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50 of the Best New Books on China for the Holidays and Winter 2020/2021

So much reading to do! These are some of the best new books on China.

Manya Koetse

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What’s on Weibo lists the 50 best China books for winter reading 2020/2021, with China non-fiction and fiction books that have come out in English recently.

What’s on Weibo has previously issued two major China book lists, one Best 30 Books to Understand Modern China (non-fiction), and one Top Best Fiction Books on China. Because both articles were published in 2018, and so many new and interesting books on China have come out since, it’s high time for another list.

This list consists of all new and interesting China books that have come out recently, mainly in 2020, but it also includes some earlier books.

We realize that there are so many books out there, and China’s domestic book market is enormous. But for the scope of this article, we will only list books that have come out in English as original works or were translated into English.

For the fiction section, we have selected modern fiction books by Chinese authors that have come out in English translation over the past two years. For a broader list of modern literary fiction works that provide deeper insights into China, please check our previous list here.

This list is categorized into seven major areas of China General (Popular), China History, Chinese Society & Focus Topics, China Tech/Digital, Academic Publications (China Studies), Chinese Fiction, and For Kids – something for everyone, from very broad China books to very focused subjects. Some books might fall into several categories such as academic and/or history, but have only been placed in one. Since there are many books being published on similar topics, we have tried to highlight different relevant focus topics and styles of narrating in this list. The order of the books is random and for reference purpose only (we do mention some personal favorites at the end of this list).

We have also tried to add relevant podcasts to each book recommendation, so there is plenty to read and listen to during these (pandemic) winter days!

 

ON CHINA GENERAL (POPULAR)

 

#1 ● Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy

By Kishore Mahbubani, Public Affairs 2020

This book by the renowned Singaporean academic and former UN ambassador Kishore Mahbubani focuses on the geopolitical contest that has broken out between the US and China, and invites the reader to critically think about the complex dimensions behind this discourse and the strategic game behind it. Mahbubani writes that “it is curious that no one has pointed out that America is making a big strategic mistake by launching this contest with China without first developing a comprehensive and global strategy to deal with China” (2), and argues that not only does the US lack a sound understanding of its rival and their interests, it also overestimates its own position in a growingly complex international society. Being neither Chinese nor American, Kishore offers interesting perspectives that come from outside the American (or Chinese) thought bubble when it comes to current geopolitics.

Mahbubani is also on Twitter @mahbubani_k. Listen to the SupChina Sinica podcast with Kaiser Kuo featuring Kishore Mahbubani here.

Buy: Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#2 ● China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia

By Daniel Markey, Oxford University Press 2020

With the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative being key to China’s present-day foreign policy, this list wouldn’t be complete without a book on this topic. Recently, multiple books came out on this subject. For example, there is The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century by Jonathan Hillman and One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World by Eyck Freymann. One of the recent books on this topic to receive a lot of praise is that by China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia by Daniel Markey, senior research professor in International Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. This book, useful for anyone who wants to get a better understanding of the Belt and Road Initiative, aims to make sense of “the decisive role that China’s less powerful neighbors are likely to play as China extends its reach across its western horizon.” This work is mainly divided into three sections, covering South Asia (chapter 3), Central Asia (chapter 4), and the Middle East (chapter 5). The last chapter focuses on US-China competition in Eurasia, with Markey arguing that the US needs a more local strategy in order to compete with China globally.

Listen to the Global Cable podcast with the author here. Daniel Markey is also on Twitter: @MarkeyDaniel.

Get the book here: China’s Western Horizon: Beijing and the New Geopolitics of Eurasia
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#3 ● Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World

By Michael Schuman, Public Affairs 2020

Superpower Interrupted offers a fresh perspective on China and its history for a western readership, focusing on the Chinese view of the Chinese history of the world, and demonstrating that there actually is no such thing as a truly global ‘world history.’ Schuman argues that since history shaped China’s perception of the world and its present-day position in international society, it is crucial for western diplomats, academics, politicians, and journalists to understand China not through the prism of their own world history, but through China’s own view.

Michael Schuman is also on Twitter: @MichaelSchuman. Sinica did a podcast with Schuman on his book earlier in 2020, which you can check out here.

Get: Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#4 ● In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century

By Sebastian Strangio, Yale University Press 2020

There is so much talk about US-China tensions recently, that China’s complicated relationships with its southern neighbors is a topic that often gets overlooked although it needs to be in the spotlight.In the Dragon’s Shadow, by journalist and Southeast Asia Editor at The Diplomat, is a very relevant work centering on the impact of China’s booming emergence and the dynamics of South East Asia. Chapter by chapter, Strangio provides valuable insights into the countries of Southeast Asia, exploring how China’s expanding power affects Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Thailand, Burma, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

This book was recently featured on the Sinica podcast, with Kaiser Kuo saying the book “is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.” Sebastian Strangio is also on Twitter: @sstrangio.

Buy: In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#5 ● India’s China Challenge: A Journey through China’s Rise

By Ananth Krishnan, HarperCollins India 2020

Ananth Krishnan, China correspondent for The Hindu, moved to China in the summer of 2008 and ended up staying a decade. This book is a result of the author’s own on-the-ground experiences, and, in an accessible and engaging way, presents different perspectives on what China’s rise and transformations mean for India. The book explores political, economic, diplomatic, and military challenges in China-India relations, and also zooms out to the broader implications for international society.

This book was featured on the Grand Tamasha podcast. Ananth Krishan is on Twitter @ananthkrishnan.

Get it here: India’s China Challenge: A Journey through China’s Rise

 

#6 ● China: The Bubble That Never Pops

By Thomas Orlik, Oxford University Press 2020

It will collapse, it will bounce back, financial crisis, yuan devaluation – so much has been written (and wrongly speculated) about China’s economy over the past decade or two that it is hard to believe anything you read anymore. One thing is clear, and that is that China’s economy has demonstrated resilience throughout the years. This resilience is at the heart of this book by Thomas Orlik, chief economist at Bloomberg. Orlik explores how China managed to escape national financial crises in the face of global slowdown and provides a clear overview of China’s economic history since Deng Xiaopeng. In doing so, the author makes it clear that conventional approaches often taken by Western analysts in looking at China’s economy often get it wrong – and he explains why.

China: The Bubble That Never Pops was featured on Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast (link) and also on Sinica (link). Tom Orlik is on Twitter here: @TomOrlik.

Get: China: The Bubble that Never Pops

 

#7 ● Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise

By Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell, University of Chicago Press 2020

This book by development economist Scott Rozelle and researcher Natalie Hell highlights problems that often remain invisible in the face of China’s rapid economic rise. It’s the drama of the rural low-educated workers who were the motor driving China’s growth since the 1980s, but are now more and more left jobless and hopeless in their home villages as low-skilled work is increasingly outsourced to other countries or is taken over by robotics. In many ways, China and the Chinese people are going forward – yet the rural population is left behind, and it’s China’s Achilles’ heel. This book focuses on this invisible side to China’s rise and on how such a big story, with such major implications, could be so little known.

More about this book here and in the World Class podcast here.

Get: Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise

 

#8 ● The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State

By Elizabeth C. Economy, Oxford University Press 2018

This book by Elizabeth Economy, Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is for anyone who wants to understand how Xi’s ‘revolution’ is transforming China. It goes behind Xi Jinping and his vision for China, diving into the main areas on top of the Xi government agenda, including internal politics, the internet, innovation, economy, environment, and foreign policy. The priorities of the Xi-led leadership and the direction they are taking are not just of key importance to China, but also to the rest of the world – with a focus on the United States. A well-researched and concise work on China under Xi – its background, status-quo, and what lies ahead.

Elizabeth Economy is on Twitter, @LizEconomy. If you’d like to hear more on this book, listen to this CFR Asia Unbound podcast.

Get: The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 
 

CHINA HISTORY

 

#9 ● China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism

By Rana Mitter, Harvard University Press 2020

Rana Mitter is a British historian and political scientist who specializes in China’s history, and we’re a huge fan of his original perspectives and selection of topics. Mitter previously published China’s War with Japan, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival (2014), which became an Economist Book of the Year and a Financial Times Book of the Year. For this book, Mitter continued to pursue his interest in China’s wartime history, this time focusing on how China’s memories of war have shaped its national identity, both at home and global role abroad. Mitter demonstrates that WWII is very much alive in China today, influencing popular culture and media to the dynamics of international relations.

