China and celebrity politics

Writing in the 1970s, the Italian sociologist Fransico Alberoni described celebrities as a “powerless elite”, because they did not possess authoritative or institutional power. Since then, the rise of a celebrity industry associated with expansion of the media, internet and entertainment industries, has changed celebrity culture beyond all recognition. Celebrities are still an elite, but they are no longer powerless.

As the lives and loves of celebrities have become ubiquitous in western popular culture, performers like Angelina Jolie, Bono and Beyoncé have acquired huge stores of cultural, economic and even political capital. Donald Trump, a celebrity businessman with no political experience, has shown it is even possible to ride the affordances of fame to within reach of the White House.

The American presidential election is a combination of soap opera and reality TV, covered by media enthralled by dramatic storylines, drawing on metaphors from sports and war, playing to a global audience on television and social media. As each day brings further revelations, insults and gaffes, pored over by a proliferating pundit class, the political process in the US looks increasingly like a made-for-TV production.

When the sixth plenary session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee opens in Beijing this month, the contrast could not starker. While elite politics receive abundant coverage in China’s media, we can be fairly sure there will be no intemperate tweets, personal attacks or unsavoury stories emanating from the meeting.

Unlike in the US, where electoral competition demands politicians embrace the media and entertainment industries, celebrity and elite politics have not, as yet, converged in China. It is unimaginable that any Chinese leader would play the sax on a late night chat show like Bill Clinton did, or dance with Ellen DeGeneres like Barack Obama, or hang out with the Spice Girls like Tony Blair (let alone be a frequent guest on shock jock Howard Stern’s radio show like Donald Trump).

Chinese officials prefer to follow a script that promotes the decorum and gravitas of office. They don’t do sit-down personal interviews or fraternize with performers trailing paparazzi photographers. And for all the Chinese government’s massive online presence, no one in the Politburo has a social media account.

Yet, while Chinese politics does not embrace the celebrity mechanism, China is far from immune to the seductions of fame. In a country that has long emphasized public restraint and traditional values, celebrity is big business and subtly pervasive.

Chinese and western celebrities are prominent in China, on billboards, magazines and social media. Chinese movie and pop stars are as glamourous, worshiped and wealthy as their western counterparts. But the Chinese celebrity industry’s balancing of serving popular tastes with political correctness, has resulted in a celebrity culture that is distinct from the west.

Chinese celebrities are expected to uphold certain standards of behaviour and act as positive role models for society. The triviality and excess surrounding celebrity lifestyles in the west are generally replaced with narratives of persistence, cultivation of talent and high standards of morality.

Celebrities may be akin to carnival performers, but in an orderly society the carnival is also ordered, with performers and audiences assigned distinct roles. Celebrity is conferred on people who generally conform to dominant social norms. China’s own celebrity CEO, Jack Ma, became rich and famous through hard work and perseverance, and his success acts as an example for others to emulate.

But, the commodification of individuals with talent and looks is not alien in China. From luxury cars, clothes and watches, Chinese celebrities endorse some of the world’s most glamourous brands. And many ordinary Chinese appear increasingly susceptible to the attractions of “DIY celebrity”.

Writing in their excellent 2011 book Online Society in China, scholars David Herold and Pete Marolt argued that Chinese internet users preferred anonymity, eschewing “performance” in favour of simply “living online”. Borrowing the words of Chinese media scholar, Hu Yong, the majority of people were “onlookers”, happy with their role as observers.

However, there are signs of a changing emphasis, from merely worshipping the stars to wanting to become one—or at least the truncated version of fame available to DIY celebrities.

It is a truism that anyone can become famous via the internet. Admittedly there are more examples of becoming infamous, symbolised in China by the cases of Furong Jiejie, Muzi Mei and Guo Meimei.

But nowadays there are examples of Chinese using the internet to seek fame and perhaps wealth: from the profusion of live-streaming apps like Ingkee and the crass stunts featured on video site Kuaishou, to more mundane expressions of “me-casting” manifest in public declarations of love, body challenges and China’s ongoing selfie craze.

While these trends can appear vulgar, they are mainly harmless modes of entertainment and self-expression. Banal as they are, they portend changes in the social mores of mainly younger people, challenging traditional values such as protecting face and public reticence.

The rise of individualism among the younger generation in China is well known. Among the expansion of subcultures and behaviours considered unbecoming by their parents, are changing expectations and attitudes. This includes feelings about public performance, mediatisation and celebrity.

