While many of us find ourselves spending more time indoors this summer as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage around the world, the one upside is that we have more time to read and learn about China. Recently we solicited recommendations from our 10 chapters around the world about what they’ve been reading to better understand Chinese society, politics and business. We hope you find a gem among this list!
Culture & Society
A Single Tear tells the story of New China’s development through the eyes of two of its own. In 1951, Wu Ningkun cuts short his studies at the University of Chicago to return to his motherland, seeking to help build a modern nation. He finds a wife – Li Yikai – and starts a family in Beijing, but they are all too soon consumed by the heaving political purges of the Mao era. China watchers will remember Wu as a core character in Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones and as the Chinese translator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City – Fang Fang (trans. Michael Berry)
At the end of January and the onset of COVID-19, one of China’s most celebrated female writers and a Wuhan native, Fang Fang, began to post daily on her Weibo account about life in Wuhan. She quickly amassed a popular following across the Chinese internet. This translation of her blog posts captures how many Chinese people experienced the pandemic and is still highly relevant as many of us continue to face life under lockdown.
The Fat Years – Chan Koonchung
The Fat Years is a Chinese sci-fi novel from 2009 that depicts the chaos that engulfs China when a second financial crisis erupts in 2011. Two years later and no one seems to remember what happened and citizens go about their lives as normal. The lead protagonist, a writer from Hong Kong, sets out to discover what happened to the missing month in 2011 and why a collective amnesia about this month seems to exist. Written by ultra-hip Beijing-based writer Chan Koonchung, pirated copies floated around the Chinese web in the late 2000s and it’s now enjoying a resurgence in both Western and Chinese literary circles.
Politics & International Affairs
Rebel City: Hong Kong’s Year of Water and Fire – Zuraidah Ibrahim and Jeffie Lam
City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong – Anthony Dapiran
Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink – Jeffrey Wasserstrom with Amy Hawkins
Three recently published books provide different perspectives on the situation in Hong Kong. Journalists Zuraidah Ibrahim and Jeffie Lam from the South China Morning Post have edited an anthology filled with diverse pieces from the Post’s reporting over the last year. Their book includes writing on how the protests affected the police as well as how it affected the protesters and includes less well-known perspectives such as those of migrant workers and ethnic minorities who were involved in the protests.
The second book comes from Anthony Dapiran, a writer, journalist and long-term Hong Kong resident who provides a first-hand account of Hong Kong’s 2019 ‘summer of discontent’. His affection for his adopted home is evident, as he gives a voice to those who wish for a different Hong Kong and explains how the city’s locals possess a long history of speaking truth to power.
Finally, Vigil is an excellent primer on Hong Kong’s genesis and its ongoing debates about its future. Readers with little background to the current situation will appreciate both its accessibility and depth.
Julia Lovell’s book is a refreshing read about the ongoing interplay between Maoism in China and the rest of the world over the last hundred or so years. There’s a small section on neo-Maoism post-2012, but the most interesting part of this book is its discussion of Maoism in Indonesia, Africa, Peru, India, Nepal and the West.
China, Africa and the Future of the Internet – Iginio Gagliardone
A balanced take about China’s involvement and influence on internet systems and norms in various African countries. Based on on-the-ground reporting and research, Gagliardone argues that rather than imposing a blanket “techno-authoritarianism” on African nations, Chinese companies’ strategies have been highly shaped by individual nations’ social, political and economic differences. Case studies of how internet policy has been shaped by China in more liberal countries like Ghana and Kenya versus more authoritarian countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda make for fascinating reading.
Economics & Business
Bloomberg’s Chief Economist Tom Orlik takes the reader for a quick sprint through China’s waves of economic reform, spelling out systemic problems like shadow banking, local government debt, and a continued reliance on real estate to fuel economic growth. It both details the risks of economic collapse while emphasising how Beijing’s policy toolbox keeps the system in check.
China’s Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption – Yuen Yuen Ang
It’s long been thought that high levels of corruption are inimical to strong economic growth. Yuen Yuen Ang turns this idea on its head, arguing that we need to be more specific about whether corruption involves elites or non-elites and whether it involves theft or exchanges. She writes that China’s continued growth has been in part possible because Chinese corruption is characterised by a profit-sharing model sustained by elite-level exchanges.
Trade Wars are Class Wars: How Rising Inequality Distorts the Global Economy and Threatens International Peace – Matthew C. Klein and Michael Pettis
A very smart background to how international trade conflicts – like the US-China trade war – are, at their core, conflicts that arise from domestic policies that create inequality. Their description of how an imbalance in output and consumption fetters income growth for workers in both the U.S. and China is definitely worth a read.
The latest film from the winner of the Golden Bear award was a nominee for the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year. A beautifully shot noir of the dragnet that envelopes a former crime boss on the run throughout Wuhan.
– Compiled by Jacinta Keast