Listen to Mitter talk about his book on the Sinica podcast here.

Get: China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#10 ● The Story of China: The Epic History of a World Power from the Middle Kingdom to Mao and the China Dream

By Michael Wood, St Martin’s Press 2020

This brand-new single-volume work (624 pages) presents a chronological history of China, weaving personal, local stories into big historical narratives, from early history to modern-day China. Wood, Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, previously wrote and presented the short documentary series for BBC and PBS that was also titled The Story of China. This is an excellent and accessible book for anyone with an interest in China’s history and its role in the world today.

Wood is on Twitter here @mayavision. More about his book in this South China Morning Post review.

Get: The Story of China: The Epic History of a World Power from the Middle Kingdom to Mao and the China Dream
Also available as audiobook via Audible here

 

#11 ● China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of the New China

By Hans van de Ven, Harvard University Press 2020

Hans van de Ven is Professor of Modern Chinese History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of the British Academy. He specializes in the history of 19th and 20th century China. China at War zooms in on the period between 1937 and 1949. Van de Ven emphasizes that this was not just a time when China was at war with Japan, but also with itself, as it was also the time of the revolutionary war between the Nationalists and the Communists. The Second Sino-Japanese War and China’s civil war are intertwined and this history, and how it is remembered, is pivotal to understanding China’s 20th century and its place in the world today.

Check out the Asian Review of Books for more about China at War here. Hans van de Ven is also on Twitter @Jjv10Ven.

Get: China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of the New China

 

#12 ● Eurasian Crossroads – A History of Xinjiang

By James Millward, Hurst Publishers 2021 (2007)

This book ended up on our list here thanks to the ‘Five Best China Books 2020‘ article by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, American historian of modern China, who pointed out this upcoming renewed publication. The book was actually published years ago, but a new and revised edition is coming out in January 2021, adding a chapter on the status-quo in Xinjiang and the so-called re-education camps. With this book, James Millward, author and historian of China & Central Asia, provided the first comprehensive account in English of the history of Xinjiang and its peoples from earliest times to the present. This book is a must-have for anyone interested in Xinjiang and for anyone who wants to get a better grasp of the history and complex dynamics behind today’s Xinjiang.

There’s a recent episode of the Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies podcast featuring Millward speaking about the history of the crisis in the Uyghur Autonomous Region. James Millward is on Twitter @JimMillward.

Get (still the earlier version, updated book set to release late January 2021): Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang

 

#13 ● China and Japan: Facing History

By Ezra F. Vogel, Belknap Press of Harvard University 2019

Ezra F. Vogel, an eminent scholar of China and Japan, passed away in December of 2020. China and Japan: Facing History is his last book, which Vogel hoped would help improve understanding in that tense relationship between these neighboring rivals. With so many books focusing on China-US relations and power politics, there are relatively few new books that focus on Sino-Japanese relations, even though they are so crucial to both nations and the region. Vogel calls it a dangerous, deep, and complicated relationship. This book is an excellent overview of the relations between China and Japan, from early history to modern times.

The Harvard University Program on U.S.-Japan Relations recorded a podcast featuring Vogel earlier in 2020, which can be listened to here.

Get this book: China and Japan: Facing History
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#14 ● Maoism: A Global History

By Julia Lovell, Knopf 2019

This award-winning book is written by Julia Lovell, Professor of Modern Chinese History and Literature at Birkbeck College as well as an active translator of Chinese literature into English. Maoism: A Global History provides an overview of the influence of Maoism in different parts of the world from the 1930s to the present, with Lovell calling Maoism “one of the major stories of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” This is a big book, but Lovell succeeds to captures the reader’s attention with her in-depth insights and engaging writing style.

Also check out this History Extra podcast, in which Julia Lovell explores the nature of Mao’s ideology and how it has shaped China and many other countries around the world.

Get: Maoism: A Global History
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#15 ● Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution

By Helen Zia, Ballantine Books 2019

Benny, Ho, Bing, and Annuo were still young when the Chinese civil war was coming to an end and the threat of a violent Communist revolution was looming over Shanghai, the epicenter of a large-scale exodus in the late 1940s. It is estimated that approximately one million people fled through the city around 1949, the year the People’s Republic of China was founded. Through the lens of the personal stories of some of these people, Zia shines a light on the bigger picture of the mass departure of wealthy and middle class Chinese and foreigners from Shanghai. She does so in a very captivating way – a pleasure to read.

In the They Call us Bruce podcast, Helen Zia talked about her book (link) and the tumultuous forces of history and migration. Helan Zia is also on Twitter here @HelenZiaReal.

Get: Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#16 ● The Last Kings of Shanghai – The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

By Jonathan Kaufman, Penguin Random House 2020

Shanghai’s Jewish history is a fascinating one, and over the past few years there’s been increased attention on the Jewish community of Shanghai and the history of Jews in China (also see our article on this, Memories of a Nearly Forgotten Community). In this book, author Jonathan Kaufman, journalist & director of the Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, tells the epic multigenerational stories of two Jewish families: Shanghai’s famous Sassoon family, who had been doing business in China for a century, and the Kadoorie family, another business dynasty that rivaled the Sassoons. Both the Sassoons and Kadoeries were originally from Baghdad, and these wealthy families accumulated great influence and played a role in Chinese business and politics for more than 175 years. This well-researched book provides intriguing insights into a history that few people know of.

In Northwestern University Library’s What’s New podcast, Kaufman recently discussed his book, link. Jonathan is on Twitter here @jkaufman617.

Get: The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#17 ● Forbidden Memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution

By Tsering Woeser, translated by Susan T Chen, edited by Robert Barnett, photographs by Tsering Dorje, Potomac Books 2020 (2006)

The story behind the making of the Forbidden Memory book is an extraordinary one. It begins with Tibetan writer and activist Tsering Woeser finding rare photos taken by her father, who passed away in 1991, of the Cultural Revolution period in Tibet. Woeser’s father, Tsering Dorje, was with the People’s Liberation Army when it entered Tibet in the 1950s. In 1999, Woeser sent these photos to Chinese writer and scholar Wang Lixiong, who had written on Tibet in his book Sky Burial: The Destiny of Tibet. Wang, realizing how precious these photographs were, wrote back to Woeser saying the history told through the photos needed to be told by herself and those on the inside of the history. Six years later, Woeser completed her research and writing, including interviews with over seventy people connected to the history captured in the photographs, and published an edition of Forbidden Memory for the Taiwanese market. Brought together by her father’s photos, Woeser and Wang ended up getting married in 2004. Now, in 2020, Forbidden Memory is finally translated into a revised English edition. Through text and photos, this 400-page book tells the horrible story of the violence of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet. With this work, Woeser uncovers the stories of a past that was previously erased.

Read more on this work here. Woeser is on Twitter here @degewa

Get: Forbidden Memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution

 
 

CHINESE SOCIETY AND FOCUS TOPICS

 

#18 ● Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City

By Fang Fang, translated by Michael Berry, HarperCollins 2020

Wuhan Diary is written by the 65-year-old acclaimed Chinese author Wang Fang, better known as Fang Fang, and it is an important book documenting China’s COVID19 outbreak. Wuhan Diary is an online account of the 2020 Hubei lockdown, originally published on WeChat and Weibo. Throughout the lockdown period in January, February, and March, Fang Fang wrote about life in quarantine in province capital Wuhan, the heart of the epicenter, documenting everything from the weather to the latest news and the personal stories and tragedies behind the emerging crisis. Fang’s 60-post diary was published on her Weibo account from late January shortly after the lockdown began, until late March when the end of the lockdown was announced. Although Fang was originally praised as a ‘voice of the people’ in China, she was later bashed for being a ‘traitor’ once it became known that her book would be published in the US and Europe.

Read more about Wuhan Diary and its controversy here.

Get: Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#19 ● Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town

By Barbara Demick, Random House 2020

American journalist Barbara Demick previously wrote a book on North Korea (Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea) (2010), and with this book she explores another closed-off area; that of Sichuan’s Ngaba, a place that is usually a no-go area for foreign journalists due to the many anti-government demonstrations and self-immolation protesters. During the years she lived in China, Demick managed to travel to Ngaba on several occasions and conducted interviews. This book is a result of these interviews and spans decades of modern Tibetan and Chinese history and closely examines the relationships between the Chinese Communist Party and Tibet.

Demick is on Twitter @BarbaraDemick.

