Illustration for The China Project by Chelsea Feng

From reform-era history and present-day policy to wartime history and protest fiction, we round up our top picks from the China bookshelf of 2022.

Once an occasional treat from eccentric foreign correspondents, China books are now coming out thick and fast — often with the same covers, some alarmist, others apologist, sometimes from writers who’ve never spent meaningful time inside the mainland. Yet as understanding China becomes more critical, there is also a wealth of information and insight among them. Among the bumper crop of 2022, a few titles rose to the top. Here is the selection from The China Project contributors and editors for this past year (with apologies for the many fine books we had to miss in the interests of brevity).

Recommended by Mike Cormack:

China After Mao by Frank Dikötter

Dikötter’s “People’s Trilogy” (Mao’s Great Famine, The Tragedy of Liberation, The Cultural Revolution) records in agonizing detail some of the most harrowing moments of the Mao era. It was always going to be interesting to see how he handled economic rejuvenation under Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平, and diplomatic triumphs under Jiāng Zémín 江泽民 and Hú Jǐntāo 胡锦涛, from the return of Hong Kong in 1997 to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Dikötter handles this broad sweep of history well, giving due credit to Huá Guófēng 华国锋 for initiating opening up, and showing how leaders made their way by feeling the stones. His main point is that Party leaders had an iron determination to maintain power — despite the wishful thinking of Western leaders — though he fails to explore how power might have been retained or formalized without leading back to autocracy under Xí Jìnpíng 习近平.

The World According to China by Elizabeth Economy

Some books on China policy add depth and color to recent reporting without really examining the foundations. Economy’s book, however, locates Chinese foreign policy and diplomatic behavior within a coherent (or at least settled) governing philosophy and policy framework. By examining areas from China’s digital governance to its efforts to claim a stake in Arctic governance (as a “near-Arctic” nation), the book reveals that China aims to reorder the world — or return to a world — with itself as a main locus of power, distributing largesse in return for acknowledgement of its greatness. “China doesn’t just want you to comply with its wishes, it wants you to think in such a way that you will, of your own volition, do what it wants without being told,” she quotes a foreign minister as saying. The World According to China is a smart and hard-headed examination of China’s diplomatic goals as seen through the prism of a Washington insider.

The Avoidable War by Kevin Rudd

Kevin Rudd’s background as a Sinologist and experience as former prime minister of Australia combine in The Avoidable War. It’s a typically scholarly (but disappointingly impersonal) tour through what Rudd feels are Xi Jinping’s “concentric circles of interest” — organized like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The first and most important circle is “the politics of staying in power,” both for Xi and for the Party. The second is “securing national unity,” and so on, until the 10th circle, “changing the global rules-based order.” This is a neat and useful framework, though by spending so much time addressing and categorizing Xi’s priorities, you might prefer to hear more about the personalities involved, and how Chinese diplomacy moved to a more aggressive stance in the late 2000s. Rudd’s prescriptions are sensible, but they assume that if we understand motivations, we can work on rational, utilitarian outcomes. Sometimes, people and nations do not act rationally.

Recommended by Kaiser Kuo:

Kingdom of Characters by Jing Tsu

The most compelling works of history tell a big story through a well-chosen vehicle: a legal case, a commodity, a technology. In Kingdom of Characters, Jing Tsu, a professor of East Asian languages and literature at Yale, narrates how the Chinese language overcame many challenges so that it could be transliterated, typed, telegraphed, and eventually entered onto computers and mobile phones. In this, Tsu has found an ideal vehicle for telling the story of modern China. She also manages to hang each chapter on relatively obscure individuals whose struggles reveal so much about the times in which they lived, with a fascinating cast of characters who are wrestling with historical change or indeed are its active agents. This beautifully written and well-researched book will leave the reader feeling intellectually enriched.

Surveillance State by Josh Chin and Liza Lin

Books written by journalists on subjects they’ve covered over the years can often read like old reporting that’s been re-warmed and stitched together. This is decidedly not the case with Surveillance State. Josh Chin and Liza Lin draw on their extensive reporting about China’s powerful technology-enabled surveillance capabilities and the part they play in repression, especially in Xinjiang. But what makes the book truly stand out are its dispassionate explorations into the mentality that underlies surveillance, as well as the origins of that mentality. The authors examine the ways in which hi-tech surveillance has been used and abused in other countries, too, including in the U.S., and even the benefits that many in China believe that surveillance can bring to the management of cities.