There is little research on the social and political implications of these changes, but there are signs that the Chinese government is aware of the need to connect with younger people, including the vast expansion of e-government services and the professionalization of political communications.

Elite leaders have even taken tentative steps towards experimenting with the informalities common to politicians in the west; President Xi Jinping’s visit to a Beijing restaurant and sending a message on weibo among them. Yet, despite the fact that First Lady Peng Liyuan is a famous singer and fashion icon, it is fanciful to talk of the celebritization of Chinese politics.

As Chinese celebrity culture continues to mature and expand its reach, and positive attitudes toward fame become normalized among the young, it will become something that future governments may find it easier to adapt to rather than merely seeking to control. For now though, a Chinese version of The Donald remains agreeably far off.

China Daily piece here.


China deals with sporting failure

Legendary Italian coach Marcello Lippi was today announced as the new manager of the Chinese (men’s) national team. The second coming of now-twice former coach Gao Hongbo lasted less than a year, after a series of disappointing results in World Cup qualifying. The men’s team has not qualified for a World Cup since 2002 (its only appearance), when the squad was coached by the nomadic Serb Bora Milutinović, a specialist in wringing the most out of underperforming teams. Lippi is best known in Europe as the former Juventus and World Cup winning Italian national team coach. But in his later career, Lippi has steered Guangzhou Evergrande to three Chinese domestic titles and established the club as a major powerhouse in Asian competition (before handing over the reins to Felipe Scolari in 2014).

Lippi inherits a national team that is in the doldrums, having lost four of its last five games (three of them qualifiers). As national manager Lippi will not be able to call on the expensive foreign talent that has enlivened the Chinese Super League season just completed. As a Hall of Fame coach, and with Xi Jinping having declared his ambitions for the rejuvenation of Chinese soccer, Lippi will be expected to achieve significant improvements. The public mood after the humbling loss to Syria, a nation in the midst of terrible turmoil with a team ranked 114 at the time of the match, was one of derision and anger, which spilled onto the streets and was primarily directed at Cai Zhenhua, Head of the Chinese FA. Gao was sacrificed and Lippi ushered in.

The question of patriotic Chinese sports fans’ reaction to disappointment was raised in a different context earlier this year, when, by the standards of recent Games, the Chinese national team underwhelmed at the Rio Olympics. Team China brought home a “mere” 26 gold medals, the fewest gold medals since Atlanta in 1996 less than half the golds it secured in Beijing in 2008, despite taking its largest ever contingent of 411 competitors to Brazil. There were some inspiring performances by Chinese athletes, notably the underdog women’s volleyball team, which overcame early defeats to win the gold medal. This was an unfancied team relying on hard work and determination, led by “prodigal daughter” Coach Lang Ping, who had coached the US team to victory in Beijing in 2008, having starred as a player for the Chinese team three decades earlier. But other individual athletes and fancied teams in gymnastics and badminton under-performed. Such is the nature of elite sport, where the smallest dip in form or change in conditions or luck can make the difference between winning and losing.

Unlike the chronically feeble men’s soccer team, Chinese fans invariably have high expectations of their Olympic athletes. International sport has long been used as a vehicle for demonstrating national capabilities and spirit, and a means to generating national pride. During the Cold War, competing blocs used all means foul and fair to demonstrate the superiority of their political and economic systems. In those days a lacklustre medal tally was a matter of national shame. Instrumentally face-saving or not, the narrative that surrounded China’s Rio performance made much of the argument that nations that are confident in their sense of self do not need gold medals to externalise their worth. China’s re-emergence as an economic and world power, and global recognition of its remarkable development story, should rightly be a source of confidence vastly more important than Olympic medals.

If we take this narrative at face value, it would represent a healthy turning point in China’s relationship with sport. In grappling with the failure to meet expectations, the nation began to debate what sporting success actually means in more holistic terms, including sports as a vehicle for pushing individual boundaries, enjoying the thrill of participation and nurturing healthy lifestyles. Such an attitude would be a positive development, reducing the pressure on athletes in the academy system and at the elite level (athletes like Liu Xiang shouldn’t be expected to carry the weight of national pride in addition to the pressures of competition), boosting the attractiveness of participation and healthy lifestyles, which are crucial in a country facing increasing levels of obesity and other public health issues, and putting the focus back on the individual enjoyment of sport.