Get: Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#20 ● City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong

By Antony Dapiran, Scribe 2020

This list obviously needs a focus book on Hong Kong, as 2020 came with great restrictions on Hong Kong freedom as the National Security Law came into effect – causing alarm among the people that have protested for greater freedom, democracy, and independence from the political influences of Beijing since 2019. In this book, Hong Kong-based lawyer and author Antony Dapiran provides a concise account of the Hong Kong’s 2019 anti-government protests that grew into a pro-democracy movement that engulfed the city for months. This book is for everyone who wants to understand what has happened and is happening in Hong Kong and grasp the protesters’ tactics and how their movement fits into the city’s history of dissent.

Listen to more on this book in the Intelligence Squared podcast here. Anthony is on Twitter here @antd.

Get: City on Fire: the fight for Hong Kong

 

#21 ● The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World

By Dexter Roberts, St Martin’s Press 2020

There are many complicated stories behind all the headlines on China’s economic success and its rise on the world stage. This book by award-winning journalist Dexter Robers sheds critical light on the serious problems that China and its people face today; (reverse) migration, an aging society, income inequality, an unfair hukou system, and rising social unrest. Roberts tells the stories of the people behind these huge issues, focusing on the small village of Binghuacun in Guizhou and on Dongguan town in Guangdong.

Roberts and his work recently came on the Sinica podcast, listen here. Dexter Roberts is on Twitter here @dtiffroberts.

Get the book: The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#22 ● The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography

By Brian Dott, Columbia University Press 2020

The Chile Pepper in China is just too hot to exclude from this list. In this book, Brian Dott, associate professor of history at Whitman College, explores the evolution of the chile pepper from an obscure foreign import to a ubiquitous plant regarded by most Chinese as native to the land. In doing so, we learn many new things. Such as that there were no chiles anywhere in China prior to the 1570s – which is surprising when you know how firmly chile is ingrained in China’s national and local gastronomic traditions. The chile serves as a lens through with Dott explains more about Chinese history and the changing components of Chinese culture.

Brian Dott and his recent work were previously featured on the Sinica podcast here.

Get: The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History)

 

#23 ● Beijing from Below: Stories of Marginal Lives in the Capital’s Center

By Harriet Evans, Duke University Press 2020

Anyone who has been to Beijing pre-Olympics and after will understand the major transformation some parts of the city have undergone during and since that time. This book by Harriet Evans, Emeritus Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at the University of Westminster, focuses on the disadvantaged residents of ‘Dashalar’, a small popular neighborhood just steps away from Tiananmen. It is the result of years-long research between 2007-2014 and conversations with its old residents, and captures how the rapid pace of Beijing’s transformation is affecting local families and individuals.

Listen to Harriet Evans speak about her work and Beijing in this podcast by New Books in Anthropology.

Get this book: Beijing from Below: Stories of Marginal Lives in the Capital’s Center

 

#24 ● China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong

By Jude Blanchette, Oxford University Press 2019

China’s neo-Maoists are those who place their belief in that the philosophy and strategies of Mao Zedong can help China navigate the 21st century. In this book, Blanchette zooms in on neo-Maoism as a political movement born out of discontent with China’s current-day political and economic route. Besides shedding light on China’s political system and how the political agenda has shifted since Mao’s death, China’s New Red Guards explores key questions of who speaks for ‘authentic socialism’ and Marxism, “and who the true political inheritors of Mao’s legacy are.”

Kaiser Kuo sat down with Jude Blanchette for the Sinica podcast here.

Get: China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong

 

# 25 ● Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China

By Jung Chang, Vintage Digital 2019

Jung Chang is most famous for her work Wild Swans, a classic book that virtually anyone who is interested in China will probably have in their book collection. Although Jung Chang previously drew criticism over Mao: The Untold Story, with people questioning the factual accuracy, this new book needs to be here due to its fascinating topic of three sisters who part of a defining moment in China’s modern history as sisters, wives, and mothers. The Song sisters, born between 1888 and 1898, were all powerful and influential women, with each choosing their own unique path. Ailing became a successful businesswoman in cooperation with her husband (a director of the Bank of China), Qingling married Sun Yat-sen, and Meiling married Chiang Kai-shek. In Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, Jung Chang goes beyond the popular generalizations about the Song sisters (“one loves power, one loves money, one loves the people”), and tells their stories in an absorbing way and highlights the tensions between them. Fun fact: Jung Chang initially planned to write a book about Sun Yat-sen but then decided his wife and her sisters were far more interesting.

For more on Jung Chang’s latest work, check out this episode of the Spectator Books podcast.

Get: Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

CHINA TECH & DIGITAL

 

#26 ● Attention Factory: The Story of TikTok and China’s ByteDance

By Matthew Brennan, 2020

China’s ‘old’ tech giants Baidu, Alibaba en Tencent are often at the center of books that focus on China’s flourishing tech scene, but it is high time that the newer giants get the attention they deserve. Brennan’s book focuses on Bytedance, the company behind super-popular apps such as TikTok, Toutiao, and Xigua. He tells the story of the company’s rise to international fame, with TikTok becoming the most downloaded app in the world in 2020. Brennan explains both the ‘back end’ and the ‘front end’ – shining a light on TikTok’s algorithms, business growth stages, telling the story of Bytedance founder Zhang Yiming and the early years of the company. In doing so, Brennan clearly illustrates the road that has led to TikTok’s emergence as a global hit.

Listen to the FYI Podcast with Brennan here. Follow Matthew Brennan on Twitter here @mbrennanchina.

Get the book here: Attention Factory: The Story of TikTok and China’s ByteDance
(Also available on BookDepository)

 

#27 ● Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside

By Xiaowei Wang, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2020

China’s rapid technological developments are impacting virtually every corner of society. While mainstream media generally solely focus on how China’s urban people and environments are influenced by high-tech innovation, Blockchain Chicken Farm puts a spotlight on how the lives of China’s rural and poor are changed by technology. In this book, technologist and writer Xiaowei Wang challenges metronormativity and shows that China’s countryside is not just adapting to the rapid technological developments – it is fuelling the technology that’s used every day. From AI farming systems to e-commerce villages and blockchain food projects, Wang provides new insights into China’s tech world, its urban-rural dynamics, and globalization.

Xiaowei Wang talks about their book in a recent episode of the ChinaTalk podcast with Jordan Schneider. Wang is also on Twitter @xrw.

Get: Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside (FSG Originals x Logic)

 

#28 ● Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall

By Margaret E. Roberts, Princeton University Press 2020 (2018)

We can’t talk about China’s internet or digital environment at large without discussing its censorship apparatus. This work by Roberts zooms in on the dynamics of censorship in the Chinese digital environment and shows that China’s online censorship is not as black and white of an issue as it is sometimes made out to be. Censorship in China is ‘porous’, it is often circumventable, it includes some things and leaves out others. Roberts argues that there is a clear strategy behind this specific kind of censorship and how it differently affects different segments of the population.

Roberts talked about her work on the Sinica Podcast, listen here. Margaret Robers is also on Twitter @mollyeroberts.

Get the book: Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall

 

#29 ● The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet

By James Griffith, Zed Books 2019

This book by Griffith, reporter and producer for CNN International, is a great introduction to the background and history of the ‘Great Firewall of China’ and China’s online environment in general. Jumping from pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and at Tiananmen to discussing Falun Gong and online Uyghur voices, Griffith narrates the story of China’s censorship machine in a compelling way.

Check The Wire China for more on this work, or check out ABC with Marc Fenell here. James is on Twitter here @jgriffiths.

Get the book: The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet

 

#30 ● Tech Titans of China: How China’s Tech Sector is Challenging the World by Innovating Faster, Working Harder, and Going Global

By Rebecca Fannin, Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2019

It is always a bit hard to recommend books on the ongoing tech developments in China, since they tend to be outdated from the moment they are published. Still, this book by Rebecca Fannin (who previously wrote Silicon Dragon) is an informative starting point for those who need an introduction to China’s tech environment, its main players, and most important startups. It explains how and why Chinese tech players and products have become more innovative than their American counterparts, and how they quickly invest and commercialize.

The Inside Asia podcast previously featured Fannin and her book in this episode. Rebecca Fannin is also on Twitter @rfannin.

