The best books to understand China today

Who am I?

A Seattle-based author, I have written eight books, including When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China’s Reawakening, about the eight years I spent as Business Week’s reporter covering China, 1982-1990. In it, I give readers an inside look at China’s transformation from Maoism to modernity. A fluent speaker of Mandarin, I have traveled widely in China for over forty years and befriended Chinese people at many levels of society, leading me to a strong belief in the importance of direct cross-cultural communication and deepened mutual understanding.


I wrote...

When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China's Reawakening

By Dori Jones Yang,

Book cover of When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China's Reawakening

What is my book about?

The best books by foreign correspondents give readers a deep look inside another country at a particularly pivotal moment of history. I was fortunate to be a U.S. correspondent covering China during the 1980s, just as it began opening to the outside world. This book weaves my personal story as a young woman in a male-dominated profession—who met and married a Chinese man—with the dramatic ups and downs of China’s early experiments with capitalism. Today we are witnessing another pivotal moment in US-China relations, and it’s important for English speakers to seek out the “story behind the story.”

The books I picked & why

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The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China

By Frank Langfitt,

Book cover of The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China

Why this book?

By offering free taxi rides in Shanghai, long-time NPR correspondent Frank Langfitt opened his ears to a wide variety of ordinary Chinese from all walks of life. Due to the pandemic, Americans haven’t been able to travel in China lately, so this is the closest a reader can get to actual conversations with Chinese people about life in China today. Most do not seem oppressed! Published in June 2019. 


A Village with My Name: A Family History of China's Opening to the World

By Scott Tong,

Book cover of A Village with My Name: A Family History of China's Opening to the World

Why this book?

Also formerly a public radio reporter based in Shanghai, Scott Tong takes us inside his own extended family, scattered across China. Personal stories of the relatives he found reveal not just their troubled histories but also the unvarnished stories of their varying ability to adapt to the opportunities of a modernizing China. Published in March 2019.


The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World

By Dexter Roberts,

Book cover of The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World

Why this book?

I’m not fond of the title, but I like this book because it exposes us readers to a little-known population: China’s poor migrant workers. During many visits over ten years, Bloomberg BusinessWeek Beijing correspondent Tiff Roberts befriended a rural family in impoverished Guizhou Province and their relatives who had found industrial jobs in modern Guangdong. His unusual access lets readers understand a key weakness of modern China: the discontent of those not able to prosper during these decades of modernization. Published in March 2020.


We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China's Surveillance State

By Kai Strittmatter,

Book cover of We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China's Surveillance State

Why this book?

Frankly, it makes me squirm to recommend this book, but it’s a topic we Americans need to understand better. Under Xi Jinping, China has expanded its use of surveillance cameras and begun a “social credit” system to track people who are—and aren’t—following the rules. Kai Strittmatter, who reported from China for a leading German newspaper for more than a decade, relies on strong research and concludes that China is Orwellian. And yet, most Chinese citizens I know do not feel watched and oppressed. I’m eager to get back to China to judge for myself. Published in September 2020.


Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy

By Kishore Mahbubani,

Book cover of Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy

Why this book?

By nature, the American press has a very U.S.-centric view. This author, who served many years as Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations, presents a clear-eyed view of the perspectives of both the U.S. and China, analyzing the motives, history, and values of each. From an impartial standpoint, he gives candid advice on the importance of deeper understanding and concludes that either both countries win or no one wins. Published in March 2020.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in China, the economy, and technology?

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

China Explore 400 books about China
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Technology Explore 51 books about technology

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Great Divergence, The Corpse Walker, and China Made if you like this list.