China Books

Charles Horner's Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate


Charles Horner's book, Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate: Memories of Empire in a New Global Context, published by University of Georgia Press, was summed up in a review article published in the Asia Chronicle:

Horner’s unconventional approach is an effort to analyze Chinese history not as it is, but as it is understood today by both the West and by China itself. His approach is important because how a country understands its own past guides its future decisions and is often a means of defining its identity relative to its past. In this sense, Horner’s methods echo the postmodernism implied in the title and place him in the burgeoning trend of Western historians employing postmodern approaches to interpreting Chinese history.

The author has granted Danwei permission to run an extract of the book with an introduction. Horner is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. As well serving roles in the administrations of President Reagan and the first President Bush, Horner also did graduate work in Chinese history at the University of Chicago, National Taiwan University and Tokyo University.

Considered a China scholar, Horner is writing a two part book; the second part is in the making.

Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate: Introduction

by Charles Horner

Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate presents a many-sided examination of how China’s sense of itself and of the world has changed profoundly since 1979 and how an ongoing structural, and especially cultural, transformation will both empower and constrain China actions at home and in the world.

For decades, the Chinese themselves and sinologists around the world were heavily invested in a “narrative of failure” that explained the advent of the People’s Republic in 1949. The founding of PRC was thought definitively to have resolved China’s age-old problems and “contradictions” and would therefore be long-lasting and consequential. Instead, after 1979, it became apparent that something radically different had been gestating in China and it was that which needed explanation and explication. China has now “re-started history” by reinterpreting its imperial past, by changing its understanding of the history of the world, by building new regionally-based social and economic structures, and, most important, by creating a culture increasingly less receptive to heroic national undertakings.

Thus, there are new questions to ask and to answer: What are the international implications of the PRC’s growing macro-economic regionalism which allows the Periphery increasingly to bypass the Center and link itself directly to the Global? Of citizens increasingly less intimidated by political authority? Of the spiritual and psychological disorder of astonishingly rapid urbanization? Of the growing salience of “Sinophone Asia,” the “Diaspora” and “Greater China?” Of “identity politics?” Of cultural creations which disdain greatness? How will these shape PRC’s conduct at home and abroad? The usual outlook is solely assume that PRC thirty years hence will be what it is today, only more so. But, by then, it will no longer be Rising China, but Transformed China, and its ever-growing internal incoherence will confound its options.

Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate: Memories of Empire in a New Global Context pp. 193-195

by Charles Horner

Deng Xiaoping’s (1904-1997) program has now lasted longer than Mao’s, and it continues to move forward. Indeed, in almost all of the manifestations of the Modern, the pace of China’s grand project has accelerated. Mao had hoped that the Countryside and all that it represented would surround and finally destroy everything that the City was and what it represented — and not only in China, but throughout the world. But the City has more than fought the Countryside to a draw; it is now counterattacking and it will win. China will soon leave behind its past as a predominantly peasant society, and most of its people will live in urban settlements. Soon, there will be no countryside at all. Of course, the countryside will be more than just a memory for a long time; Postmodern China will have within it hundreds of millions of new urbanites who carry the Countryside’s habits of mind with them. The world as a whole may not yet be configured in the way late Qing-era writers of science fiction imagined it, but China’s newest cities — indeed, all the newest cities around the world — resemble the projections of prescient fantasists and pioneering filmmakers. The World City is now more mere metaphor. It is a thing called Megalopolis, and it does not acknowledge national boundaries in its unstoppable sprawl.

Urbanologists and economists study these developments as physical phenomena; they worry about sources of water and power, the construction of transport, the removal of trash and the treatment of sewage. They rightly focus on natural resources, and whether the world will have enough of them to sustain the new World City’s way of life. But we do not think much about the world’s store of cultural, psychological, and spiritual resources — how rapidly the new World City will consume them and how, or even whether, they can be replenished. In these respects, some places in Modern China are already frightening — filled with social and personal pathologies of every description — and Postmodern China is fated to create many more of them.