Get the book here: Tech Titans of China: How China’s Tech Sector is challenging the world by innovating faster, working harder, and going global

 

#31 ● AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order

By Kai-Fu Lee, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2018

This best-selling book by computer scientist and businessman Kai-Fu Lee is often highly recommended within China’s tech book category because it gives a clear overview of the country’s artificial intelligence industry and how China’s status-quo as AI superpower and ongoing ‘AI fever’ will have dramatic implications for global economics and governance. Informative and engaging, this book provides valuable insights into China and AI in general, and the challenges that lie ahead.

Listen to Kai-fu Lee talk about his book on the Lex Fridman podcast here. Kai-Fu Lee is also on Twitter @kaifulee.

Get the book: AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#32 ● China, Africa, and the Future of the Internet

By Iginio Gagliardone, Zed Books 2020

Chinese presence in Africa is an important focus topic that definitely needs to be included on this list, and Gagliardone’s book provides an original and relevant perspective. It examines the extent to which China is influencing information societies in Africa, where the Internet, in various ways, is still taking shape. Gagliardone explores the existing assumption that China is influencing other media systems and is actively promoting its own model of a controlled Internet environment outside of the PRC. Gagliardone makes it clear that African states are not passive recipients of Chinese influence and highlights the complex dynamics of Chinese-African relations and the Internet.

Check out this episode of the China in Africa podcast featuring this author on this latest book. Iginio Gagliardone is also on Twitter @iginioe.

Get the book: China, Africa, and the Future of the Internet

 
 

IN CHINA STUDIES

 

#33 ● The Chinese Communist Party in Action: Consolidating Party Rule

By Zheng Yongnian and Lance L.P. Gore (eds), Routledge 2020

There is a lot of talk about China’s ‘One Party system’ and the Communist Party, with many being unaware of the systems and dynamics behind the CCP. This edited volume explores the role of the Chinese Communist Party as an institution in China today; its strategies, its campaigns, transformations, the interaction between party members, and its policymaking. These thirteen chapters are written by different scholars from various parts of the world.

Get this book: The Chinese Communist Party in Action: Consolidating Party Rule (China Policy Series)

 

#34 ● Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi

Christian Sorace, Ivan Francescini, Nicholas Loubere (eds), Verso Book 2019

What is the legacy of the Mao era? There is no straightforward answer to this question. This edited volume is a collection of essays discussing the history and contemporary relevance of key concepts from the Mao era. It focuses on the political thoughts and discourse in China from 1949-1976 and revisits the complicated and contested legacies of Chinese communism, with each author in this work writing about this topic from their own critical perspective.

Get: Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi

 

#35 ● Anxious China – Inner Revolution and Politics of Psychotherapy

By Li Zhang, University of California Press 2020

We first learned about this book via the New Books in East Asian Studies podcast and wanted to include it here due to its original and relevant research on how Chinese middle-class urbanites are more and more turning to Western-style counseling to deal with psychological distress in a rapidly changing China. Li Zhang is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Davis. She argues that China’s profound economic reforms have not just generated transformations in China’s society and urban landscape, but have also generated changes the inner landscape of people in China. Li speaks of ‘a new kind of revolution’ unfolding in postsocialist China, which she terms “the inner revolution.” This book provides valuable insights into the field of psychology in China today and contextualizes the emergence of a new language entering China – allowing people to talk about their emotional distress despite the existing stigmas on mental health.

Listen to the New Books Network here.

Get this book: Anxious China: Inner Revolution and Politics of Psychotherapy

 

#36 ● China and the World

By David Shambaugh (ed), Oxford University Press 2020

This well-organized volume edited by Professor David Shambaugh consists of sixteen chapters by renowned China scholars from various countries with different academic specialties to describe China’s developments to date, focusing on its foreign relations and role on the world stage today. Some examples: renowned Norwegian historian Odd Arne Westad provides an insightful chapter of how China’s past matters to its present-day foreign affairs (chapter 2); founding director of the Manchester China Institute Peter Gries ties Chinese foreign policy to nationalism and social influences in chapter 4; Robert Sutter, one of America’s most respected scholars of Chinese foreign policy, writes about Sino-US relations in chapter 10.

Get this book: China and the World

 

#37 ● Securing China’s Northwest Frontier: Identity and Insecurity in Xinjiang

By David Tobin, Cambridge University Press 2020

Analysis of Chinese nationalism is often focused on the construction of the West and Japan as threats, but in this work, Tobin argues that the position of ‘domestic strangers’ is crucial to understanding nationalism in present-day China. Tobin analyzes how nation-building in China’s western Xinjiang region had shaped and is shaping insecurity and ethnic boundaries between Han and Uyghur populations.

While we’re here, we’d like to sneak another recommendation, namely Land of Strangers: The Civilizing Project in Qing Central Asia by Eric Schluessel, social historian of China and Central Asia (Twitter @EricTSchluessel). Land of Strangers explores the ‘civilizing mission’ in Xinjiang undertaken in the last decades of the Qing to transform Xinjiang’s Turkic-speaking Muslims into Chinese-speaking Confucian.

Listen to the New Books Network podcast with Tobin here. David Tobin is on Twitter @ReasonablyRagin.

Get the book: Securing China’s Northwest Frontier: Identity and Insecurity in Xinjiang

And also: Land of Strangers: The Civilizing Project in Qing Central Asia

 

#38 ● Staging China: The Politics of Mass Spectacle

By Florian Schneider, Leiden University Press 2019

Florian Schneider, social scientist and China-scholar at the Leiden University Institute of Area Studies and director of the Leiden Asian Center, previously published Visual Political Communication in Popular Chinese Television Series and China’s Digital Nationalism. This book deals with large-scale staged events in mainland China and dives deeper into the discourse of power and media politics behind them. The Shanghai Expo, the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony and the PRC anniversary parade are among the high-profile spectacles analyzed by Schneider as vehicles through which China’s leadership communicates its ideologies to the people. This work is interesting for anyone in China studies interested in media, propaganda, and politics, but also for those outside of China studies who would like to get a better understanding of visual political communication and discourse analysis.

Florian Schneider is on Twitter @schneiderfa77.

Get this book: Staging China: The Politics of Mass Spectacle

 

#39 ● The Other Digital China: Nonconfrontational Activism on the Social Web

By Jing Wang, Harvard University Press 2019

In present-day China, there is a large group of social media users and agents who are finding ways to express discontent online without directly confronting state authority. Jing Wang, a scholar at MIT and an activist in China, argues that there are many ways in which online activism is taking place in China’s social media environment – yet there is often a onedimensional of Chinese activism and social media users as if they’re either ‘brainwashed’ or ‘dissidents.’ In this work, Jing shows the multidimensionality of activism on the Chinese internet and tracks its transformations.

Get via Amazon: The Other Digital China: Nonconfrontational Activism on the Social Web

 

CHINESE FICTION

 

#40 ● A Hero Born: The Definitive Edition (Legends of the Condor Heroes 1)

By Jin Yong, translated by Anna Holmwood,

Hong Kong martial arts novelist Louis Cha ‘Jin Yong’ (1924-2018) is probably the world’s most popular Chinese writer. His success is often compared to that of writers such as JRR Tolkien. His wuxia novels gave rise to their own entertainment industry, generating movies, TV adaptations, video games, and graphic novels. A Hero Born is the first book of Jin’s 12-volume epic Legends of the Condor Heroes, originally published in the late 1950s. Blending history and fantasy, the story is set in 13th-century China and follows the trials and tribulations of its hero, Guo Jing, from birth to adolescence.

Now – after just two of Jin Yong’s works were previously released in English translation – the entire Legends of the Condor Heroes series is being translated and published by MacLehose Press. A Hero Born is the first to have come out.

Get the book: A Hero Born: The Definitive Edition (Legends of the Condor Heroes, 1)
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#41 ● Stories of the Sahara

By Sanmao, translated by Mike Fu, 2020

The iconic author ‘Sanmao’ (real name Chen Maoping 陈懋平) was born in Chongqing, moved to Taiwan, studied in Spain, and settled in the Sahara. Decades after her death, Sanmao still has major appeal to social media users, who still post her quotes, photos, and audio segments on a daily basis. Although San Mao published her first book at the of 19, she did not really gain fame until the release of The Stories of the Sahara (撒哈拉的故事) in 1976, which became her most famous work. The book revolves around San Mao’s personal experiences in the Sahara desert together with her Spanish husband Jose Maria Quero Y Ruiz, whom San Mao lovingly called ‘He Xi’ (荷西) and with whom she spent six years in the desert.