Overreach by Susan Shirk

Susan Shirk, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific under the Clinton administration, has long been a keen observer of how domestic Chinese politics shape China’s foreign relations. In her latest book, she lays out her theory of how China’s overreach grew in large part out of the deliberately collective leadership style of the Hu Jintao years (2003 to 2013) — setting the stage for Xi Jinping’s reimposition of a more centralized rule that only brought on further overreach. The book’s title, which appears to lay the blame for Beijing’s aggressive posture squarely at China’s feet, is somewhat misleading: A great deal of the book focuses on how American overreaction also contributed to the downward spiral in the bilateral relationship. Shirk offers a thorough account of how we got here, and is unsparing in her critique of missteps on both sides of the Pacific.

Recommended by Alec Ash:

Deadly Quiet City by Murong Xuecun

Mùróng Xuěcūn 慕容 雪村, a dissident author and novelist, has been a thorn in China’s shoe for decades. So after Wuhan’s lockdown was lifted in March 2020, of course he traveled there to interview citizens about their experience. Through eight profiles — including a doctor, a citizen journalist, and various residents under lockdown — he paints a picture in compelling prose of a city struggling with both isolated uncertainty and autocratic censorship. Murong brushed up against the latter himself, when he was forced out of the city for trying to document this all, and eventually left the country on the advice of his publisher; he is now based in Australia. As China begins to lift its COVID-zero policies and teeter toward reopening, this is a valuable record of those first months at ground zero of the early pandemic, and a reminder of the government’s botched first response.

The Subplot by Megan Walsh

To speak frankly, all of the bird’s-eye-view, policy-wonk, coming-war-with-China, how-America-wins China books are exhausting. Many are sensible and sharp, but others don’t seem to care at all about what Chinese people think or feel: It’s all abstract, and some don’t add new information to what is already well known through English-language sources. So it is refreshing to pick up this slim volume, which asks the even simpler question of what Chinese people are reading. Megan Walsh digs through a breadth of Chinese literature so you don’t have to — from literary giants to the new generation, web novels to underground comics, homoerotic slash fiction to dystopian sci-fi — then summarizes it in thematic chapters, connecting her readings to what they reveal of China. A simple concept, well executed.

Recommended by Paul French:

Fragile Cargo by Adam Brookes

Fragile Cargo proves that when we consider heritage worth saving, we can move heaven and earth to do so. Adam Brookes relates the extraordinary lengths Chinese curators went to in preserving the treasures of the Forbidden City. Warlords, Japanese invaders, civil war, fire, flood, and all manner of bugs and beasties had to be overcome. In a series of almost Indiana Jones-style escapades, rusty Yangtze steamers shipped priceless antiques to dark caves in Sichuan, just one step ahead of the Imperial Japanese Army. Brookes’s ability to recover the mild-mannered conservators as heroes of their own adventure makes for a readable tale. The book also explains the schism in the Forbidden City treasure between the two Palace Museums — Beijing and Taipei — and the still-fraught issues around China’s dispersed and contested heritage.

On Java Road by Lawrence Osborne

Invariably, fiction has the reach to take stories to wider audiences, beyond the usual suspects, and to draw people into contemporary issues they may not have previously considered pertinent. Lawrence Osborne has developed a knack for doing this in his previous books, set in Morocco, Macao, Hydra, and Cambodia. In On Java Road, he turns his novelist eye to the 2019 Hong Kong protests, crafting a pitch-perfect narrative of a grizzled hack’s search for a missing student protester through the streets of North Point. It has become a trope, but justified nonetheless, that Osborne is the legitimate heir to Graham Greene. Certainly his recurrent themes of outsider alienation, studied unknowingness, anonymity, and the inherent untrustworthiness of the expatriate echo Greene’s own obsessions. Here is a novel that takes the debate outside the small cliques so few China-related books ever break out from.