This message was powerfully delivered by swimmer Fu Yuanhui, in many ways the star of the Rio Olympics not named Phelps, Biles or Bolt. Interviewed on CCTV after a qualifying heat, Fu expressed delight and satisfaction at beating her own personal best. After all the hard training Fu expressed her pleasure at giving it her all and not worrying about her medal chances. Fu’s ebullient interview quickly went viral, with people around the world enjoying her refreshing humility, enthusiasm and pleasure in her sport. Her unfiltered demeanour stood in contrast to both tight-lipped, media-trained professional athletes and the constrained, some say robotic, image of other Chinese athletes. In terms of winning hearts and minds, Fu demonstrated how the power of attraction works best when it is organic and unplanned.

For all this, the Rio Games were not without reminders of the “thin skin” that blogger Han Han described ahead of the Beijing Games in 2008. Coverage of the opening ceremony parade was marred by CCTV cutting away from the Philippine contingent, an immature and undignified gesture prompted by a dispute that a few months later appears to have been resolved. The media and online reaction to swimmer Sun Yang’s spat with the Australian Mack Horton was similarly unedifying.

China will once again welcome the world in 2022, when Beijing and sites in neighbouring Hubei host the Winter Games. China is not a traditional Winter Olympics power (with the honourable exception of speed and figure skating) and medal winning will not be the focus. Instead, I hope it will be an opportunity to demonstrate the confidence of a great nation, manifest in Beijing’s historical gems and the scale and facilities of a 21st Century metropolis, as well as the warmth of the locals and the taste of northern cuisine. Communicating China’s openness and positivity is more important than winning medals. I reserve judgement on whether China’s attitude to its sports teams has really changed or is a reflection of greater confidence, but as Coach Lippi said, “I am optimistic, because I have to be”. Lippi’s first game in charge is a winnable home Qualifier next month against Qatar.

Is a “two child policy” enough?

The end of population control in the form of what is popularly known as China’s “one child policy”, was announced in October 2015. Although the number of permitted births always varied by geography and ethnicity, “one child policy” entered the lexicon and stuck. In the west it became a synonym for invasive and inhumane interventions by the state—which were almost entirely borne by women.

At the time the policy was adopted in 1979, China was emerging from the economic and social disaster of the Cultural Revolution. China was poor and population growth was seen as both a correlate of poverty and an obstacle to Deng’s nascent economic reforms.

In this context, population control measures were framed as a rational, indeed noble, effort to facilitate economic development. The number of births per women declined from 3 to 1.5 between 1980 and 2000, where the figure has remained, well below the required replacement rate.

Officials have said that the policy succeeded in limiting the Chinese population by over 400 million, although others argue that rising levels of education, urbanisation, and economic independence would have led to declining birth rates even without coercive policies. It is also now recognized that population controls have had unintended consequences, notably an extreme gender imbalance, a dangerous dependency ratio and the social issues faced by the “one child” generation.

The announcement in October 2015 that limitations would be relaxed and all married couples allowed two children, signalled the realisation that China’s population is ageing rapidly, the labour pool is shrinking and the current fertility rate is insufficient to support the pensions, health care, and social security needs of the dependent population.

The ratio of retirees to working-age people is 13 percent and rising quickly as boomers from the 1950s and 60s age. By 2030, China will have the largest population of old people, with the implications that has for sustained economic growth, international competitiveness and social welfare.

Population growth, rather than control, is now advanced as needed for the good of the country’s continued economic development. Encouragement of multiple births has been issued in various formats, and exhortations to have a second child can even be seen on billboards in certain locales.

Although the new policy was not made on the basis of women’s wellbeing, the relaxation of population policy has been interpreted as a positive development for women. It is, but it should be noted that it will do little to stop forced sterilisations and abortions for those who contravene the new regulations.

Population control policies became a symbol of the, often brutal, control of women’s bodies, as dramatized by the writer Ma Jian in his novel The Dark Road, a book that is well read in the west.

The novel describes the odyssey of family-planning fugitives Meili, Kongzi and their One Child Policy-compliant daughter Nannan as they escape officials with their fines, forced abortions and sterilizations.

Agonizing over the gender of her unborn babies (girls won’t do) and the consequences of getting caught with an out of plan child, Meili muses how her body belongs to her husband and her womb to the state.

With a second baby almost at full term, Meili is captured by a family planning squad. The male foetus named Happiness is forcibly aborted in an indelible scene of shocking brutality juxtaposed with the transactional nonchalance of the physician offering a knock-down price for the operation.