Despite Sanmao’s celebrity status in China, none of her works had appeared in English translation. Until early 2020, when The Stories of the Sahara finally came out in English. The book consists of various essays, jumping back and forth over Sanmao’s time in the desert. Read more about Sanmao in our feature article here.

Get the book: Stories of the Sahara

 

#42 ● To Hold Up The Sky (Short Stories)

By Liu Cixin, 2020

This is a collection of over ten short stories by Liu Cixin, the same author as The Wandering Earth and The Three-Body Problem – the award-winning science fiction work that became a worldwide sensation and was called a “milestone in Chinese science-fiction” by The New York Times. Over the past few years, Liu has gained international fame for introducing “Chinese science fiction” to the world.

“What makes Chinese science fiction Chinese?”, Liu writes in his foreword: “For my part, I have never consciously or deliberately tried to make my sci-fi more Chinese. The stories in this anthology touch on a variety of sci-fi themes, but they all have something in common: They are about things that concern all of humanity, and the challenges and crises they depict are all things humanity faces together.”

Get the book: To Hold Up the Sky
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#43 ● Braised Pork


By An Yu, Grove Press 2020

An Yu was born and raised in Beijing, and she left at the age of 18 to study at New York University. Braised Pork is her first novel, which revolves around Jia Jia who finds her husband drowned in their bathroom tub. The young window then sets out on a journey of self-discovery that takes her from whiskey bars to the high plains of Tibet. Along the way, she crosses paths with people experiencing losses of their own, including someone who may be able to offer her the love she had long thought impossible.

Braised Pork is an original debut, which Time called an “engrossing portrait of isolation.”

Get the book: Braised Pork: A Novel
Also available as audiobook (iTunes) here / or via Audible here

 

#44 ● Broken Wings

By Jia Pingwa, translated by Nicky Harman, 2019

Jia Pingwa is one of the most prominent names in contemporary Chinese literature. In Broken Wings, he focuses on rural China and the problem of human trafficking – China has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in the world. The novel centers on Butterfly, a young woman abducted and sold into a “marriage” in a mountainous village. The story follows her struggle to keep herself together while being imprisoned and abused.

Get: Broken Wings by Jia Pingwa

#45 ● Strange Beasts of China

By Yan Ge, translated by Jeremy Tiang, Tilted Axis Press 2020

In a fictional industrial Chinese town called Yong’an, an amateur cryptozoologist goes in search of marvelous spirits and monsters, some strongly resembling humans. Each chapter of Yan Ge’s novel introduces a new creature. While documenting the stories of the beasts of Yong’an, the cryptozoologist discovers more about herself.

Get: Strange Beasts of China

 

#46 ● China Dream

By Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew, 2018

Exiled author Ma Jian has written great works, including Red Dust, Stick Out Your Tongue, and Beijing Coma. His latest satirical work China Dream is about a corrupt senior official in a provincial Chinese city who struggles with his memories of the Cultural Revolution.

Get: China Dream

 

#47 ● Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

By Ken Liu (ed), Tor Books 2019

This volume contains sixteen short stories with a wide variety of styles from China’s groundbreaking science fiction writers, edited and translated by award-winning author Ken Liu.

Buy here: Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

 

FOR THE KIDS

 

#48 ● Gobi: A Little Dog with a Big Heart

by Dion Leonard, illustrations by Liza Manuzak, 2017

In 2016, What’s on Weibo covered the story of the Australian runner Dion Leonard who found a best friend in a stray dog who joined him on his 155-mile marathon across China; the dog even stayed with the runner at night and never left his side. Determined to bring his loyal friend back home with him to the UK (Leonard is based in Edinburgh), Gobi started his lengthy quarantine process when the heartwarming story took a new turn for the worse: the little dog suddenly went missing in Urumqi. What followed was an intense search that was covered by all international media, and with dozes of Chinese volunteers ready to help and find this little dog in a city of 3,5 million people.

In Finding Gobi, Leonard tells the incredible story of this mission impossible that eventually had a happy ending that had everyone cheering. The book Finding Gobi – The True Story of a Little Dog and an Incredible Journey was published in 2017, and now there is also a children’s version and a picture board book for the littlest ones which makes a nice gift for kids who can read and then the youngest kids. (Tip for those studying Chinese! Finding Gobi was also translated into Chinese and came out in 2018. This book, 寻找 Gobi, is a fun read and suitable for upper-intermediate and advanced learners of Chinese.)

Get the book: Gobi: A Little Dog with a Big Heart (picture book)
Young Reader’s Edition (2017): Finding Gobi: Young Reader’s Edition: The True Story of One Little Dog’s Big Journey
Get the original edition (2017): Finding Gobi: A Little Dog with a Very Big Heart

 

#49 ● Doctor Li and the Crown-Wearing Virus

By Francesca Cavallo, Undercats 2020

This children’s book was created to combat the rising Anti-Asian sentiment at the start of the pandemic. Writer Francesco Cavallo wanted to let kids around the world know that the first hero of the pandemic was a Chinese doctor named Doctor Li Wenliang who first raised the alarm that a novel coronavirus was spreading in Wuhan. This beautifully illustrated book is about a smart 7-year-old, May, who learns about Doctor Li’s courage and, inspired by his example, takes action in her community to cultivate hope, resilience and positivity through a difficult time.

Get: Doctor Li and the Crown-wearing Virus

 

#50 ● My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder

Story and illustration by Nie Jun, translation by Edward Gauvin, 2018

This is a graphic novel, a manga-style illustrated storybook, that follows little Beijing girl Yu’er and her grandpa. They live in a Beijing hutong neighborhood full of big personalities. There’s a story around every corner, and each day has a hint of magic. The book has some beautiful sketches that anyone who loves Beijing will appreciate – more than a comic book, this is a piece of art. Although the book is suitable for kids (age 7 and older), adults with a love for Beijing and its charming old neighborhoods will definitely also love this cute book.

Get it here: My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder

 

There’s so much reading to do! Where to start?

There are many books in the list above focusing on many different topics, so it all depends on the areas you want to explore the most.

We’ll share some of our personal favorites.

They include Rana Mitter’s Good War and Helen Zia’s Last Boat out of Shanghai in the history section; Wang’s Blockchain Chicken Farm and Brennan’s Attention Factory in the tech category; Strangio’s In the Dragon’s Shadow and Roberts’ The Myth of Chinese Capitalism in the popular/focus sections, and lastly, Schneider’s Staging China and Wang’s The Other Digital China in the China Studies section.

 
EXTRA MENTIONS
 

We can’t fit them all in one list but we’d also really like to point out the following new books since they’re worth it!

Inconvenient Memories – A Personal Account of the Tiananmen Square Incident and the China Before and After by Anna Wang, Purple Pegasus Inc 2019

Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World, by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, Oneworld Publications 2020

Mao’s Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China by Covell F. Meyskens, Cambridge University Press 2020

China’s Revolutions in the Modern World: A Brief Interpretive History by Rebecca E. Karl, Verso 2020

Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai, by James Carter, WW Norton & Co 2020

The Book of Shanghai: A City in Short Fiction, Jin Li & Dai Congrong (eds), Comma Press 2020

An American Bum in China: Featuring the Bumblingly Brilliant Escapades of Expatriate Matthew Evans, by Tom Carter, illustrations John Dobson, Camphor Press 2019

And lastly, we did not include travel books here, but for those planning to travel to China and looking for the right travel book:

Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go, by Josh Summers, edited by Leeanne Hendrick, Go West Media 2019

Happy reading!

By Manya Koetse

Enjoy this article and like to help keep What’s on Weibo going? Please consider donating to the site.

This is not a sponsored post. When you purchase an independently reviewed book through our site, we earn a very small affiliate commission at zero extra cost to you – it helps us in maintaining this site. Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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    Stef

    January 5, 2021 at 10:06 pm

    What a great reading list for the new year

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Backgrounder

Explainer: Ten Key Terms and Concepts of the 20th CPC National Congress

Take a look at the essential keywords and concepts surrounding the 20th Party Congress.

Manya Koetse

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What are the key terms and concepts mentioned in Xi Jinping’s speech that are propagated all over Chinese social media this week? Here, we explain ten important concepts and keywords that you are probably going to see much more of in the coming five years.

It is the week of the 20th CPC National Congress, China’s quinquennial major political event that is all about discussing and deciding on important Party issues, appointing Party leadership and officially announcing new governance concepts, thoughts and strategies proposed by the CPC Central Committee.

