Modern China and Its Institutions

Review of Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping, by Klaus Mühlhahn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019)

China is on everybody’s mind. Its economic growth and military expansion have caused concern not just in the region but around the world. In his in-depth, well-researched history of the Chinese state, Klaus Mühlhahn traces the rise of China through its institutions, both formal and informal. Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping provides an in-depth, well-researched history of the Chinese state.

Mühlhahn seeks to historicize the process of institutional development within China. His book is successful in illustrating the history of the Chinese institutions which have distributed power unevenly over the centuries.

Making China Modern examines the long history of China, from the Qing Empire (1644-1912) to the present day. The book attempts to accomplish two tasks. First, it provides a general history of “modern” China. Second, it traces the historical processes which inform the politics of Xi Jinping. In other words, Mühlhahn seeks to trace the “allocation of political power over time, and how it changed.” Each part of the book discusses the intellectual milieu of respective political eras, and how actors formed informal institutions that changed the allocation of power within the government.

Missionaries like the ones above began to undermine Chinese institutions during the late Qing Dynasty.
Missionaries like the ones above began to undermine Chinese institutions during the late Qing Dynasty.

Making China Modern is separated into four parts, each examining a different era of Chinese governance. Part One explores the Qing Dynasty, its rise and fall, and the legacies it left on the process of creating a Chinese nation state. The regime’s foundations were built upon a tribute system and a land tax, localism, and neo-Confucianism. But each also contributed to the Qing’s eventual downfall. Western arrival in China sapped the strength of many of these institutions, and, according to the author, exposed the folly of Qing rule to the populace.

Western powers replaced the tribute system with the treaty system, which amounted to a new approach to economic diplomacy. Thus was Chinese cultural and economic hegemony upended. Localism prevented the Qing from calling forward regional leaders to resist the West. Neo-Confucianism would be replaced by nationalist thought, which would bring down the Qing Empire altogether.

On the left, Mao Zedong. On the right, Chiang Kai-Shek.
Chiang Kai-Shek (right) militarized Chinese society, which enabled Mao Zedong's (left) eventual tight hold on the populace.

Part Two examines the Chinese Republican movement and the attempt to create a unified state after the chaos of the previous regime. The efforts of Sun Yat-Sen and his military advisor Chiang Kai-Shek eventually failed, but the institutions they created and used to propagate their movement would carry into the Communist Era. Sun Yat-Sen deified nationalist thought and Chiang Kai-Shek built a strong military ethic. That was enough to unite the country, at least for a time. The Japanese invasion and civil strife undermined these nation-building efforts, and the institutions were not strong enough to avoid Communist takeover in 1949.

The remaining sections of Making China Modern contain the real payoffs of the study. These discuss the true motivations behind—and travesties of—the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, as well as an analysis of the implications of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. Chairman Mao sought to create institutions that would concentrate power in the Party. He also had to quash the external influences that threatened his rule. Mühlhahn points to the Sino-Soviet Split as a crucial moment: it spurred Mao to launch the Great Leap Forward and, later, the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution destroyed Chinese institutions and the economy, leading inevitably to the reforms of Deng Xiaoping and the Opening Era. Deng’s reforms were made to stem the institutional destruction of the Mao years. But reversing course from hardline Communist rule lead to greater freedom of thought and, eventually, to resistance. The June 4th Protests at Tiananmen Square were viciously repressed by the regime, and Tiananmen led to more authoritarian-leaning leaders within the Communist Party. Current governance in China, Mühlhahn argues, is the upshot of all these events.

By focusing on institutions, Mühlhahn breathes new life into the history of China, and proposes novel explanations for the current construction of government in the country. Tracing the allocation of power from the imperial era to the present day provides fascinating insights into the reasons for the sometimes perplexing actions of today’s Chinese Communist Party. Furthermore, the book is well researched and does not rely too heavily upon well-trodden and uncritical truisms of Chinese history, which sometimes plagues other historical works on the country.

Deng Xiaoping attempted to undo the damage of the Mao years and to create more stability within the Chinese Communist Party.
Deng Xiaoping attempted to undo the damage of the Mao years and to create more stability within the Chinese Communist Party.

Despite these refreshing and engaging contributions, Making China Modern disappoints on several accounts. Mühlhahn wants to rewrite the general history of China for a broad audience, while emphasizing institutions’ role in regime action. But in seeking to accomplish both of these tasks, perhaps too great a burden, he does neither satisfactorily.

In a few sections of the book, the author moves through a chronology but interrupts the narrative to discuss the entire history of an institution. The result is a bumpy ride. It is understandable that Mühlhahn tries to avoid a strict institutional history and to minimize overly-academic jargon, but both might have made this book more attractive to experts in the field. Although it is written with a more general audience in mind, Making China Modern is far too long because of its attempt to weave an academic discussion of institutions with a general history of China.

May, 2019