Wuhan and China: the Pandemic and its Past

China’s history presents an interesting counterpoint to the West, revealing as much about our prejudices as another’s past. Often presented, from a Western perspective, as a place with continuous history until Western intervention in the form of the Opium Wars and Communist ideology, it is intriguing to see how China presents its own history in political situations. Does it return to this supposed stability to prove its historic greatness, as Britain does with the World Wars? Or, instead, does it focus on the future, using its technological shifts to ignore aspects of the past, such as Mao’s famines, or the 1931 Central China Flood, unknown inside and outside China but the cause of over two million deaths? As Dr. Chris Courtney, who has researched the Flood, was keen to emphasise when answering these questions in our podcast Dead Current, it is often hard to gain access to these histories given the Communist Party’s policy of preventing historians’ archival access or the liberty to criticise. Dr. Courtney’s claim for the need to dismantle the monolithic historical narrative that the Party promotes feels relevant to all strands of history, but especially the construction of Wuhan during the pandemic. 

Aerial view of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province. (Credit: sleepingpanda, via Shutterstock.)

Of course, we could not interview Dr. Courtney without relating his specialism of Wuhan to the current global pandemic. Wuhan is a vibrant city; an industrial and financial hub with a vast cultural heritage, serving briefly as China’s war-time capital in both 1927 and 1937. The Wuchang Uprising in 1911 – which catalysed the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, starting the Xinhai Revolution – occurred in the Wuchang District of Wuhan. Yet, its spotlight on the global stage roots the pandemic in its wet markets.

Wet markets are not unique to Wuhan or China. Spread across much of Asia, the name comes from how perishable goods are sold, in contrast to dry markets’ electronics or clothes. Whilst the food in wet markets may not always resemble a local farmers’ market, they have more similarities to these than the health code violation they are presented as. When discussing this with Dr. Courtney, it was clear that there needs to be an acknowledgement that food practices in China are not perfect – the 2002 SARS outbreak began in Guandong’s food industry. However, as he emphasised, this should not allow a return to racist stereotypes. Passively accepting these concepts can lead to a reinforcement of racist stereotypes about China’s eating patterns from the twentieth century. 

Our food patterns reflect our history. For example, many in Britain find eating dogs abhorrent; biologically edible, their role as our ‘best friend’ means they are not, to use Poon’s term, ‘culturally edible’. Likewise, at the beginning of the twentieth century, few in China ate beef, as oxen played a central role in agriculture. Yet, as industry rose and agricultural techniques shifted, so that someone would not be spending all day with one animal, the taboo no longer exists and China’s beef consumption per capita has risen to rates equal to Britain or the USA. 

These shifting food patterns emphasise the mutability of what is deemed acceptable to eat, and how it is not a universal standard, but a reflection of personal history. Criticism can be made to the stalling in China’s post-SARS food reforms, but this should not be couched in racist rhetoric, which is a sign of ignorance that weakens the argument.

To hear more about how the Chinese Communist Party utilises history, how this compares to Britain, and how Covid-19 reflects and is changing this, listen to our new podcast with Dr. Chris Courtney, Durham University’s Assistant Professor in Modern Chinese History, available on Spotify on Dead Current.

Eleanor Williams-Brown, Senior Editor, History in Politics

South Africa and Apartheid’s Enduring Legacy

Apartheid, literally defined as ‘apartness’ or ‘separateness’ in Afrikaans, refers to the policy of enforced racial segregation that defines the history of modern South Africa. Spanning from 1948 to 1994, when the National Party was in power and put into practice the culture of ‘baasskap’ or white supremacy, the national programme of apartheid forced black and white citizens apart for nearly fifty years. The first law, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, served as the forerunner for later legislation which sought to prevent interracial relationships and remove the political rights of black citizens. All public facilities, including hospitals and transportation vehicles were segregated; however, the effects of apartheid split up families and displaced them from their homes.

A sign enforcing racial segregation in a bayside area, South Africa, 1970s. (Credit: Keystone via Getty Images)

However, whilst the political doctrine of apartheid and its segregationist ideology ended in 1994, culminating in the election of Nelson Mandela as the President of South Africa, its socio-economic legacy extends into the present day. The apartheid economy was tailored to appeal to, and overwhelmingly benefit white citizens, and as a nation of significant inequality, the after-effects of enforced segregation still pervade twenty-first century discourses. This economic legacy of apartheid is still palpable within modern South Africa, which continues to be defined by the segregationist policies of the late twentieth century. Today, black citizens, compared to their white counterparts, arguably remain somewhat disadvantaged in the national economy and the opportunities afforded to them. As the Economic Freedom Fighters, a South African left-wing political party emphasised in 2013, ‘political freedom without economic emancipation is meaningless.’ Statistical evidence supports the party’s observation, citing that in 2011, 54% of Africans compared to less than one percent of white citizens lived in poverty, attesting to the wider culture of division which had served as the central bastion of political authority. 