The Party Congress opened on Sunday, October 16, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered his nearly two-hour-long speech reflecting on the recent past and the future of the Communist Party and the country at large, signalling the direction China will be heading.

In our earlier article covering Xi Jinping’s speech, we focused on how Chinese official channels turned parts of the work report into hashtags that were promoted on social media and then became trending topics.

Here, we will go over some of the terms and words that were used in the political report delivered by Xi and were propagated on Chinese social media as ‘key terms’ through general hashtags such as “Understanding These Key Terms from the 20th Party Congress Report,” “Studying the Essence of the 20th Party Congress” or “The New Era and Journey of the 20th Party Congress” (#看懂二十大报告中这些关键词#, #学习二十大精神#, #党的二十大新时代新征程#).

During the 19th CPC National Congress in 2017, Party newspaper People’s Daily published a vocabulary list containing 100 relevant words and terms. That list included terms such as “5G Era” (5G时代), “Sharing Economy” (分享经济), “The 20th anniversary of Hong-Kong’s return to China” (香港回归祖国20周年), “Made in China 2025” (中国制造2025), and other key terms that were deemed relevant in 2017 for China’s nearing future.

This Congress, there has not been a comparable official vocabulary list, but there have been various shorter lists and hashtags encouraging netizens to study key terms that are important to this year’s Congress and the Party goals. Many of these terms are visualized in infographics or explained in online posts and articles.

We’ve gathered some of these key terms from Xi’s speech here that are important to understand, not just for the fact that they are mentioned in Xi’s speech but also because they are specifically highlighted by various official channels.

 

1. Modernizing the Chinese Way 中国式现代化

This concept was mentioned at least five times throughout Xi Jinping’s address and it is one of most important themes of this Party Congress: “Chinese modernization” or “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化 Zhōngguóshì xiàndàihuà).

While the 19th Party Congress was all about China’s ‘new era’ (新时代), this 20th Party Congress term grasps the idea of further modernizing the country in a ‘Chinese way,’ meaning a type of modernization in which typically Chinese features and characteristics (“中国特色”) are maintained.

This is a relatively new term. A tool that shows searches on the Chinese search engine Baidu indicates that it did not receive any significant amount of searches before spiking during the week 20th Party Congress.

Baidu trend search shows that the term “Chinese-style modernizarion” “中国式现代化” did not receive any significant searches before October 2022.

The concept, however, did pop up in Chinese official media discourse since late 2021, such as in one article published by Xinhua News on September 27 in 2021 titled “Grasping the Main Features of the New Path of Chinese-Style Modernization” (把握中国式现代化新道路的主要特征)

The idea of Chinese-style modernization is closely related to other key concepts such as “common prosperity for all” (全体人民共同富裕 quántǐ rénmín gòngtóng fùyù) and “harmony between humanity and nature” (人与自然和谐共生 rén yǔ zìrán héxié gòngshēng).

 

2. The Central Mission 中心任务

The term “central mission” (中心任务 zhōngxīn rènwù) was mentioned at least once in Xi Jinping’s address to convey how the central task of the CPC is to “unite and lead the people of all nationalities to build a strong socialist modern country,” and to “promote the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation with Chinese-style modernization.”

Although the term “central mission” itself is not particularly tied to the 20th Party Congress at all, it is now because of how it is being used in the new context of the Party’s ‘main goal’ in China’s ‘new era.’ People’s Daily also promoted a hashtag including this term: “The Communist Party of China’s Central Task from Now On” (#从现在起中国共产党的中心任务#”).

 

3. Top Priority 第一要务

The key term ‘top priority’ (第一要务 dì yī yàowù) refers to the Party pursuing the kind of “high-quality development” (“高质量发展”) that will lead to the further modernization of the country.

“High-quality development” was also mentioned in the 19th Party Congress report in 2017 to indicate a shift and a new phase in China’s economic development from a focus on high-speed growth to a focus on more high-quality development, which is also outlined in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).

This means, among others, that there will be more focus on innovation-driven industries and technological advancement.

 

4. The “Two-Steps” Strategy “两步走”战略安排

In the segment of Xi’s speech where he addresses China-style modernization in the new era, he also mentions the “two steps” strategy (“两步走”战略安排 “liǎng bù zǒu” zhànlüè ānpái). This is not a new term and it has been previously introduced as part of China’s journey to becoming a strong, rejuvenated country – making China great again.

The two steps of this strategy are to realize ‘socialist modernization’ by 2035 and then to enter the next phase from 2035-2050 to build China into a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and beautiful socialist modernization country.” The year 2049 will mark the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, and this is the moment when China’s “great rejuvenation” should be completed.

 

5. The Road to Follow 必由之路

At the end of Xi Jinping’s speech, he mentioned “the road to follow” (必由之路, bìyóuzhīlù) five times. On social media, the “road to follow” has been reiterated multiple times as well by official channels, including in a propaganda video published by CCTV.

The five ‘roads to follow’ mentioned in the Party Congress and in the state media videos are the following that are together presented as “the only road” the country and the Party must take. They are all linked together and are actually somewhat circular, namely:

– to develop socialism with Chinese characteristics, they must adhere to the overall leadership of the Party
– to achieve the “great rejuvenation” of China they must stick to socialism with Chinese characterics
– to reach this historic undertaking, they must be united in struggle
– to allow China to grow and develop in the ‘new era,’ they must implement the new concepts for development
– to be able to take this new road together & keep the Party full of vitality, they must follow the way of comprehensive and strict Party governance

 

6. Building Beautiful China 建设美丽中国

In the 20th CPC National Congress report, the idea of “building beautiful China” (建设美丽中国, jiànshè měilì Zhōngguó) was mentioned in the segment dedicated to the “green development” of China as part of its overall modernization. This includes environmental protection, pollution control, carbon reduction, and climate change awareness.

‘Beautiful China’ as a concept was first introduced during the 18th Party Congress in November of 2012 as part of China’s long-term environmental protection plan within the context of people’s welfare and the future of China.

 

7. Whole-process People’s Democracy 全过程人民民主

This concept of ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ (全过程人民民主, quán guòchéng rénmín mínzhǔ) is mentioned at least five times in Xi Jinping’s 20th Party Congress speech and it is one of the political concepts and terms proposed by Xi himself as part of Xi Jinping’s Socialist Thought with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. It was mentioned in the speech Xi gave during the celebration of the Party’s 100-year anniversary in 2021.

This so-called ‘whole-process people’s democracy’ is officially presented as a ‘process-oriented’ democracy that, despite being different from Western democracy, supposedly “covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society” through a combination of elections, consultations, decision-making, management and oversight.

This idea of China having its own particular kind of democracy – or perhaps having invented a Chinese version of what ‘democracy’ actually means – also suits the idea of Chinese-style modernization, in which China’s path to the future will not be like the route Western countries are taking, but instead combining modernization with Chinese features.

 

8. Socialist Culture 社会主义文化

‘Socialist Culture’ (社会主义文化, shèhuì zhǔyì wénhuà) comes up at least four times in the 20th Party Congress report. The term represents a cultural side of China’s modernization, and emphasizes that, in order to build a strong socialist country, there must also be a strong socialist culture.

Although not explicitly stated, official media propaganda inescapably plays an important part in the cultivation of a strong ‘socialist culture’ that is all about cultural self-confidence, cultural innovation, creativity, and ‘spiritual energy.’

At time of writing, the Baidu Trends tool did not have enough information to show any relevant data on the search engine interest in this particular term, but the idea of ‘socialist culture’ is by no means a new one. “Socialist culture with Chinese characteristics” was already proposed by Jiang Zemin (江泽民) at the 15th CPC National Congress in 1997.

The idea that building a strong socialist culture is important for the further development of China has been further cultivated over the past few years under Xi’s leadership. Also read this article in English titled “How to build a strong socialist culture” in Qiushi, the CPC Central Committee bimonthly.

 

9. Improve the Distribution System 完善分配制度

This phrase comes up once in the part of the 20th Party System report that disusses a fairer economic system with more equal employment & income opportunities and regulated wealth accumulation, encouraging hard work to get rich.

Although it is the first time that a regulation of wealth accumulation has come up in this way (and it is not explained what this actually means), the idea behind these concepts of the distribution system and wealth accumulation standardization is that of ‘common prosperity,’ one of the most important concepts guiding China’s recent policymaking.

