Afghan Mujahideen fought to defeat the Soviets and their Afghan allies and eventually set up their own version of an Islamic Republic. And just like Khomeini and his like-minded ruling clerics took inspiration from the Red Shia Shariati, the Mujahideen modeled themselves after the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn shares similarities with Marxist vanguard parties.

It’s one thing to show what these leaders had in common, the hard thing is to convince the reader the things they did in 1979 in no small way shape our world. To his credit, Caryl pulls it off. Thanks to Deng’s reforms, China is now a world power, especially economically. The political/economic system of Britain looks nothing like the dark days of the early 1970s. (As an example, Tony Blair’s Labor Party was not your grandfather’s Labor Party.) ideological heirs to the Mujahideen like al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram fight to impose their will throughout the world as political Islam has become the dominant ideology for protest in the Muslim world, eclipsing Pan-Arabism, Arab Nationalism and Communism. Before 1979 Islamic Republic was an alien concept. Thanks to Khomeini, even many Sunnis find it an appealing one. (Even if they use the term Caliph.) An unwinnable war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the USSR. It was the churches, both Protestant and Catholic, that provided safe places where dissidents and their allies could organize against the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Strange Rebels is an excellent book. Consider it highly recommended.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

About Time I Read It: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

9780609809648_p0_v1_s260x420If you’re like me, there’s nothing like finally reading a book that for years you’ve been wanting to read. And if you’re like me, the only thing better than that is when you finally do read it, it’s even better than you had hoped. That, my friends is how I felt when I finally got around to reading Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

I’ve been wanting to read Weatherford’s book for over decade, ever since it was published back in 2004. Sadly, I never got around to doing so, even after I received a copy as a Christmas present several years ago. Even with this prized book in my possession I’m embarrassed to say it just sat on my desk gathering dust. But with 2015 shaping up to be the year I tackle the many ignored and unread books of my personal library perhaps it’s no surprise I finally picked up Weatherford’s book and read it.

As the book’s title hints, this isn’t just the story of Genghis Khan. Yes, his incredible rise from impoverished Mongol horseman to emperor of Eurasia is all here. But Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is much more than that. If any leader could be called an enlightened despot than Weatherford’s Genghis Khan would be him. Under his rule religious toleration abounded, ethnic communities and local customs were respected and international trade flourished. His empire was also the first to promote such modern concepts like universal literacy, paper money and diplomatic immunity for ambassadors and envoys. With an empire stretching two continents and served by a meritocracy-based civil service, state-run postal service and rule of law (not to mention an aversion to torture as a tool for justice and means of state control) Genghis Khan’s kingdom was not only impressive but by today’s standards much a head of its time.

Some have criticized Weatherford for painting too rosy of picture of Genghis and his empire. Others have questioned his book’s historical accuracy. Frankly, I don’t care. It’s well-written and fun to read. Much like Thomas Cahill did with his books How the Irish Saved Civilization and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea:Why the Greeks Matter Weatherford has the ability to make  history enjoyable and fascinating. Therefore, I highly recommend Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Islam, Japan, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

Last year, as part of the European Reading Challenge I read The Girl with the Pearl Earring since the setting for Tracy Chevalier’s fictional account of a young woman’s encounter with Dutch painter Vermeer is Holland. This time around, for the European Reading Challenge I’ve selected another book in which Holland, and especially Vermeer takes center stage. Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World is yet another one of those books I kept seeing on the self at the library yet never grabbed. However, last week or so I finally grabbed it. After finishing after a series of fits and starts I asked myself if I liked it. Honestly, I’m really not sure. 

According to Brook, what we now call globalization, began clear back in the seventeenth century. International trade, consumption of foreign goods, sweeping cultural shifts and global conflict began to accelerate at an unprecedented rate during Vermeer’s lifetime.  In Vermeer’s Hat, Brook breaks down several of Vermeer’s paintings, in addition to two other pieces of art not by Vermeer but from that era to illustrate his points. For instance, the officer depicted in the painting Officer and Laughing Girl wears a stylish beaver pelt hat, signifying not only the growing wealth of Holland’s merchant class but also the lucrative beaver trade in North America. To Brook, the young woman in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is quite possibly reading a letter from male relative, spouse or similar loved one who’s off seeking his fortune overseas with an entity like the Dutch East India Company. The globe shown front and center in The Astronomer epitomizes an expansive and rapidly unfolding world, much in the way the anchored ship in View of Delft is evidence of Holland’s growing participation in international trade.