Even in the realm of education – particularly pertinent given the notable involvement of students within the anti-apartheid movement – the effect of segregation is demonstrable in the twenty-first century. Under the National Party, the funding of white schools was greater than that of black schools by tenfold, meaning that historical inequalities have become so deeply embedded in the framework of South Africa’s education system, that they are perpetuated nearly thirty years after the dissolution of apartheid. From 2015 to 2019, the school funding in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, one of the lowest-income communities in the nation, fell by a further 15%. What this evidence highlights is that whilst the official dogma of segregation is no longer directly involved in the fabric of the nation, the ghost of apartheid remains a ubiquitous element of life in South Africa, carving out an enduring and reprehensible modern socio-economic legacy. 

Maximus McCabe-Abel, President, History in Politics

Recycling Political Establishments?

The announcement made by Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019 proclaiming his candidacy for a fifth presidential term ignited an ocean of furious Algerians opposing the monotonous and stagnant regime under his rule. Since Algeria’s independence in 1962, the nature of its political system under Bouteflika’s neo-patrimonial and authoritarian rule led to a disruption of the country’s social contract resulting in a loss of legitimacy for its rulers. Algerian protestors peacefully took to the streets against Bouteflika’s bid, the pressure placed by the Hirak movement alongside the military led to the resignation of Bouteflika, restoring a sense of hope and new beginnings for the Algerian people. The resignation of Bouteflika allowed for the disclosure of the profound fractures within the Algerian organization but also led to uncertainty between political actors on how to progress in a post-Bouteflika regime. 

The goals of the Hirak had endured a rancorous end as the country’s military leadership rebuffed any additional concessions, overlooking all calls necessary for an essential transition period. Algeria’s political establishment instead, marshalled propaganda and authoritarianism  to force the presidential elections in December 2019, resulting in the presidency of former Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Algeria has continued to struggle politically over the past two years with the Hirak movement gradually losing momentum, political stability still being seen to be lacking in the country as a vicious cycle of tainted political actors continually suspend urgently needed political and economic reforms. The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened the economic and political struggles of the country, potentially entering a state of multifaceted chaotic crisis, one would not be surprised to see the character of Algeria during the Arab Spring being brought back to life in upcoming years as the people’s needs are dismissed by Algeria’s political elite. (or something like this) 

Painted portrait of Abdelaziz Bouteflika. (Credit: Abode of Chaos, via Flickr)

The Hirak has become irrevocably divided as groups no longer share consistent socio-political aspirations, most notably the divide between the new-reformist camp. The internal weaknesses of the Hirak have meant that there has been a failure of agenda establishment regarding what exactly it is the movement seeks to achieve. Dialogue between the Hirak is a necessary channel to any form of success yet it is overdue, unless Algeria faces an existential threat that would push the system to engage collectively it seems there will be no progression for its political and economic placement.

Despite the Hirak not having achieved its major goals the opposition movement has sparked a genuine desire and need for political and social progression; however, this may take years to attain, and time is not on Algeria’s side given its serious economic and political challenges. The abandonment of Algeria by the international community has further complicated matters since 2019, Algeria is a regular when it comes to favouring the status-quo and may very well reject any interference with their internal affairs. However, the international community could afford the country a course of internal dialogue or aid the Hirak with its organizational process via encouraging greater civil and political freedoms. Algeria may not be of priority for the Biden-Harris administration, nonetheless, hand in hand with its recently reinforced relations with European governments the United States have a greater potential to revive a collective effort towards a transition period for Algeria. The June 12th snap election has not instigated any meaningful change so far with the majority of the population even boycotting the election as the military remains in control. Although it would be precarious to call for radical and instant changes it is necessary that Algeria gradually works on reciprocally beneficial reforms for both the opposition and the system.

Lydia Benaicha, History in Politics Contributor

How did the British rule Hong Kong?

Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 to 1997. How it was actually run is rarely discussed, especially nowadays. Let’s look at some key features of the British administration in the early 20th century (1900 – 1941) before it was captured by the Japanese. 

The first point is that government in this period was mainly led by the executive branch, i.e. the Governor. The Governor was the president of councils and had the right to appoint and dismiss members of the legislative and executive council. Governor-led government secretaries made and proposed all bills and policies, while councils played merely consultative and not binding roles. Ultimately, legislation was proposed, approved and passed by the executive branch. Then it was ‘rubber-stamped’ by the legislative council.

