Understanding the Origins of the People’s Republic of China and its politics, a historical assessment.


“Although depicted in Western sources as a moral evil and tyranny, the People’s Republic of China was in fact born in a crucible of instability, turmoil and upheaval in the country which saw a 2000 year long Imperial system decline in the face of western domination and spur a new wave of thinking about China’s own place and position in the world”

In the Imperial era, China was one of the longest continuous empires in history. Although it was ruled by numerous dynasties and sometimes by external forces, including the Mongols and the Manchus. Still, the system that had been implemented by Qin Shi Huang in 221 BC stood the test of time for over thousands of years. The aforementioned groups who had conquered the vastness of China did not displace this order with one of their own, but they were in fact absorbed into it and sinified. The empire of China was known as “The Middle Kingdom” that is the center of all things in the world, the seat of virtue, righteousness and piety.

The emperors were known as “The Sons of Heaven” and overseen a vast, bureaucratic and hierarchical political order coated within longstanding traditions of political and social thought. Every official was required to learn and memorize the works of Confucius, who taught that individual’s outward and ritualistic obligation towards their parents, rulers and ancestors were paramount in sustaining a harmonious and stable society. Man was perfectable. On the other hand, the school of “legalism” by Han Fei argued that man’s nature must be kept in check through incentives and disincentives through a harsh use of the law.

However, the 19th century would prove to be a turning point in world history. The Qing Dynasty would fifnd itself up against rising, industrialized European colonial empires who sought expand their influence in East Asia. These empires did not see China as something superior, as it perceived itself, but in fact something inferior, to be civilized, tamed and shaped to the western vision, as well as profited from. They did not respect its political system. In the 1830s, the British Empire had ascended to a position of dominance on the Indian Subcontinent and sought to expand their commercial power into the vast Chinese realm, particularly through the export of opium.

China however, refused to submit to trade and diplomacy with Britain as it did not perceive itself in terms of modern statecraft. The Emperor moved to ban the sale of opium in the country and had its stocks thrown into the sea. This outraged the British Empire, who saw the move as an opportunity to wage war against the Qing to subjugate it to its demands. The non-industrialized China was defeated in what would become a series of “opium wars”. Victorious, the British imposed the treaty of Nanking on the Chinese, which not only annexed Hong Kong as a crown colony, but forced the Empire to comply with foreign trade, open up its ports and give British nationals exemption from local laws. Other European powers soon jumped on the bandwagon; China descended into a state of semi-colonialism.

The process of this instigated political and social shifts within the country which changed it forever. The ideology and legitimacy of the Qing Dynasty began to decline and the country became increasingly unstable. The Taiping Rebellion in 1850, a theocratic movement against the Dynasty by Hong Xiuquan, who claimed to be the brother of Jesus, cost millions of lives. But as the country was ravaged, new ideas and concepts were imported from the west which changed the consciousness of its population concerning politics, such as the “nation state”, “democracy”, “constitutions”, “socialism” and so on. The demise of Imperial rule effectively led to a bonanza of political thinking as locals dreamed of re-establishing China, modernizing the country and standing up to the nations were subjugating it.

In 1911, the Qing Dynasty collapsed and its last emperor, Puyi abdicated as a baby. In its place, the first Republic of China was proclaimed. The political theorist Sun Yat Sen, who became its first President, dreamed of reinventing China as a modern, democratic state. However, this proved easier said than done. The new state was chaotic, divided and dysfunctional and there was no real centre of power, with powerful warlords ruling over provinces and competing with each other. The west still did not respect the new republic or treat it as an equal party, which would in the following years lead to another turning point. Despite the fact that China earnestly offered support to the allies in World War I, the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 controversially transferred German held land in Shandong province to the Empire of Japan, who had in previous years annexed the island of Taiwan in the Sino-Japanese war and secured its rule over the Korean Peninsula.

The treaty created outrage in China and an overwhelming sense of betrayal against the west. Seeing their country so humiliated by the west yet again on the global stage, young Chinese people became quickly disillusioned with their leaders and grew to believe that their own country’s backwardness rooted in its traditions was failing them. On May 4th, 1919, thousands of young students took to Tiananmen Square protesting and demanding change in China and angrily denouncing their leadership. The outcome of the war had radicalized them and embedded one solid belief within them: That China needed to modernize itself and stand up for its own interests against Western powers. This became known as the May 4th movement.

The legacy of May 4th unleashed powerful ideological currents in China and the final product was to create two broad political parties who would struggle for the country’s destiny. Those were the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) and the Communist Party (Gongchandang). Although their ideologies were bitterly opposed to one another, their goals and dreams for the country were nevertheless the same, that is to establish China as a modern, sovereign, capable and industrialized country. It was merely the “how” of this was to be done, which truly differed between the two. The Communist Party was formed in 1921 in Shanghai, joined by a young Mao Zedong.

The Nationalists would be the first to attain power, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek. The two parties would nevertheless engage not in a democratic debate, but a bitter civil war emerging in the late 1920s. Yet their feud would be interrupted by a new common enemy, that was from across the sea in Tokyo. The Empire of Japan, a country which had industrialized itself much earlier than China and allied itself with the west was expanding its dominion in East Asia and in 1931, invaded and annexed China’s North East from Korea. The emergence of World War II would see a full blown war between China and Japan break out, with the latter annexing swathes of the country. The Communists and the Nationalists put aside their differences and fight together.

In August 1945, as atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stalin’s Soviet Union invaded Japanese held Manchuria to gain ground in the emerging strategic conflict with the United States. The USSR handed over the territory to the Communist Party of China and with China liberated, the conflict between the two political parties exacerbated again. Although militarily inferior, Mao Zedong’s forces waged a guerrilla campaign against the nationalists which exploited their incompetence and organizational failures. The tide of the war soon turned in the Communists’ favour, which saw them gain gradual control of all of mainland China. The Guomindang under Chiang Kai Shek retreated to the island of Taiwan, where the legacy government of the Republic of China remains to this day.

Thus on October 1st, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed with Mao Zedong as its leader. Mao created a one party Leninist state led by the Communist Party and famously proclaimed that “The Chinese People had stood up”. Having unified the country and ended decades of civil war and foreign invasion, Mao thus sought to impose what he believed was his vision to modernize China and reverse what was described as a “century of humiliation”. Driven by such sentiment, he believed like many growing up under the May 4th movement, that China’s traditions had been responsible for its decline and sought to impose revolutionary changes on the country’s society and economy.

These changes commenced with mass purges and reforms. Mao’s government destroyed China’s longstanding feudal structure by purging the country’s landlords and redistributing land, later collectivizing it. He also persecuted intellectuals, former bureaucrats and forcefully removed foreign influence from the country, chasing out western businessmen, religious missionaries and other organizations. Such changes also included new rights for women including the banning of arranged marriages and dowries. The economy was completely nationalized and based on a planned model imported from the Soviet Union, who China leaned to for support in building a new state in the early days.

In the meanwhile, Mao sought to establish himself as the leading figure in the Communist world and hold his own against the west. In 1950, war broke out on the Korean Peninsula as the leader of fellow Communist state “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (North Korea) sought to reunify the peninsula under his rule, following division in 1945 which was considered illegitimate. However, Kim had miscalculated and his invasion was thwarted by a massive intervention from the United States and a coalition of western powers. General Douglas MacArthur proceeded to attempt to conquer the North, something which contravened China’s own strategic interests.

As UN forces captured Pyongyang and headed towards the Chinese border, ignoring warnings from Beijing, China responded by entering the war and confronted the coalition with millions of troops, recapturing North Korea and attempting unsuccessfully to capture Seoul. The war ended in an armistice in 1953 with little change to the status quo, freezing Korea’s division. However, the conflict, now known in China as “The War to end American aggression in Korea” proved to be a massive boost for the country’s confidence, establishing China PRC as a major power and player in the world.

Mao however, struggled to moderate his revolutionary ambitions with the realities of building a modern bureaucratic state and in the process, initiated several disasters of his own making. The first was known as the “Great Leap Forward”- whereby Mao sought to achieve superhuman increases in growth and agricultural production in China by unscientific methods. The result was a catastrophic famine which claimed millions of lives in rural provinces. This development put Mao in contention with the more pragmatic voices in his government who he refused to listen to, which led to further instability.

