The best books on understanding modern China

Why am I passionate about this?

I used to be Chief Economist at the UK bank SG Warburg and then at UBS, starting out in 1987 and finally cutting the cord in 2016 as Senior Economic Advisor. I visited China twice or three times a year from about 1994 and then the pandemic intervened. After the financial crisis, I decided that China would be the world’s next big thing. So I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what’s going on there and for the last few years, I've been an associate at the China Centre at Oxford University and SOAS in London. Red Flags was a book I simply had to write. Maybe there’ll be another. We shall see.


I wrote...

Red Flags: Why XI's China Is in Jeopardy

By George Magnus,

Book cover of Red Flags: Why XI's China Is in Jeopardy

What is my book about?

Red Flags is about how China’s unique experience of economic development came to pass, and how and why it has run up against increasingly strong headwinds that pose huge challenges in the coming years. 

Foremost among these are weaning itself off an addiction to debt, rapid population aging, the stall in productivity growth, a sharp leftward lurch in politics and governance, and all taking place in the harshest external environment China has experienced since Mao. Many of these problems of course are of China’s own making and will determine what sort of adversary or threat China will be in the 2020s and after.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China's Rise

George Magnus Why did I love this book?

This book is probably one of the best books on China’s economy and development that’s come out in recent times. Based on years of field research in China, the authors throw an extraordinary spotlight on China’s shortcomings in educational attainment, which is to economic development as wings are to a plane. Interesting comparisons with other countries, how China might slip into a middle income trap, and cognitive learning problems among China’s still largely rural population are not your run-of-the-mill China economy book diet, but these and other things will open your eyes. 

By Scott Rozelle, Natalie Hell,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Invisible China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As the glittering skyline in Shanghai seemingly attests, China has quickly transformed itself from a place of stark poverty into a modern, urban, technologically savvy economic powerhouse. But as Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell show in Invisible China, the truth is much more complicated and might be a serious cause for concern.

China's growth has relied heavily on unskilled labor. Most of the workers who have fueled the country's rise come from rural villages and have never been to high school. While this national growth strategy has been effective for three decades, the unskilled wage rate is finally rising, inducing…


Book cover of China's Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption

George Magnus Why did I love this book?

Everyone knows China has experienced amazingly long and rapid development, but also that in an autocratic country with plenty of laws but no rule of law, corruption is rife. Normally, deeply corrupt countries don’t ‘make it’, but China has, and I found Yuen Yuen Ang’s book an illuminating guide to just how and why a particular form of corruption in China has worked to its advantage. 

She calls this ‘access money’ as opposed to other forms of corruption such as embezzlement, petty bribery, extortion, and thuggery. She shows how to access money while producing perverse and risky outcomes, has actually nurtured investment and growth. It’s an interesting perspective on China’s long economic march since the 1980s, though she concludes that even this form of corruption is now generating problems and changes that will most likely end up undermining Xi Jinping’s China.

By Yuen Yuen Ang,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked China's Gilded Age as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why has China grown so fast for so long despite vast corruption? In China's Gilded Age, Yuen Yuen Ang maintains that all corruption is harmful, but not all types of corruption hurt growth. Ang unbundles corruption into four varieties: petty theft, grand theft, speed money, and access money. While the first three types impede growth, access money - elite exchanges of power and profit - cuts both ways: it stimulates investment and growth but produces serious risks for the economy and political system. Since market opening, corruption in China has evolved toward access money. Using a range of data sources,…


Book cover of The Chinese Economy: Adaptation and Growth

George Magnus Why did I love this book?

Naughton is the grandfather of China economy books, having written prolifically and with great authority on it for what seems like an eternity. This second edition updates his original 2006 work and should be considered a sort of bible, certainly an essential reference, on how China emerged from poverty under Mao to become what it is today. There are no economic or economic policy or structure stones unturned in this tome.

If you are more minded to read an authoritative narrative rather than a sort of handbook, I recommend a much shorter, readable book by the same author, published last year called The Rise of China’s Industrial Policy. It’s also very topical and pertinent to contemporary China discussion.

By Barry J. Naughton,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The new edition of a comprehensive overview of the modern Chinese economy, revised to reflect the end of the “miracle growth” period.

This comprehensive overview of the modern Chinese economy by a noted expert on China's economic development offers a quality and breadth of coverage not found in any other English-language text. In The Chinese Economy, Barry Naughton provides both a broadly focused introduction to China's economy since 1949 and original insights based on his own extensive research. This second edition has been thoroughly revised to reflect a decade of developments in China's economy, notably the end of the period…


Book cover of The World According to China

George Magnus Why did I love this book?

Liz Economy’s grasp of international relations is compelling and insightful as she sets out to explain how China sees itself in the world, especially in the light of the pandemic. Looking to recover its past glory and status, China under Xi Jinping has seized both on what he sees as the West’s economic and political failings, and China’s own accomplishments and size to advance new agendas. At home, a leftward lurch resembles a throwback to the Mao era. In the world, China wants to reshape global institutions to reflect better its interests and to get others, for example in The Belt and Road, to support China’s narratives. 

How Xi intends to do this, whether he is likely to succeed and how the United States and the international community should respond and prepare for the challenge ahead will hold your attention to the last page.

By Elizabeth C. Economy,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An economic and military superpower with 20 percent of the world's population, China has the wherewithal to transform the international system. Xi Jinping's bold calls for China to "lead in the reform of the global governance system" suggest that he has just such an ambition. But how does he plan to realize it? And what does it mean for the rest of the world?

In this compelling book, Elizabeth Economy reveals China's ambitious new strategy to reclaim the country's past glory and reshape the geostrategic landscape in dramatic new ways. Xi's vision is one of Chinese centrality on the global…


Book cover of Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World

George Magnus Why did I love this book?

While it’s important to get a grip on what’s going on inside China, it\s also essential to appreciate how China presents itself and tries to influence the world and a second but rather different book that does this is this one. But instead of looking at China from an international relations point of view, these authors look at how the Communist Party uses agencies and institutions to not only influence politicians, think tanks, universities, and businesses in other countries - which is by no means unique - but also to interfere, which is more exceptional. 

This book makes a number of claims, and while some may be more soundly based than others, readers should look at the themes in the round and will learn a lot of what they might not have suspected r read about before.

By Clive Hamilton, Mareike Ohlberg,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Heavily sourced, crisply written and deeply alarming.' The Times

'This is a remarkable book with a chilling message.' Guardian

The Chinese Communist Party is determined to reshape the world in its image.

Its decades-long infiltration of the West threatens democracy, human rights, privacy, security and free speech. Throughout North America and Europe, political and business elites, Wall Street, Hollywood, think tanks, universities and the Chinese diaspora are being manipulated with money, pressure and privilege. Hidden Hand reveals the myriad ways the CCP is fulfilling its dream of undermining liberal values and controlling the world.


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We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

Book cover of We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

Amy T. Waldman

New book alert!

What is my book about?

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus atUW-Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

Jest established lasting friendships with John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and others, but ultimately, this book tells a universal story of love and hope…

We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

What is this book about?

The entertaining and inspiring story of a stubbornly independent promoter and club owner 

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus at UW–Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

This funny, nostalgia-inducing book details the lasting friendships Jest established…


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