In Other Words

Most Favored Narrations

The 10 best books, according to China's ruling elite.


On Sept. 5, 2011, Robert Zoellick, then president of the World Bank, met in Beijing with Xi Jinping, then China’s vice president. The previous week, Zoellick had published an op-ed in the Financial Times titled "The Big Questions China Still Has to Answer." In it, he noted that China’s economic growth was slowing and that the country faced myriad structural challenges: It needed to boost demand, lower savings, and increase consumption — all while protecting the environment, addressing inequality, and reducing reliance on foreign markets. China needed to "complete its transition to a market economy," and the World Bank, Zoellick wrote, was willing to help.

Xi, just 14 months away from ascending to the top of the Communist Party, had an answer to Zoellick’s concerns. He allowed that the World Bank had played a fruitful role in China, but instead of embracing Zoellick’s suggestions, Xi recommended that the bank president read The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State. Written by Zhang Weiwei, a Chinese professor of international relations, the book argues that China should not follow the Western path of development, characterized by a free market economy and democracy. Instead, it should stick to its existing formula — that is, state capitalism combined with one-party rule — which had launched three decades of breakneck growth.

It’s unlikely that Xi’s recommendation was an offhand comment — or if it was, it now seems to symbolize something more. This year, the Communist Party’s Central Committee took the unprecedented step of issuing a list of the 10 books most popular among the Chinese leadership. Officials chose them from a collection of 111 books that a government think tank had said they — and, by implication, the country’s 1.4 billion people — should read. The China Wave was No. 9.

China’s Communist Party had never issued a top 10 list before, but much like U.S. presidents who get photographed carrying a particular volume up the steps of Air Force One, the country’s leaders have long used books to send messages about their thinking, their intellectual depth, and their sense of history. Mao Zedong peppered his speeches with allusions to classic literary characters and recommended that party cadres read classic novels rich with tips on strategy and warfare, like the 14th-century Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Deng Xiaoping signaled a departure from his predecessor with his love of the 20th-century martial arts novelist Jin Yong, sort of a Chinese Zane Grey. And as Chinese ties with the rest of the world deepened in the 1990s, President Jiang Zemin professed a fondness for Western classics — everything from Dante to Shakespeare to Mark Twain. (The Chinese media has reported that Jiang could recite, albeit in heavily Chinese-accented English, Hamlet’s "To Be, or Not to Be" soliloquy.)

The top 10 list is a proclamation from the Central Committee, which is by definition an exercise in ideological correctness. The interesting question is, at a moment when China is wrestling with the challenges posed by growth and global power status, what exactly do China’s ruling elite consider ideologically correct? For those concerned about the degree of intellectual openness and liberalism within the Chinese leadership, the answer that the list gives is worrying.

At first blush, the list seems surprisingly provocative: The books all explicitly or implicitly pose tough questions about the Communist Party’s ability and right to rule — arguably the most sensitive issue in China today. Zhang, the author of The China Wave, said in an interview, "There are a lot of questions and misgivings within the Chinese leadership about China’s current mode of development, many of which are also shared by Westerners. I didn’t dodge any of these questions." Xie Chuntao, the author of The Track of History (No. 10), which explores how the party has maintained its vitality over its 64 years in power, explained, "My book is refreshing because it is not just a flat chronological account." Instead, he argues, it poses "bold and interesting questions like ‘Why didn’t the Communist Party collapse like it did in the Soviet Union’ and ‘Why does the Communist Party still have the support of the people after making so many grave mistakes?’"

Unfortunately, almost all the books start from the assumption that the party knows best, making serious analysis and originality impossible. In Zhang’s book, for example, any misgivings about China’s development are assuaged by his conclusion that "our model might be flawed, but other models do not work better than ours." And, in an interview, Hao Zhensheng — the head of the think tank that compiled the 111-book list and surveyed party leaders for the top 10 — said that, to be selected, a book had to "match the macro-agenda of the party and the nation," eliding the possibility that there might be a distinction between the two.

Professor Wu Xiaobo, author of The Historic 30 Years (No. 2), about China’s economic reform from 1978 to 2008, insists that the country’s leaders "appreciate the independent angle" and that his book "is not written on anyone’s behalf, and it has no agenda." But it would probably not have been chosen if its emphasis on the vital role the government played in leading China’s economic reform did not please party leaders.

To accept the party’s wisdom and beneficence, many of the books, which can all be broadly defined as histories, are forced to abandon intellectual honesty for what you might call scholarship with Chinese characteristics. The Track of History notes with shocking understatement that the effect of the Great Leap Forward — a three-year campaign that killed tens of millions of people — was "not satisfactory, even negative." Xie doesn’t mention the death toll, and he even manages to find a bright side to one of history’s greatest tragedies: "Newly added steelmaking capacity during these three years accounted for 36.2 percent of that from the founding of the country in 1949 to 1979." The same advances, he notes, were achieved in mining and cotton production.

Other authors abandon the pretense of critical thinking altogether. Jin Yinan, who wrote the No. 1 book on the list, Pain and Glory, told the state-run newspaper Liberation Daily in August 2010 that the goal of his book was to "strengthen people’s faith in the Communist Party" — an aspiration the country’s top officials clearly share. "There has been a stress among party leaders on the nation’s need to strengthen its belief in communist faith and ideals," said Hao, when explaining why he thought several "red histories" made the list.

The books seem intended not only to buck up domestic readers but also to demonstrate the validity of Chinese ideas to international audiences. In a phone interview, Xie emphasized several times that his book was well received abroad. (An English edition had sold 8,000 copies as of April.) And Zhang says The China Wave, which "reassures" Chinese leaders of the strength of the Chinese model, "can stand up to" all kinds of questioning from foreigners.

Only two books on the list were written by people born outside mainland China — and both are more honest, if still supportive. Demystifying the Chinese Economy (No. 6), by former World Bank chief economist Justin Yifu Lin, explains China’s decline from being the world’s largest economy in the 18th century, its "efforts to reverse that decline, and reforms necessary for China to complete the transition to a well-functioning market economy." One of the few Taiwanese to defect to China, Lin said he wrote the book because Western economic theory often doesn’t work for developing countries. Lin’s book is a sanctioned account by a respected voice on what China needs to do to recognize i
ts historical destiny.

The other surprising example of "correct" Communist Party orientation is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s mega-bestseller The World Is Flat (No. 7). Although it calls for more political reform in China, the 2005 book crowns the country the winner of globalization and touts the competitiveness of its manufacturing-based economic model.

Indeed, the books were all written after China had clearly become one of the world’s preeminent powers, with the exception of Zeng Guofan (No. 3), a 1992 biography of the 19th-century general. Hao said that the book is popular among today’s party officials because Zeng was a master at managing relationships. But it was also probably selected because Zeng tried to preserve the old imperial system instead of advocating radical change to transform China into a modern state. Zeng is known for putting down the disastrous Taiping Rebellion in the 1860s — his "rejuvenation" of China. This is the same word President Xi has used to define his vision of a "Chinese Dream."

This acknowledgment of a need for rejuvenation is candid. But it’s not intellectually honest to ask how to rejuvenate China if there can only be one answer. On the same day he met with Zoellick, Xi gave a speech to Chinese officials: "Learning through reading is a crucial way for the Communist Party to maintain vitality," he said. "Only by reading history can one understand that only the Communist Party can save China." 

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish
A Beijing native, Helen Gao is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy and an MA candidate in East Asian Studies at Harvard.  Twitter: @yuxin_gao