Nightmarch by Alpa Shah – among India’s Maoist guerrillas

An anthropologist’s nuanced account of life with India’s revolutionary movement, including her 250-km trek, disguised as a male soldier, with a rebel platoon

Between 2008 and 2010, the anthropologist Alpa Shah spent 18 months as a participant observer in India’s largely rural state of Jharkhand. She lived among adivasis, tribal peoples outside the caste system who count among the communities most neglected by the government. Jharkhand is also one of the heartlands of India’s Maoist insurgency, a civil war that in 2006 the country’s prime minister identified as the “biggest internal security threat to the Indian state”. For decades, Indian politicians and commentators have argued about the country’s longstanding Maoist war: are insurgents ideological terrorists fixated on an outdated creed, or are they desperate rebels with a cause, forced to take up guns by state brutality? Dissatisfied by this polarised debate, Shah decided to immerse herself in the communities who ...

Imperial Twilight by Stephen R Platt review – lessons for today from the opium war

A beautifully written and expert account of western aggression in 19th-century China casts light on the Chinese reaction to Trump

While campaigning for the US presidency, Donald Trump talked tough on China. He accused the country of “raping” the US economically: its trade policies and currency manipulation were allegedly perpetrating “one of the greatest thefts in the history of the world”. In March, Trump put his money where his mouth was, announcing up to $60bn of tariffs on Chinese imports. The US, the White House proclaimed, was “strategically defending itself” from “economic aggression”. Within hours, the People’s Republic responded by announcing its own tariffs on key US exports: pork, apples, soybeans. The rhetoric of public opinion in China was revealing of the deeper history of this trade row. Chinese editorialists promptly linked Trump’s action back to 19th-century western aggressions, and specifically to the collisions that dragged China violently into a ...

The Killing Season; The Army and the Indonesian Genocide reviews – timely and forceful orthodoxy demolished

Two books crush the official version of 1960s anti-leftist massacres in Indonesia, implicate the US and UK and revise how we define genocideTwo books, by Geoffrey Robinson and Jess Melvin, reveal why one of the worst blood-lettings of the 20th century took place and who was responsible

Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary The Act of Killing follows a cabal of ageing hoodlums around the city of Medan, in north-west Indonesia. Between 1965 and 66, they had enthusiastically joined militias across the country that garrotted, stabbed and mutilated to death at least half a million suspected leftists. Almost half a century later, they bragged openly about their exploits to Oppenheimer, for state propaganda since the late 60s has lionised the killers as heroes, and demonised the victims as godless communist traitors to the nation.

This polemically cinematic film – the first of two he made about the massacres – has transformed awareness of ...

The Souls of China by Ian Johnson – the resurgence of religion after Mao

The author meets Taoist musicians, rebel Christians and celebrity Zen Buddhists – but communism is the official faith In the spring of last year, Xi Jinping – China’s paramount leader – presided over a national conference on religion. He seized the opportunity to declare Chinese Communist party (CCP) authority over questions of faith. Religious matters, Xi announced, are of “special importance” to the CCP: “We should guide and educate the religious circle and their followers with the socialist core values.” Believers must “dig deep into doctrines and canons that are in line with social harmony and progress, and favourable for the building of a healthy and civilised society, and interpret religious doctrines in a way that is conducive to modern China’s progress and in line with our excellent traditional culture”. Members of the CCP, he further emphasised, must remain “unyielding Marxist atheists, consolidate their faith, and bear in mind ...

The Souls of China by Ian Johnson – the resurgence of religion after Mao

The author meets Taoist musicians, rebel Christians and celebrity Zen Buddhists – but communism is the official faith In the spring of last year, Xi Jinping – China’s paramount leader – presided over a national conference on religion. He seized the opportunity to declare Chinese Communist party (CCP) authority over questions of faith. Religious matters, Xi announced, are of “special importance” to the CCP: “We should guide and educate the religious circle and their followers with the socialist core values.” Believers must “dig deep into doctrines and canons that are in line with social harmony and progress, and favourable for the building of a healthy and civilised society, and interpret religious doctrines in a way that is conducive to modern China’s progress and in line with our excellent traditional culture”. Members of the CCP, he further emphasised, must remain “unyielding Marxist atheists, consolidate their faith, and bear in mind ...

The Cultural Revolution on Trial by Alexander Cook review – a sensational moment in Chinese history

Cook’s timely account chronicles the Gang of Four episode and China’s thwarted drive for de-Maoification China’s civil society has suffered badly in the political crackdown of the last four years: journalists are stifled by ever-tightening constraints; intellectuals are nervous of even saying the president’s name in company, for fear of being seen as denigrating the cult of “Uncle Xi”. Above all, the Chinese Communist party (CCP) has rained down blows on the rule of law. Legal personnel have been held for months in “black” prisons without access to counsel and been shackled, tortured, their family members harassed. On 14 January this year, China’s chief justice aggressively emphasised that the law was subservient to party writ: “We should resolutely resist erroneous influence from the west: ‘constitutional democracy’, ‘separation of powers’ and ‘independence of the judiciary’. We must make clear our stand and dare to show the sword.” The trial was ...

Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World by Jeremy Friedman review – rethinking history

A landmark study shows that the bipolar conflict was a myth: the US, Russia and China all battled for influence across the globe

In 1990, as a surprised world emerged from the cold war, the Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer expressed his fears at the passing of the bipolar world order. For the 45 years that the United States and Soviet Union had stalemated each other across the battleground of Europe, he argued, terror of mutually assured destruction had more or less kept the peace. But the fall of the Soviet Union from superpower status might well bring back the “untamed anarchy” of the pre-1945 world.

Mearsheimer was substantially right about what the future held. Through the 1990s, the emergence of ultra-nationalisms tore parts of the old communist world apart. But his analysis of the cold war balance of power was less convincing – a glance back at history ...