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.     

The books I picked & why

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River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

By Peter Hessler,

Book cover of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

Why 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.


Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

By Leslie T. Chang,

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

Why 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.)


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

By Richard McGregor,

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

Why 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.


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

By John Pompfret,

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

Why 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.


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

By Jonathan Kaufman,

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

Why 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. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in China, international relations, and travel?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about China, international relations, and travel.

China Explore 400 books about China
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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like West with the Night, On the Plain of Snakes, and The Road if you like this list.