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8 Books to Read Ahead of China’s 20th Party Congress

These picks each offer piercing insight into how Chinese politics really works.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
China-brief-book-roundup
China-brief-book-roundup

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief. This week, we round up eight books to read in preparation for the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which begins on Oct. 16.

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Required Reading for National Week

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief. This week, we round up eight books to read in preparation for the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which begins on Oct. 16.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Required Reading for National Week

It’s National Week in China, but the country is not really on holiday.

Sure, people are off work until Friday—and then working a seven-day week afterward. But with the zero-COVID regime in full swing, it’s rare for people to take vacations; they aren’t even going to the cinema. It also doesn’t help that China is facing another record-breaking heat wave. And for Chinese officials, the run-up to the historic 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is not the time to take a break from politicking.

However, China Brief is taking a break from regular programming to help readers prepare for the Party Congress, which begins on Oct. 16. Chinese politics can be difficult for outsiders to grasp, in part because it’s so opaque. At the highest levels, the CCP’s inner circle resembles a cross between Leninist bureaucracy, a pre-modern royal court, and a mafia family.

With that in mind, below are eight books that provide a better understanding of what might be happening in the run-up to the Party Congress next week—and what the fallout might look like.


Studying Soviet governance is invaluable for understanding Chinese governance. In its early years, the People’s Republic of China often imported the Soviet system and policies wholesale. For example, one can’t understand the Chinese government’s obsession with quotas and—mostly fake—statistical evaluations without examining the mix of Stalinism and Taylorism it inherited from the Soviet Union.

Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government is about the so-called house on the embankment, the Russian building constructed to house the Stalinist leadership, and the mixture of intellectual ambition and personal grudges that drove the first decades of Soviet government. That clannishness also applies in China: Chinese President Xi Jinping is the son of a founding revolutionary and grew up alongside many of the people he works with.

One thing that comes across strongly in Slezkine’s book is the physical proximity in which the Soviet leadership lived; they were literally neighbors. That is still the case with the Chinese leadership; they all have access to opulent homes elsewhere, but the demands of power mean that much of their day-to-day life is spent in Zhongnanhai, the former palace complex in the heart of Beijing.

Zhongnanhai is fancy, but it isn’t that nice—and it’s crowded. But as with former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, getting facetime with the man at the top is critical for the Chinese leadership, which means living as close to him as they can.


It’s nearly 30 years old, but Mayfair Mei-hui Yang’s study of how guanxi—a slippery term usually translated as “pull” or “influence”—works in ordinary Chinese life remains vital. Yang shows how the demands and restrictions of a non-market economy created constant favor-trading, where enterprising individuals made shallow social contacts to access premium goods, whether a private car ride or the use of a telephone.

Guanxi shaped an atmosphere in which purely personal friendships were difficult to sustain and even commercial relationships needed a social gloss. Although the material conditions of Chinese life have changed radically since Yang’s fieldwork in the 1980s, the attitudes she describes persist in the generation who grew up then—including China’s 60-something leadership.


Likewise, Richard McGregor’s decade-old book on the CCP remains the best single introduction to the party’s history and operations and the internal dynamics of its leadership. The dynamics within the party have changed as a result of Xi’s rise, and the business elites whom McGregor shows being drawn into the CCP’s structures have become much weaker (something that McGregor covers in his short follow-up book, Xi Jinping: The Backlash).

However, a lot of the CCP’s operating systems remain the same—as does its emphasis on discipline mixed with powerful incentives toward corruption.


Minxin Pei’s 2016 study of crony capitalism shows how the dynamics of kleptocracy in China work, with state-owned assets essentially divvied up among the powerful. Xi’s rule started with an attempt to rein in corruption, but that involved replacing existing interests with those of his allies. Money is often at the core of Chinese political battles, which tend to focus on who gets to run what—whether it’s skimming off the tobacco industry or control of property empires.

Those fights are becoming more intense because China’s economy is in trouble. In the years of seemingly infinite growth, leaders could afford to be more generous because there was always more to go around. Now, things are tighter—and the disagreements more acute.


Most Chinese officials work for provincial governments rather than the relatively small central government. But party power remains entrenched—both key to and somewhat separate from the state. Provincial interests thus play a big role in Chinese politics, even for projects conceived by the central government, such as the much-lauded high-speed railway project. Fights over the project—and the corruption involved—became so intense that it eventually resulted in the dissolution of China’s once-powerful Ministry of Railways.

Xiao Ma’s recent book Localized Bargaining uses the high-speed railway project to examine the complicated interplay of bureaucratic power, officials’ personal ambitions, Leninist planning, public protest, and the desires of the central government. I found his descriptions of elaborate hierarchies exceptionally useful, especially how the same officials often hold posts concurrently across different levels of power.


Perry Link’s wide-ranging book An Anatomy of Chinese is speculative and fascinating. Link, the author of one of the best articles ever written about Chinese censorship and politics, is also a brilliant scholar of the Chinese language. He tries to do a lot of things in this book, and some of his claims about cultural psychology are on shaky ground. But it brilliantly conveys two things: how much Chinese political language depends on rhythm, slogans, and jingles and how the CCP uses cliches to dismiss opposition and shape the political battleground.

That first element—the unexpected creativity and linguistic playfulness of political slogans—seems to have decreased under Xi, while the second element has only grown stronger.


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Although the five-yearly CCP Congress determines power at the top, shake-ups in the lead-up to the event reverberate through the entire system of governance—especially for China’s 40 million cadres, a collective term for the party and government officials who run the country. John Fitzgerald’s brisk book examines these party cadres, China’s largest special interest group, with decisions putting their welfare far before ordinary people’s.

Cadre privileges still extend throughout everyday life in China. For example, in a country with a shocking food safety record, the party maintains its own special supply system for the privileged.


Bring Up the Bodies: A Novel by Hilary Mantel

I finish up the list with a choice that may seem far away in time and space from modern China: the second book in Hilary Mantel’s award-winning trilogy about British King Henry VIII’s chief enforcer, Thomas Cromwell. But I know of no better treatment of what it’s like to operate inside a dysfunctional and autocratic elite while trying to maintain one’s wealth and power.

The Chinese state might not be dependent on Xi’s marital choices, but it is constrained by his health, his beliefs, and his refusal to appoint a clear successor. And Cromwell’s panicked decision-making when he fears his patron—who will (spoiler) eventually kill him—has died in a jousting accident perfectly captures the precarity of autocratic life.

Mantel also describes, with chilling brilliance, the torturous process of supposedly exposing a plot against the leader for one’s own benefit. For officials, success in a morally bankrupt system where they could always be the next victim is its own form of punishment.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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