Books On Modern China

After a year-long hiatus after leaving the country, I’ve recently been getting back into books about China, having just bought China’s Great Economic Transformation (on the Chinese economy, 1979-present) and Mao’s Last Revolution (on the Cultural Revolution). Here are the best books on modern China that I’ve read. (The text for these reviews are taken from my articles on agendabeijing.com).

Martin Jacques – When China Rules The World

Extrapolating the future from the past is always tempting, and that’s what Jacques seems to do here. Assuming that China’s astonishing growth will continue and that with this will come the political liberalisation seen in other Asian economies like Singapore and Taiwan, Jacques sets out a future scheme of China as the essential state, as once was the case – in Asia at least. (His historical section is better, because the facts speak for themselves, but there’s some amazing factoids in there). Jacques is something of an economic determinist (as a former editor of Marxism Today), and downplays the political obstacles before much of this can transpire. In the long term he may be right, but it won’t be the smooth sailing he makes it appear.

Susan Shirk – China: Fragile Superpower

Formerly the US deputy assistant Secretary of State responsible for China under President Clinton, Shirk’s book is an examination of the tensions on the fault-lines of China’s national security structure. With a job remit focused on China’s most sensitive neuralgic areas, she perhaps inevitably sees China as insecure, while the book is also very US-centric. The section on the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 is perhaps the most interesting section, but I came away with a sense that much more could be said. (I really don’t buy the “accident” line). Still, as an introduction to the areas of greatest external tension, this is a useful and interesting book.

G.E. Anderson – Designated Drivers

Policy formation in China is opaque, to say the least. Pronouncements come from as on high, and everyone below better listen up, buddy. This book is a marvellous introduction into Chinese economic policy and the numerous actors – and just because several are state actors does not mean that they are homogenous – behind the scenes, through the prism of the car industry. With the Japanese and South Korean auto industries doing well, China has designs to be a world-player in that area, though it remains some way off. Anderson explains why and how, and what this means for future economic policy development in China.

Wen-Szu Lin – The China Twist

Every single entrepreneur or businessperson thinking about entering the Chinese market should first read this. It is a fascinating story of an attempt to run a franchise business in China and the (very!) numerous pitfalls and problems Lin and his partners encounter. From dissembling agents to crooked officials to dubious partners, the whole cast of China’s rackety business infrastructure is here. The book is both hair-raising and eye-opening: you’ll definitely look at the untold promise of China’s domestic market differently thereafter.

Richard McGregor – The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers

The leader’s compound at Zhongnanhai, as China correspondents from the world over come to realise, is a “black box”. What goes on in there we don’t know. But piecing together stories form news reports and people who do have encounters from those inside, McGregor paints a picture of the Leninist framework underpinning the Chinese state. Its very efficiency is proved by how inconspicuous it is. As one (anonymous) official says, it’s like air: you cannot see it; it’s everywhere.

Henry KissengerOn China

As the Secretary of State to Nixon and architect of the “China policy”, Kissenger’s book is a first rate analysis of relations between the US and China. (The title is something of a misnomer: it should be On Sino-US Diplomacy). Tracing Chinese attitudes and state reactions to waiguoren from the first encounters to Obama, the book is naturally at its most vivid and penetrating when talking about Kissenger’s time as head of the National Security Council then as Secretary of State. Fortunately this comprises the bulk of the book. Kissinger’s explication of the demands of geopolitics and the niceties of diplomacy are fascinating – you literally learn how states interact on a real time basis. On the other hand, his reputation as an obsequious fawner comes through in the exchanges between himself, Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong.

Richard Burger – Behind The Red Door

China has a somewhat schizophrenic reputation as a civilization based on the primacy of the family and one where prostitution is endemic. But as Burger shows, perhaps these two aspects are not as contradictory as you might think – when sexuality is corralled into marriage which are subject to parental approval, there will be desires unmet elsewhere. Thus, pornography, homosexuality, prostitution and affairs receive almost tacit approval. Burger also takes the reader through a whirlwind tour of attitudes and practices, from the permissive Tang to the ludicrously repressive Maoist epochs, and divides subsequent chapters into useful sections, like The Family”, “Homosexuality”, “Dating and Marriage”, “The Sex Trade”. The book is never prurient, but humane and empathetic towards people in their most intimate moments.

Andrew Hupert – The Fragile Bridge

Doing business in China has many pitfalls and necessary strategies. This book of chockful of conflict management and resolution techniques, illuminating subtleties of which you may not have been aware and ways of playing the game, when you didn’t even know which game was being played! This is essential reading for anyone with business to transact, especially anyone conducting negotiations.