By using examples from the art world to trace the evolution of early globalism, Brook has taken on an ambitious project. While it looks like some readers have compared Vermeer’s Hat to Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses to me it reminded me a lot of John E. Wills’s 1688: A Global History and David Fromkin’s The Way of the World. But in the end, I’m not sure this ambitious project completely satisfied me. Sometimes I found Vermeer’s Hat a bit dry for my taste. Who knows, maybe I was just expecting too much. At least I received a nice history lesson. Can’t go wrong with that.

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Filed under China, East Asia, Economics, Europe, History, Japan

Paul Hanstedt and family get Hong Konged

Back in July I reviewed Jonathan Fenby’s memoir Dealing with the Dragon: A Yearin the New Hong Kong. The subject of this post is also a memoir by a Westerner who spent a year living and working in that city. But this memoir is a bit different. Whereas Fenby served as editor of the South Morning Post newspaper and spent his time wandering the city’s corridors of power and rubbing elbows interviewing the local movers and shakers the author of Hong Konged: One Modern American Family’s (Mis)adventures in the Gateway to China recalls the adventures of him and his wife as the they try to navigate the challenges of living in Hong Kong with three young children. The result is a book that I found to be a bit short on substance, but long on laughs.

The most humorous parts of the memoir are those dealing with the Hanstedt family’s encounters with the local cuisine and the author’s surprise when his formerly picky children suddenly develop a new-found appreciation for local delicacies like fish ball soup, chicken feet and the like. Handstedt also recalls his oldest son’s adventures at a local grade school (a not so “top flight” school which seemed to attract the slightly troubled children of foreign residents) and his attempts to avoid being bullied. Taking advantage of Hong Kong’s close proximity to not just China but East Asia as a whole, Hanstedt’s memoir also covers the family’s travels in China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia.

In the end, I was a bit disappointed to learn that this is more a book about parenting than an in-depth look at Hong Kong’s culture and society. However, I wasn’t be too disappointed because I found Hanstedt’s memoir to be a fast-paced and well-written book. It also made me chuckle out loud a number of times. Therefore, while Hong Konged wasn’t everything I wanted it to be it definately made me laugh. And that’s never a bad thing.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, China, Memoir

Hong Kong: 1999

About a month ago, when I was contemplating my summer reading goals, my plan was to read a few books that dealt in some way with a part of the world that foreign policy experts refer to as greater China: China, Hong Kong, Macau and (arguably) Taiwan. Despite my lofty intentions, Ha Jin’s Waiting Aaron Friedberg’s A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia and Da Chen’s My Last Empress (autographed in Chinese calligraphy by the author-one of my BEA acquisitions) are currently sitting on my shelf just waiting to be read. Well, so much for that ambitious plan.

But all is not lost. As you might remember from one of my recent Library Loot postings, courtesy of my public library I found a copy of Jonathan Fenby’s Dealing with the Dragon: A Year in the New Hong Kong. And while I’ve yet to touch the three above mentioned China-centric works, with Fenby’s book I dived right in. Even while reading several other books at the same time, I made quick work of Dealing with the Dragon, finished it in what seemed like no time at all. I found it to be one of those non-flashy but incredibly substantive and detailed accounts of life in a foreign city. It’s one of those books you could spend reading on a quiet winter’s eve, with a glass of your beverage of choice by your side as you idle the hours away. While I wouldn’t consider it highly entertaining by any stretch, when one factors in Fenby’s attention to detail it’s surprising readable.

Dealing with the Dragon is Fenby’s look back on the year 1999, the time he  served as editor of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper. Politically and socially well-connected thanks to his position at the paper, Fenby is able to comment in detail on the high-level goings on within Honk Kong’s government as well as its business world. He also discusses significant developments on the mainland as well as nearby Macau. Packaged into the format of a highly detailed but not too personal journal, Fenby’s almost daily entries from the year 1999 describe a great deal.

Focusing as he did on his time in Hong Kong in 1999, thanks to his recollection of event the book became a kind of walk down memory lane for me. Reading Fenby I was taken back to the Taiwan earthquake, the American bombing of the Chinese embassy during the Kosovo campaign, the Macau handover, China joining the WTO and the US women’s soccer team beating China on penalty kicks. But what I really liked was Fenby’s daily entries describing the early signs of China’s rise as an economic powerhouse. As early as 1999 one could see that the mighty dragon was beginning to awaken.

Since Dealing with the Dragon is well over ten years old, naturally there’s a temptation to the consider Fenby’s book dated and possibly not relevant. I on the other hand would strongly disagree. Thanks to Fenby’s impressive access to the region’s movers and shakers combined with his impressive attention to detail, the book could be considered a valuable resource to anyone wanting to learn not just about Hong Kong, but also China’s rise as a nation to be reckoned with.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, China, Current Affairs, Memoir