Last week's email newsletter from research firm Access Asia includes their annual guide to the best and worst of China books. It is republished below with their permission.*
It looked like being a bad one – the Olympics looked like it might throw a kink in the market with a boom in bad books looking to hang on the coattails of the Games. However, by and large they 'didn’t appear. Still, it was hardly a stellar year – there were no really big picture books this year that stormed the shelves, though there were a few interesting memoirs (Rowan Simons’s Bamboo Goalposts and Zhang Lijia’s Socialism is Great! both deserve a mention) but not one good business book. 2008 was a good year for general history though as reflected in our choices below (NB: we’ve left out anything costing a ridiculous amount of money, usually the academics, as who the hell buys books for US$70+?):
The Best of 2008
The Age of Openness: China Before Mao by Frank Dikotter
A superb, concise yet detailed book arguing that the great Communist Party myth that all was terrible, corrupt and backward during the Republican period is inaccurate. Dikotter superbly shows that far from being decayed and needing a revolution, Republican China was a vibrant, progressive society. Far from doing anything bold or new the CCP destroyed China's emerging society and global network of connections for several generations. The Age of Openness is the perfect antidote to the current rise of the Communist Party myth that is being extended globally now through the perfidious Confucius Institutes and lazy educators.
China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage by Alexandra Harney
After all the tomes about how to profit from low-cost manufacturing in China and the wonders of the export economy we were long overdue a good book that looked at the dark side of manufacturing in China. Perfectly timed to deal with the rising costs of production, the moves inland, the recession and factory closures and the stupidity of companies who claimed they were effectively auditing their suppliers. Harney also notes the gorilla in the corner of the CSR party - the general disinclination for supposedly concerned and ethical western consumers to cough up more money for products. Harney gets it all down in a readable fashion and nails her subject. We won't need another book on the problems with this sector for a while now.
The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed by Michael Meyer
It could have been maudlin, could have been a lot of waffle but it turned out to be gripping and well researched. Meyer vividly brings the life of his hutong, now history apparently as the remorseless bulldozers still destroy Beijing. Bound to become a classic we reckon.
The City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China by Jasper Becker
A great gallimaufry of Beijing stories from the veteran journalist and all immensely readable. However, it is Becker's searing indictment of Neanderthal communist officialdom, the campaign to destroy historical memory and the collusion in this process of vainglorious foreign architects and builders that hits home hardest.
The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850-2009 by Jonathan Fenby
A good rolling summation of the last 150 years or so since the Taiping and segueing nicely from the Republican period to the communist. Nice to get that 2009 in there - presumably now Fenby can add a couple of pages a year and then update annually - 2010, 2012, 2014 to keep it selling?
Honourable mentions: Yasheng Huang's Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State and Leslie Chang's Factory Girls.
The Worst of 2008
China's Creative Imperative: How Creativity is Transforming Society and Business in China by Kunal Sinha.
We once spent a long and enjoyable weekend in Istanbul - you'll be happy to know we didn't then write a book about modern Turkey. Sinha spent a small amount of time in China and then penned this drivel which will stand as one of the worst books on China ever - uninformed, incorrect largely, the writing skills of a 12-year-old and would have sunk without a trace had the Ogilvy PR machine (which employs Sinha) not boosted it. Back to your hot-desking, multi-tasking cubicle Mr Sinha and think no more upon China please. Boring, derivative and offering nothing to the reader of any use - RIP some beautiful trees.
Supertrends Of Future China: Billion Dollar Business Opportunities for China's Olympic Decade by James Yuann and Jason Inch.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Surely the title should be enough to persuade you not to waste a couple of hours of your life on this sort of opportunist piffle. Regular readers will know our feelings about books with chapter titles such as China, the Land of Mystery.
My Favourite Wife by Tony Parsons.
While Parsons captured some of the flavor of ex-pat bubble Shanghai our problem with this was that it was just clunking, pontificating and the last few scenes were frankly nuts - Ozzie ex-pat lawyers with pistols in their sideboards willing to die for Filipino cover band birds? Like most people we have no love for lawyers and are quite happy to watch them shoot each other but we doubt it likely. Thanks Tony, but please go back to writing about north London. We wouldn't mind betting that if he'd submitted the manuscript under any other name it would never have made it out of the slush pile.
China Fireworks: How to Make Dramatic Wealth from the Fastest Growing Economy in the World by Robert Hsu.
Yes, you can judge a book by its cover - a book only for the truly retarded. The out of focus cover photo is reflective of the contents.
What Does China Think? by Mark Leonard.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear (again). This piece of wonkish nonsense left you feeling sorry for the trees that had to be sacrificed. Nil points for effort; nil points for research; nil points for being unable to filter the official line due to linguistic and political lack of education and nil points for anything at all really. Let us all pray that this will be Leonard's first and last outing on China.
And a couple of dishonourable mentions: while the above were all totally risible we should also note Simon Winchester's Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China - though bits were interesting, it was riddled with mistakes that could have been easily checked and corrected had a) an editor done a serious job on the manuscript or b) Winchester wasn't such a pompous ass as to believe himself infallible.