Tom Miller – China’s Urban Billion

This book by Tom Miller, managing editor of the China Economic Quarterly, is a timely examination of this “biggest human migration in history”. Miller divides his material into six key areas: an overview of the lives of migrant workers; the hukou system; land grabs; urban construction; ghost towns and urban planning; and transitioning the new urban classes into active economic agents. Perhaps the most consternating chapter is that on the hukou. In some ways it can be shown to be a success – by preventing migrants from coming to large cities willy-nilly, it has prevented Chinese cities from degenerating into the slums and shantytowns which scar India, Brazil and South Africa (for example). On the other hand, the human cost is high. Locking people who work and labor in the cities out of the benefits of living there condemns many to a half-life, trapped between their place of origin and place of work, unable to settle and shorn of their rights. Their living conditions are inevitably dreadful. As with each chapter Miller suggests means for ameliorating the system, one requiring sustained effort and investment from provincial and central government. Given the glacial rate of reform in the Hu-Wen years, one can only hope for a quickening.

Christopher Dillon – Landed China

Landed China is not just tips on buying door handles, or the percentage required for stamp duty (though it does address both). It opens with a historical overview of the housing market in China, which itself is fascinating, though I would have like this to have been both longer and deeper, before going on to examine current market dynamics, bubble concerns and demographics which will shape the future market. Dillon then goes on to the meat of the book: the “Your New Home” and “Finance” sections. The former examines the process of buying property, advises on what and where to buy, gives good advice on renovations (almost all new apartments being sold as empty concrete shells), and then gives a long, useful but rather worrying section on risks. While buying property here is possible, that does not mean it is easy, with scams coming left, right and center, and the buyer suffering from severe information poverty in comparison to developers, agents and banks. If that doesn’t have you running screaming from the very idea of buying a place in China, this might well be the most useful section.

Stanley Chao – Selling To China

Chao repeatedly emphasizes is that business in China is not some mysterious alchemic process. Agreements and partnerships which are mutually beneficial will succeed. This is not to say that it’s actually easy. On the contrary! For SMEs without the clout to make threats to withdraw from China worth attending to, operating here is stuffed with potholes and quagmires. Contracts, which the rule-bound Western mind thinks the last word on agreements, to Chinese should be updated on any change in market conditions. Negotiations will play on the fact that visiting businesspeople are necessarily time-bound and will desire to make the deal, at almost silly lengths. Independent translation is crucial. Choose partners with great care, after numerous visits to plant and office. Sweat the details – cover all the angles where you might be shafted, have a Plan B, and remove all the assumptions implicit in your business plan.

Selling To China is very well organized, with handy chapter reviews, a sensible progression through the material (from personal relations to the complexities of JVs and WOFEs) and a summarizing final thirteen rules for doing business in China. Chao – MD of a consulting firm assisting companies make it in China – clearly knows his stuff, and peppers the narrative with anecdotes and hard-won experience. For this, and its common sense, street-smarts and savoir-faire, this is a great book for anyone interested in entering the Chinese market.

Michael Griffiths – Consumers and Individuals In China

Taking a poststructuralist perspective on sociological and ethnographic practices, Michael Griffiths (Director of Ethnography, Ogilvy & Mather Greater China) examines various aspects of day-to-day urban Chinese life, as lived in the city of Anhan, Liaoning province. With empathy and humane understanding, Griffiths shows how individuals claim agency within the everyday structures they find in their environment. For example, in the “Sociability” chapter, he shows how the rules of courtesy and face must be negotiated to maintain social status. Some will refuse a dinner that they cannot reciprocate, even if it’s made clear that no return is expected or desired; some may strive too hard to claim generosity as a social distinction when the intimacy it relies upon has not actually been formed; while yet others, lacking the everyday means to treat others, prefer to formalise their munificence into “a rare orgy of success”.

What is most pleasing is the sense that Griffiths really knows what he’s talking about. Living in Anshan for several years conducting field research, he evidently engaged in local life in a real grassroots manner. Too often talk of “Chinese consumers” has referred to the high-end, high net-worth end of the market, omitting the lives and cultures of the 99%. Griffiths’ book however sets itself squarely within the migrant workers, low-scale entrepreneurs, farmers and former factory workers of Anshan. This shows to the benefit of each section, where he records the rites and rituals of Chinese life, and also gives (often pungent) tastes of local opinion on these areas. This is no bland marketing exercise, but rather a frank truth-telling. Long-term expats will find themselves nodding in agreement and recognition, particularly if they have lived outwith the major cities.

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One thought on “Books On Modern China

  1. Surprised you didn’t have Jonathan Watts’ When A Billion Chinese Jump in this list; one of the more notable China books of the last five years.

    Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow is a great account of dissidents, but I suppose a little bit older than most of these.

    Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China is the best general book on China I’ve read. The man writes so bloody well: his God’s Chinese Son (about the Taiping Rebellion) and The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci read like novels; not just the two best books I’ve read on Chinese history, but pretty much the two best history books, period. I rather wish he’d got a shot at covering the Opium Wars before Julia Lovell.

    Getting rather out of your category now, but Ronald Bickers has a wonderful little book called Empire Made Me, which reconstructs the life story of a working class Brit who came to China to serve in the Shanghai Police after WWI. Much of what it reveals about expat life is horrifyingly unchanged to this day.

    And I’ve just read with one of the English classes in my school Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village, which is about the Henan blood-selling scandal of the mid-90s (my kids, alas, tend to dismiss this as “ancient history”, and no longer relevant!).

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