Red all about it
China has towering international influence and a huge population. It will soon be home to the world’s largest economy. But it’s hard to know what makes the People’s Republic tick. Enter the Breakingviews required reading list, guaranteed free of books with “dragon” in the title.
The Private Life of Chairman Mao – Li Zhisui
Biographies of China’s great helmsman are plentiful, and tend to portray him either as a revolutionary hero or a monster. In this account written by his doctor, he comes across as a cloistered, whimsical idealist. Mao proves less terrifying than the machinery which surrounds him. It is made an essential read by its gripping portrayals of the chairman’s bathing routine, dental health and embalming. It’s biased – Li emigrated to the United States later in life – but it is impossible to write a truly objective Mao-ography.
Red Capitalism – Carl Walter and Fraser Howie
This book tells the story of China’s fragile financial system. Most notably, how China made up to $480 billion of bad lending disappear from lenders’ balance sheets over nearly a decade, using what the authors call “accounting legerdemain”. It’s a detailed, often complex tale of how China (still) takes money from one pocket and puts it into another to prevent financial failure. Four years after publication, while the fragilities Walter and Howie describe remain, the power of state capitalism to keep a lid on them has so far held up.
Through Jade Gate and Central Asia – Mildred Cable and Francesca French
Bookshops burst at the seams with foreigner-in-China memoirs. None holds a candle to the unlikely tale of three middle-aged British missionaries, who travelled across China to Kazakhstan in the 1920s by donkey, cart and foot. Narrating in eerie unison, two of the trio describe brushes with bandits, psychopaths, tricksters and opium addicts with curiosity, respect and a Buddha-like unflappability that foreign investors in China would do well to emulate.
The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers – Richard McGregor
There is no better, more accessible account of the stranglehold China’s Communist Party has on the economy. McGregor sketches out the symbiotic relationship between state and party, and explains how the latter dominates business, often by means of the red telephones big companies’ bosses have on their desks. His book predates the anti-corruption drive that brought down high-flying party members like Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang, but perfectly captures the desire for self-preservation that spawned such purges in the first place.
The Theory of the Leisure Class – Thorstein Veblen
The masked billionaire who paid a Japanese adult actress to be his personal assistant for fifteen years? That’s conspicuous consumption. The pink handbag that sold for $222,000 in Hong Kong? Ditto. It is over a century since Thorstein Veblen spelled out his theory that unproductive goods and evidence of wasted time are a sign of status. Today, rich Westerners have outgrown Veblen: they want to look busy rather than leisured. But his work still provides frequent epiphanies on China’s mania for luxury goods and outlandish status symbols.
The Religious Question in Modern China – Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer
Discussions about Chinese religion are often reduced to superficial observations about the Communist Party’s odd turn to Confucianism, the troubles caused for and by Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs, or the rise of semi-tolerated, semi-persecuted Christianity. Here is a wider perspective. The discussions on everything from the spiritual developments of traditional Chinese medicine to the persecution of Falun Gong are mostly illuminating. The basic conclusion: China’s religious question remains as intractable as ever.
Brothers – Yu Hua
The painful but prodigious rise of Baldy Li, a luckless product of the Cultural Revolution, is the subject of this epic novel by one of China’s best known living writers. Li turns from toilet-loiterer to one of China’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, sated but spiritually adrift, embodying the country’s decades-long shift from the cult of Mao to the cult of Mammon. “Brothers” is riotously colourful, uncomfortably violent, and not unlike some of the stories China’s self-made billionaires tell, or don’t tell, today.
Zoomlion Heavy Industry Announcement, 15 July 2013
Anyone who thinks China lacks competition should read this filing by state-owned construction machinery maker Zoomlion in July 2013. Locked in combat with politically connected rival Sany Heavy Industry, Zoomlion issues a statement denying involvement in industrial espionage, false arrest and kidnapping. The lessons: competition between the too-big-to-fail can be mutually destructive. Only in China could a corporate news announcement contain the words “the chief culprit incidentally committed suicide in the course of capture.”