‘Improve the distribution system’ (完善分配制度, wánshàn fēnpèi zhìdù) was explicilty mentioned as one of the key concepts for this week’s meeting by various channels, but it mainly is ‘the regulation of wealth accumulation’ that is featured in social media hashtags (#中国将规范财富积累机制#).

 

10. Focus 着力点

Many of the words or phrases propagated as ‘key terms’ for this 20th Party Congress are insignificant by themselves but are merely used to represent a bigger body of thoughts. The aforementioned “Top Priority,” “Central Mission,” and “Road to Follow” are all just words that only mean something within the context of Xi Jinping’s speech.

Another example is “Major Principles” (“重大原则” zhòngdà yuánzé) which is also included by CCTV in this list of most important keywords, but which actually just goes back to the same ideas that are referred to in the other terms, namely strengthing the overall leadership of the Party, adhering to the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics, emphasizing people-centered ideology, etc. – which is similar to the idea behind the “Road to Follow” (必由之路) keyword.

Explanation of ‘Major Principle’ concept in English and Chinese by People’s Daily, posted on Weibo.

Then there is the keyword “focus,” 着力点 (zhuólìdiǎn), which is about the focus of China’s economic development.

In China’s coming years, the economic focus should be placed on the real economy (实体经济). This literally is also a hashtag promoted on Weibo by CCTV this week (“Put the Focus of Economic Development on the Real Economy” #把发展经济的着力点放在实体经济上#).

Different from the Financial Economy, the Real Economy is the realm of economy that is about businesses, production, and the direct exchange/purchase of goods or services.

Also part of this ‘focus’ is China’s new industrialization, manufacturing, product quality, aerospace, transportation, new technology, and digital China. Another related term that is proposed as one of the keywords of this Party Congress is ‘innovation’ (创新, chuàngxīn).

Please check in with us again this week as we will keep an eye on social media trends surrounding the CPC National Congress. Don’t forget to subscribe. For previous posts on the Party Congress, check here.

By Manya Koetse 

 

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Images via Weibo account of Communist Youth League, CCTV, and People’s Daily.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

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Backgrounder

“Guarding the Green Horse” – How China’s Health Code System Provided Solutions and Generated Problems

The Health Code system and the ‘Green Horse’ meme have become part of everyday life in a zero-Covid China.

Manya Koetse

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Since 2020, China’s Health Code apps have become utterly ingrained in everyday life as a pivotal tool in the country’s ongoing fight against Covid-19. What is the health code system, what are its implications, and why have so many Chinese netizens become obsessed with holding on to their ‘green horse’?

 

This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, forthcoming publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yì Magazin here.

 

There is the Grass Mud Horse,1 the River Crab,2 and now another mythical animal is living in China’s social media jungle: the Green Horse. The Green Horse is a cute bright green horse-like animal, a treasured creature that will protect you during your travels and keep you safe from quarantines and lockdowns at a time of China’s zero-Covid policy. The Green Horse will watch over you, but in return, you have to do everything you can to defend it.

‘Green Horse’ in Chinese is 绿马 lǜmǎ, which sounds exactly the same as the word for ‘green code’ (绿码), referring to the green QR code in China’s Covid health apps, which have become a part of everyday life in China since 2020. In a social media environment where homophones and online puns are popular and ubiquitous, it did not take long for the ‘green code’ to turn into the ‘green horse.’

The Green Horse, image via Weibo.

China’s health code system was designed as a solution to resume work and daily life during the pandemic and is widely praised in the country as a pivotal tool in combating the spread of the virus. But it has also given rise to new problems and has triggered resistance against a new kind of digital governance.

 

A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO CHINA’S HEALTH CODE SYSTEM

 

In February of 2020, when China was in the midst of the fierce battle against the novel coronavirus, the country’s tech giants competed over who would be the first and the most efficient in providing digital solutions to aid the anti-epidemic fight.

Within eight weeks after the start of the initial Wuhan Covid outbreak, Alibaba (on Alipay) and Tencent (on WeChat) developed and introduced the ‘Health Code’ (jiànkāngmǎ 健康码), a system that gives individuals colored QR codes based on their exposure risk to Covid-19 and serves as an electronic ticket to enter and exit public spaces, restaurants, offices buildings, etc., and to travel from one area to another.

Scanning a green code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

Hangzhou, Alibaba’s hometown, and Shenzhen, Tencent’s home base, were the first cities in China to introduce the Health Code in early February of 2020, and other cities soon followed in collaboration with either Tencent or Alipay. By late February, a nationwide health code system was first embedded in WeChat (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Now, people can receive their Covid-19 QR codes via ‘mini programs’ in Alipay or WeChat, or via other provincial government service apps. Apart from the personal health code apps, there is also the ‘Telecommunications Big Data Travel Card’ (通信大数据行程卡), better known as the ‘green arrow code,’ which tracks users’ travel history and is also available inside WeChat or can be downloaded as a standalone app. Its goal is to track if you’ve been to any medium or high-risk areas over the past 14 days.

The Green Arrow Code is used to track people’s travel history of past 14 days (Image via 人民视觉).

The health code system is not as centralized as you might expect it to be. Instead, it is fragmented and sometimes complicated. There are basically two kinds of Health Codes in China. One is the ‘Health Information Code’ (防疫健康信息码) provided by China’s national government service platform (link) which can also be used by those without mainland ID cards (including people from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan).

The other kind of Health Code, which is the one that is most used across China, is the local version of the health code system provided by each province/municipality. There are at least 31 different regional health code applications, from Beijing’s ‘Health Kit’ (北京健康宝) to Shanghai’s ‘Suishenma’ (随申码), from Jiangsu’s ‘Sukang Code’ (苏康码) to Anhui’s ‘Ankang Code’ (安康码). There are sometimes also separate health code apps being used within one province (e.g. in Shenzhen both the local Shen-i-nin 深i您 app as well as the Yuekang Code 粤康码 are being used).

These local Covid health apps are developed by different provinces and cities, and they are not always compatible with each other. This means that those traveling to different provinces or municipalities need to go through the inconvenient process of applying for different local health code apps depending on where they go. Although one single centralized system has been proposed ever since 2020, the process to unify the system is not easy since the various apps have varying functions and are managed by different local government departments (JKSB 2022; Lai 2022). In early September of 2022, China’s National Health Commission announced that it was working with relevant departments to improve the interoperability and mutual recognition of health apps across the country.

Do you get a Green, Yellow, or Red QR code? That all depends on personal information, self-reported health status, Covid-19 test results, travel history, and more – the health code system operates by accessing numerous databases. The Green color means you’re safe (low-risk) and have free movement, the Yellow code (mid-risk) requires self-isolation and the Red color code is the most feared one: it means you either tested positive or are at high risk of infection. With a red code, you won’t have access to any public places and will have to go into mandatory quarantine. Once the quarantine is finished and you’ve consecutively tested negative, the code will switch back to green again.

Three color codes in the Health Code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

By the end of 2020, around 900 million Chinese citizens were using Health Code apps and although there are no official records of the latest numbers, virtually anyone visiting or traveling anywhere within China will now use the health code system. Besides keeping records of your latest nucleic acid test results, the Health Code app also includes Covid vaccination records since 2021.

 

LEAVING THE ELDERLY BEHIND

 

Despite the efficiency of China’s health code system, it has not been without controversy. One major issue is that it basically forces Chinese citizens to have a smartphone and to download and properly use these apps. This creates a problem for younger children, those without access to smartphones, or those with lower levels of digital skills, including senior citizens.

Although the use of smartphones, the internet, and QR codes are widespread in China, where mobile payments are far more common than cash, more than 60% of Chinese aged 60 years and over still did not use the internet in June of 2020. In China’s ‘Zero-Covid’ era, it is becoming almost impossible for China’s digital illiterate to live a ‘normal’ life.

Chinese authorities have attempted to simplify things for Chinese seniors by making platforms more user-friendly and introducing alternative ways to enter venues, such as offline codes. But at a time when systems differ per region and some venues do not have the tools to check offline (paper) codes, many elderly still struggle (see Gu & Fan 2022).

“They did nucleic acid testing in my grandma’s community compound today,” one woman from Shanxi writes on Weibo: “There are many elderly people in my grandma’s area, and I saw that so many of them had no smartphones, just senior mobile phones, but now they have to swipe a code to make an appointment for testing. One grandpa asked a staff member what to do without a smartphone, they just said it would be better to bring your son or daughter to do it for you. But all results also are processed digitally, so there’s no way for them to see it, and it’s really not easy for them to go to public places.”