The executive branch also had enormous power spanning a vast range of areas. The Governor exercised tremendous judicial powers by having the power to dismiss and appoint judges and grant amnesty to prisoners. Being the Commander-in-chief of the British force in Hong Kong, the Governor was also in charge of military and foreign affairs. There was no separation of powers for smooth administration. It is fair to say that the government was led by the executive and was a ‘one branch band’.

Secondly, and a result, the government chronically lacked legitimacy due to the nature of the British colonial government. At that time, 98% of the population were Chinese and only 2% were foreigners. Also, it was the early years of the British government officially taking over the whole administration. It is expected that local Chinese did not trust the British colonial government. What is more, the reason the British government occupied Hong Kong is that China lost a war against the British. In the minds of the Chinese in Hong Kong, the British were enemies that had invaded their motherland; simply put, some Chinese in Hong Kong hated the British administration. 

The local Chinese did not feel that the Governor cared about them. The Letters patent, Royal instructions and Colonial Regulations guaranteed the Governor’s ruling power. This means that he was not empowered by the general public. The Governor was also nominated by, thus answerable to, the British Prime Minister, and not the people. It was simply impossible for a local Chinese to relate to or feel represented by the government. 

Nor were British administration willing to let locals participate in the governance in any meaningful sense. Elections were only held in one council, the Urban Council, and only for 2 of the 13 seats. It was also hard for local Chinese to actually be inside the administration, as shown by the lack of Chinese personnel. Local Chinese had no representation in the government who could voice their demands. Officials were usually British merchants. The civil service was also monopolised by British people with key positions all occupied by British people. 

Front Street, Hong Kong, 1900. Credit: R. Y. Young

The low legitimacy of the British colonial administration led to riots and strikes in the early years. For example, there was the Seamen’s Strike in 1922 and the Guangdong Hong Kong General Strike in 1925. The British administration also suffered ineffective implementation of policies as the local Chinese simply did not support the policies. For instance, the local inhabitants in the New Territories firmly resisted the UK’s Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. In 1923, they strongly resisted the policy regulating the building of houses. All these incidents forced the British administration to come up with new measures to maintain peace and order. 

The first measure was indirect ruling featuring control. Western education was carried out and local Chinese had to learn English. The second measure was indirect ruling featuring conciliation. Small groups of influential Chinese elites and businessmen were allowed to participate in politics to smooth tensions regarding the lack of Chinese representatives. For instance, Mr Chow Shouson, an influential Chinese man, was a consultant and mediator for the government. The government also placed heavy emphasis on these people’s opinions as they understand the local culture better. The local Chinese’s resentment towards western officials was mitigated in this way. The government also set up channels to listen to the needs of the local Chinese. For example, in 1926, Heung Yee Kuk was set up to deal with affairs in the New Territories. The British colonial government hoped that the local Chinese would feel valued and their disobedience would reduce. Other conciliatory measures were implemented, with permission given for firecrackers to be set off in the New Territories during the Lunar New Year as one illustration of how the British administration would avoid meddling in the Chinese traditional lifestyle. In addition, all male indigenous residents were allowed to own a piece of land in the New Territories, another measure by the British administration to please the local Chinese. 

Hong Kong Waterfront c1910. Credit: Mee Fong Studio

One final and striking feature of the early British colonial administration is that most measures discriminated against local Chinese. Discrimination was serious within the government. As mentioned above, local Chinese had no representation in the government as officials were usually foreigners. In the civil service, British civil servants had higher salaries and better benefits compared to Chinese civil servants of the same rank. 

In socio-economic policies, discrimination was equally clear. For example, the Peak District Reservation Ordinance restricted local Chinese from living in the Peak District which had a cooler temperature and excellent views of the city. Clubs such as The Hong Kong Club and Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club only served whites. Perhaps most strikingly, English was the only official language and the legal system was all in English. As a result, local Chinese would be greatly disadvantaged in trials as they could not even understand the language. It is shown that most policies were highly discriminating against local Chinese. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena, History in Politics Writer

The Painful Struggle for Transparency in British Politics


Dominic Cummings’ breath-taking appearance at the joint session of the Health and Social Care Committee and the Technology Committee in the last week of May was one of the most revealing insights into the inner workings of Westminster on record. The combination of blunt personal remarks and detailed descriptions of the Government’s strategy posed a stark contrast to the historical veil of secrecy that has guarded British governance for over a half a century. 

The culture of secrecy was heavily embedded in Britain for the duration of the second half of the 20th century, stemming from the infamous Official Secrets Acts, and favoured a system of non-disclosure. There was no right to information from public bodies, and without action from Parliament the disclosure of information was left to the will of the executive – clearly an unhappy system. 