Geopolitics also played a role. The death of Stalin and the rise of Khrushchev, who pursued a dismantling of his predecessor’s legacy (Destalinization) and reform in the USSR, put China on a collision course with the Soviet Union, with Mao perceiving the Soviets as a threat to his power. Thus, seeking to differentiate himself from Russia and immortalize his own authority over China, in 1966 Mao in conjunction with the “gang of four” proclaimed “the great proletarian cultural revolution” in the argument that China’s revolutionary politics was being subverted by “revisionists” and radicalized young people against the apparatus of the state.

Mao encouraged young people, organized in groups known as “red guards” to smash “the four olds” which held China backwards and thus instigated a state of mass disorder and chaos across the country, which saw the destruction of historical sites and artifacts, sporadic violence and desecration of cemeteries. The period is looked back on as one of deep regret in the country. By 1968, its peak had passed but it would not be until 1976 with the death of Mao Zedong that the Cultural Revolution would be declared as “officially over”. Yet change was already in the wings…

Although initially antagonistic towards Communist China, Mao’s conflict with the Soviet Union in the long run drew the interests of the United States, who saw an opportunity in utilizing Beijing as a strategic counterweight to Moscow. In 1972, President Richard Nixon made a shock visit to China and met with Mao Zedong in an unprecedented event. It lay the foundations for a change what was to come which would follow on after Mao’s passing.

In doing so, this concludes the origins and early history of the People’s Republic of China. The key takeaways are this: Although depicted in Western sources as a moral evil and tyranny, China PRC was in fact born in a crucible of instability, turmoil and upheaval in the country which saw a 2000 year long Imperial system decline and spur a new wave of thinking about China’s own place and position in the world. Subjugated and exploited by western powers, Communism in China subsequently emerged as one of two leading strands of thought on how to re-establish the country as a modern, sovereign state, driven by a conviction the country’s own traditions had inhibited it.

As a result, the era of Mao Zedong should be assessed as an effort to reinvent China which whilst having some initial accesses, at large made some catastrophic and costly mistakes. Mao’s own desire to push for drastic and uncompromising revolution clashed deeply with feasible reality and it was subsequently his refusal to heed to the advice to others which saw tragedy emerge and thus lead to his reputation in the west as a megalomaniac. Yet, in the bigger picture such simple moralizations tell us little about what was a process of painful transformation in China and its search for a new identity in the world. The country would build on his achievements, but also it would learn from his mistakes.



The New Yellow Peril: Sinophobia in the 21st Century


Sinophobia is a fear or prejudice of expressed towards China and its people. Similar to other varieties of racism, such as Islamophobia, Sinophobia embodies a series of beliefs and discourses that place emphasis on the apparent cultural inferiority and backwardness of “Chinese culture” to the western dynamic, which are used to argue that the “ways” of China pose an existential threat to the norms and values of a given society, or what was historically referred to as a “Yellow Peril”. The prejudice relies upon a series of cliches and representations regarding Chinese people and their way of life and in turn positions itself from a position of assumed western supremacy, of which owing to the legacy of colonialism treats China as “problem must be solved”.

What is China? The answer is not a simple one, but for many people it is. It is a vast country, one with many differences and variations inside it concerning the way people live, view the world and even speak. It is not easy to define a nation of 1.4 billion. Yet every human being of course perceives the world in terms of standout images, ideas and concepts carried by their society, which accumulative into a wider comprehension or “imagination” into how we believe things are. The subject of China is not surprisingly rife with such impressions, because it is something distant, huge and also something by which through experience few people understand very well.

When the western man thinks of China, he doesn’t give much insight into how everyday people may live but of course gravitates towards these given ideas, he may refer to the Great Wall of China, to Terracotta soldiers, calligraphy and other strong concepts. At the same time of course, he is likely to refer to negative imagery too: He may believe that it is excessively polluted, that it makes cheap and shoddy goods, or cruder cultural stereotypes (particularly in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic) that emphasis culinary habits which are perceived as backwards and barbaric, generalized to fit the population as a whole.

These generalizations however carry more significance than meets the eye, they are not just a matter of pure impression, but are actively transformed into an aspect of geopolitics rooted in how Western civilization perceives itself in relation to China. In a phenomenon described as “Orientalism” by Edward Said- the west has through the legacy of Imperialism and domination consolidated itself on a series of beliefs that it itself represents a universal and objective standard for “Normality” and “civilization” and in the process subsequently projects conceptions of “difference”, “exoticness” and “inferiority” onto their impression “non-western” nations, which they subsequently argue that they have a mission to “civilize” and “change” to accommodate to their vision of the world.

As a result, whilst racism, prejudice and misunderstandings are found everywhere, western generalizations of the non-west are exceptional because they are the beneficiary of geopolitical inequality and social power which masquerades the assumption of civilizational superiority as an unassailable and divine truth. The west has to power to define, subjugate and characterize the East to its own designs and interests, no matter how prejudiced, misinformed and even outright misleading their claims may be. In turn, such a mindset also means that the western public tend to follow suit and believe such mistruths, their vested belief in “enlightenment” subsequently misrendering their prejudices as a truth. What is perceived to be “Knowledge” is in fact not equal.

Herein lies the foundations of modern era Sinophobia. Beginning with the 19th century whereby European empires sought to subjugate China, from a position of western superiority, Sinophobic discourse iconifies China as a backwards, inferior and uncivilized country on which is the obligation is placed to confirm itself to an occidental vision, of which if it is not willing to do so it must be brought down accordingly. Fear is repeatedly expressed over its size and geopolitical significance, thus producing a mindset that if not conquered itself, China will thus through its massive size and population conquer and thus impose its “backwardness” on the west.

In doing so, China is characterized not as a nation or people capable of its own voice or legitimate perspective, but in the light of a “moral problem to be solved” by the superior hands and minds of an altruistic west who must “show it the way” and thus “save it from itself”. The discourse examines China as if it were a specimen in the zoo, to be studied, observed and tamed, than an entity in its own right. Relentless obsession with the country’s ruling Communist Party provides an acceptable facade for this mindset, morphing Sinophobic ideas and the apprehension of China with Cold War cliches and imagery which further propel the belief that China’s acceptance must hinge on the terms which the west has set for it.

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic is a good place to start with this. The outbreak has saw a resurgence of anti-Chinese attitudes emerge around the world. Angry at the massive disruption, personal losses and economic costs brought about by the of the covid-19 virus which first emerged in the city of Wuhan, the epidemic has created an outpouring of disgruntlement against China which, floated on the criteria above, weaponizes the standpoint of superiority to advocate a politics of “Blame” and vengeance against Beijing, echoing a discourse that the “barbaric Chinese people must pay a price for harming our superior and civilized way of life in the west”. Although many will feel their anger is justified, the fundamental mode of thinking behind such claims are driven by Sinophobia and Orientalism:

First of all, some western countries have convinced themselves that a widespread disease outbreak cannot be their problem. The western mind conceives disease not as an inevitable and ever recurring ailment of human existence, but as something only experienced by “tropical”, “oriental” and “foreign” nations which do not live up to a given standard of civilization. Therefore the west believes it is to “observe” these things and “Help” as designated humanitarians, but ought not to “experience” them. Therefore, because the coronavirus “reached” these countries it is subsequently perceived not as a human struggle but a political injustice of which an inferior nation ought to be blamed and stigmatized for.

In doing so, in Britain outlets such as the Daily Mail have led the calls for indignation against China, using crude and misleading stereotypes of animal markets and sweeping generalizations of culinary practices in order to signify the generalization of Chinese people as a “backwards and savage” nation which ought to be “punished” for what it inflicted upon Britain. The government’s own failures to prepare against the epidemic owing to such complacency are ignored entirely.

Instead, China becomes a surrogate for the blame in the context of inferiority and emphasis is placed on exaggerating the scope of the disaster within the country out of opportunism to deflect from Western fault. The paper later stated a botched “study” claiming China owes Britain “£354 billion” in compensation, a figure of course so backed in western entitlement and self-righteousness that it dismisses the entire history of what London has inflicted on Beijing. Justice is interpreted as a one dimensional notion which rests exclusively to and only on behalf of the west.

Yet this rhetoric works, because the image of Chinese people as culturally and socially inferior is baked into the western ego. Popular media has long depicted China and Asian culture as a whole as suspect, dishonest, brutal and greedy. For example, one may look at the crude Chinese stereotype portrayed in the American TV sitcom Family Guy, Mr. Washee Washee. The specified link illustrates this character as stingy, cold, brutish and inherently violent, obsessed with saving money on an automated bell when the door opens.

