12 Books on China

European Straits #120

Nicolas Colin

Dear all,

I am currently travelling in Mainland China. The consequence is that I’m behind the Great Firewall, and with a heavy schedule. Because I knew in advance it would be difficult to prepare this newsletter late Tuesday as usual, I wrote and scheduled it right before boarding my plane a few days ago.

Given those constraints, I thought I would keep it simple, offering you a list of thinkers that have helped me understand China since I really started studying it two years ago. Below is the list (in alphabetical order) and a highlight of each of the author’s most important recent work on China. (Also: I hope more women start writing on China 👩‍🎓. If you know of any I should be following, do let me know!)

1/ Graham T. Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China avoid the Thucydides trap? (2017)

A significant amount of China-related work focuses on the relationship between China and the US. Those who know history recognize that the two countries once overcame their ideological differences to forge a strategic alliance against the Soviet Union. But now that the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore, US-China relations have evolved from an alliance to a partnership to a complicated relationship that could evolve into actual war. This is what Allison calls the “Thucydides Trap”: the high probability that the rising power of the day (China) eventually goes to war against the dominant one (the US).

2/ Duncan Clark, Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built (2018)

Duncan is an investment banker. He’s also passionate about China, where he’s spent most of his time for the past 20+ years, and he even speaks the language. This makes him an unusual character: an experienced, business-savvy Westerner who is able to decipher China from the inside—and to write about it. He also had the extraordinary opportunity of being an early advisor to Alibaba’s Jack Ma when the retail giant was just a frail venture operated from a shabby apartment in Hangzhou. The result of that unique experience is this great book—a compelling story about the rise and future of Alibaba.

3/ Elizabeth C. Economy, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State (2018)

President Xi Jinping has been fascinating diplomats and scholars for quite some time. When he came to power in 2012, the widespread assumption was that he was a “reformer” and that under his watch China would continue to combine economic reforms with democratic ouvertures. But the reality turned out to be different. On the institutional front, it has been more about fighting corruption than about liberalization. And on the economic front, Xi is focused on Central Asia and Africa more than on the West. In her landmark book, Elizabeth Economy deciphers Xi’s worldview and approach to government.

4/ Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World (2009)

Martin Jacques is a singular character: a British scholar, he was long the editor of Marxism Today, the now-disappeared, long-respected theoretical magazine of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He first got interested in Asia through his wife, the late Harinder Veriah. And after she tragically passed away in Hong Kong in 2000, he eventually dedicated 10 years of his life to researching and writing this monumental book. It is a breathtaking, erudite volume, which revisits the depth of China’s history and culture and makes the compelling case that the country’s modernization isn’t synonymous with Westernization.

5/ Henry Kissinger, On China (2011)

Building a bridge between US president Richard Nixon and China’s Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in 1971 remains Henry Kissinger’s most impressive diplomatic tour de force. Much has been written about it over the years, but we had to wait until 2011 before Kissinger himself offered a detailed account of the whole story. The result is a book that is fascinating in many respects. Kissinger has a crisp and enlightening style of writing that is typical of a non-native speaker. And beyond the details of his conversations with Zhou Enlai, he offers a fascinating perspective on China’s history, culture, and approach to diplomacy.

6/ Kai-Fu Lee, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order (2018)

Kai-Fu Lee, once the head of Google China and now a successful venture capitalist, offers here the most accurate account of the current rivalry between the US and China in the tech world. Not only is the book enlightening on the stakes and consequences of the development of AI, it also lifts the veil on China’s unique entrepreneurial culture and why Chinese tech companies are such a tough match and may well be on the path to global domination. This is a major contribution to understanding why China might become the dominant economic power in the 21st century.

7/ Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: Singapore and the Asian Economic Boom (2011)

Lee Kuan Yew is the founding father of Singapore. But his ties to China are many. He’s of Chinese ethnicity and, as he was a native English speaker, proceeded to . Then, the strategic challenges that Singapore had to tackle when it became independent in 1965 forced Lee to approach China and build a strong relationship with its leaders from the 1970s onward. Finally, Lee soon became one of the world’s preferred elder statesmen, offering his views on a broad range of subjects. His thoughts about China, in particular, are both clearly articulated and illuminating.

8/ Bruno Maçães, The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order (2018)

Bruno Maçães is a former Portuguese politician who once served as Secretary of State for European Affairs. He’s now based in Beijing and has been using his background as a political scientist to focus on the question of Eurasia: how the lines are blurring between what used to be seen as two different continents, and how the territorial continuity is shaping China’s approach to expanding its power and influence on the international stage. Maçães is particularly interested in the Belt and Road initiative and offers the best analysis I know of the infrastructure building effort drawing hundreds of billions in Chinese money.

9/ Richard McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers (2010)

Because we’re Westerners, we assume that we can learn everything about a country’s politics in the newspapers and some additional books. But that is not the case in China, which is not a democracy and where a free press is not a matter of principle. As a result, information on how the Chinese Communist Party actually works is scarce and hard to find. It makes us even more reliant on the insights that a journalist such as Richard McGregor was able to collect while spending years on the ground learning about the inner functioning of China's government. I loved this book that I found entertaining and highly enlightening.

10/ Clay Shirky, Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream (2015)

Clay Shirky wrote this book as he lived in Shanghai. It focuses on the fast, impressive rise of Xiaomi (which in Mandarin literally means “little rice”), one of the leading smartphone manufacturers in China. He details how Xiaomi went to great lengths to innovate beyond just hardware—in software, marketing, and distribution. Shirky’s book is all the more interesting today because Xiaomi has since gone through a fall and rise. He also discusses the constraints that the Chinese government imposes on domestic companies and the extent to which, according to him, it has become a competitive disadvantage.

11/ Edward Slingerland, Trying Not to Try: The Ancient Art of Effortlessness and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity (2014)

Ted Slingerland’s work was recommended to me by one of my China-expert friends: Domitille Germain. Her advice was that before looking into China’s tech scene, I should study ancient Chinese philosophy and understand what makes China so different on so many fronts: social connections, relationship to time, the importance of family, approach to learning, strategy and power. I started with an online video, then went on with Slingerland’s extended educational program on YouTube, then bought the book. And I must say Domitille was right: there’s no better way to learn about China than studying Slingerland's account of China's concepts of wu-wei and de.

12/ Joe Studwell, How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World's Most Dynamic Region (2014)

This book is now a classic. It explains why certain Eastern Asian economies (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Mainland China) escaped what development economists call the “middle income trap” while others (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines) are still pretty much stuck in it. It is illuminating because it reveals the underlying conceptual agenda behind China’s economic reforms since Deng Xiaoping took over in the 1970s. And by abstracting China’s approach to economic development, it also provides us with an understanding of what we in Europe could do.

Warm regards (from Beijing, China),

Nicolas