Deng’s Xiaoping’s blueprint, which set all this in motion, had consisted of “four modernizations” — agriculture, industry, technology, and defense. Though the absence of a fifth — democratization — has long been noted, political change, whatever one decides to call it, is also now a fact of life. In today’s China, political words may still have a Lewis Carroll affect; like Humpty Dumpty, the regime will use them to mean what it wants them to mean. But, if there is still any Marxism left in the Communist Party of China, the doctrine itself makes it plain that that there is a political specter that must eternally haunt China. Marxists believe that the political Superstructure of a society must change as its economic and productive Substructure changes. Today, China’s leaders term their country a “developing socialist market economy country with Chinese characteristics.” However one construes that tortured phrase, it describes a tiger with ever-changing stripes.

Those of us who came in on this story during the mid-twentieth century — at the time of the first episode of madness in Mao’s China — were relieved by what we thought was good news as the twentieth century ended. The great changes in China since l976 seemed to vindicate Western ideas about the way the world worked. Every day, China was coming ever more to resemble what we thought a modern Asian society ought to be — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan. China’s transformation was not yet complete, but it seemed unlikely that China would create a new, unique, variant of modern society that would stand against the irresistible forces of the age. Much reassurance was offered, but it did not overcome the concern, and then the anxiety and, now in many quarters, the plain dread about what today’s Rising China portends for the United States and the rest of the world.

In this, we are not alone, for twenty-first century Rising China itself must now live with the curse of hopes fulfilled. China is rich and powerful, but it is the product of the same modern history which, having created the riches and the power, may also have planted inside the country the seeds of its possible undoing. Should a twenty-first century prophet announce, then, that that there is now a specter haunting Modern China, and that it is the specter of Postmodernism? The next new era in China will need to have a name, however elusive. But it is its very imprecision which makes it a useful catch-all adjective, like Confucian, Modern, or Rising. Still, it will not supersede more enduring terms. Whatever else may happen, there will always be a Left and there will always be a Right, though not at all in the confining way that Mao Zedong understood the words. In fact, the actual content of the programs of both the Left and the Right have changed across the centuries and will continue to do so; it is only that, in some version, the two will continue to oppose each other. Two other conjunctions will also endure. There will always be an Old and there will always be a New; there will always be a Then and there will always be a Now; how people live and think in the Now will always be influenced by how they think people once lived and thought in the Then.

Nor are Westerners are alone in seeing in China a long-sought result which may prove problematical. Rising China has been with us, and with the Chinese, for a generation. Rising China itself is now becoming part of the stuff of memory; today, most Chinese were not born, or were not conscious, when it started. Should we now begin to imagine how Modern Memories will fare in a Postmodern milieu?

The basic geographical structure of Rising China, resting on the great multi-national empire it inherited from the work of eighteenth century Manchus, runs contrary to the twenty-first century’s ideas about identity and autonomy for ethnic groups and their cultures. This newer movement is being helped along by technological innovations which make easier the formation of affinity groups and ongoing communication within them. Rising China’s basic mode of governance — Democratic Centralism, an increasingly creaky arrangement based on a now universally-repudiated Leninist political theory — runs contrary to a worldwide trend, if not toward classic representative democracy, then at least toward greater decentralization. Rising China may very well contemplate a traditional national strategy of traditional expansionism supported by equally traditional nationalism and patriotism. But will this, too, is now coming up against the emerging Postmodern High Culture, whose mission for Cultural Studies is the “deconstruction” of culture as a mainstay of the political order in China and throughout the world. This emerging High Culture is wholly unlike the high culture of previous rising nations in great ages of imperialism; it seeks not to buttress great national projects but to undermine them.

This is a noticeably powerful trend in today’s China, where intellectuals and creative artists of every stripe recall Mao’s brutal efforts to put Politics in command of Culture and believe that it is their bedrock obligation to resist even the half-hearted attempts to do so by China’s government of today. And beyond this, there is a more mundane threat to the inherited political order. It is appearing in the political counterpart of economic globalization — regionalism, multilateralism, trans-nationalism — which works to restrict the freedom of action of major nations and to subordinate them to international organizations, whether governmental or non-governmental.

There are currently 5 Comments for Charles Horner's Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate.

Comments on Charles Horner's Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate

Finally someone writing intelligently about stuff going on here without as much hyperbole!

Wonder how far he goes into post-national / non-national existence. I guess probably more than the average taxi driver at least.

Thank you for this post. I enjoyed reading it and Horner makes some excellent and intriguing points that are worthwhile to consider.