The notion that open government is better government is well regarded and is a mantra that should be followed by governments worldwide. Not only to avoid serious abuses of power or violations of human rights, but also to ensure that proper daily governance is in operation with a key contemporary example being the scandal over the procurement of PPE for the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dominic Cummings (Credit: Reuters, via BBC)

Cummings himself has acknowledged the importance of transparency in government numerous times, often stating it in his committee appearance, aligning himself with the general trend since the turn of the century. Following the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act under the Blair administration, the public now have a right to information and can make requests for disclosures. 

This drastic change in the British attitude towards transparency was crucial in kickstarting a trend favouring openness, with the aim that more would be done to advance transparency in the future. However, what has followed can be seen as a pushback against the change started under New Labour, most recently the proposed plans to reform judicial review, which is a key tool for government accountability in the UK.

Whilst Cummings’ appearance can be seen as a signifier that the attitude in Westminster is still tilting towards openness and not secrecy, it is important not to overstate its significance. Cummings’ testimony could still appropriately be dismissed as the fulfilment of personal vendettas. However, it may lead to the development of an expectation by Parliament to have these types of hearings, upon which significant media attention is granted and provides the political incentive for their occurence.

Any further development of transparency will require significant support and demand from the electorate, which due to other current crises seems unlikely to arise any time soon, notably due to the upheavals of Brexit and coronavirus. However, scandals which showcase the importance of transparency are always in good supply and will help to maintain at least the current status quo in terms of openness. All that is needed is a good opportunity and some excess political power to encourage further serious reform of transparency.

Cummings’ appearance, the biggest since Rupert Murdoch’s during the phone hacking scandal, has reminded the public and press of the power of Select Committees. This has emboldened the theme of transparency in British politics whilst this level of access would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. The Select Committee appearance serves as a strong reminder of what the British public now expects in regard to governmental transparency, even if a similar appearance is unlikely to occur in the near future.

Aidan Taylor, History in Politics Contributor

The Yorkshire Ripper Investigation: a Total Disaster, from A Feminist Perspective

In memory of Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, Jayne McDonald, Jean Jordan, Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach, Marguerite Walls, Jacqueline Hill.

Even if you did not live in the 1980s, you have certainly heard of the Yorkshire Ripper. He was a serial killer in the UK active between 1975 to 1980 who murdered 13 women and attempted to murder 7 more. It was a real shock for people at that time that the police could not catch the perpetrator for over five years. It was also a shock that the police caught him on a regular patrol because of a traffic offence, entirely based on luck. It was an even bigger shock that it was later revealed that the police actually interviewed him 9 times and did not follow up on him. Some people blamed this total disaster on the insufficient experience of the police at that time, after all the concept of a ‘serial killer’ was still new in British crime. Some blamed the inefficient corporation between the police branches as by 1974, many small boroughs amalgamated with the county and this led to the loss of lots of knowledge regarding the local communities.

40 years later, Netflix re-examined the police investigation closely and a documentary series was made. It is revealed that the biggest reason behind this total disaster was not because of those mentioned above. In fact, one of the biggest reasons was the police force’s bias and stereotypes against women that misdirected their investigation. In this article, based on the materials in the Netflix series, it is analysed that the inequality in mindset and planning of the police force had led to the investigation being a total failure. 

Officers search for the body of Jacqueline Hill, one of Sutcliffe's victims. (Credit: Getty Images)

Inequality in the mindset 

One obvious inequality in mindset against women was the heavy bias and stereotypes based on by the police force throughout the whole investigation. Starting from the first victim, Wilma Mccan, the police force was trapped by the stereotype that the murder were chasing sex workers. They became convinced that the Ripper was targeting sex workers and the national attention became focused on the spate of murders with the first killing of a woman who was not a sex worker, deemed by the police and the media to be an ‘innocent’ victim due to her ‘higher moral standing’. In police reports, it is revealed that the police force was indeed heavily fixed with these prejudices. For example, the police force had generalised victims as ‘prostitutes’ or women with ‘loose morale’, even though subsequently it is discovered that there was no basis for these assumptions and that some of the early victims were in fact not prostitutes. 

The police force are criticised for basing their whole investigation’s focus and direction on the assumption that the victims the murderer targeted were prostitutes. The categorisation of the murderer as a prostitute killer drove the investigation into the wrong path as they led to the police failing to realise that the Ripper did not only target prostitutes, even though most of his victims were such, largely because of the circumstances in which the Ripper killed his victims. They failed to realise that he chose to kill prostitutes because they were more vulnerable. This had further led to the later inefficient in narrowing down suspects and evidence. The police force also dismissed and missed out on important survivors and witnesses that may help identify the Ripper as they did not fit the ‘prostitute type’. One of the survivors, Olive Smelt, was not a sex worker, and was dismissed by the police when she suspected that the person who attacked her was the Ripper. She could have helped significantly as she remembered features of the Ripper. 

