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Charles Horner's China

By: Jason Morgan
October 15, 2019

e are so accustomed to view geopolitics in terms of nation-states that we assume they are the building-blocks of global interaction. The nation-state is a towering presence—an ethno-political tectonic plate on the world map. This is especially so with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). So powerful is the idea of the Chinese nation-state that, in the West, only a few Chinese individuals are known by name: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jinping, Zhou Enlai—maybe the Empress Cixi or, for Sino-philes, Lin Zexu, Liang Qichao, and Lu Xun. Everyone else merges into the deep red of the PRC flag. The few gold stars floating on a sea of unhumanity—the handful of people in a place where the state has leveled almost everyone else—determine the course of the whole enterprise. Most of us take this state of affairs for granted.

With one notable exception: Charles Horner. A longtime Hudson Institute scholar, formerly on the staffs of senators Henry Jackson and Daniel Moynihan, Horner is the author of the authoritative two-volume history, Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate: Memories of Empire in a New Global Context (2002) and Grandeur and Peril in the Next World Order (2015). In these—and in his latest, A China Scholar’s Long March—Horner delves among the Chinese archives and in the country itself to find the real China.

For Horner, there is nothing inevitable about either the nation-state “China” or its rising. That’s what makes A China Scholar’s Long March such an indispensable volume. Using “long march” in a book title about China seems badly clichéd—but in this case it’s apt. Horner entered the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate in 1960, the year after the Dalai Lama fled for India after a decade of failed guerrilla warfare against China’s “People’s” “Liberation” Army, which had instituted an anti-religious genocide in Tibet. Since then, Horner has spent his career thinking through “China”. He has emerged with a treasure trove of insights.

Probably the most valuable and startling one is that “China” is not really “China” at all, but the Qing Empire. When the Qing collapsed in 1912—largely under its own moribund weight—the struggle that had plagued its last days continued. Badly weakened by the Taiping Rebellion, a fifteen-year religious civil war during which some twenty million Chinese died, the Qing no sooner collapsed from exhaustion than warlords and foreigners squabbled over its remains. Eventually, fighting narrowed to a three-way contest among Japan, the Nationalists (under Chiang Kai-shek), and the Communists (under Mao Zedong). Mao and the Communists won in 1949—and made the fateful decision to resurrect the Qing Empire as a one-party dictatorship masquerading under the cover of nation-state ideology.

It was this drive to turn an old and different thing (the Qing Empire) into a modern, ideological nation-state, that brought about the invasion of Tibet, the genocide in Mongolia, the border wars and territorial disputes with (among others) India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Russia, and Japan, and, today, the proliferation of concentration camps in East Turkestan. As with most pre-nationalist empires, the Qing were largely content to let various ethnic and religious groups govern themselves, as long as taxes and a modicum of obedience flowed toward the capital. Not so the PRC. Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, Taiwan—for ethno-nationalists like Mao (and his Communist Party successors), these had to be “Sinified,” if necessary at the barrel of a gun. What the nation-state did to the Qing Empire was akin to what the dark serum did to Doctor Jekyll. Most of the horrors of the People’s Republic spring from this attempt to transform a diverse many into a homogenous one.

A China Scholar’s Long March, by contrast, focuses on the cosmopolitan, multi-faceted character of the Qing. It is a collation of Horner’s 50 best writings, from his salad days reviewing books for Commentary to his position today as one of the doyens of the China-information trade. Horner is that rarest of things, an intellectually honest intellectual. He grapples forthrightly with history, people, and ideas.  Horner's latest reveals the slow blossoming of his thinking on China, and much else besides. It is a book about an age—the age of “China’s rise”—an idea—the same—and also a man, Horner, who has grown up in the company of both and whose intimate connections to the vicissitudes of his surroundings makes him an ideal prism through which to watch events unfold. The book is a quiet triumph of a life lived in the thick of very, very interesting times.

There are a few hiccups. Horner takes a dim view of wartime Japan—despite recent research by Japanese historians on such things as Nanking and the comfort women that adds important nuance to the standard narrative (popularized by the same PRC propaganda arm of which Horner is otherwise so pitch-perfectly skeptical). And, for some reason, Horner lumps Taiwan in with the Qing Empire, which, though technically true, does not do justice to the paucity of real Qing control over the island (to say nothing of the fact that the PRC has never ruled Taiwan). It is unclear why Horner, who is so clear-eyed on the Chinese Communist Party’s devilry, spots them these points on Japan and Taiwan. Lastly, and on a much lower register of caviling, there are occasional typographical errors—perhaps the result of glitchy OCR software?—which pock a few pages with blemishes of letter and font.

But these are mere throat clearings. Horner is a fine writer with a deep and even mind who brings all of his considerable gifts to bear on each of the essays in this book. A China Scholar’s Long March is one of the best introductions to Chinese history and current politics that I have read. Horner is to be commended for his lifelong refusal to sacrifice the truth to the party line.