The character is a conduit for many modern cultural stereotypes of the Chinese, especially in America, where it is mainstream thinking to portray China’s business practices as deceitful, shoddy and dishonest. The Trump administration has sought to justify its aggressive trade actions against China by repeatedly portraying Beijing as “cheating” the world rules at America’s expense. Not only is this a huge exaggeration, but it thrives upon Sinophobic ideas about unreliable business practices in Asia and misrenders the vast majority of US-China commerce into a cliche of stereotypes.

Although the Communist Party is again cited as the “true” source of blame, this is again a frontier to give it ideological acceptability which overlooks how the stereotype of the “deceitful Chinese” has in fact long pre-dated the age of the CCP from 1949 and draws upon it. The featured image in my post listed above is a racist Australian cartoon from 1886, known as the “Mongolian octopus” it embodies many crude generalizations of China in a threatening manner which strikingly enough are still relevant today, portraying Chinese culture as deceitful, disease ridden, makes “cheap goods”, “cheats at customs” and so on. It’s 134 years old, yet it could have been plucked out of a modern Trump speech.

The Simpsons also depicted these ideas in the 1994 episode “Marge in Chains“, although the specific episode is referring to Japan, not China, it nevertheless promulgates Asian centric cultural stereotypes which apply to Beijing by portraying a factory in Japan which makes cheap useless juice making machines for export to America (a common trait assumed with China trade). The work culture in the factory is portrayed also as brutal and dishonest (with the workers hiding their illnesses) which in turns leads to a “flu” being sent to Springfield, which as above sets out also reflects the belief that viruses are an “oriental” thing that do not truly have a “belonging” in the west.

We could go on and on with numerous more examples, but in essence Sinophobia certainly is rooted in a culturalist and western exceptionalist misrendering of China, of which perceives the white man’s burden as a “civilizer” and also portrays the essence of a large and booming China as an existential and uncivilized threat to the world. Whilst some will respond by pointing out this obviously does not invalidate all criticism of Communist Party rule, the notion nevertheless continues to wield powerful currency in how China is perceived, judged and thus approached from the western mind. The notion of Communism is not enough to invalidate the empirical evidence which shows that China is treated inherently unequally from the western point of view, a notion which has owing to size and scope, being exacerbated and repeatedly found legitimacy as an output of geopolitics, either in the 19th century or in the 21st.


Feminism with Juche Characteristics: Gender Political Thought in North Korea



How is the role of women portrayed and idealized in North Korea? In official discourse, the DPRK has long claimed that it is a champion of women’s rights. Although this has never been applied in practice, Pyongyang’s professed allegiance to female equality stems from a core tenant of Marxist-Leninist statecraft which has placed emphasis on equality, vowing to create a revolutionary order of society and liberate women from oppression. This is outlined in the state’s highest discourses, the North Korea constitution declares that “Women are accorded equal social status and rights with menand promises a whole range of benefits, including “maternity leave” and so on.

But of course, there is more to the story: as North Korea’s historical and ideological trajectory has deviated significantly from that of other socialist states, so in turn has its ideational depictions of women and their relationship to the core narratives of the regime. March marked international women’s day, a commemoration of female solidarity initially established in 1910 by the Socialist Party of America and then brought to international prestige by the Soviet Union. Given its normative relationship to the communist world, the holiday has gained political currency in North Korea. In the run up to the 2019 day, DPRK state media produced a series of articles emphasizing the contributions of women to the country’s cause.

However, separate to mainstream international discourse concerning women’s rights and equality, the published articles did not place significant emphasis on these areas, but instead focused on emphasizing the role of women as idealistic patriots who work to serve the regime, party and country. Despite utilization of the name “international women’s day”- the significance of women were in fact exclusively rendered within the boundaries and importance of the state itself and its legacy politics, with no reference to the outside world offered whatsoever. The below assessment explores these themes within the given publications in detail:


Women as Soldiers, Patriots and Revolutionaries- Female Legacy Politics


Those familiar with North Korean politics will already be aware of the glorified role of Kim Jong-suk, first wife of Kim Il Sung and mother of Kim Jong il. As noted in “North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics” by Chung & Kwon (2012), Jong-suk rose in the late 20th century to occupy a position in the state’s personality politics as the “mother of songun”- enveloping the role of women within the state narrative of the guerrilla resistance against Japan, the Korean War and the country’s post 1990s economic struggles

In commemorating international women’s day, the state media projected these discourses by celebrating the role of the women with emphasized reference to state’s legacy politics. Every single piece followed this lead. In opening, a DPRK today piece, titled “Korean Women Play Important Role in Achieving Country’s Prosperity” notes: “The people still remember women heroes including An Yong Ae, Jo Ok Hui, Thae Son Hui, Ri Sin Ja and Kil Hwak Sil who performed great feats in the Fatherland Liberation War and devoted their all to the prosperity and development of the country in the period of socialist construction.”

Another DPRK today piece, titled “Papers on Korean Women, Genuine Patriots” takes a similar line, noting “The Korean women displayed matchless heroism and the spirit of self-sacrifice by devoting themselves to the country and revolution during the days of the anti-Japanese war and the hard-fought Fatherland Liberation War… [travelling] a road of patriotism following the Party even when the country went through harsh ordeals as they bore in mind the faith that the socialist country protects them and the happiness of their families.” Rodong sinmun also made a similar tribute in its coverage of an official meeting held in honour of the day, highlighting the “Juche-oriented Korean women’s movement in the flames of the arduous anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle” and of course “the anti-Japanese war heroine Kim Jong Suk and the revolutionary careers of the great mothers of Korea”.

Feminity as Loyalty and Devotion


Feeding from the revolutionary narratives, each piece proceeded to render the continuing contributions of women to the “Korean Revolution” and frame the work of women as an exemplary loyalty, devotion and obedience to the state itself. As KCNA comments: “the Korean women were genuine patriots who serve the socialist country with love and devotion.” The terminology of “Love and devotion” is again noted in Rodong Sinmun’s coverage, outlining how women are: “performing heroic feats in the accomplishment of the revolutionary cause of Juche and genuine patriots who are serving the socialist country with ardent love and devotion”. Comparatively, DPRK today stated: “women have creditably played the role of powerful force for the prosperity of the country, being loved as a flower of society, collective and family”- the article proceeding to list the many achievements of women in science, sports, industry and agriculture.

Family and Parenthood


Finally, in elaboration with the above and striking strong contrast with western feminism, coverage of international women’s day celebrated the importance of women as mothers and child bearers in view of the nation. KCNA highlights the women in the country who were awarded the title of “Labour Hero” for “Giving birth to lots of children”, whilst Rodong Sinmun presents parenthood as a form of honourable sacrifice, praising women who “give birth to many children to put forward them before the country, regard other’s trouble as their own and take care of comrades and neighbours with true love and affection. Their laudable deeds are proud picture that can be seen only in our country.”


Conclusions: Feminism with Juche Characteristics


North Korea’s discourse of international women’s day is rendered exclusively within the paradigm of political obligation to the cause of nation, party and the Korean revolution. Diverging widely from the ideals of internationalist feminism, it does not emphasize women as an end in themselves, but as an idealism serving the ends of the state. Despite the DPRK’s origins in the world of socialist internationalism and thus, its lip-service to female equality and justice, in tandem with the evolution of the Juche Ideology and its historical shift away from Marxist-Leninism, the discourses of women similarly shifted in tandem from worldwide liberation, to the particular focus on serving the state and nation itself.




Exploring the Early U.S Discursive World of Korea (1945-1948)


I have often mentioned on twitter that there is a problem amongst some voices on the subject of Korea that tend to portray the country’s politics and history in somewhat simplistic terms. For many U.S observers, the story of North and South Korea is heavily condensed into prevailing Cold War narratives, presenting a rudimentary fairy tale of good vs. evil. That is the heroism the United States in support of “ordinary Koreans” against the tyranny of Communist aggression. The events of history itself have of course consolidated in favour of this interpretation. One cannot overlook the eventual outcomes that South Korea would eventually become a prosperous and free country, whilst North Korea clearly offers neither.

