The SupChina Book List — sort by genre: Politics
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Elizabeth C. Economy (Oxford University Press, 2018)
The Third Revolution, which begins with Xi Jinping’s rise to power and details his desire to “project the current Chinese political and economic development model globally,” is a smart, compact, carefully assembled primer on high-level Chinese political thinking today, answering the questions of why China is the way it is, what Beijing wants, and how the U.S. should respond. In the short time since the book’s publication, one feels it could already use an addendum to address the techno-trade war that has dominated recent headlines, but Elizabeth C. Economy — who is the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations — makes an observation in the book’s final chapter that feels pertinent no matter the state of U.S.-China affairs: “China can and should be an important U.S. partner whenever possible.”
— Anthony Tao
Louisa Lim (Oxford University Press, 2014)
The protests and bloodshed around Tiananmen Square in 1989 is well documented, but The People’s Republic of Amnesia is about much more. There was a second massacre in Chengdu, for instance, one of the many cities around China where protesters flocked to the streets in support of the demonstrators in Beijing. Lim also delves into the battle between those who want to remember June 4 and those who want it forgotten in lieu of the story of China’s remaking ever since. The most poignant tales come from the Tiananmen Mothers, a collective of aging parents who have been campaigning tirelessly for the government to officially recognize their children’s deaths on the night of June 3 and early morning of June 4. With riveting firsthand accounts of those who stood on both sides of the violence, Lim’s book ensures that at least for her readers, this date won’t be forgotten.
— Amy Hawkins
Julian Gewirtz (Harvard University Press, 2017)
The three decades of China under Mao have been extensively written about by scholars and laymen, dissected by historians and theorists, and they still loom large in the Western imagination of China. But as China marks the 40th anniversary of Reform and Opening, the nuts and bolts of that economic revolution are far less better understood. Julian Gewirtz’s Unlikely Partners tells the story of the Chinese economists and their foreign counterparts who helped build the foundation of the socialist market economy. Zhao Ziyang — Deng Xiaoping’s economics majordomo — oversees a vast economic experiment, struggling against the hardliners and trying to corral the reformers while also figuring out how to incorporate the prescriptions and theories of Western economists like James Tobin, János Kornai, and Lawrence Klein.
— Dylan Levi King
Jude Blanchette (Oxford University Press, 2019)
The story of China’s transition from the chaotic ideological morass of Maoism to the embrace of market economics during the decades of reform and opening that began in December 1979 has tended to be Whiggish in its telling. In his first book, Jude Blanchette complicates and challenges that narrative, turning his lens on the conservative reaction to reform from the immediate post-Mao period to the present, focusing on leftist figures like Chen Yun and Deng Liqun, and on online neo-Maoist websites like Utopia. With lively writing and a great capacity for empathy, Blanchette rescues his subjects from the simplistic caricature to which they’d been relegated in many accounts.
— Kaiser Kuo
Zhào Zǐyáng 赵紫阳, translated and edited by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, Adi Ignatius (Simon and Schuster, 2009)
In 1987, it was possible to believe that the liberal reforms which had pulled China out of the Mao era would continue indefinitely. Zhao Ziyang was a big reason for that optimism: He was elevated to General Secretary of the Party that year, at the relatively young age of 68. But you probably know what happened next: Impatient with the speed of the reforms and upset at the proliferation of corruption, students took to the Beijing streets in April 1989, culminating in a bloody crackdown two months later that not only derailed China’s progressive course, but ruined a generation of the country’s best and brightest.
Zhao Ziyang was merely the most prominent of Tiananmen’s victims, spending the last 16 years of his life under house arrest. But that time wasn’t passed in complete silence: He secretly recorded his recollections in a set of tapes, 30 in total, each about an hour long, and had friends smuggle them out. Four years after his death, transcriptions of those tapes were published as the book Prisoner of the State, giving the public its first truly intimate look inside the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party.
In his journal, Zhao recounts, in agonizing detail, the battle within the walls of Zhongnanhai between himself and conservative rivals, and how Zhao’s faction might have persuaded Deng Xiaoping to pursue a different course of action…if only. If only, for instance, Zhao had not been called away for business in North Korea in late April; if only Li Peng hadn’t published a scathing People’s Daily editorial under Deng’s name while Zhao was gone; if only martial law had not been declared, which only invigorated the demonstrators; and so on. There is an alternative reality in which the Tiananmen protests are not violently suppressed, and China does not go on to fill its moral vacuum with hard-hearted materialistic pursuit. We realize, reading Zhao’s memoir, how tantalizingly close we were to that reality — and in the process understand the possibility that people like him still lurk behind the opaque curtains of the central government. Even in death, Zhao remains a source for hope.