When another baby is born, and it turns out to be a girl, Kongzi sells her to a child begging racket. The family finally reaches Heaven, a “cancer village” recycling electronic waste, where Meili becomes pregnant again. Traumatized by her experiences she refuses to relinquish the baby until many months beyond the usual gestation period, finally giving birth to an alien-like thing mutated by poisonous e-waste.

The Dark Road is an inversion, or perversion, of the ‘natural order’, where Happiness is a murdered baby, Heaven is a cancer village, pregnant women are criminals and babies are produced for mutilation and the begging trade.

It is a dramatization, but it highlights important issues about women and their reproductive rights that are often neglected in the “rational” discussion about demographics and population growth statistics.

The economic reform era has witnessed the retreat of the state from many aspects of people’s lives. The danwei (work unit) no longer has a say in who people marry or where they can live. Freedom of movement, despite ongoing issues with hukou (household registration) reform, was one of the engines powering economic growth.

Women’s reproductive rights have been subject to state interventions since the inception of the PRC in 1949, when Mao’s exhortations led to rapid population growth. And while the current government’s “two child policy” is less restrictive, it continues to exert control over women’s bodies.

The response to the relaxation, which started in stages in 2013, has not led to a “baby boom”. A mere 13% of eligible couples took advantage of their second child rights in 2013. Like Singapore, Macau, Taiwan and Hong Kong, which have the lowest total fertility rates in the world, increasing affluence, education and economic pressures in China are disincentives to raising large families. Furthermore, without state provision of better childcare, subsidies for schooling and systematic health care, many families are unwilling or unable to consider raising multiple children.

More pertinently, the response to the relaxed restrictions demonstrates that people can be trusted to take “rational” personal decisions for themselves. At what point will the state decide to retreat from the most intimate social relations of all?

Reflections on my fellowship at the BBC

I started doing “external engagement work” as a postdoc, when I set up a blog to cover the 2012 elections in Taiwan (an experience I wrote about for Issues and Studies). As a result of this experience I started to receive periodic requests for media interviews. I continued to develop my online footprint through Twitter, editing the China Policy Institute blog (which subsequently evolved into a more sophisticated product featuring analysis by some of the world’s top experts) and convening another Taiwan blog to cover the 2016 elections.

Over time the more media I did the more opportunities presented themselves, both in terms of being asked for comment and writing op-eds. I came to see engaging the media as an important part of academic life. Academics create knowledge, but then share it with a tiny number of peers at conferences and in pay-walled journals. That strikes me as a terrible result all round. In the hope of stimulating discussion about external engagement in my own field of China studies, I published two articles in the China Quarterly on working with the media and using social media (forthcoming working paper version).

Through these activities in the past 5 years I developed an understanding of how print and digital media work, at least from the perspective of an academic seeking to engage in these activities. However, I had very little exposure to working with broadcast media, which is why I applied to the British Science Association (BSA) for a Media Fellowship. Thanks to support from the BSA and the University of Nottingham, I secured a placement working with the BBC for a month during the summer. My placement was with the BBC radio science unit, headed by Deborah Cohen, a journalist with a commitment to breaking down barriers between scholars and the media to the benefit of science communication at large. Continue reading

Can China become a soccer power?

A series of audacious player signings and investments in European clubs has put China’s soccer ambitions on the map. As soccer fans around the world are now aware, China has decided to become a soccer power and, as it usually does, is putting its money where its mouth is.

At home, the Chinese Super League has been reanimated and a huge amount of money earmarked for infrastructure, training facilities and expertise that China hopes will eventually improve the fortunes of the national team. At the same time, Chinese investors have been on a shopping spree across Europe, buying controlling stakes in clubs, notably in the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga.

The approach to becoming a soccer power has some similarities with other ambitious state-sanctioned projects, notably massive, rapid investment in infrastructure. The “build it and they will come” strategy has had mixed results. It served the manufacturing boom well, but it has also led to huge overcapacity in housing, steel and other sectors.

As with other somewhat nebulous ambitions (the Belt and Road, the Chinese Dream), the leadership has sketched out a vision to become a “major soccer power”, while the planning and implementation is largely left to government bureaus, provincial governments, state-owned enterprises and private businesses. With such an ambitious project, a lack of a concrete plan and a multiplicity of actors (often with their own motivations), things can go wrong.

Full article at SCMP here.

