Tim Harper shows on an epic scale how Asia's anti-imperial movements depended on global revolutionary networks, and he traces the lingering power of internationalist utopian dreams in the postcolonial world.
Activists like Pham Hong Thai, working to wrest their homelands from foreign control, are the subject of Harper’s magisterial book, which traces revolutionary struggles across Asia in the years between 1905 and 1931. The locales that interest him are cosmopolitan ports that were at least partly incorporated into Western empires—cities such as Canton, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Saigon, which were magnets for militants on the move ... Harper does not simply challenge the conventional view of Vietnam’s history but also other Great Man accounts of liberation struggles in different Asian countries, from Indonesia to India, the Philippines to China. He does this through life stories of intriguing individuals, downplayed or completely ignored in standard histories because their approaches diverged sharply from those of the figures now seen as the key saviors of their countries, or because they moved between and influenced activists in different locales, meaning their actions do not fit in a single national frame ... Today’s activists, some in exile, who are taking part in struggles to upend the 'established order' in some parts of Asia, including those committed to using nonviolent methods, might feel a shock of recognition reading Harper’s book. Seeing terms like 'lost country' and reading accounts of 'village abroad' activists linked not by shared ideologies but by common concerns and a sense of fighting against long odds.
With the center of gravity of world politics now firmly located in the Indo-Pacific, many are looking for ways to deepen their understanding of the most populous, fastest-growing and potentially most dangerous region in the world. Tim Harper’s Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire is an excellent place to start. It is a clearly written, brilliantly researched examination of the people and movements that shaped Asia’s course in the 20th century and continue to influence the continent today ... Often relying on colonial police archives, Mr. Harper reconstructs the obscure lives of the revolutionary generation who hammered out the ideas and built the movements that would lead Asia through the astonishingly rapid destruction of some of the largest and most powerful empires the world had ever seen. Readers will sometimes struggle to follow Mr. Harper as his narrative follows a changing cast of characters from British India, French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, China and Japan on their ideological and global journeys. But perseverance pays off. Underground Asia provides a panoramic overview of the revolutionary ferment that would shape a century of Asian politics.
Harper’s broad perspective reveals the interconnectedness of these anti-colonial struggles and their reverberations more than a century later, yet the staggering level of detail may be overwhelming to lay readers. Nevertheless, Asia scholars and students of international affairs will find this revisionist history to be of exceptional value.