In so many words, I think what Horner is saying is that China needs new myths about itself because the old ones fail to resonate in such as way as to motivate collective action that may be beneficial in some ways to society as a whole, but in which individual parties may have to sacrifice their self-interest to go along to either support or at least not oppose. There is an enormous cultural shift that must go along with this reinterpretation of national myths.

I've been thinking about economic change and its impact on national cultures, particularly the views expressed by Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang's book Bad Samaritans (2007), in which he questions certain widely accepted myths about globalization. Regarding linkages between national culture and economic development, he points out in a chapter titled "Lazy Japanese and Thieving Germans", that these two national cultures which are seen today as epitomes of sober, efficient productive economies with cultures that seem almost predisposed for such activities, were once regarded in the 19th century as being unlikely cultures for economic industrialization and development. Chang's point is that economic change impacts on culture in significant ways, much more so than vice versa.

Many Chinese today look back with nostalgia to the "good old days" of Maoist China (simpler times of less material wealth but greater idealism) when the collective direction seemed clearer - there were few competing voices and opportunities to act in ways departing from the collective - and that with individual hard work and sacrifice, the collective might benefit - even if the individual was destroyed in the process.

People could see immediate "benefits": hated landlords were put on trial and punished for their past crimes with their property distributed to the village, the "high and mighty" (which in many cases were what we would think of as ordinary middle-class people like businessmen, teachers and managers) were knocked off their perches and "taught a lesson" in respecting the downtrodden, and the country seemed to be united and growing, unlike during those awful years of civil war, government neglect, and Japanese invasion. "China stood up" and people could take pride that this was achieved by the individual efforts of selfless little people. Lei Feng, the young soldier who died helping others, is a prime example of such a figure.

However, most people find they can be motivated to work hard and sacrifice for only so many years before they get tired of it.

Collective wealth of a kind was being generated, but this was re-invested in collective infrastructure like roads, bridges, dams and power plants as well as military use. So individuals could not generally enjoy the material benefits of their work. If one is suffering economic deprivation, one can only bask in the collective joy of national achievement for so long before wondering when some of that benefit will trickle down to improved standard of living.

Seeing their overseas relatives "making it" and becoming materially secure presented a further picture - how come these cousins in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia could be doing so well? Seeing their leaders enjoying privileged existences (even if this was only having a larger food ration or living unit) was also demotivating. The government could only do so much in keeping this information from reaching people. Even without a free press, people could see this for themselves.

In the factory, workers figured out long ago that there was no additional benefit to working harder or more efficiently, so they did the minimum to avoid getting punished. For many factory workers, China was a "workers' paradise" in which no one could got fired and made homeless, but there was also very little surplus for society to enjoy - certainly not to the extent that their "rich" overseas cousins appeared to be getting.

People who visited mainland China in the early to mid-80's (shortly after opening but before the economic reforms kicked in in full force) would have found a slow-moving pace of life, where people did not seem in much of a hurry to do anything, where people were not all that motivated to much or to achieve much as there wasn't much to do or achieve. I recall my first visit to Beijing - buildings were old and delapidated; bicycles were the fastest thing going, and most people you saw were just squatting around doing nothing. A Hong Kong businessman said to me, "these mainland Chinese are useless - you can't get them to do anything, they are so lazy, and communism has turned them into workers that are impossible to employ because they just don't like to work hard. Look at them just squatting around all day!"

Leaving aside his prejudicial attitude toward his country cousins, he did have a point - when no one works hard, each person might have less stress, but who was going to do the heavy lifting to provide more material benefits everyone? Is a workers' paradise ever going to produce an iphone? Or more importantly for China's leadership, could it produce enough surplus to fund an adequate military defense system, to keep up with Reagan's military spending to bankrupt the Soviets?

But as Chang points out, the prevalent image of the Lazy Japanese in the 19th century gave way to a very different image of Japanese people after their industrialization process. Here 30 years into the reforms, it would be hard to find many people who think that the problem of the Chinese worker is laziness.

Looking at Horner, my favorite sentence in this excerpt is his observation that today's "emerging High Culture is wholly unlike the high culture of previous rising nations in great ages of imperialism; it seeks not to buttress great national projects but to undermine them."

I want to reflect on that a bit more.

