"... over-simplistic - dialectic of 'for' or 'against', in which so many writers impose 21st century value judgments upon the events of a different age ..."
Forgive me, but this the classic stance of the 'like it or leave it', 'my country right or wrong' brigade, that still harks back with nostalgia to the days when "the sun never set ... British Empire" etc, etc.
The English pushed thousands of tons of opium into China, in the face of all that the Chinese power could muster, and they forced the Indians to manufacture it for them. When, considering the terrible toll the drug was taking on their people and their social fabric, the Chinese resorted to desperate measures to get rid of the English 'trade', the English power in London brought 'gunboat diplomacy' to bear upon them, shelled their forts and killed their people. They went on to destroy the Emperor's Summer Palace and steal its riches. Humiliated, the Chinese felt forced to capitulate to English demands for what, with remarkable dishonesty, Palmerston championed under a "free trade" banner; Hong Kong was ceded as a sweetener to their aggressor. When, after two centuries, the English finally desisted, they left the Chinese with 140 million of their people addicted to opium.
This is not a value judgement. It is plain historical fact, 'tired' or not. The analysis that "the description of the British navy's war upon the Chinese pirates knocks Hornblower into a cocked hat" is romantic, but delusional and it does nothing to recommend Jack Beeching's book. It was hardly "the British navy's war": it was an assortment of British gunboats against all the Chinese could muster, essentially a flotilla of junks manned by all-comers. Dismissing the adversary as "Chinese pirates" deliberately overlooks their business in a by now rather 'tired' and condescending manner, which was heeding their Emperor's call to defend their shores against the foreign aggressor. Incidentally, on first hearing, your eighteenth century analogy still retains a vestige of its once 'cocky' ring, but it does not stand up to the rigour of 21st century scrutiny, which must find that it is hardly possible to knock anyone, Hornblower included, into a 'cocked hat', this of necessity having been worn quite tightly on the head and therefore being full to capacity.