What to read on your first trip to China

Best books about ChinaAs we enter high summer, another cohort of students are preparing to spend their summer or fall semester in China. In the past few years a flurry of books have been published that provide nuanced and up-to-date perspectives on the country for general readers. Here are those CBR most recommends for the best possible sweep of how China’s history, politics, economics, and society interact.

Wealth and Power by Orville Schell and John Delury provides the historical context that has shaped modern China through eleven profiles of leaders and thinkers including Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Readers will find in the nationalistic pride, humiliation, and conflicted feelings about the West captured in these pages a clear path to Xi Jinping’s “China Dream.”

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Dark horizon

Review of Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, by Howard French. Knopf, 2017.

National myths and obsessions have long and consequential half-lives. In the 1590s, Japan’s feudal ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, envisioned his country’s conquest of all of Asia. Its fateful decision to embrace modernity fueled Japanese economic and military power and reinforced its sense of racial superiority. On the other side of the world, as Yale’s Timothy Snyder writes in Black Earth (2015), Hitler conjured a dark ideology mixing distorted history, a radical interpretation of Darwinism, eugenics, and age-old anti-Semitism. These visions enabled the destructive reality of World War II and its enduring consequences.

It is now China that is succumbing to the dangers of national mythmaking, according to Howard French’s new book, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power. In a breathless opening chapter, French, a former bureau chief for the New York Times, abandons the cool observation that marked his last book on China’s growing influence in Africa, to warn that the risk of conflict in Asia is high and potentially unavoidable.

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Meritocracy with Chinese characteristics

Review of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, by Daniel Bell. Princeton University Press, 2015.

As natural as it may seem for the more than three billion people in countries where it has taken root, in the grand sweep of history the idea that ordinary people should choose their own leaders is still revolutionary. Nonetheless, a kind of ideological hegemony has taken hold wherever democracy flourishes. Defenders habitually quote Churchill’s quip that democracy is “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” Others have heralded democracy as “the end of history”; in other words, the form of government that is most morally legitimate, stable, and likely to secure peace and prosperity.

China, according to Daniel Bell’s book, The China Model¸ ought to challenge this hypothesis. Bell, a professor and political theorist at Tsinghua University in Beijing, makes the case for what he terms “political meritocracy,” the selection of leaders “in accordance with ability and virtue” (6) and not by the ballot. Political meritocracy, he argues, is a distinct form of government separate from a despotic authoritarianism in which power is held by the threat of force, not merit. The book is as thought-provoking as it is frustrating, earning The China Model a place on as many “best of” lists last year as it did strident rebuttals.

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Banking on China

Review of Dealing with China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower, by Henry M. Paulson, Jr. Twelve, 2015.

Years after the conversation happened, a senior Western executive still relished telling me how much the compliment meant to him when a high Communist Party official told him “the words that all of us who have worked in China long to hear: that I was ‘a friend of China.'” That friendship is not without a certain price. Sometimes, the longer one knows someone, the less one truly understands him at all.

Count possibly among these blinded friends Hank Paulson, former chief of Goldman Sachs and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, who has recently published his account of more than three decades Dealing With China. The China Paulson knows is a deeply pragmatic one, committed to economic reform. But the China Paulson professes to know is an incomplete one, one that excludes the undercurrents of nationalism and ideology that so many other China watchers consider grave risks. For Paulson, they are little more than impediments to the next deal.

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A new empire?

Review of China’s Second Continent: How a Million New Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, by Howard W. French. Knopf. 2014.

For the past decade, the West has been obsessed with the narrative of Africa as a continent subject to exploitation by a rising and resource-hungry China. According to Western convention, China, in its rush for resources and wealth, has exerted a corrupting influence upon Africa’s fragile governments. A new book provides the most richly reported and, perhaps, the fairest look yet at how China’s presence is reshaping Africa.

Howard French, a professor at Columbia University and former international correspondent for the Washington Post and New York Times in Africa, China and a host of other locales, is the author of China’s Second Continent. French’s reporting takes him to a dozen African countries and into the lives of a colorful cast of Chinese who, either on their own or as part of state-directed efforts, have found their way to Africa.

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Modern family

Review of The Lius of Shanghai, by Sherman Cochran and Andrew Hsieh. Harvard University Press. 2013.

They were the Chinese Rockefellers. At their head stood Liu Hongsheng, head of a Shanghai industrial empire whose family lived through China’s tumultuous war years beginning with the Japanese invasion and ending with the Communist triumph in 1949. Thanks to a unique trove of thousands of letters, in the Lius of Shanghai, it is his role as a father of nine sons and three daughters (and one of each by two mistresses) that is the center of this captivating piece of Chinese history.

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