Fans hold Chinese national flags before the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier match between China and Qatar at Tuodong Stadium on Nov. 15, 2016 in Kunming, China.
Photograph by VCG via Getty Images
By Scott Cendrowski
February 25, 2017

China’s been a tough place to understand recently. Regressive politics, advanced weaponry unveilings, and, despite an economic slowdown, an economy that still hasn’t dipped below 6.5% quarterly growth for two decades running. Is this a mixed authoritarian rule or what?

The mood among U.S. businesses has soured. Many are scaling back investments and a quarter are slowing or pulling out altogether, according to a recent American Chamber of Commerce survey, in which the respondents criticized opaque regulations and Chinese protectionism in what was the most pessimistic outlook on the country in years.

Add in the Trump administration’s attacks, and there’s a renewed importance in trying to understand what’s going on in China.

Its customs, history, and exceptionalism have never been easy to grasp. Lord Macartney’s refusal to kowtow to the Qianlong emperor on his mission from King George III in the late 1700s was an early foreigner frustration in a market that for two hundred years has been too big to ignore, too difficult to conquer.

Here are books that explain the modern China appearing in the headlines. (Fortune published another list back in 2015.) Some are business focused, some political, some cultural. Every topic seems equally important in understanding China today.

Mr. China, Tim Clissold

Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

So many companies lose piles of money in China because China’s business market is just different from the West’s. (Ask Uber.) No one explains the differences from the front lines better than Tim Clissold, who’s been in China as a student, partner to Wall Street’s first mega investor in the Middle Kingdom (Jack Perkowski), founder of a carbon trading business, and sought-after consultant. Clissold, an even-tempered Brit with a real respect for Chinese culture, is an ideal narrator for Mr. China, which follows the swaggering Perkowski’s $400 million gamble on becoming China’s first foreign private equity investor. Together they find misadventure, deceit, and corruption at every turn—in other words, typical Chinese business. A beautiful, funny writer, Clissold creates everlasting narratives (including one around a Mr. Shi, who “smoked continuously, fretting about his health at the same time”) amid countless business clashes that anyone interested in China will find revealing.

Chinese Rules, Tim Clissold

Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

Clissold’s second book may be even better than his best-selling Mr. China. After a stint at Goldman Sachs recovering distressed assets in China, a decade ago he entered the then-hot carbon trading market. Chinese Rules is part memoir of ultimately failed-businesses (China’s entire carbon trading business went in the pits) and part history lesson tracing back centuries on how the Chinese approach conflict, in business and otherwise. As Clissold puts up with duplicity on deals worth tens of millions of dollars, every reader will be amazed. “Western methods of dealing with conflict rely mainly on the use of overwhelming firepower at a decisive moment,” Clissold writes. “China’s concepts of conflicts are the polar opposite; they rely not on overwhelming firepower but on silence, stealth, surprise, manipulation, and deceit.”

The 100-Year Marathon, Michael Pillsbury

Courtesy of MacMillan Publishers

China’s Communist Party has a 100-year plan to supplant the U.S. as the global superpower by mid-century, according to Pillsbury, a former U.S. Defense Department official. That may not be surprising for a one-party state like China. But what is surprising, says Pillsbury, is how little the U.S. knows of China’s intentions. Until recently, China gained financial support from the U.S. and western countries under the U.S.’s policy of ‘constructive engagement,’ which U.S. officials said would change China into a democracy eventually, but which has only empowered China’s autocratic leaders. Now China is becoming more assertive as it senses America’s declining power, and China’s political hawks, Pillsbury argues, are more influential than they once appeared.

Chinese Lessons, John Pomfret

Courtesy of MacMillan Publishers

Pomfret was one of the first American exchange students allowed into China after it opened to the world in the late 1970s. At Nanjing University, he befriended four classmates whose experiences he traces two decades later when they reunite. What results is a sometimes hilarious, often sober, and always illustrative narrative. The four had horrific experiences during the Cultural Revolution; one denounced her father, while another spent his time in the country’s far reaches. Pomfret details the human cost of China’s chosen path of development over the last 30 years.