Fans, netizens and publics

We hear a lot about Chinese “netizens” in the media. Whether it is journalists marvelling at the huge size of the internet population, reporting the latest online vox pop, or discussing whether we should actually be using the term “netizen”, Chinese internet users are a frequently referenced demographic. For all the popular interest in them, there is little systematic research on how Chinese netizens behave, what their attitudes are, how they come together and what the implications are for Chinese society, both online and IRL (“in real life”). Focusing on netizens and their online communities, The internet and new social formation in China is a welcome addition to Chinese internet studies. Furthermore, in focusing largely on “fans”, it contributes a promising angle to the growing field of Chinese celebrity studies.

The underlying argument is that online fan communities have the potential to evolve into meaningful new “social collectivities” through the “transformation of fans to publics”. Drawing on some well-grounded theoretical antecedents (Castells, Bourdieu), the book employs a network approach to understanding how online communities form, expand and mutate. A major finding is that cyberspace does not merely replicate physical world forms of fandom, rather technological affordances influence how atomistic fans can become collective publics through a combination online and offline networking. A number of case studies are presented, all fascinating.

The most fully developed case study is that of Rear Window, which started as an online discussion board for movie fans in 1998. Zhang interviewed contributors in 2003 and spent years as a participant observer before carrying out follow up interviews a decade later. Although this earlier period in the development of the Chinese internet has taken on an innocent and nostalgic hue, the profile of Zhang’s sample in 2003—99% of her respondents were aged 18-35 and 97% had a college degree—is a reminder of how unequal access was before cheap smartphones and the popularization of the mobile internet.

Rear Window’s amateur enthusiasts contributed to innumerable forum discussions on the merits of individual movies, filmmaking and the industry, contributing to a “counter discourse” distinct from state and commercial preoccupations. The film buffs also mobilized their resources to organize “Private Movie Watchings”, networking with universities, malls and bars to secure space and equipment for collective viewings of art house, classic and foreign language films on DVD. This was community building in a physical space that cemented the links made online. Growing in scale, Rear Window came to the attention of the mass media which publicised the site, repurposed their content, reported on their activities (and wrote op-eds about the legalities of Private Movie Watchings). According to Zhang, it was this networking-led entry into the public consciousness that “turned the movie fans into a subaltern public” (p. 46), an idea she has developed in several prior publications.

When Zhang revisited the Rear Window contributors ten years on, many had leveraged their knowledge and enthusiasm for film, and the relationships (should we say guanxi?) established in the community, to become critics, playwrights, movie makers and directors. The internet had undergone major changes in this time too, and these changes were also partly responsible. The popularization of blogging—symbolized by the launch of Sina’s blog platform in 2005—precipitated a shift away from unheralded contributions on discussion boards to seeking substantial audiences, perhaps even becoming a famous blogger. The connection between blogging (and later, microblogging) and fame was explicit from the start: Sina’s blog platform was built on the popularity of celebrities like Xu Jinglei, Ai Weiwei and Han Han.

Nearly all the Rear Window alumni had their own blogs (as did a third of Chinese internet users at one point in time) and some of them became minor blog stars. Blogs, and then microblogging, spelt the end of the BBS golden age, but they were instrumental in propelling many individuals into the public consciousness. In the case of Rear Window, a network that was initiated in cyberspace and concretized through the accumulation of social capital via online and offline connections, Zhang argues that they helped transform a “subaltern public” into a “regular public.” One might logically ask what the implications of this transformation might be. The answer to that question awaits further study, but Zhang is convinced that “the politics of fandom publics is not democracy” (p. 134).

One further discussion, though embryonic, looks at how new technological affordances have reduced the distance between audiences and celebrities, making it possible for Chinese fans to experience (the illusion of) personal and reciprocal “relationships” with stars, via services like Weibo, Weixin or Fenda, the “ask-a-celebrity” mobile app that was recently banned. Zhang draws the tentative inference that people are no longer just “onlookers,” but members of a network or community drawn to the same “fan object.” This requires further investigation, but how fans and celebrities use the internet to interact is a fascinating question that Chinese celebrity studies is just starting to grapple with.

How China and Russia are reshaping the world

Just as I was settling down to read Power Politics: How China and Russia Reshape the World, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the UN-appointed tribunal that passes judgement on international maritime disputes, released its report on a case brought by the Philippines against Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. In a meticulous adjudication under the aegis of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (to which China is a signatory), the Hague ruling effectively found no historical or legal basis for Chinese claims to maritime territories within its own “nine-dash line”.

