Dexter Roberts, author of The Myth of Chinese Capitalism, recommends books that suggest some contrarian views on China business
Dexter Roberts is an award-winning writer and speaker who serves as a Mansfield Fellow, Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative, and teaches Chinese politics at the University of Montana. He was previously China bureau chief and Asia News Editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, based in Beijing for over two decades, where he covered China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and the rise of private companies. Roberts’ first book, The Myth of Chinese Capitalism, was an Economist “best book of the year” for 2020. He writes a weekly newsletter “Trade War” on China business and politics.
What would be your number one book recommendation for someone looking to learn more about China?
Elizabeth Economy’s The World According to China. Informed by Economy’s unparalleled access to many of China’s key players and her years of closely watching the country’s rise, the book lays out in detail how Xi Jinping intends to change China and the world, through dominating new global technology standards and using “sharp power” to rein in multinationals while pushing his anti-liberal definition of human rights. Economy persuasively lays out the scale of China’s geopolitical ambitions and shows what they mean for all of us.
What book on China have you re-read the most?
Carl Crow’s 400 Million Customers. Crow, an American advertising executive based in Shanghai, recognized the lure of the China market for the world’s companies, writing in 1937 of “the golden illusion of the sales which may be made to China’s industrious millions.” Even as some companies have thrived doing business in the China market, others still struggle and may relate to his prescient words: “The work is always interesting, and, in spite of our years of disillusionment, all of us secretly cherish the thought that a reasonable number of the 400 million may buy our goods next year.”
What are you reading currently?
Isaac Stone Fish’s America Second: How America’s Elites are Making China Stronger. Fish takes aim at the once popular argument that economic engagement with China would eventually lead to political reform. Instead, he argues, Beijing is able to use the lure of its vast market to make multinationals self-censor when it comes to sensitive topics, and has become even less willing to adapt its behavior to Western liberal norms. While China has become more integrated with the world, its political system has become less open.
What book totally changed your perspective on a certain topic?
Yasheng Huang’s Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State. Huang makes a contrarian but convincing argument: China’s real source of economic vitality has been its countryside. In the 1980s, rural reforms that produced township and village enterprises unleashed a burst of productivity that lifted incomes and drove growth. In the following decades, as Beijing focused more on a state-driven urban model, growth continued but at the cost of rising inequality and debt, and declining productivity.
Which China book do you think is the most underappreciated?
Jim Mann’s Beijing Jeep: A Case Study of American Business in China. It is one of the earliest accounts of the challenges investors face when they joint venture in China. Mann, a Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Beijing in the mid 1980s, details the travails encountered by American Motors Corp as it works with a state-owned Chinese enterprise to produce Jeeps, many of which still bedevil companies today. “From the outside, China has always seemed malleable,” Mann writes. “From inside, it seems intractable, endlessly capable of frustrating change.”
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