Despite that, such streamlining of Korean history tells us about very little about Korea as a whole. Are we to assume that the region is little more than a Cold War theater with its own people passive actors simply flowing with the parameters which the United States set at large? To put it bluntly, the popular comprehension of Korea is flawful, simply because it does not offer room for an understanding of the peninsula on its own terms and subjective positioning. Western narratives of Korean history tend to tell us little about the political preferences, choices and differences throughout the Korean people themselves. Everything is forcefully homogenized into a broad categories which fit overriding assumptions upon the things people said and done. This has meant that such ideological interpretations of history has in turn failed to provide coverage and nuance to complex political events and phenomena that don’t fit the overarching narratives. 

I want to investigate the problem of mainstream U.S narratives regarding Korea from the point of their origin, that is to identify and pinpoint the prevailing ideas, logic and ontology which consolidated the American understanding of the Korean peninsula in the late 1940s and subsequently conditioned the path of their future development. Whilst this does not mean that understandings don’t change or develop over time, especially with greater historical hindsight, there are nevertheless prevailing themes which persist into present day analysis. Using a detailed search of American newspaper archives, as well as an investigation of early official rhetoric in the background, this piece will argue that United States discourses on Korea have persisted with the ontological flaw that projects the interests and specific ideological leanings of America as being in full and unquestionable harmony to what all Koreans want and think. In turn, all understandings of the country are squeezed into a dubious and unhelpful cold war framework. Limitations of this piece obviously include the fact that most of the aforementioned stories regarding Korea are consolidated within a single publication, and of course the scarce availability of non-official discourse and public opinion on that time.

In the 1940s, it is not an insult to highlight that Americans at large knew nothing about Korea. In a world without the mass communications of today, minus all of the cultural and economic soft power as to what South Korea would later accumulate, it is fair to say that Korea was not only an irrelevance to U.S mainstream life, but a complete enigma. Some contact between the countries had been made as early as the 19th century, but this of course was not a consolation. An examination of early newspaper coverage of the country finds that it was only brought to the attention of mainstream American audiences owing to the events of World War II, and subsequently, set out within those wider considerations.  A key turning point in media coverage on this issue was of course the Cairo declaration of 1942, whereby the U.S, China and Britain pledged for a Korea free from Japanese colonialism. This introduced the discourse of “self-determination” into popular lexicon concerning the country (Evening Star, 1943).

It is of course, historically accurate and neutral to say that Koreans aspired for independence from Japan. What would prove notable in U.S coverage of this issue, however, was the tendency to assume that push for independence not as nationalist induced spectrum of voices and actors, but as a unanimous and homogeneous bid to create an American style liberal democracy. In doing so, press coverage repeatedly assumed the independent Korea would become a democratic, de-facto ally of the United States. For an example, a letter to the Evening Star in 1944 proclaims a future Korea as an “Ideal Ally” for Democratic nations and as a peaceful, “innocent” country (Evening Star, 1944). Whilst of course we must be mindful that these assumptions are also being drawn as a contrast to the perceived brutalities of Japanese Imperialism, they nevertheless rest on Wilsonian-esque assumptions that every country that receives its independence from Imperial rule is naturally set to be just like America. As one editorial put it: “Korea, One of the Bulwarks Against Red Rule in Asia” (Evening Star, 1948)

In making these assumptions, media coverage in this era places significant emphasis and subsequent holistic coverage upon future leader Syngman Rhee. Now, whilst Rhee was a legitimate voice for an independent Korea, leading a provisional government and striving to find support in Washington, he was incredibly misunderstood. In practice Rhee would in fact create an authoritarian regime in South Korea and brutally purge opposition outside of his circle. Yet, newspapers depict him in a George Washington light. In 1948 as the Republic of Korea was proclaimed, the Washington Evening Star described Rhee as “A stalwart citizen of Korea. He is the leader of the team that has created modern Korea. Even his enemies admit his patriotism, scholarship and tenacity of purpose” (Evening Star, 1948). In doing so, the entire Korean independence movement is reciprocated to his name alone and an adherence to the American ideal, ignoring the obvious diversity of ideologies, factions and visions contending for rival visions of “Korean independence”.

In parallel with the projection of the American ideal as the banal preference of Korea’s political fate, what would ultimately serve to lock these discourses in place was the growing environment of the Cold War and the subsequent struggle with the Soviet Union over influence upon the peninsula. Whilst of course there was some evidence to argue such owing to the activities of Moscow in Eastern Europe, it was nevertheless widely assumed that the Soviets were not simply offering a rival version of Korean independence in the form of what would become North Korea, but were in fact simply engaging in foreign aggression.

The biggest problem with this narrative however, was not so much the activities of the USSR itself, but the banal belief that Koreans would not legitimately opt for socialism as an option for their country. There are several articles that reflect this mindset. In 1947, an Evening Star Article accused of left wing independence advocates in South Korea as being “paid” to be Communists by the Soviet Union and that internal dissent in the country was purely the design of Moscow’s foreign policy- aiming to prevent Korean independence (Evening Star, 1947). A similar article in the Sunday Star in 1946 also blamed “Korean Communists” for “undermining Independence“- also exclusively attributed to the Soviet Union (Evening Star, 1946).

Looking across the range of articles, there is an obvious consensus that left-wing views in early South Korea could not be legitimate and thus in broader the framework of emerging the Cold War context, such were nothing more than a mere Communist conspiracy which was set about to undermine the interests of Korea itself (which of course here are being pre-determined by external actors. Thus, despite the instability and turmoil of the country’s society at that time, the only “legitimate” view being offered by the U.S media was that of the U.S view itself, misleadingly pinned on Syngman Rhee.

Obviously, we know logically that after this period the Korean War would follow. Although late in announcing, this is not being covered in this piece simply because most analysts are aware in either way how it coincides with the Cold War. Instead, in this piece we have vouched prior to that and in doing so, highlighted a number of American discourses concerning Korea which originated beforehand and would be carried forth in the decades to come. In particular, these concern:

  • The assumption that America’s interest and view is Korea’s natural worldview
  • The downplaying of Korea’s own perspective, issues and political nuances in favour of the former
  • The misportrayal of pro-US Syngman Rhee in idealistic American terms which with the above, would go forth in shaping the broader narratives christened in the Korean War itself. His true intentions and perceptions are not even explored properly.
  • The belief that all leftist activity and dissent in South Korea was not the organic product of a society in disarray, but is all a Communist Conspiracy which may only be interpreted as a moral evil and act of foreign aggression designed to undermine Korea’s true preferences. Any Korean view thus contrary to the above is thus “suspect”.

In this case, what do we conclude? Early American discourses of Korea were simplified, idealistic and negligent of the country’s political and social realities. What is more staggering is that in their own forms and variants, many of these modes of thought continue to repeat themselves in contemporary understandings of South Korea amongst some voices. Thus, the wider problem is that the United States had simply to know and understand Korea in the light of the Cold War world and the ideological struggle against Communism. Never forget that Korea is so much more than that. If we are to understand the country on a serious basis, the first and foremost step involves overcoming a set of simplifications which emerged in the 1940s.

References (in order of appearance)

  • All media sources cited in this article and referenced below are available for fre on: An archive by the Library of Congress
  • Evening Star, 1943, “Korea’s Story Sorrowful”- [volume], December 05, 1943, Page C-2, Image 38
  • Evening Star, 1944, “Korea as an ideal ally for Democratic Nations”- November 18, 1944, Page A-8, Image 8
  • Evening Star, 1948, “Korea, One of the Bulwarks Against Red Rule in Asia”- November 28, 1948, Page C-5, Image 56
  • Evening Star, 1948, “Korea is Reborn a Democracy Today”- August 15, 1948, Page C-5, Image 42
  • Evening Star, 1946, “Soviet Stymies Korean Independence”- October 13, 1946, Image 42
  • Evening Star, 1947, “Korea Smoulders under US-Soviet Occupation”- February 02, 1947, Page C-5, Image 46

Analysis: China is not rowing back on North Korea pressure, here’s why.


Yesterday analysts observed the opening of a new bridge between China and North Korea in Jilin province, connecting the two countries. On hearing the news, it was widely assumed that the new infrastructure was a sign of China’s easing pressure upon Pyongyang and would of course, be used to facilitate trade and commerce between the two countries. It goes without saying that prior to this, Beijing’s transactions with North Korea have plummeted dramatically in the onset of the past two years, largely due to the increasing scope of United Nations Security Resolutions and pressure placed on the country by the Trump administration. With the past 12 months being centered upon diplomacy between all the involved parties, Kim Jong un having visited China himself three times and Xi Jinping pledging a trip to Pyongyang, it has consequentially been assumed that Beijing is now subtly easing pressure on its neighbour and thus the completion of a new bridge is the sure sign.