On Chinese social media, there are many stories showing the difficult situations that some senior residents are caught up in because they do not have a smartphone or do not know how to get a Health Code.

In August of 2022, there was one viral story about an elderly man from Shandong walking ten kilometers every day because he could not take the bus without a health app. There was also another story about a visually impaired Hengyang resident who was unable to set up the code and was barred from using public transport. In May, a 70-year-old man got stuck inside the Wuxi train station for three days because he had no smartphone and had to scan a code in order to leave.

In another video that went viral, an old man got on a bus in Shanghai but had a hard time using his mobile phone to do the ‘venue check-in’ (场所码). When the bus driver got impatient, the man eventually got off the bus, saying he felt bad about delaying the other passengers.

“Heartlessness is scarier than the epidemic,” some Weibo commenters wrote in response.

 

RED CODE: CONTROVERSIAL DIGITAL GOVERNANCE

 

Another problem that concerns netizens in this Health Code era is that the code could pose an infringement of privacy and could be abused to limit citizens’ freedom of movement for reasons that are unrelated to Covid-19. There are still unclarities surrounding the app, such as what kind of information is exactly being collected, who is authorized to access the data, and how the data is processed and stored (Zhang 2022, 2).

Some people complain on social media that they do not understand why their Health Code is changing colors: “After I did a Covid test the other day, my Health Code was green. The day after, I woke up to a yellow code and after I had done my nucleic acid test again, it was still yellow. On the third day, it turned green. In the afternoon it turned yellow again. On day four, it was green again. Besides doing tests, I’ve been at home all this time. I’m stupefied.”

One incident where people who came to the city of Zhengzhou to protest suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red sparked major outrage on Chinese social media in June.

Earlier this year, thousands of Chinese depositors struggled to recover their savings in light of a major banking scandal in Henan Province. When dozens of affected depositors traveled to the provincial capital of Zhengzhou in June of 2022 to demand their money back, they suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red. The red code was unexpected and strange, considering that there were no new reported Covid cases in their vicinity. Accompanying family members who made the exact same journey reportedly did not see their Health Codes change, raising suspicions that the duped depositors were specifically targeted and that their Health Codes were being manipulated.

“Who is in charge of changing the Health Code colors?” became a much-asked question on social media platform Weibo, with many blaming local Henan authorities for abusing their power and trying to stop rural protesters from raising their voices in Zhengzhou. Although Henan authorities claimed they did “not understand” what had happened, five local officials were later punished for their involvement in assigning red codes to bank depositors without authorization (Wu 2022).

The incident sparked more discussions on the legal and privacy risks surrounding the health code system. Although many people in China support the use of Health Code apps (also see Chen et al), there is also a fear that a lack of transparency and management could allow the health code system to turn into a surveillance tool used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

The influential media commentator Hu Xijin also gave his view on the matter, saying that Health Codes across the country should only be used for “pure epidemic prevention purposes.”

“The fact that Henan can make the health codes turn red of people who come to the city to protest says a lot about the power of the IT,” one Weibo tech blogger wrote. Another Weibo user wrote: “As ordinary people, we have voluntarily given up too much of our personal privacy and rights in order to cooperate with the epidemic prevention. The current abuse and misuse of health codes have caused serious infringement on the legal rights of citizens (..) The state should quickly incorporate health codes into a unified system and place it under strict management, and once the epidemic is over, the health code system should stop running immediately.”

 

A GREEN HORSE FUTURE?

 

But will the Health Code and the ‘Green Horse’ ever disappear from daily life in China? And if so, how would the collected data be handled? Although the pandemic era is not over yet (and the question remains what would qualify as ‘the end’), local Chinese governments and tech firms are already looking to see how the health code system could be implemented and how its uses could be expanded in a post-pandemic future (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Back in 2020, the China Healthcare platform (健康界) already published an article exploring the post-pandemic use of the health code system as a digital health passport and information system that could continue to play a significant role in medical care, social security, public transportation, and tourism.

On social media, some people worry that the health code system – and everything that comes with it – is here to stay indefinitely. One Henan-based blogger wrote: “In the future, I hope my son will visit my grave and tell me, ‘dad, now we no longer need our Health Code, nucleic tests or masks when we go to the malls and take trains or airplanes.'”

“If I would wake up tomorrow in a world without health codes, travel codes, Covid tests, lockdowns, wouldn’t that be great,” another person wrote on Weibo, another netizen adding: “My health code is normal. My nucleic acid test is normal. It’s just my mental state that has become abnormal.”

The fears of receiving a ‘Red Code’ are also palpable. Earlier in summer, videos showed people in Shanghai fleeing out of a local mall once they heard that someone in the building had received notice of an abnormal test result.  The same happened at a local IKEA store. Afraid of Health Codes turning red and getting locked in, people rushed to get out as soon as possible. Some even compared the scenes to a ‘zombie apocalypse.’

People fleeing from a local IKEA store after someone in the building got an abnormal test result.

Although there are serious concerns regarding the health code system, social media users also make light of it through the ‘Green Horse’ meme. The phrase “Bàozhù lǜmǎ” (抱住绿码/马) is often used on Chinese social media, a wordplay meant to mean both “Keep your code green” as well as “Hold on to your Green Horse.”

Selection of ‘Holding on to the Green Horse’ memes.

Following the trend, Wuhan set up a giant green horse at a public square in the city, which soon became a popular place for people to take selfies. The meme is also a profitable one for businesses. On Chinese e-commerce sites, you’ll find there are ‘Green Horse’ keychains, stickers, toys, mooncakes, and coffee mugs.

Green Horse merchandise on Taobao.

As cases of Covid surged again in Chengdu, Shenzhen, and elsewhere in late August and September, worries over ‘keeping the green code’ grew again among those living in affected regions. One local Weibo blogger wrote: “I just couldn’t sleep the past few days, I kept checking my green code and latest Covid test results. It makes me anxious.”

“I feel safest at home,” others write: “This is where I can guard my Green Horse.”

“I hope this epidemic will go away soon,” one netizen wrote: “I hope we can all have our Green Horse and just keep it.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

1 Grass Mud Horse or Cǎonímǎ (草泥馬) is one of China’s social media ‘mythical creatures’ and an online meme. It is a word play on the vulgar Mandarin term càonǐmā (肏你媽), which literally means “f*** your m*m.”

2 River Crab is another ‘mythical creature’: Héxiè (河蟹) is literally ‘river crab’ but sounds the same as héxié (和谐),”to harmonize,” referring to online censorship.

 

References (other sources linked to inside the text)

Chen, Wenhong. Gejun Hang, and An Hu. 2022. “Red, Yellow, Green, or Golden: The Post-Pandemic Future of China’s Health Code Apps.” Information, Communication & Society 25 (5): 618-633.

China Healthcare 健康界. 2020. “国家卫健委推行”一码通”健康码未来不止于”通行.”” CN Healthcare, 21 December https://www.cn-healthcare.com/article/20201221/content-547951.html [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Gu, Peng and Yiying Fan. 2022. “In ‘Zero-COVID’ China, the Elderly Are Becoming Ever More Marginalized.” Sixth Tone, 9 Aug https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010908/in-zero-covid-china-the-elderly-are-becoming-ever-more-marginalized [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

JKSB 健康时报网 [Health Times]. 2022. “国家健康码和地方健康码区别何在?专家:国家平台更接近理想状态.” JKSB, August 27 http://www.jksb.com.cn/html/redian/2022/0827/177853.html [Accessed 1 Sep, 2022].

Lai, Xianjin. 2022. “Unified Health Code Can Bring More Convenience, Efficiency.” China Daily, April 6 https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202204/06/WS624ccc73a310fd2b29e55269.html [Accessed 31 August].

Liang, Fan. 2020. “COVID-19 and Health code: How Digital Platforms Tackle the Pandemic in China.” Social Media + Society (Jul-Sep): 1-4.

Wu, Peiyue. 2022. “Zhengzhou Officials Punished Over Red Health Code Saga.” Sixth Tone, 23 June https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010627/zhengzhou-officials-punished-over-red-health-code-saga- [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Zhang, Xiaohan. 2022. “Decoding China’s COVID-19 Health Code Apps: The Legal Challenges.” Healthcare 10 (1479): 1-14.

 

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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