There was another inequality in mindset shown throughout the investigation. The unequal, conservative mindset that danger prevention’s primary responsibility is on women was shown in developing prevention policies by the police force. This conservative mindset refers to the unequal, way heavier focus on women’s responsibility to protect themselves. Under a conservative education system, a strong weight was placed on teaching women to protect themselves, to not go out alone at night, to not wear revealing clothes, to watch their drinks, etc. As to the education of the other gender, there was not much to teach them to respect others. When something bad happens, the basic instinct is that the victim did not do enough, or that she ‘invited’ the assaults. In the later stage of the investigation, when the police finally started to realise that all women are targets of the Ripper, instead of just those they termed ‘prostitutes’, these conservative mindsets and methods were employed into safety policies development. For example, the police tried to place a curfew on women which included instructing them not to go out late at night alone. What the police did not realise is that these stereotypes and biases had in fact normalised attacks on women. 

Past and present feminists asked: Why are women told to protect themselves? Why shouldn’t they go out at night? Why are we told to do more when we are not the ones doing the killings or raping? Why no one told man not to rape or kill? I believe that had the police force questioned themselves with these questions, they would very likely have been on the right track since the very beginning. And there would have been less victims. Such regulatory behaviours are still placed upon women, the onus of their personal safety being on them. 

Inequality in human resources allocation 

The last unequal treatment against women can be seen in human resources allocation within the police force. The majority involved in the investigation were male. All personale in key positions overseeing the investigation and operation were male. Women’s perspectives were not respected or even introduced into the investigation. The situation was not fully understood and has led to the investigation being inefficient. 


The biases and stereotypes against women and particularly sex workers were heavily relied upon during the investigation. The male domination of the investigation and operation reveals that a balanced viewpoint, which would have greatly assisted the investigation, was not present. This has led to wrong investigation directions and the lack of inefficiency in understanding the situation. All in all, the unequal mindset and planning of the police force was one of the main reasons that the investigation was a total disaster. 


In face of the unequal treatment and the police force’s incompetence, women at that time started realising that the incompetence of the police force will not lead to the capture of the Ripper. They knew that if they keep on relying on the police force in protecting them, they will never be safe and their lives will never be back to normal. They could not take it anymore. 

Thus, women started to unite together and there was feminist protests, debates and women’s self defence classes and teams all around the city and campuses. For example, there was the ‘Reclaim the Night’ protest on the 12th of November 1977, organised by the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, to protest against the curfew on women and generally, male violence against women. Finally, women took the matter of protecting themselves into their hands and stopped replying on those who basically “allowed” the Ripper to commit more murders. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena

The Politics of the Past: How Divergent Interpretations of History Shape East Asian Diplomatic Relations in the Present

David Cameron’s refusal to remove his poppy for his 2010 visit to China was revealing of a stark contrast in the significance granted to history in politics between himself (and the British political establishment as a whole) and his hosts. Whilst history has often played the role of a footnote to contemporary politics in the UK – as reflected by the severe lack of meaningful authority being granted to historians in any government department barring the Foreign Office, and even then only recently – it is central to the national self-portrayal of the Chinese nation. The ‘Century of Humiliation’ narrative that plays such a pivotal role in the story of the nation, as painted by the Chinese Communist Party, is one that the West would do well to take more notice of. Meanwhile, in Japan and Korea, the legacy of the Japanese colonial project looms large in contemporary relations. Perhaps as the ‘victors’ of modern history it is easy to relegate the past to that which went before. In Asia, where the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were ones of humiliation and soul-searching, it is impossible to simply sequester the past – it is intricately bound to the politics of the present.

China’s relations with the West underwent a radical shift in the Great Divergence of the nineteenth century, as European powers and the United States came to dominate the globalising world order. The reversal in fortunes suffered by the Qing Empire and, later, the modern Chinese state, has served to inform Chinese foreign policy and education ever since. Chairman Mao linked the Japanese imperialism of the early twentieth century to the Opium Wars of the nineteenth, and the same wars were used to justify Communist China’s ‘reaction’ against their Western oppressors. The Chinese national imagining has therefore come to be defined in opposition to, and in competition with, a West that remains stained by its past, a point of nuance that David Cameron failed so visibly to grasp in 2010, and one that continues to underlie the diplomatic fallacy that we are able to negotiate any sort of equal standing with the Chinese government. A competitive national consciousness has been fostered that means that ‘the West’ will always be cast as the natural point of comparison for China’s past failures and current successes, leaving them and the likes of the UK at polar ends of a dichotomy that western governments, until very recently, have failed to fully grasp.