I am not convinced. Here, I am going to argue the opposite. That is, China is not prepared to take risks on North Korea and is in fact owing to the events of recent months, is again increasing pressure on its neighbour? Why? Because Beijing’s approach to Pyongyang must be interpreted within the wider paradigm of its relationship with the United States. This is an area that is not only very high stakes, but is not going well. Below outlines that China’s foreign policy continues to be mapped out by the desire to sustain economic growth, and thus uphold a stable relationship with Washington. In turn, it continues to express an aversion for direct confrontation with the United States (even if there is disagreement). Locked in negotiations to end Trump’s trade war, North Korea is not an issue they are willing to cross the line on. As a result, following the fallout of the Hanoi summit and the roadblack in NK-US diplomacy, China is in fact increasing pressure on Pyongyang of late.

What is China’s foreign policy? That in itself is a vague question, because foreign policy is rarely explained as a coherent or simplified whole, but in essence a range of positions, considerations and leading ideas which are then discretely expressed on an issue by issue basis. Most people accuse contemporary China’s foreign policy as being guided by “revisionism“- that is a bid to forcibly challenge and transform the international order into its own terms. That however, is not accurate and based on cliche discourses of authoritarian foreign aggression. If we are to understand where China’s range of foreign policy positions and considerations begin, we must instead look towards the mantle of “economic growth” and “stability”. A continuing mantle since the Deng Xiaoping era of 1978 has been to sustain Communist Party rule by facilitating successful economic development in China. By ensuring a prosperous society, a stable society can be ensured as well.

For all there have been talk of “changes” under the rule of Xi Jinping, this principle continues to be the political priority of the party-state system and in turn, a key consideration of China’s foreign policy. If economic growth is to be upheld, then the international environment by which China operates in must concurrently be stable and non-confrontational. As an increasingly globalized economy in the centre of global commerce, finance and other commodities, China relies upon continuing international market access and healthy relationships abroad. What does that mean? It means Beijing necessitates a stable and cordial relationship with the western world, and who in particular? The foremost economic and financial power on Earth, the United States. Maintaining a stable and cooperative relationship with Washington is in fact China’s paramount foreign policy priority.

Now some of you are going to read this and scratch your heads, because areas of disagreement between the two countries and apparent rivalries, are huge. Yes, perhaps it is worth arguing that in some areas China has made mistakes. However, that is a different story. As a whole, China is careful not to be outwardly confrontational with America, even if the disagreements are huge. If you follow China’s media scope on the United States, it repeatedly rejects “Cold War mentalities”, stresses “cooperation” and offers a hand to negotiate with America. Whilst it is assertive to countries who follow America too closely (Canada) to create space for its own interests, it will never descend into an explicit battle for global hegemony against Washington (ignore the media hype). If one observes Trump’s trade war against the country, China have in fact been quick to negotiate and attempt to address his demands: because a confrontational relationship with America hurts China’s own domestic goals and achievements.

Never has this doctrine of Chinese foreign policy been more relevant on the issue of North Korea. Now of course, there are certain interests China has in the country that puts it at odds with Washington, including the presence of U.S troops in South Korea and the immediate proximity to its border region. It is true to say Beijing resists the regime’s collapse and continually offers it a lifeline. Nevertheless, there are limits as to what it will give Pyongyang, not least in the face of behaviour by Kim Jong un which fundamentally hurts China’s own interests. When Pyongyang tests missiles and nuclear weapons, it threatens regional stability and invites a stronger military presence from the United States. Thus, disrupting China’s own goals. Therefore, when Washington demands a tougher approach towards Pyongyang, whilst Beijing may have some reservations it nevertheless offers a hand of cooperation. China participates with the goal of re-establishing stability and drawing the DPRK to the negotiating table. It is only if these goals are achieved, by which Beijing typically becomes more lenient on sanctions enforcement.

However, the context we face today is very different to the past. Particularly because as noted above, we have a U. S President who has been willing to engage in all out offensive against China and simultaneously, take a much more assertive stance against North Korea too. This has placed Beijing in a precarious position, but nevertheless as per its foreign policy goals it has chose to respond to these developments with cautiousness and also being willing to negotiate, than simply escalate matters against the unpredictable administration. Thus, in 2017, Xi Jinping made the decision to adhere to a tougher line against Pyongyang in the view of a near endless spree of testing and threats of military action from the U.S. Not only were sanctions significantly tightened, but they were also seriously enforced. The view was to get on good terms with Trump and also to prevent a crisis. By 2018, diplomacy commenced, which eased the pressure on China. It is from this point that everyone would assume Beijing would start becoming lenient on sanctions with North Korea, but actually that hasn’t happened.

There are two reasons why 1) The Trade War and 2) The aftermath of the Hanoi summit. Let’s start with the first. After diplomacy on the Korean peninsula began last year Trump immediately unleashed the trade conflict against Beijing, demanding a plethora of economic changes. Whilst China is obviously unhappy with this, again it has chose to respond via a path of negotiations and keeping the relationship with America stable. The context is exceptional in its influence over things, because Trump is a highly transactional President who utilizes a philosophy of “if you do X on this issue, we will do Z“- in essence he connects, threatens and leverages everything. Thus it is not unreasonable to note that if China undermines Trump’s efforts with North Korea substantially, then he will become more hostile in the pursuit of his trade efforts. Therefore, there is a clear price set out for Beijing if they give Pyongyang too much. With a deal only weeks away now, China can’t afford to get this wrong. Economic stability must come first.

Secondly, on the matter of Hanoi. For the Trump administration to walk out of the summit and intensify their demands was the last thing China wanted. Such an outcome creates risk in the form of more aggressive demands from each side. As a result, diplomacy must be salvaged. In no circumstances must either side for China walk away from the table and leave regional stability in doubt. As a result, to undermine sanctions and increase North Korea’s own hand, giving them too much space, is inherently foolish, especially if it results in another missile test. This, combined with the above, has now accumulated in a hardening of China’s approach to North Korea in the run up to the next few weeks…

There is strong empirical evidence for this. The DailyNK reported in March that China began sending North Korean workers in the country home enmasse, announcing a surprise policy change which limited the time they could spend in the country. This can be interpreted as a clear aftermath of Hanoi. China had been otherwise more lenient on these workers in the view that sanctions would be soon officially lifted or at least downplayed as things progressed, only to be met with the surprise outcome of a “no deal”. For example, when visiting Dandong in January 2019, I found all of the North Korean state run restaurants to be operating as usual and staffed with expatriates (contrary to sanctions). This was an example of lenience towards the country after the events of 2018. Now, that appears to be a turning a table.

Secondly, there is evidence that China continues to hold firm on bigger sanctions relating to North Korean industries and export materials. The DailyNK also claims that North Korean factories are closing down. NKnews has also reported that North Korean imports from China are also sinking, suggesting a tightening domestic monetary policy. In addition China is also publicly reaffirming that it is not selling exports of banned commodities such as fuel to North Korea. Even if the latter has not been the case in practice, the statement should be interpreted as a clear diplomatic signal to the United States that it is falling in line with sanctions measures on the country. In each sense, the political pressures for China to comply are strong, and the evidence is showing that.

So in conclusion, the awaited rollback of Chinese sanctions enforcement on North Korea has not happened. Evidence seems to imply the opposite. Despite China’s interests in keeping the regime alive, analysts can sometimes overstate Beijing’s generosity towards Pyongyang and erroneously assume a form of “solidarity” in the form of state level discourses. The reality is, however, that it is in China’s broader and specific foreign policy interests to maintain pressure on Pyongyang as a means of self-interest. Seeking to pacify the Trump administration and bring an end to the trade war, uphold domestic economic growth and also ensure that US-DPRK diplomacy does not collapse, in every sense it is China’s initiative to maintain the status quo of sanctions on North Korea. The construction of a new bridge isn’t going to change that.

