Modern China: A Guide to a Century of Change

Graham Hutchings’ credentials include study at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and more than ten years’ service as China correspondent for London’s Daily Telegraph.After a brilliant introduction, more than 200 essays fill this immensely-useful volume. Though he has arranged these articles in alphabetical order, the author encourages the reader to proceed from cover to cover, which I obediently did, much to my edification and delectation (as one of my Greek professors used to say).Hutchings focuses on the “politics, society and economy, and the impact on them of individuals, places, organizations, and ideas ”of modern – that is, 20th century – China. Though he omits many topics and eschews any attempt to be comprehensive, that word does seem to apply to what he has chosen to cover.From “agriculture” to “Zhu Rongji,” we are escorted through all of China’s provinces, introduced to the major public players from 1900 to 2000, and treated to a wealth of helpful information organized around a few leading concepts and spiced with interpretation and commentary that make this one of the most readable books on China that I have ever opened. To provide a taste of this feast, I shall quote at length.Explaining why he devotes relatively little space to artists, scientists, and thinkers, Hutchings opines that “China’s impact on the rest of the world derives from its wares, weapons and geopolitical weighting rather than its letters and sciences.”Though freely admitting – and extensively documenting – the vast changes over the past century, he affirms the onerous presence of China’s history:

Much of the past has been discredited but much of it is still lived in. Indeed, the past is less a ‘foreign country’ in China than a prison. For if it is a matter of pride that China is the world’s oldest center of civilization, its modern history is one of largely unsuccessful attempts to escape the consequences of this extraordinary pedigree. During the twentieth century, conscious thought and constitutions changed more than mindsets; institutions and ideologies more than instincts. The twentieth century was a period of patent, potent change… Yet even bouts of intense iconoclasm have failed to eradicate profound continuities. They include the ideal of the centralized, unitary state, at once a repository of moral wisdom and source of security for a huge population; traditional, often compliant attitudes towards authority – tempered by a desire to be free of it; a feeling that to be Chinese, is in come often indefinable way, to be unique; and the importance of family values and primacy of personal relations.

Each entry begins with a brief “executive summary,” all being models of conciseness and clarity.Here’s the first sentence of the opening paragraph about Hong Kong:

Anomalies view with superlatives, complexity with sensitivities, pragmatism with principle in the story of modern Hong Kong, once Britain’s richest colony and, at the start of the new century, still wealthy, still free, despite an economic downturn and renewed embrace by Beijing.

And the first two sentences on Shanghai:

Nowhere are the great issues of twentieth-century China spelt out more clearly, more tellingly or more traumatically than in the history of modern Shanghai. The mighty city at the mouth of the YANGTZE has been both locus and focus of the struggle between tradition and modernity, reform and revolution, and the vexed question of China’s relationship with the outside world.


Merchants went to China to make money, diplomats to extend and defend their countries’ interests. Alone among resident foreigners, missionaries sought a fundamental change in the spiritual life of the Chinese people.

The introductory summary of the article on Christianity deserves full quotation:

The exact number of Christians in Mainland China at the start of the new century is unclear, but it is certainly larger than the figure of about 12 million Protestants and 4 million Catholics claimed by the government. Despite decades of persecution, continuing restrictions and occasional crackdowns, the faith is growing rapidly. On Sundays churches are packed in almost every major city; on feast days they are overflowing. Many churches are relatively wealthy; virtually all are in need of trained clergy. The number of believers remains a tiny percentage of the total population. But Christianity is spreading. Few provinces have proved immune to its influence.

Equally worth repeating is the first paragraph on foreign policy:

There is hardly an aspect of China’s rapid modernization more important to its own people, or more troubling for the established powers, than its meaning for the country’s relations with the wider world. The issues at stake are easily stated but less easily resolved. They arise from the fact that, in the recent past, a huge country long used to viewing itself as the center of the world has been humiliated, occupied and divided, and compelled to fit into a world order made in the West. In turn subjugated by, and accommodated to, and isolated from, this order, Beijing decided to rejoin it in the 1970s. Thirty years later, an increasingly powerful China is contending with the UNITED STATES for regional dominance, and grappling with the implications of interdependence and globalization. They are matters for which history, culture, and politics have left it ill prepared.

As in so many other treatments of contemporary Chinese society, corruption stands out as a hindrance to real progress and prosperity, and one almost impossible to eradicate:

Corruption will flourish in the Mainland as long as there is an absence of moral or ethical restraint; as long as personal relationships remain at the heart of society; and as long as the government retains its discretionary power. Political reform, a free media and the creation of a genuinely independent anti-graft body… would go some way to curbing the last of these problems… But they would also constitute an assault on the leadership of the Communist Party, the cardinal principles of politics in Beijing. This is intolerable for a Party which, though threatened by corruption more than any other single problem, still insists on ‘correcting its own mistakes’.

The author does not seek to conceal his point of view, which includes little enthusiasm for the Chinese Communist Party. In one entry after another, he notes the baneful influence of pervasive government/party control. Consider his concluding words in the article on the CCP:

Accustomed, like most previous Chinese governments, to rule on the basis of its mastery of a powerful, all-encompassing ideology, the party has found Marxism, even in Chinese form, to be a minority interest among the public. It has fallen back on nationalism, economic development and securing greater international standing for a China the Party says is beset by potential foes abroad. These are not unworthy goals. But, for an educated public seeking greater freedoms, and in an era of economic globalization, innovation and interdependence, they are not compelling grounds for the preservation of authoritarian rule. Instead the Party’s continuing secrecy and conspiratorial approach to politics, its determination to curb the growth of civil society, neuter even nominally representative institutions, and insist upon the first – and last – word in deciding China’s fate, reflect the hold of the feudal past, despite decades of revolution, and point to an uncertain, potentially unstable future.

Those sentiments reflect the author’s Introduction, in which he states his opinion that China will not be a truly “great” nation until it institutes “further sweeping reforms” of its moribund political system. Indeed, “In its present form, Mainland China has little to offer the world save the fading glories of a distant past and the promise of a large but partly mythical future market.” Why?

Its current leaders, its contemporary political, social and economic institutions and policies invite study and understanding. They even exert a grim fascination. But for the most part they do not inspire, still less encourage emulation – whether in the developing world or elsewhere. The continued rise of this ‘unreconstructed’ China would be a matter of concern.What is clear is that only when China does change will it be possible to speak of the country as a great power rather than one which, though rising at the start of the century, remains fragile and frustrated, a burden to many of its own people, and a problem for much of the rest of the world.

Abundant cross references (indicated by capitals) reduce repetition to a minimum. Maps, insets, a chronology, a recommended reading list, and an index all enhance the usefulness of this volume, which Chris Patten termed “indispensable” as a guide to China.My only complaint about this book is that it came to an end.

ReviewsJason Truell