The best books on understanding modern China

George Magnus Author Of Red Flags: Why XI's China Is in Jeopardy
By George Magnus

Who am I?

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.

The books I picked & why

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

By Scott Rozelle, Natalie Hell,

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

Why 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. 

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

By Yuen Yuen Ang,

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

Why 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.

The Chinese Economy: Adaptation and Growth

By Barry J. Naughton,

Book cover of The Chinese Economy: Adaptation and Growth

Why 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.

The World According to China

By Elizabeth C. Economy,

Book cover of The World According to China

Why 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.

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

By Clive Hamilton, Mareike Ohlberg,

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

Why 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.

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