A Nationalist officer guarding women prisoners likely to be comfort women used by the Communists, 1948.
(Credit: Jack Birns, The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images)

Elsewhere in East Asia, the memory of the Japanese military’s ‘comfort women’, who were drawn from across the Empire through the course of the Second World War and forced into what can only be described as sexual slavery, retains a pervasive political potency. The majority of these women were Korean and though estimates vary, they seem to have numbered in at least the tens, possibly hundreds of thousands. Indeed, such a range in estimates comes as a result of the topic’s controversial nature in the context of the countries’ poor diplomatic relations in recent years. The plight of the comfort women and the allocation of responsibility for the crimes against them has come to represent a clearly drawn battle line between the two countries – Japanese nationalists, the recently departed Shinzo Abe amongst them, seeking to play down the extent of official sanction for such atrocities, whilst Koreans pursue justice not only for the victims, but for the Korean nation as a whole. In order for the nations’ relations to reach some level of normality, the governments of both must look to find a compromise between what are currently polarised memories of the Japanese Empire. Forgetting those years is a luxury that only the oppressors may take, yet it is clear that in Korea too a way must be found for the nation to move on from the scars of their past.

Both of these cases demonstrate the historical dimension of diplomacy in the East Asian political sphere. A history of ruptures, clean breaks and colonial exploitation has bred national imaginings in which the traumas of the past play a central role. This significance is one that can be easily underestimated by those of us in the West for whom history has taken on an almost trivial status, as a backdrop to the present. Cameron underestimated it and it appears that our current leaders are also misunderstanding the inescapable threat posed by a Chinese leadership that places itself firmly in the context of historical competition with Western ‘imperialists’. Such cultural ignorance not only offends those whose culture is being ignored, but also hamstrings those guilty of that ignorance. Without a clear understanding of the other side’s thinking, diplomatic blunders like the poppy controversy are not likely to go anywhere anytime soon.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer

10 Movies Showing the Evolution of Gender Equality in Hollywood

People say that films are sometimes depictions of the society and time in which they were made. This is especially applicable for society’s view of women. How particular films depict women really shows how people at that time embrace feminist ideas, and more generally, women. In this article, I am going to introduce 10 movies that really show how audiences, or Hollywood as an institution, think about female characters in films. 

Legally Blonde (2001) 

The first film is ‘Legally Blonde’, starring Reese Witherspoon as the lead character. Most people watched this film as a teenager, especially women aspiring to become lawyers. Many would say that this is clearly a feminist film, and a huge step for Hollywood to depict woman as strong, independent and critically minded. 

Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde (2001). (Source: IMDB)

However, when we pay closer attention to the details of the film, we clearly see that the film is actually filled with stereotypes about women. For example, women like the colour pink, chasing love being the main goal in a woman’s life and investing in fashion and beauty as the second mind goal in a woman’s life. Although the film did try to attack the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype, the other stereotypes about women demonstrates that audiences and Holloywood depict women as very different from men. This clearly shows that Hollywood is still a long way from achieving gender equality in script writing and character creation. 

Iron Jawed Angels (2004), The Stepford wives (1975, 2004), North country (2005)

Then we have ‘Iron Jawed Angels’, starring Hilary Swank, ‘The Stepford wives’, starring Nicole Kidman and ‘North Country’, starring Charlize Theron as the lead. I expect fewer young people to have watched these films, as they are made in a nostalgic style, reminiscent of post-World War Two films. 

A common feature of these films is that, while Hollywood are placing more attention onto women’s issues, these issues are mostly centered on women being suppressed. The Stepford wives featured women being controlled by men and technology, being forced into conforming to traditional stereotypes of being good wives and mothers. Both ‘Iron Jawed Angels’ and ‘North Country’ are documentary films. The former featured female suffragists’ struggles during the pre-post wars times, the latter featured women being harassed and discriminated in the workplace during a time when people started hiring women to work in traditionally male dominated jobs. Whether it is being suppressed by men, the system or politics, these films have a common theory saying that if films are about women, it should be about how women are being suppressed and how women are fighting against the suppression. While this is a good start to letting people pay attention to women’s suppression, from a modern feminist perspective, these films inevitably depicted women as being defined by their disadvantage and therefore as victims. 

Hidden Figures (2016) 

Then comes ‘Hidden Figures’. This is said to be a huge breakthrough for female characters. As even though female characters are still being discriminated against and suppressed, female characters are finally being depicted as having the same and even higher intellectual level as the other sex. Another breakthrough is that this ‘female-centered’ film is made in a way that targets both male and female audiences. ‘Hidden Figures’ demonstrates that ‘female-centered’ films can be shown on the big screen and the characters be taken seriously; female characters can be judged by the same standards and for the same qualities as their male counterparts. The film also begins to explore the duality of oppression through discussion of African-American women, something rarely depicted in Hollywood films. 