— Anthony Tao
Susan Shirk (Oxford University Press, 2007)
As protest and conflict continue to rage in Hong Kong, Susan Shirk’s 12-year-old book about the fundamental insecurity of the Chinese government proves both eerily prescient and more relevant than ever. While Fragile Superpower, originally published in 2007, focused mainly on the frightening prospect of international conflict over other regional hotspots — her opening salvo, an imagined collision between U.S. and Chinese fighter jets in Taiwanese airspace and the messy aftermath, was all too vividly portrayed — Shirk’s takeaway message has unfortunately withstood the test of time: The Chinese government is more terrified of internal regime breakdown than external conflict.
In particular, her analysis of the dynamics of state-curated nationalism and the dangers it poses in terms of ultimately backing government actors into a corner is presented in a manner that is as accessible as it is foreboding. At the same time, subsequent events have proven less kind to some of her other conclusions; Shirk’s repeated entreaty that reason will prevail over raw emotion in responding to China’s many sins is less self-evident in an age of mass detentions in re-education camps. Nevertheless, adding to the sense of authority and immediacy to be found throughout the work is the fact that Fragile Superpower was written following Shirk’s stint as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia during the second Clinton administration, and draws directly on her firsthand experience working closely with Chinese officials. That makes this book a treasured staple of political science classes and general interest audiences alike, a rare work that seamlessly crosses the boundaries that ordinarily separate academic, journalistic, and political takes on otherwise well-trod ground. This invaluable message in a bottle is a timely and compelling reminder that the more things change in China, at its insecure core, the more the Party stays the same.
— Siodhbhra Parkin
Orville Schell and John Delury (Random House, 2013)
Through lengthy historical profiles of 11 iconoclasts who changed China — all reformers or revolutionaries in one way or another — this wonderful book shows how China traveled the road from the Qing Dynasty to today, driven by the same quest for 富強 fùqiáng: wealth and power.
We are introduced at the start to Wei Yuan and Feng Guifen, two 19th-century scholars who pioneered the 自強 zìqiáng, or “self-strengthening school,” and warned of the growing gulf between China and the West. Then there are the reformers, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao (as well as Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang), whose efforts were met with mixed responses from the Empress Dowager Cixi, the last ruler of the Qing. Next are Sun Yatsen, the 国服 guófú (or “father of the nation” — and its first president, if only for 45 days before military leader Yuan Shikai took over), and New Culture intellectual Chen Duxiu, who was integral to the May Fourth Movement during the early days of the Republic. More familiar figures then emerge, including Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Zhu Rongji — who oversaw China’s economic miracle in the 1990s and early 2000s — and Liu Xiaobo, who protested for political reform and was punished severely for it.
The individuals profiled are helpfully collated with chronologies, quotes, and multimedia resources at Asia Society’s “Wealth and Power Book Project,” which gives a clear and concise overview of a century and a half of China’s modern history and the visionaries who shaped it. China’s pursuit of power and prestige continues today with Xi Jinping, China’s latest reshaper, who would make for a fine epilogue in a new edition of Wealth and Power — a man whose legacy is open-ended but sure to create a lasting imprint on Chinese history.
— Alec Ash
Richard McGregor (Harper, 2010)
One evening in Beijing in the late 1990s, Rupert Murdoch quipped to fellow dinner guests that he had yet to meet any Communists during his trips to China. The modern rulers of the Middle Kingdom might not be the Marxist ideologues Murdoch imagined, but they operate very much like the Communists of old: behind an opaque screen, with a hard grip over the military and state apparatus.
One of the guests at Murdoch’s dinner was the veteran journalist Richard McGregor. In The Party, he draws from years of reporting and scholarly analysis to pierce through the red fog and shed light on the Chinese Communist Party, a deeply powerful yet often misunderstood organization. Ambitious in scope and rich in detail, the book offers an acute dissection and vivid accounting of the Party’s roles, how it operates, and the reasons behind its longevity. Published in 2010, The Party predated the reign of Xi Jinping, but as the current Chinese leader expands and tightens the Party’s control over all sectors of society, the book feels particularly timely, even prescient. By reading it, one understands that the Party is always the big boss, deriving its authority not from any one individual at the helm, but an expansive system — one that creates and enables power-brokers and abusers of that same power.
— Yangyang Cheng
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