The analytical dehumanizing of the North Korean



Early Saturday morning I observed a twitter exchange between several journalists and an academic on the matter of North Korea. In the midst of Britain’s Brexit turmoil, BBC journalist Laura Bicker had tweeted that a colleague had met with a North Korean economist in Pyongyang who reportedly said “so sorry about what’s happening in your country”. The fact that a North Korean had offered so candid remarks on Britain’s situation came as a shock and surprise to the analytical community, which resulted in the exchange above.

As noted, the two parties seem to seize upon the implicit assumption that because the man in question was a North Korean, seemingly is unable to offer a legitimate or sincere perspective on Britain, simply because by default North Korea’s political and economic situation is not as good as the UK’s. In essence, nothing the North Korean man says on the matter should be taken seriously, because how we “understand” the country ultimately concludes that he has no place to do so.

The exchange marks a common trend in North Korean analysis which concerns a de-facto “dehumanizing” of the people’s perspectives themselves, simply because they may offer views, opinions or insights which challenge with our “truthful” view of the world. Those not familiar with sociology and anthropology, and thus the nature of how humans, perceive and construct their world, are most liable to making this mistake.

Ultimately, the problem lies with liberal universalist ontology. The legacy of such political thought, evolving from Christianity,  assumes that there is one undisputable, unchallengeable and universal way to interpret all things and through “rationalism” each human being will inevitably arrive at the same conclusion. Thus, in analysis of North Korea, these assumptions are applied. We assume that all North Koreans must naturally and logically see North Korea “how we see it”, they must know North Korea how “we know it” and thus forth.

Whilst I appreciate there are realities about North Korea’s political and economic life which of course give us valid reasons to understand that it is of course, undesirable in many ways. Nevertheless, this kind of ideological thinking continues to neglect the human element. We are often as to how socio-economic circumstances, human identity and relationships, feelings and other contextual phenomena have a profound influence on how humans think and act in relation to their environment.

On that note, many people have a hard time ultimately recognizing that North Koreans may perceive their country in ways which do not always coincide with our views, and seemingly we are intolerant to it too. From my own experiences with North Korean people I find that whilst they are quite aware of the poor socio-economic reality their country experiences and the lack of opportunities owing to political restrictions, they nevertheless understand it and treat it in a benign and sometimes even positive way which we would find incomprehensible.

Why so? We interpret North Korea through the shock and horror stories in the media, notions such as human rights abuses, totalitarianism, missiles and bombs dominate our perceptions, for us it is different, terrifying, disturbing, but for the North Koreans themselves? Not so. Because it is home, it is life, it is their country, the mindset is different. They grow up with it, they identify it, they understand it and seemingly, are confined to tolerating it. The experiences for many are not always simplified to starvation or oppression, but simply a “banal” life as how we feel about it every day. As a North Korean, despite the broad penetration of the state into every realm, your life is more than just worrying about politics- you are nor a robot but nor are you obsessed with overthrowing Kim Jong un- because you are ultimately human.

Given this, I have seen how the banality of every day life in North Korea plays out. I have seen North Koreans enjoying sports, such as football, skateboarding, volleyball. I have seen North Koreans chatting on the streets like any country in the world, eating in restaurants, children playing together, men sitting having a drink and laughing amongst each other, people getting married. All of these things will preoccupy the minds and thinking of the locals beyond politics, even if it is drummed into them.

In summary, there is a “normal” side to the country and to the thinking of its people, which is so readily overlooked and so readily dismissed, even to the point we assume a benign opinion about something like Brexit is to be treat with suspicion or contempt. Never forget that the study of North Korea is a complex initiative and is not reducible to miniature cliques about the country’s politics based on a specified, political focused view.

Washington’s Turn Against China

America’s increasing resistance to China’s rise is rooted deeper than the will of the President and his trade war. Once having believed that Beijing could be socialized into the status quo international order through economic development, Washington has recalibrated its China stances to incorporate the growing belief that the country will pose a challenge, rather than a compliment, towards American hegemony.

2018 hastened the dusk of a 45-year epoch in US-China relations. As Donald Trump adamantly pushed ahead on his trade war, the actions, although seemingly attributed to the unhinged determination of one individual, in fact represented a new strategic in Washington. An era believing that the United States could earnestly work with China within their own rules had came to end. It was an era which opened abruptly. In 1972, Richard Nixon made an unprecedented visit to China and met with an ailing Mao Zedong, whom had spent a near quarter of a century waging a perpetuating standoff against what he termed “American Imperialism”. Despite the vast ideological differences between the two parties, the People’s Republic of China, dogged by the trauma and chaos of the cultural revolution and strategically alienated by enmity against the Soviet Union, was able to find common interests with Washington in containing Moscow. Years later, following Mao’s passing, the Communist Party came to the realization that maintaining productive ties with the United States would prove essential to their regime success. Mao’s disastrous economic fantasies had created a fledging country trailing far beyond its neighbours. Washington held the keys to international markets, capital and investment, all highly desirable to an ambitious Deng Xiaoping who sought to open the country up to the world. His reforms would unleash a rolling snowball of economic growth which would transform the agrarian communist state into one of the economic powerhouses of the world. Now, China sits as the world’s second largest economy and industrial great power, having overtaken Japan in 2010.


From Washington’s point of view, this famous rapprochement and the end to a containment of the PRC was saw a foreign policy victory which wooed Beijing into the world order being consolidated by the United States, which in time saw the demise of the Soviet Union. With unipolarity achieved, ideology and time were seemingly on America’s side, it was believed the victory of global liberal ideology was both inevitable and unavoidable. Ultimately, as China had seemingly chose the path of the market, it was believed that through the power of such growth, Beijing could only evolve in positive ways. A rising middle class would seemingly demand democracy and openness, whilst a booming economy would integrate Beijing into the existing order and necessitate interdependent cooperation on a number of modern issues. The US watched as similar rapid growth oversaw a transition from authoritarianism to democracy in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. In turn, the belief was that China’s development would render the absolute rule of the Communist Party untenable and force them to make political concessions. Analysts such as Gordon Chang repeatedly “predicted” the CCP’s pending collapse in the turn of the millennium. With such an inevitable evolution at hand, the United States actively supported the country’s development, preferring “conditioning” to containment. The events of Tiananmen and the sanctions which followed were quickly forgiven, Bill Clinton buckled to pressure from lobbyists to uphold China’s “favoured nation” trade status, the US allowed China to enter the world trade organisation in 2001 and for all their obvious differences, multiple administrations approached Beijing with a cordial tone. The massive surplus Beijing built from trade with the United States was to be tolerated, for the prevailing philosophy was that China was not to be confronted, it was to be shaped.


However, these hopes of evolution gradually diminished as the world changed in unpredictable ways. The financial crisis of 2008 created an ideological vacuum which damaged the fabric of American unipolarity, creating political space for emboldened authoritarianism to emerge in resistance to Washington’s liberal vision. In this context, the Communist Party would respond to the global changes around it by tightening, rather than loosening its hold over China’s society. The rise of the Xi Jinping premiership has overseen an unprecedented consolidation of the party-state in modern times. Censorship has increased, civil society and religion have faced increasing state regulation and the role of party groups in all organisations, universities and companies has been consolidated. In addition, Beijing’s foreign policy has become bolder and more assertive. The party has revised Deng’s cautious approach of “hiding low” or “Taoguangyanghui”, pursuing a more activist foreign policy. The preceding years have saw Beijing become more forward with claims in the South China Sea, place increasing pressure upon Taipei and most iconically, pursue the ambitious plan to reshape the global economic order in One Belt, One Road. With an emboldened Xi at the helm, abolishing term limits with the scope of ruling for life, suddenly the “pending liberalisation” of China had become but a pipe-dream.


China’s deviation from what was anticipated shaped a new reality in Washington. The sustenance of the Communist Party and its increasing global power legitimized the belief that China was not a cooperative partner, but ultimately a a competitor threatening American hegemony, one which goes far beyond the actions of Trump as an individual. It was a change initiated with the Obama administration. For all his administration maintained a cordial posture with Beijing, his 2nd term urgency emphasized a renewed presence in the East, dubbed the “rebalance” or “pivot” to Asia. The presence of the U.S military in the region would be enhanced, with “freedom of navigation” patrols emerging as a means of affirming the rules-based order, as well as an ill-fated attempt to secure the economic status quo with the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. As a result, by the Time Trump emerged, Washington’s shifting regional perceptions and objectives were very much in place. Although the real estate tycoon has acted to accelerate the pushback against China and pushed many boundaries in an unconventional way, such an effort had in many ways already preceded him and was in any case, inevitable in its emergence.