Wonder Woman (2017) 

‘Wonder Woman’ is always included when talking about feminist film, and this is justified. The character and plot of Wonder Woman itself is empowering and encouraging for anyone. More importantly, Wonder Woman is the first woman hero character in a male-dominated ‘universe’ that is being taken as seriously as the lead male hero characters such as Superman and Batman. Most DC or Marvel female characters whose existence value are largely dependent on her male counterpart, such as Harley Quinn, Cat Woman and Batwoman, who are interesting mostly because of their relationship with the Joker and Batman. Unlike them, Wonder Woman is herself an icon and is an interesting character by herself. Also, the fact ‘Wonder Woman’ is filmed in a way that does not make a huge stir about a hero being a female shows that Hollywood is depicting female leads with other significant attributes than their gender. 

Bombshell (2019) 

Interestingly, ‘Bombshell’ stars Charlize Theron, who also played the suppressed, harassed female lead character in ‘North Country’ included above. Though both ‘Bombshell’ and ‘North Country’ featured women being sexually harassed and discriminated against in the workplace, obvious comparisons are observed. For example, support in society for the harassed female characters are more available in ‘Bombshell’. People are also less uncomfortable by claims of female characters being harassed in ‘Bombshell’. The most obvious improvement is that women are finally depicted not as weak, but strong, career driven, confident characters. The power to make a change and to help others are also totally placed in the hands of women themselves, instead of dependent on benevolence of male characters, such as the lawyer and one of the co-workers in ‘North Country’. An additional observation from the two films is that how women’s status has grown over the years can clearly be seen as both films are documentary films which featured real events of women’s struggle of their respective times. 

I care a lot (2020), Promisingly young woman (2020), Pieces of a woman (2021)

With the Marvel trend quieting down after ‘Avengers: Endgame’ in 2019, a film trend featuring smaller productions, clamer plots and women has started. There are films like ‘Bird of Preys’, starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn finally getting rid of her ties with the Joker, ‘I care a lot’, starring Rosamund Pike who also played Gone Girl in 2014 and ‘Promisingly young woman’, starring Carey Mulligan. These are, I would say, films with a more overt feminist message compared to it being more implicit in earlier films such as ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012), ‘Miss Sloane’ (2016) and ‘Lady Bird’ (2017), which had a feminist lead character but not a feminist plot. A trend of ‘clear feminist’ films, which all received huge accolades, shows that Hollywood is more confident in making gender equality films. This also shows that audiences are more accepting of strong feminists featured in films than in the past. I am confident to claim that had these films been shown 10 to 20 years ago, they would be criticized as “too radical”. Although, Hollywood still has a long way to go before reaching true gender equality and recognising the issues that intersect with feminism, such as sexuality, gender identity, race and class. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena

Book Review: The Prime Ministers by Steve Richards

Steve Richards’s writing is detailed, concise and accessible: perfect qualities mixed into his book on leadership from Harold Wilson to Boris Johnson. Defined as the “television age” of Prime Ministers, Richards looks at the qualities needed to lead a country in a job that is notorious for failure. It is ideal for anyone looking to understand how we have ended up where we are today, as well as the real, though often flawed, people who have led Britain.

Looking through the ten Prime Ministers, Richards identifies common themes and criteria on which to judge these individuals. These broad ideas are then expertly woven into specific examples that highlight the author’s years of experience in the world of politics. One of the most engaging criteria he notes is the concept of being a “political teacher” with the ability to carry the public on the path the government is pursuing. Richards points to Thatcher as a prime example of this, with a specialist ability to simplify complex themes into accessible lessons, even where they may not be logically sound. An interesting example of this is Thatcher referencing her father’s grocery shop in Grantham; she argued that he could not spend more than he earned, and so neither should the country. Of course, Richards argues, the state is an entirely different unit in comparison to a shop, but Thatcher’s ability to create a simple story captivated the public.

The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson paperback cover. (Credit: via Waterstones)

Naturally, there are those figures who do not possess these key skills. Continuing the idea of the political teacher, Richards notes that Theresa May was reluctant to give a running commentary on Brexit, preferring instead to give a number of high profile speeches but in doing so, allowing others to take control of the narrative in the interim. This, he posits, is the result of applying the same tactics as were deployed in her successful period in the Home Office: relying on familiar tactics in a job that was not designed to accommodate them.