Even prior to the Four Modernizations campaign, to many observers the system of communism in China was reaching the end of its rope. People were already having a hard time being motivated to do their best for the collective, as they had learned well to be cynical of such entreaties. But while the pre-Reform China populace may not have enthusiastically supported that national building effort, they did not actively oppose it. The nature of economic life at that time (under communist state ownership and central planning control) gave them few opportunities or incentives to do so.

Then came reform. The economic modernizations sought to increase efficiency of production by giving economic actors a bigger piece of the action - giving people the opportunity to get something for themselves so as to motivate them towards the collective goal of efficient productivity. This is the "socialism with Chinese characteristics" - motivating people partly with self-interest rather than entirely with entreaties to self-sacrifice for the good of socialism.

The reforms gave greater emphasis to profitability of enterprises, rather than production for its own sake, while permitting enterprises and individuals to keep a larger share of the surplus of their work efforts.

However, a key part of economic modernization was decentralization of economic decisionmaking - allowing individual economic actors (government ministry to corporated state-owned-enterprise to partially privatized and publicly-listed entities) to make their own decisions to maximize their own self-interest, which may depart from the needs of the collective community.

A factory manager, listed on the stock exchange, may say to himself, if I pay my workers less or make do with fewer workers, I get to keep more for my shareholders and get a pay raise or promotion, rather than in the pre-reform days, where state owned factories were like small cities and the factory manager was like a government official seeking to meet productivity targets while taking care of his charges, being responsible for their housing, feeding, health and overall well-being.

Thus, I think that it is not only modern High Culture that undermines grand national projects; it is economic liberalization (i.e., less regulation) that drives a individuals' and institutions' preoccupation with pursuit of self-interest, and these will always make it harder for the national leaders to achieve collective goals. These same forces are at play as much outside China as within; what is "new" and difficult for China is the speed with which economic change has occurred (unprecedented in comparison to other nations in world history), making the adaptation by culture especially difficult to absorb.

"Undermining forces" succinctly expresses the dilemma that national leaders everywhere face; it is a similar dynamic at work in modern corporate organizations and institutions, especially those whose productivity depend on a lot of highly educated, high-maintenance and highly demanding workforce: think management of a large investment bank, law firm, advertising agency or university campus.

In order to achieve the high-value-adding potential of such organizations, it is necessary to give such people the freedom to operate and make decisions (including a bigger say in what happens to them), and then reward them for their success; however, managed incorrectly, individuals will seek to maximize their own self-benefit at the expense of the collective organization.

For example, in the U.S. we have a president who believes that the well-off who have benefited from American society's profit-seeking freedoms have a responsibility to "share the wealth". While many Americans (including myself) agree, when you get down to who will do the sharing and who receives the benefits of that sharing, there is no easy agreement. All else being equal, I would prefer my taxes to be lower; however, Obama's singular achievement for many voters is that they trust in his administration to use tax dollars in a way more productively than his predecessor. Thus, there is a basic trust in the leadership to handle the collective wealth in such a way as to benefit all.

However, there is a sizeable minority of Americans (and perhaps increasing number) who are ideologically opposed to such sharing. Whether the U.S. polity will put aside their individual differences and achieve a collective health care plan (a great national project) is a big question mark. It's clear there are forces in the GOP that actively seek to undermine this project.

At least the U.S. has an electoral process that enables Americans to re-articulate the national myths and priorities in light of present conditions. It permits leaders to float ideas and themes that resonate with the populace, and then to govern them by incorporating those themes into a platform. Thus Obama can be elected with the sense (having been out there campaigning and talking to people and developing a platform) there is sufficient popular support for a national health plan at this time.

As the CCP currently lacks such a political process, it needs to seek to tap into the pulse of the population in other ways to figure out what collective projects are achievable.

For example, in recent years, it has sought to moderate the message of growth by stressing the creation of a "xiao kang she hui" (a moderately well-off society). This may not light up fires of inspiration for many people, but for the greater majority of the population that has not reached middle-class status, this is not bad as a goal; it certainly is more equitable than having a small group rich stock and property investors with a large mass of impoverished rural peasantry and migrants.