China has been busily reclaiming land and building up reefs to support its claims and install docking and landing facilities that could be used for military purposes. Immediately following the unequivocal ruling handed down by the international tribunal, which Beijing refused to participate in, Chinese President Xi Jinping dismissed its legitimacy and pledged that China and the Chinese people would not accept it. In more dramatic terms, Chinese media and Chinese netizens fulminated against the latest example of western mistreatment. China’s reaction to the Hague ruling came too recently to be included in the book, but its author would not be surprised by it. China, along with Russia, are singled out as two major threats to the existing “western way” of managing global affairs.

An accessible primer from the Realist perspective on international relations, the book is explicitly a study in power: rising power, declining power, power vacuums, power politics. The spectre of tragic great power politics looms large, while western “soft power”, it is argued, has run out of steam. Wijk argues that the west needs to face up to some uncomfortable truths. Among them, the realization that the “western way” is no longer as attractive or “powerful” as it once was; that “a diminished west will no longer be able to shape the world order in line with its own preferences” (p. 185). For the past 50 years that order has been defined by ostensibly global institutions like the UN, IMF and ICJ and the promotion of “universal values” like human rights and democracy. Financial crises, the failure of democracies to address long-term problems like climate change, and the loss of the moral high ground through military interventions have dented the west’s ability to co-opt, just as economic power has shifted to Asia.

Powers like Russia and China feel that they have been left out and marginalised by the “western way” and are questioning their place in it. In some cases they are actively challenging western norms and institutions—most obviously Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but also manifest in China’s AIIB, internet sovereignty, territorial claims in the East and South China Seas and the exertion of influence through economic engagement across the globe. Wijk argues that China and Russia are different from the west, with their notions of exceptionalism, memories of historical wrongs and the psychological need to restore injured national pride and status—to rediscover great power lost. Drawing, not always convincingly on Samuel Huntington (“in the East, the east Asian, Japanese and western civilizations are clashing” p. 37), Wijk argues that the use of power is conditioned by political and strategic cultures, and that Russian and Chinese strategic cultures are dangerous, manifest in a worrying combination of “assertiveness” and nationalism. If you fear these developments will lead to conflict, Wijk would concur: Conflict occurs along geopolitical “fault lines”, where, it is implied, ‘cultures clash’, and the fault lines between the EU, NATO and Russia, and between the US, its allies and China in the South China Sea are among the most dangerous.

The relationship between China and Russia is not much interrogated, and readers are left wondering whether it is collaborative or conflictual. Sino-Russian relations are complicated by historical legacies and mutual suspicion, and it may only be, in Bobo Lo’s memorable phrase, an “axis of convenience”, but surely the relationship between two powers each described as challenging the “western way” is of interest? Is Central Asia, where the former Soviet states are rapidly been drawn into China’s economic orbit, a fault line? Or should China and Russia be conceived as partners in their shared insistence on non-interference, apparent rejection of some “universal values” and shared sense of western ambivalence if not hostility towards them?

This book is nominally about Russia and China, but its message is squarely aimed at a western readership. Westerners, it is implied, have grown complacent with the dominance of the “western way”. But, as good Realists know, power politics may lie dormant, but it is always there. With the relative decline of western power creating a vacuum filled by the rising power of nations that do not necessarily buy into the “western way”, the conditions are ripe for a return to 19th Century behaviours to come back to the fore. Where others, certainly China, see a more equitable world resulting from a diversity of nations participating more energetically in global affairs, for Realists multi-polarity means instability. With this in mind, Wijk has some sensible, albeit common, recommendations for western governments. The west needs a more pragmatic and less normative foreign policy, and to seek appropriate compromises and overlapping interests when dealing with China and Russia. Ultimately, however, the message is a predictably Realist one: the west must not stint on compiling hard power as a bulwark against challenges to the “western way”.

As a contemporary, introductory text on the Realist world view, this is a brief and breezy read, with the pros and cons that entails. Chapters on the sources and uses of national power are straightforward where other texts get bogged down in theoretical expositions. There is some interesting speculation about space, the polar regions and cyberspace, fields where power politics may soon start to play out. It is, however, a partial and pessimistic world view. The “western way” has a huge reservoir of “soft power”, and the potential for outright conflict in the South China Sea is, in my view, exaggerated. Despite troubling signs, China has not withdrawn from global institutions or world trade, it is integrated in regional fora and involved in tackling major global issues like climate change. In the Chinese case, “assertiveness” is not the precursor to the outright rejection or challenge to the world order. However, its “national rejuvenation” has changed the calculus for its neighbours and other countries that must acknowledge (even if they don’t like them) China’s interests and formulate a sensible response.