Richards expands more widely and engagingly on this theme, tracing Prime Ministers’ actions and instincts – both positive and negative – back to their personal and political upbringings. For the 1970s leaders who grew up with the Great Depression, fear of unemployment was almost crippling and coloured their dealings with trade unions. Enter Margaret Thatcher – free of such inhibitions – and tactics changed markedly. Of course, these were not the only factors, but they have helped Richards develop a nuanced picture of our Prime Ministers.

This is why the stories are so compelling: they give a rich picture that goes beneath the popular myths: Wilson’s exiting office on his own terms, Thatcher’s luck in facing a fractured Labour Party in 1983, Brown’s fear of being a “tail-end Charlie” realised in 2010. Being Prime Minister is exposed as being contingent on a huge number of factors, many out of the individual’s control, for example the media, which Richard paints as having almost imprisoned Blair and Brown in their desperation to keep the newspapers of traditionally Conservative Middle England on their side. Prime Ministers are too often seen as all powerful, whereas Richards expertly outlines the complicated maze each must navigate to achieve their aims.

Overall, these detailed accounts of leaders’ personalities and careers show that they are never adequately classified by the binary good or bad metric, as so many seem to picture them. These are characters with huge expertise, experience and a human side that is often lost in popular memory. Having known or interviewed the figures he writes about, Richards is uniquely placed to track the paths to power of the ‘modern’ Prime Ministers, and it shows.

Joe Rossiter, History in Politics Writer

Merkel’s Immigration Policy: A Failure?

Many highlight Angela Merkel’s policy in relation to the 2015 migrant crisis as the beginning of her downfall. In that year, Germany’s net migration figure was 1.1 million, just under double the previous year’s total. As Europe struggled to cope with refugees, Merkel made her country the continent’s biggest destination, despite the Dublin Agreement mandating that refugees should seek asylum in the first country they entered. Even today, the refugee crisis is pointed to as a key moment in Merkel’s premiership, and the moment she began to lose her grip on power. But was her immigration policy actually a failure?

When thinking of Germany and immigration, a notable example is the Gastarbeiter, or guest worker, programme which began in the 1950s. These guest workers were invited to help rebuild West Germany after the Second World War, with the main source of guests through this period being Turkey. Many workers never returned home, remaining in Germany with their families. Such people are no longer known as guests, but as Germans.

As Chancellor, Angela Merkel has spoken at length about her view of immigration. She has a markedly positive attitude on the subject, at odds with many in her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, talking of those who come to Germany as “enriching” society. She has always been clear on her approach to refugees: that there is a “moral obligation” to help those fleeing war, persecution or terror. It was this positive approach to immigration that culminated Germany’s policy during the 2015 refugee crisis.

 German Chancellor Angela Merkel receiving flowers from a Lebanese refugee; Migration Commissioner Annette Widmann-Mauz looks on from the right, June 2018. (Credit: Reuters)

Since then, Germany has homed over 1.5 million refugees, in comparison to the 450,000 by France and 300,000 by Italy. This huge influx of people into Germany proved a huge task for both local and national government, with issues such as providing German classes and wider education, as well as integrating the new arrivals into German society. As a logistical challenge, it is clear that Merkel and her government, in combination with state bodies, handled the refugee crisis robustly and commendably. Language classes were provided by the government and an effective programme of enrolling young children into nurseries to begin their education was introduced. 

There is, however, a darker side to the consequences of this policy in Germany. On a national level, the most obvious of these has been the rise of the far right and explicitly anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which surged in the 2017 Bundestag elections and in state elections since the crisis. This has led to the erosion of CDU support and, arguably, to the circumstances amongst which Merkel stood down as her party’s leader in 2018. The future of that party is now in doubt, with right wing candidate Friedrich Merz, a fierce critic of Merkel and her immigration policy in particular, finishing second in both the 2018 and 2021 leadership elections, narrowly losing each time.

Merkel’s successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, was forced to resign after CDU state parliament members in Thuringia defied her authority to vote with the AfD. Armin Laschet, the new leader, is seen as a moderate in comparison to Merz, but ran with health minister Jens Spahn, labelled the “anti-Merkel” for his fierce criticism of her handling of the 2015 crisis. Her moderate legacy in the CDU may be safe for now, but the future remains uncertain as there are fresh elections to contend in September, in the aftermath of disappointing results in March’s state elections.

Merkel’s immigration policy was a divisive path which sowed the seeds of her downfall, while providing refuge for millions fleeing war. In the short term, it has arguably been pivotal in her resignation both as CDU leader and Chancellor, while fracturing her party as it struggles with internal battles and the imposing presence of the AfD. In the long term, however, history will surely look kindly on Merkel: the Chancellor who brought millions in from the cold despite the political consequences and remained steadfast in her commitment to her instincts. A political failure but a moral success, and one which may be remembered as positively as the Gastarbeiter are today.

Joe Rossiter, History in Politics Writer