Now, Trump has been able to take the reigns of Washington’s growing apprehension of China and characterize it in his nationalist dogma of “America First”. As much as his talk of a “trade war” seemed like hyperbole targeting blue collar voters, it markets this shifting strategic impetus that China is seemingly a threat. The Communist Party’s dominance of broad sectors of China’s economy, initiating acquisitions on a global scale, forcing technology transfers from foreign investors, and Xi’s ambitions to turn the country into a “technology superpower”, all in the context of increasing authoritarian rule, have created the belief Beijing itself will challenge global order. Concurrently, no longer is interdependence with China seen as a path to socializing the country on a liberal path, but a fundamental weakness which will only inhibit Washington’s global power. A more hawkish stance against China is just not a view driven by the administration, but it is one that has strong bipartisan support in Congress, with foreign policy heavyweights Marco Rubio and Cory Gardner expressing increasingly hawkish views on Beijing. Alongside Trump’s fabled tariff war, the U.S is now also pushing back on Taiwan, the recalling of ambassadors from countries who had switched from Taipei to Beijing standing as an unprecedented move, despite Washington’s very own adherence to the fabled “One China Policy” which the 1970s era created.

Whilst the abrasiveness and unconventional style of Trump will eventually pass, this new momentum against China will outlive the administration. The eventual conclusion of the trade war is uncertain, but observers should anticipate that an era of strategic competition, largely concentrated in the Indo-Pacific region, is here to stay. Whilst the form it takes may vary, it is unlikely to change save there are dramatic shifts in China’s political and economic system, save America’s hearts can be softened. Once a strategic convenience propelled by a common adversary in Moscow, now both powers find themselves increasingly cold through irreconcilable interests, lingering distrust and two very different conceptions of world order. Whilst one should be cautious of terming the situation as a “new cold war”, it cannot be dismissed that Washington has decided that it has nothing more to gain from a reconciliatory and accommodating approach to Beijing. On that note, the 45-year epoch of Sino-American rapprochement has finally drawn to a close.

The Origin of the Surname “Fowdy”: A family history insight

I never knew the origin of my own surname. It’s not a common surname, it stands out and it’s a question which confounded me for years. It’s trivial of course, yet always interesting to know. Sometimes people would ask me and I simply didn’t know. Why this is important? A surname reveals heritage, its an inseparable part of who we are and more importantly, a part of where we came from. It poses meaning for us. Whilst family history may seem boring, it is the aspect of personal discovery which made it so interesting, not least because the name Fowdy is completely unknown and most “surname” sources don’t cite it. Nevertheless, through some astute research of my own family I am happy to say that I have unearthed the meaning of this peculiar name and where it came from.

From what I knew first hand, the name Fowdy is from my mother’s fraternal line. However, our connection to that family was severed as my grandparents separated in the 1970s. My grandfather’s father was a miner who died in an accident Monkwearmouth Colliery in the 1950s. But of course, this told me nothing about the origin of the surname. But, to kindle my curiousity there were some telling clues. My great grandfather’s name was Patrick and the Fowdy’s were in fact a Roman Catholic family. Of course you can easily point out this is not alone to draw solid conclusions from, research would soon confirm these assumptions.

Using census records, the rarity of the name allowed individuals to be picked out very quickly and without error. I discovered myself that Patrick had a father called Patrick. Patrick Fowdy sr. was born in Innistymon, County Clare, Ireland in 1882. He would move to Sunderland, England at some point in the early 20th century, marrying Margaret Pinkney in 1908, who appears to have been a local. In line with this, Patrick jr. was born in 1909, allowing the link to be solidified. Given his tragic fate, both Patrick and Margaret would outlive their son, having both passed away of old age in the 1960s. Little did we know that the sr. Fowdy’s are buried together in Bishopwearmouth Cemetery, a quick look at burial records allowed me to confirm that location. A family grave we never even knew existed.

On this grounds, the Fowdy name is indeed of Irish origin. Given it is anglicized and the spellings of names are not always consistent going back in time, it may have been known in Irish language as “Faudaigh” or something similar. Innistymon is but a small village, but it is also famous. Several scenes of Father Ted were filmed directly there, including the episode “The Mainland”. Not to mention that maybe is the famous “Parochial house” itself.

But likewise, what does the story of Patrick Fowdy Sr. teach us about British history at the time, and not least the history of North East England? The late 19th century was the height of the British Empire, Pax Britannia. What is now the Republic of Ireland at the time was incorporated as part of the country, much to the disdain of locals. Yet for many, the opportunity to leave what was then a very impoverished country and work in the booming industrial hubs of Northern England, was a dream ticket. Sunderland in this era was heralded “the largest shipbuilding town in the world”, the global naval presence of the British Empire created a Victorian boomtown which attracted all kinds of migrant communities. The Irish were but one of them. Nevertheless in this era, their numbers would constitute up to 8% of the town’s population and in other parts of the North East, even greater numbers (Middlesbrough was 25%).

We associate migration to be a modern thing, but it isn’t. Our ancestors move to a place, the family goes on several generations and then suddenly they forget their own heritage, looking at the newcomers as outsiders with less entitlement. It is easy to get warped into that mentality, I have tested those waters and there is nothing good that can come of it. However, when the insight into one’s own family history reveals a migrant heritage it then solidifies your own urge to think differently. For all the Irish seem similar to the British, it is worth remembering that the early 20th century world Patrick Fowdy Sr. lived in was one that openly branded Irish people as backwards, inferior, distrustworthy and subordinate. The role of “Irish jokes” in modern English culture is not an accident or harmeless fun, but it is a legacy of an Imperial past and a politicized racial hierarchy.

So what are the lessons from this? Your own surname’s history might surprise you, it might also hold for you some valuable moral lessons in how you view the world or others around you.

Brexit Isn’t Worth It.

It’s been close now to two years since that fateful day in which Britain voted to relinquish its membership of the Union and opt for a “new pathway” which its adherents claimed “would be in the world”. May I say that for as stupid as to how I may appear, I voted for that. I voted for it passionately. May I be more honest in saying I didn’t vote for it because I believed Britain would be “better off” outside of the EU despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I voted for it because it was a convenient vent of political anger against a political elite I felt deeply disillusioned with. The potential of “revolt” felt empowering. The epitome of that fateful night, June 23rd, would nevertheless cut open wounds of deep bitterness and contention between two sides, something has perpetuated on a regular basis across social media for two years now.
Now however, I pose the question. Just what are we fighting for with Brexit? What do we want? Nobody really seems to have an answer to that, but nobody truly ever did. The euphoria of so called “national liberation” and “sovereignty” are nice to things to reflect on, they make some people feel confident, secure and proud, they add meaning, justification and detail to people’s lives, but what baring do they have on the practical realities and needs of life itself? These mere feelings cannot compensate for jobs, for economic growth, for living stanrds, for businesses, none of them. It is as a whole nice to be proud of your country, you should be, but patriotism should never exceed the limits of reason. We need to be pragmatic, we need to be real.

That reality is that the “Nation State” is archaic to the modern world. We are living in an interconnected, global society where people, goods and capital have the capability to move freely like never before. Political and economic issues are not just the responsibility of national parliaments, but they too have an increasingly transnational nature. Countries are increasingly interdependent on each other, interdependent to secure favourable arrangements to economic benefits, to combat issues which do not respect or follow borders, such as climate change, pollution, international crime and so on. But likewise in the context of Brexit and our relationship with Europe, to create conditions which ensure they remain competitive in a global market which is growing, growing and will continue to grow.

In this regard, the European Union has been one of the most successful multi-lateral organisations in the world. It is not a conspiracy to force countries together under the banner of one nation, but it is the pragmatic reality that in order to be successful, European governments need truly each other. Whilst it has a somewhat evangelical element of its own identity and sense of self-righteousness, this is merely an outer shell and trimming for the practical purposes as to why it truly exists. European laws are not an annoying bureaucratic infringement of national rights, but a working consensus of governments to tackle issues on a regional level. It is if you like a forum, it’s far from perfect, it makes mistakes, its policies have in some areas been hurtful to some and caused anger to others, but an intensive focus on issues strives to cloud the bigger, more important picture of what Europe has achieved.

