China's recent rise has sparked an explosion of scholarly and journalistic works on the country. In the academic community, greater access to archives, polling data, and other primary sources has spawned thousands of social and political studies and fed a new generation of China specialists and subspecialists. Meanwhile, Western journalists and filmmakers have excelled at offering a more accessible look at the most critical policy issues, including the power of the ruling party.

China: A Century of Revolution, A Three-Part Documentary. Written and produced by Sue Williams. Zeitgeist Films, 1989, 1994, 1997.
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A century ago, China was a failed state. It was a victim of Western imperialism, civil wars, and regime collapse. In haunting and powerful detail, the award-winning documentary China: A Century of Revolution captures the full dimensions of that time. Part one, "China in Revolution (1911-1949)," was released in 1989. Sue Williams procured rare historical footage to document the disintegration of the Qing empire, Sun Yat-sen's nationalist revolution, and the triumph of the communists. In part two, "The Mao Years (1949-1976)," she records the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Here, she depicts the gradual degeneration of the revolutionary regime and shows just how destructive radicalism and the cult of personality were for a society long known for its pragmatism. Finally, in part three, "Born Under the Red Flag (1976-1997)," the filmmaker portrays a traumatized society trying to recover. Williams' achievement with this documentary -- telling the story of modern China in six hours -- is remarkable.

The Private Life of Chairman Mao. By Li Zhisui. Random House, 1996.
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Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962. By Yang Jisheng, translated by Stacy Mosher and Jian Guo. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
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To Live: A Novel. By Yu Hua. Anchor Books, 2003.
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In the 1990s, those who had been close to Mao started releasing their memoirs. One of the best of these is The Private Life of Chairman Mao, written by Li Zhisui, the private physician of the late tyrant. It is by far the most authentic and revealing portrait of Mao, who is presented as a totally self-absorbed and cold-blooded megalomaniac. In Li's telling -- and in those of many others -- the chairman had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

No wonder, then, that the Great Leap Forward, which Mao launched in 1958 to collectivize the agriculture and industries simultaneously, was such an unmitigated disaster. Because of his policies, at least 30 million people starved to death in the worst famine in history. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has never officially acknowledged -- let alone taken responsibility for -- the catastrophe, though, instead euphemistically calling it the "three difficult years." Yang, a retired senior reporter for Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, spent a decade trying to uncover the horrific details of the Great Famine. Beyond a search for the truth, he had a personal reason to document the travesty: His father was one of its victims.

Thanks to his status at Xinhua, Yang was able to interview retired officials and access classified provincial archives. The result is the definitive account of the famine. Yang documents how government officials used torture to force peasants to sell their grains and describes just how well the same officials ate as villagers wasted away. Yang also answers two important puzzles about the famine: Why so many people died, and why famine deaths were much higher in some provinces than others. In answering the former question, he found that to prevent the rest of China -- especially the cities -- from learning about the famine, local officials set up checkpoints around villages, in effect keeping starving peasants imprisoned and virtually ensuring their deaths. In addressing the latter question, Yang discovered that the worst-hit provinces were governed by Mao's most loyal followers, who implemented his policies without compromise.

Reading statistics about the Great Leap Forward is bad enough. In To Live, China's leading novelist, Yu Hua, captures the trauma and private tragedies that the Chinese nation endured during the Mao period by telling the story of one family. The movie based on the novel was a hit in China and abroad, but the original story is more powerful.

Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China. By Philip P. Pan. Simon & Schuster, 2008.
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The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers. By Richard McGregor. Harper, 2010.
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There is no doubt that today's China is radically different from Mao's. Two books by two of the best Western journalists posted in China explain how. Philip Pan, now an editor at The New York Times, wrote Out of Mao's Shadow while he was a reporter for The Washington Post. Instead of a straightforward accounting of Chinese politics and society in the post-Deng era, Pan chose to profile nine individuals. Among them is Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights lawyer who was under house arrest before he made a daring escape to the U.S. embassy in Beijing in April 2012. Pan also tells the story of three blue-collar workers who, in 2002, led demonstrations against unemployment. They were later arrested and imprisoned. Another of Pan's heroes, Jiang Yanyong, is an army surgeon who courageously exposed Beijing's cover-up of the SARS epidemic in March 2003. Not all the characters are pleasant individuals. The trajectory of Chen Lihua, a billionaire real estate developer who struck gold in the 1990s when she built an elite nightclub, shows how political connections, not competitive edge, are the real ingredients of business success. The strength of the book lies in the intimacy of Pan's interviews and reporting. As few others have, he exposes just how wide and deep is the divide between the CCP and the Chinese people.

Richard McGregor's much-acclaimed book reveals the extent to which the CCP controls the machinery of the Chinese state, particularly the military and economy. Through meticulous research and reporting, McGregor, the former Beijing bureau chief of The Financial Times, shows that, for all its modernistic veneer, the regime has retained its Leninist essence (in a memorable phrase, he compares the Chinese regime to a modern computer still running old software). The CCP ensures survival by controlling the appointment of government officials, the propaganda machine, and the means of coercion. The Party's central insight is as important as it is disturbing: The depth of the party's resistance to change means that reform in China is likeliest to come as a result of crisis.

Obama and China's Rise: An Insider's Account of America's Asia Strategy. By Jeffrey A. Bader. Brookings Institution Press, 2012.
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For those interested in U.S. President Barack Obama's handling of China in the last four years, this book provides a truly illuminating account. Jeffrey Bader, who served as senior director for Asia at the National Security Council between 2009 and 2011, was a key player. He shows that Obama has tried two different China policies: at first, accommodating, then increasingly hardnosed starting in 2010 when, according to Bader, China's assertive behavior in East Asia created a perfect opportunity for Washington to re-engage more forcefully in the region. Another useful insight is that reported accounts of Obama's policies have been way off the mark. The first example was coverage of Obama's visit to China in November 2009. Although the press uniformly labeled it a failure, the White House's assessment of the trip was much more favorable in light of substantive and productive behind-the-scenes discussions between the two nations. Another case was the United Nations' Copenhagen summit on climate change. Again, the press judged it a diplomatic disaster, because China was said to have scuttled any meaningful agreement. But Bader shows that last-minute cooperation between Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao actually rescued the UN conference from a far more serious catastrophe.

It is too bad a steady China hand like Bader is no longer in the White House. If anything, the next four years will see a far more contentious relationship between Beijing and Washington. China is not reacting warmly to Obama's "pivot to Asia." The near-unanimous view in Beijing is that this is containment in disguise. Today's restrained strategic competition between the United States and China could quickly escalate.

  • MINXIN PEI is a Senior Associate in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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