The best books on China by Western journalists

Who am I?

For nearly 40 years I have worked at the Wall Street Journal, largely focusing on international economics. I was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Asian and Russian financial crisis. China has been a particular passion. In 1999, I covered the U.S. negotiations with China over its entry to the World Trade Organization, which included side trips to New Zealand and elsewhere for some of the talks. From 2011 to 2014, I was posted in Beijing where I wrote about the Chinese economy and loved getting out to the countryside. Back in Washington, I reported on the deteriorating U.S.-China relationship, especially during the Trump years.

I wrote...

Superpower Showdown: How the Battle Between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War

By Bob Davis, Lingling Wei,

Book cover of Superpower Showdown: How the Battle Between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War

What is my book about?

This is the inside account of the U.S.-China economic struggle starting in the 1990s.  I wrote it with my Wall Street Journal colleague, Lingling Wei, who was the best-sourced American reporter in China until she was expelled in 2020 along with other American journalists. Our book features deep reporting in Beijing as well as Washington D.C., which distinguishes it from many works by U.S. journalists who rely too much on American sources. We focus on the trade war fought by President Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.  Expect lots of scoops and details not available anywhere else.     

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

Why did I love this book?

After China started to open up in the 1980s, there were a spate of books by Westerners about the China that they encountered. None match this evocative portrait of life in a Sichuan Province town on the Yangtzee River. It’s written by a young American Peace Corps volunteer who went on to become a New Yorker writer. It’s a tale of discovery. The students begin to learn about the world outside of China and the writer starts a decades-long romance with Chinese society. Smart, touching, and beautifully written.

By Peter Hessler,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked River Town as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Peter Hessler went to China in the late 1990s, he expected to spend a couple of peaceful years teaching English in the town of Fuling on the Yangtze River. But what he experienced - the natural beauty, cultural tension, and complex process of understanding that takes place when one is thrust into a radically different society - surpassed anything he could have imagined. Hessler observes firsthand how major events such as the death of Deng Xiaoping, the return of Hong Kong to the mainland, and the controversial consturction of the Three Gorges Dam have affected even the people of…

Book cover of Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

Why did I love this book?

China’s remarkable economic rise was powered by the tens of millions of young migrants who left their villages to work hundreds of miles away in the factory sweatshops along China’s southern coast. Many were young women who lived in dormitory-style buildings and put up with financial and sometimes sexual abuse. The women are the subject of this engrossing book by a former Wall Street Journal reporter who follows their journeys. It’s hardly all dire. The cities offer freedom and opportunity too. (Interesting note: Hessler and Chang are married.)

By Leslie T. Chang,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Factory Girls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An eye-opening and previously untold story, Factory Girls is the first look into the everyday lives of the migrant factory population in China.

China has 130 million migrant workers—the largest migration in human history. In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, tells the story of these workers primarily through the lives of two young women, whom she follows over the course of three years as they attempt to rise from the assembly lines of Dongguan, an industrial city in China’s Pearl River Delta.

As she tracks their lives, Chang paints a…

Book cover of The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers

Why did I love this book?

The Chinese Communist Party is a mystery and this book is the best journalistic guide to try to understand it. This book inspired my reporting in China. It made me understand that the party is at the heart of every important decision made by Beijing though its decision-making is rarely visible. Written by a former Financial Times reporter, the book documents the big role the party plays in everything from picking the CEOs of China’s biggest firms to revamping the military.

By Richard McGregor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Party as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A masterful depiction of the party today. . . . McGregor illuminates the most important of the contradictions and paradoxes. . . . An entertaining and insightful portrait of China’s secretive rulers.” —The Economist

“Few outsiders have any realistic sense of the innards, motives, rivalries, and fears of the Chinese Communist leadership. But we all know much more than before, thanks to Richard McGregor’s illuminating and richly-textured look at the people in charge of China’s political machinery. . . . Invaluable.” — James Fallows, National Correspondent for The Atlantic

In this provocative and illuminating account, Financial Times reporter Richard McGregor…

Book cover of The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present

Why did I love this book?

We are used to thinking about how much China has changed in the past 50 years, thanks to the actions of the United States. But we rarely think about China’s historic impact on the U.S. This magisterial book by a former Washington Post reporter with long experience in China corrects that imbalance. There is a reason the author uses 1776 in his subhead. The tea tossed into Boston Harbor was shipped from Xiamen, and America’s founders were inspired by Chinese society which they viewed as a meritocracy. China’s democratic reformers looked to the U.S. for inspiration too.

By John Pompfret,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Remarkable History of the Two-Centuries-Old Relationship Between the United States and China, from the Revolutionary War to the Present Day

From the clipper ships that ventured to Canton hauling cargos of American ginseng to swap for Chinese tea, and the Yankee missionaries who brought Christianity and education to China, to the Chinese who built the American West, the United States and China have always been dramatically intertwined. While we tend to think of America’s ties with China as starting in 1972 with the visit of President Richard Nixon to China, the patterns---rapturous enchantment followed by angry disillusionment---were set in…

Book cover of The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

Why did I love this book?

This is a fun read about a forgotten history. The writer, a former Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal reporter, masterfully tells the tale of two Baghdadi Jewish families – Sasoon and Kadoorie—who helped shape the economy and society of Shanghai. The families are both heroes and villains. Much of their money came from the opium trade, but they also helped turn Shanghai into a Jewish refuge from the Nazis. 

By Jonathan Kaufman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Last Kings of Shanghai as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"In vivid detail... examines the little-known history of two extraordinary dynasties."--The Boston Globe

"Not just a brilliant, well-researched, and highly readable book about China's past, it also reveals the contingencies and ironic twists of fate in China's modern history."--LA Review of Books

An epic, multigenerational story of two rival dynasties who flourished in Shanghai and Hong Kong as twentieth-century China surged into the modern era, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist

The Sassoons and the Kadoories stood astride Chinese business and politics for more than one hundred seventy-five years, profiting from the Opium Wars; surviving Japanese occupation; courting Chiang Kai-shek; and…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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