Under its current system of governance, since it does not have a similar electoral process to articulate the popular will, the CCP will need to continually recruit a more representative and culturally leading membership into the CCP. Like global marketing and advertising organizations that are always trying to figure out what teenagers think (as their spending seems to drive consumer trends), the current leadership, under the existing system of government, needs to recruit the best "opinion leaders" (businesspeople, artists, intellectuals, religious leaders - even pop stars) who can articulate a vision of why shared goals are worthwhile and mindless pursuit of individual benefit is not in-and-of-itself a worthy objective (e.g., economic liberalization does not mean "greed is good"; a superior value is a better shared existence for everyone, so while "it is okay if some people get rich first" - it is necessary to support ways to "spread the wealth".).

With that, China's leadership can co-opt those selfish Gordon-Gekko-like-individualistic-energies at work in China (forces that elsewhere like in the U.S. has precipitated the near collapse of the global financial system!) to work towards more communal goals. This means working out the system of regulation, enforcement, communication and reform within a political system where even the most committed government leader has difficulty knowing what is most in peoples' best interest.

There is a huge reservoir of self-sacrificing collective-oriented passion that was displayed in the wake of the Sichuan earthquakes. This is true of all human cultures, but within China there are powerful traditional confucian emphases on thinking of others, traditional buddhist beliefs of compassion, and even powerful Christian and Muslim beliefs about helping other people.

I think the pre-occupation by outside observers on promoting "freedom" in China misses this aspect of the Chinese polity - with the 30 years of reform, many Chinese seem to think that the problem is "too much freedom" (i.e., they mean too much selfishness and looking after number one to the detriment of the common good - as a culture they have not yet fully adapted to the new economic conditions, so there are frictions and resentment, some of it justified, but some of it also of the nature of class envy.) They actually want a government that will tame individual excesses and mediate the multifarious wants of individuals in a way that the whole society benefits. They are looking for better enforcement of laws and regulations to stop the so-called "cheaters" from benefiting.

The problem is that they don't really know how to get it. For now, the CCP is the only game in town, although the leadership sometimes looks like a volleyball team trying to keep the ball up in the air long enough to keep the volley going, so it is not an easy game for them to play. Other the other hand, this is a game that the CCP has been playing for a long time and it knows how to play it well, so my assessment is that they will adapt and succeed at it. In any event, it is certainly exciting to watch.

Great analysis perspectivehere. However, is it possible that CCP, which much resembles a western corporation in terms of governance, out of desire of survival, is more adaptive to the populace's need (hence "和谐社会“), thus more resilient to potential crisis than most observers expect? I'm not sure any incumbent government of western democracy has either the incentive or resources to adopt any drastic change in national politics. As for the "high culture" mentioned by Horner , I'm unable to see how it can be such an major force in undermining current social structure (I probably should read the whole book first).

I think someone should Point Out that this excerpt requires further Editing and that unless we are experiencing a Storytime-like Fable there is no reason to capitalize things like Politics, Culture, Old and New (unless you speak German or live in Seventeen Thirty One).

Further, though, I am almost convinced that what this essay is missing is significant time spent in the PRC. China's mega-cities don't look like the dreams of prescient futurists -- they are sui generis, part Dickens part Times Square part imperial Xi'an part Communist ruin. And China's intellectuals don't all take it as their mission to resist government control -- plenty of them are nationalists, partymen, and ecstatic about burgeoning state power, and if that includes power over the individual mind, then so be it.

Finally, what in blazes is Democratic Centrism? Are you describing the system they have, or the system they claim to have?

I have likewise been reviewing Charles Horner's book recently and have also taken a look at his article on "First Things" called "China's Christian History" of August/September 2007,as that is a particular interest of mine. If you are interested here are the references.

One of my professor contacts at a Beijing University recently also sent to me the English version of "Insights into Chinese Culture" by Ye Lang and Zhu Liangzhi that I am in the middle of reading, and am enjoying and I shall probably also review.

Charles Horner's book is particularly good as it is a useful way to appreciate the issues without being swamped by detail and rings true from my own experiences of China and the people.

My concern is that these deveopments in China should help the poor and not just the well-off, and that in the process the enormous tradition and fascinating history of China should continue to be appreciated and preserved and not jettisoned in the interests of some short term priorities. That China should retain her soul, is probably about the best and quickest way I can say it.

Hope you find this helpful.

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