The history of modern China (which is, for the purposes at least of this piece, from the mid-Qing around 1750 CE down to today) is a divided one. Here, by `divided’ I mean one that is usually carved up into four broad phases. Qing ruled ended in 1911-12, which also brought to an end what most historians describe as `Imperial China’. From 1911 to 1949, there was the Republican Era. Then from 1949, after the People’s Republic of China was founded under the Communists, there was the Maoist era up to 1978 (just lasting two years after Mao Zedong’s death) and finally the `reform and opening up’ era. We live in that period to today.

German sinologist Klaus Muhlhahn in `Making China Modern’, a recent account of the country’s history from what the book’s subtitle poetically describes as `The Great Qing to Xi Jinping’ gently contests this division. Firstly, he shows that there were continuities across these temporal divides. This contests the sort of value judgements one might be tempted to give to parts of this history in order to characterise them – ideas like the one that the Qing was an unmitigated disaster from the 1840s onwards after the First Opium War with the British, or that the Republican period was nothing but chaos and war. Muhlhahn’s corrective to this overneat narrative is to show that for former, there were plenty of successful reforms, and that these served as a basis for the changes that came after its demise, and for the latter it too saw periods of effectiveness and functionality, even though the Sino-Japanese War from 1937 brutally damaged and almost destroyed it.

More boldly, the book argues (right at the start, from the third of its 620 pages) that institutions are the key means to understand China’s modernity and rise. And the process by which these institutions were formed goes deep into the Qing era – this was not some innovation that the Communists in more recent times can take credit for.

On the surface, the argument about institutions mattering so much in this history seems a contentious one. A lot of the challenges that China in any of its modern guises has gone through have often been put down to precisely the opposite – lack of institutional structure. Administrations lacked fiscal and governance systems, because of the largely decentralised mode of rule under the remote imperial regime. At times in the 20th century, even under Mao, it seemed that China had no governance at all – in the Republican period’s early and later years, for instance, or the Cultural Revolution from 1966. But Muhlhahn makes a strong and persuasive case for how, if one looks hard, institutions were always there. They were there in the era of the imperial Qing examination system, which, in his view erroneously, was phased out as a so-called reform in the first decade of the twentieth century. They were also there in the creation of business networks, and trade protocols, when the Republicans were at their most competent. They were there during the time of militarisation under Mao (the military effectively ran the country in the late 1960s, though at Mao’s behest – he was, after all, a military leader before anything else). Most strikingly, they were there in the ever present bureaucracy, and the ethos supporting it, which managed to survive through the whole of this period, albeit taking various guises and sizes.

This focus on institutions does supply something that is all too often lacking in histories of modern China – and there have been many of them – and that is a thread of tangible continuity. Institutions, after all, can take many guises. The main thing is that they are social, and collaborative. And Chinese society, with its supposed emphasis on the collective, should be a benign environment for such entities, rather than a hostile one. As thought to prove this, we can see the Communist Party of China, as it has grown from 51 members in 1921 to over 90 million today, as some kind of culmination of this – the institution to end all others, with its own spaces, language, ethos, culture, even, somewhat counterintuitively, its own ethos.  As though to prove this,  it is Party sovereignty, rather than state sovereignty, we see exercised in Hong Kong today, and, more distressingly, party ethics in practice in the calculus being made in Xinjiang.

Muhlhahn’s book is written authoritatively, and, because of this clear focus on institutions, lucidly. His choice of key events and the way in which he weaves these into an holistic interpretative framework is inspirational. Often, in these larger scale histories, the most difficult choice is what to leave out. This book addresses that by showing right from the start that for all the differences of the various phases of modern Chinese history, the underpinning search for national regeneration and a security to preserve that,  most recently acquired through economic development, gives a thematic coherence that runs all the way through. That means that you don’t need to have to start telling a wholly new story after each regime change – you just have to slot the new era into the grand lines that the former one is going along, and see how far you can decipher and describe any new developments. From this viewpoint, stripped of their more ideologically loaded and committed language, the Marxists Leninists around current leader Xi Jinping are simply using a different dialect to speak the same nationalist language in.

This is a wise and measured book – one that, on page 571, contains perhaps one of the pithiest and best judged assessments of the country’s current global role and posture I have read:

               `There is a mismatch between [China’s] appearance and its real footprint. China became part of many international institutions, but often it was only loosely integrated. China often stood alone and didn’t fully succeed in winning over close allies. Even its closest relations with Russia and North Korea remained beset with distrust and rivalry beneath the surface. Its diplomacy also seemed hesitant and narrowly self-interested. China often made known what it opposed, but rarely what it actively supported. Concepts such as “peaceful rise” and “harmonious world” were not very persuasive and Beijing was unable to credibly explain its global ambitions. China’s growing power and regional relationships were often marked by widespread uncertainties and insecurities about the future.’

This was written before the pandemic, but from the vantage point of what has happened over the last year, has a prophetic quality. One might argue that Xi Jinping and his style of confident assertion and bearing are being deployed as a corrective to some of these issues. But a confident, dominant China, if and when it does come to pass, will not eradicate the complex issues of its place in the world; it will just raise different, perhaps even harder to answer ones.  One could do far worse than looking to this book to give at least some well judged and well delivered context of why China is where it is, and starting from that point, prepare for where it is most likely to end up.

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