Wish Lanterns, Alec Ash

Courtesy of Arcade Publishing

The new generation of Chinese millennials doesn’t bear the same baggage as previous generations, but life is just as tiring in some respects. Ash weaves together the stories of six average young people born after 1986 into a fast-flowing narrative. There’s the daughter of a Communist Party official who’s drawn to nationalistic politics after visiting the U.S., and Dahai, who despite his engineering salary, like many middle-class Chinese, can’t afford housing in the major cities. (One example: Beijing housing prices, at 1.2 times the average salary, rank as the world’s least affordable.) How the more liberal, optimistic and apolitical attitudes of China’s young generation react to China’s current regressive politics is a question for today, and one Ash’s characters begin to answer.

The Last Days of Old Beijing, Michael Meyer

Courtesy of Walker Books

If you come to China, chances are you come to Beijing. The gleaming airport and central business district buildings are what the government wants visitors to see, but it’s not where most of the country’s coveted 1.4 billion consumers are to be found. They live in the Soviet-style apartment buildings and a few in the city’s old tiny alleyways, hutongs, which is where Michael Meyers’ story resides. China’s modern history is Beijing, and Beijing’s history is one of destruction and progress. Meyers describes the lifestyles of some common Beijing residents, who have shockingly Spartan surroundings even though Beijing houses the country’s richest residents. (The paradox of China is that even though aggregate income is high, the average worker earns about as much as one from the Dominican Republic.) Your next Chinese banquet hosts might be impressed about your knowledge of the ancient hutongs.

Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

The Chinese Communist Party fears a Soviet-type collapse of power so much so that Party schools have studied the Soviet downfall for years. The fear seems fresh today. As President Xi Jinping’s administration further tightens control of media and stamps out voices of dissent, in reverse of what many Chinese watchers expected when he assumed power, the U.S.S.R. must not be far from its mind. The Pulitzer-prize winning book from David Remnick, the New Yorker’s editor, explains in searing detail the paranoia and corruption of the last generation of Soviet leaders that failed to hold onto power and adapt to markets, as China’s nominally “Communist” Party has.

Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built, Duncan Clark

Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

In his history of China’s most ambitious company, Duncan Clark explains why Alibaba beat then-red hot eBay in China, and the rest of the Chinese strivers in the early 2000s. It comes down to one person: Jack Ma. Less a hagiography than unknown history, Clark’s access to Ma and insiders gives the impression of a slick salesman climbing to the top of the Chinese global community. Ma stays one step ahead of competitors and investors both, such as the time Ma transferred Alipay to his own company for a mere $50 million without telling Alibaba’s major shareholders Yahoo and Softbank; Alipay was last valued at $60 billion. Understanding Ma may be the key to understanding the future of big business in China.

The China Fantasy, James Mann

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

As China’s politics regress under Xi Jinping’s administration—high-profile human rights lawyers are being thrown into jail, media is increasingly censored, U.S. companies complain more about access—policies toward China are newly relevant in Washington and middle America.

Mann traces the promises made by U.S. business and political elites before China entered the World Trade Organziation and other trade deals. The U.S. leaders predicted political liberalization. (George W. Bush once said, “As China reforms its economy, its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed.” Bill Clinton called unrestricted trade with China “the best way to integrate China further into the family of nations and to secure our interest and our ideals.”) Now, political reform seems the furthest thing from China’s mind. “The world’s increased commercial involvement with China over the past two decades has made foreign leaders more reluctant to do anything in response to Chinese crackdowns, lest the Chinese regime retaliate,” Mann wrote in a column last year. His book, published back in 2007, is still relevant in describing how the West got there, and what it might do now.

China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know, Arthur Kroeber

Courtesy of Oxford University Press

If you forget the bland title, more books about China’s economy should follow Kroeber’s lead. The economist at independent researcher Gavekal Dragonomics lays out China’s complicated economic landscape in simplified ways so you can leave with an argument about the direction China’s economy is headed without needing the blustery arguments on each side of boom or bust. (Kroeber himself subscribes to a middle ground.) He interviews company heads and policy makers to liven the primers on China’s middle class (last count, 330 million people, and incomes ranging from $13,500 to $20,550), housing (yes China’s market is distorted, but not a bubble) and Xi’s market reforms (don’t hold out hope). Kroeber distills the research behind all the economic headlines facing China today to create something useful: an understandable take on everything important.

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