It is true to say at the same time Brexit has not been a “disaster” in the way it was painted in the campaign itself. The rubric of hysteria and scaremongering from the remain campaign and David Cameron was highly unhelpful. Such sensationalism was received emotionally, it only served to consolidate divisions than to educate people on what was at stake. At the same time, it also created a bizarre benchmark that because the process has “not been as bad as predicted” Brexit has been somehow beneficial and successful, but it isn’t. It is true to say there will be no recession or mass unemployment when the day of departure comes, but rather the effects will be more nuanced, subtle and spaced out over a long term basis… here’s how

Firstly, Britain will fall behind Europe and the rest of the world. Already we’re experiencing lower GDP growth. To have rates of around 1.5-1.6% forecasted is not a “Brexit victory” because “uncertainty didn’t cause a recession”, it’s a slowdown which should be judged in relativity to other countries. The Republic of Ireland will grow at 5.7% this year, Germany at 2.1%. As those countries and many others grow faster, we become poorer in relative contrast, economic growth is comparative. We are left behind and in the long run, will pay a noticeably price in terms of what our economy “could have been”.

Secondly, investors prefer a single market of 450 million people to one of 65 million people. If you want to start a business, you want it to be able to reach as many people as possible. The draw of the single market is that you can have free access to any country in Europe without tariffs, the bureaucratic nonsense of visas and so on. But with Brexit, all of that is removed. To invest in Britain as your European base becomes a non-viable option. Paris and Berlin become more attractive centers of commerce and finance than London. We’re already seeing this with the steady trickle of financial jobs from London.

Thirdly, Trump is not an alternative and stop pretending he is. I have said it before, I will say it again, we’re not going to win any favours from a U.S President who is waging trade wars, slapping tariffs on his allies and tearing up every free trade agreement the U.S is a signatory too. Any trade agreement with the U.S cannot replicate the benefits of single market membership, because it would be horrifically one sided, exploitative and solely to their gain not ours. Trump will not be around forever, but do not assume the Democrats would be any willing to offer a better deal because American votes require American jobs. This is a botched fantasy.

If we consider this, what do we want and what do we have to gain from the path we are on? I challenge committed Brexit voters to respond to this with a coherent argument and not lark such as “The Will of People”, “Remoaner”, “We’ll be fine”, or any means of personal abuse which will inevitably follow. The tribalism and pettiness of the Brexit debate has drastically failed to communicate the bigger picture of what is at stake. That of course goes for remainers too, it needs to be less about name-calling and more about facts. We have to drop the emotional and ideational barriers which are preventing us from thinking straight and rational about this issue. I have come to believe Brexit isn’t worth it, whether I would vote to overturn it remains to be seen… but if it is scrapped then I will not bat an eyelid, I am no longer passionate about something which stands to put this country at a self-inflicted disadvantage.

The long and bumpy road to peace begins, but just who would have guessed it? (On Trump vowing to meet Kim)

I am surprised, but I am also happy. The past year has been unquestionably tense for those interested in Asian Affairs. For the first time in decades there was a seemingly serious, uncontrollable and ugly risk of a catastrophic land war on the Korean Peninsula. As North Korea pursued a defiant barrage of missile and nuclear testing, combined with the bellicose, unpredictable and seemingly erratic threats of Donald Trump, it was a match made in hell. Few people were optimistic of the outcomes. Whilst my gut instinct thought such a war would ultimately not happen, the experience of it was tense, emotional and unsettling. Yet, in a matter of days, the events of last year seem already a million miles away. The unprecedented “U-turn” by Kim Jong-un on being willing to consider denuclearisation has been dubbed a “miracle” by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Then, before we could even fully digest that, Trump himself says he will be off to Pyongyang to meet Kim. Well… what can I say?

It is easy to get carried away with such news, not least because formal talks have not even begun yet, not to mention the question of what will actually be “placed” on the table itself, where things are likely to get a bit sticky. Still, that is no reason to scorn optimism, as all parties, be it America, North Korea, China, South Korea and Japan, had everything to lose by going down the other route. But what are the most important things to take from this? First of all, Kim Jong-un has limits. It is easy to portray to him as an unstable, insane and unreasonable mad dictator, but this is a stereotype, a Western discourse which floats on cultural and historical cliques which does not reflect the highly subjective reality of politics. Kim certainly may do things the rest of the world does not like or meets with condemnation, but that doesn’t he is a fundamentally irrational actor who does not perceive the environment around him accurately. He has limits, he has boundaries. Whether you think his urge to negotiate is sincere or insincere, he ultimately came to the recognition that if he continued on his current path, it was unlikely to end well for him. Be it via the increasing sanctions on his country, or worse, the unpredictable threats of the man in the White House himself, he knew something had to give. Whether that be actual denuclearisation itself or a simple stabilization of tensions and a turn towards a more “long game” remains to be seen, but the point stands regardless.

Secondly, the rapid turn of events suggests that in contrast to his predecessors, Kim’s political needs are different. It is easy to again simplify North Korea’s politics into a society that is held together by delusion, “brainwashing” and god-like worship of its leaders, but that is again a western cultural connotation which underestimates the complexity of how politics works. In the present day, North Korea is evolving in ways that are not well realized or understood. Despite being a closed society, awareness and influence of the outside world is increasing. North Koreans do not live in “ignorance”, “wanting to be freed” as some patronizingly assume, but are very much conscious of their country’s situation and difference to the outside world. Through a changing economic system and grassroots marketisation, the country’s society is evolving. Young North Koreans in Pyongyang aspire to make money through entrepreneurship, they seek to have consumer goods such as mobile phones, computers and so on. When viewed in this light, Kim Jong-un’s rule depends more upon economic achievements than his father did. Despite the negative affects of nuclear development, this has been a continual theme of his leadership. He has made achieving growth a goal and has concurrently, permitted small reforms in the company. When we consider North Korea’s economy grew by 4% last year, this is not absurd as it seems. North Korea likes to struggle, it likes to resist, it was always willing to take some pain from sanctions, but there are limits. Kim couldn’t row back on that goal. He is young, he has to plan for a long term tenure and people in his country want a better life.

Nevertheless, challenges lie ahead. North Korea’s nuclear program has always served the purpose of being useful leverage in negotiation to get what it wants on its own terms. This overwhelmingly works to Kim’s advantage seen as he has all but completed the country’s capabilities in that regard. This means that if he is to give it up, there will be a catch, presumably a big one too. After the meeting with South Korean officials earlier in the week, they stated North Korea would be willing to give it up if “Security assurances” were given to the country. What does this mean? It’s vague and ambiguous. This could mean the withdrawal of American forces from South Korea completely, something which is likely to go down as a non-starter in Washington. Despite the fact that Trump has seemingly jumped at negotiations with an open mind, he is going to face considerable pressure from hardliners in Washington who will strive for him to give as little concessions as possible. The contradictions in this are visible when we see how the Republican Party has seethed at deals struck by Obama with Iran and Cuba. Trump himself even tried to even strike them down. So that in itself should be sobering.

So optimism or pessimism? If Trump really is the deal-maker he claims himself to be, then let’s hope he can drive a good bargain with Kim Jong-un which ultimately respects the interests of both America and North Korea. If he can do that, then I will have no choice to but to give him credit where credit is due. I believed his approach could never work and I criticized him for inflaming the situation. Of course, we have no tangible results to say it has “worked” yet, but, one thing is for sure is that Trump’s unpredictability and unwillingness to stick to any “conventional” rules has contributed, both directly and indirectly. His seemingly unguessable hints of conflict pushed South Korea to begin engaging the North and then before we know it, we’ve set out on the long road to peace.

Yet it doesn’t end there. His willingness to dive into visiting North Korea itself and meeting Kim Jong-un is huge, sweeping aside boundaries that were simply unimaginable to other American Presidents. That in itself is likely to yield something worthwhile. Whilst I still can never support someone who threatens “fire and fury” against another country in the United Nations General Assembly, or whilst I can never support someone who has been so vulgar in his rhetoric and general approach to everything, it is nevertheless the very fact that Trump is chaotic, that he cares so little for established precedents and acts like a raging bull in a China shop, is what ultimately makes him effective at times. Let’s be brutally honest, if Hilary were president, we wouldn’t be where we are now. When you see it in this light, you realize why many Americans supported him, even if what he stands for is morally repellent and based more times than not, on nonsense. Has the difference been made here? As he likes to say, “let’s wait and see“.