Most Favored Narrations: The 10 Best Books, According to China's Ruling Elite

By Fish, Isaac Stone; Gao, Helen | Foreign Policy, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Most Favored Narrations: The 10 Best Books, According to China's Ruling Elite


Fish, Isaac Stone, Gao, Helen, Foreign Policy


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

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

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

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

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

At first blush, the list seems surprisingly provocative: The books all explicitly or implicitly pose tough questions about the Communist Party's ability and right to rule--arguably the most sensitive issue in China today. Zhang, the author of The China Wave, said in an interview, "There are a lot of questions and misgivings within the Chinese leadership about China's current mode of development, many of which are also shared by Westerners. I didn't dodge any of these questions." Xie Chuntao, the author of The Track of History (No. 10), which explores how the party has maintained its vitality over its 64 years in power, explained, "My book is refreshing because it is not just a flat chronological account. …

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