We asked conference participants to recommend one or two works—a book, journal article, book chapter, or unpublished paper—that they consider a “must read” for a graduate seminar on Chinese politics. We also asked them to explain in a few sentences the reason for their choice or choices. Here are results to date.


Barnett, A. Doak. 1967. Cadres, Bureaucracy, and Political Power in Communist China: With a Contribution by Ezra Vogel. New York and London: Columbia Univ. Press.

Provides an exhaustive description of the various component parts of the Chinese state in a no-nonsense manner, as well as the various institutional terms of art that are still in use. In doing so, it provides an excellent platform for measuring continuity and change in Chinese bureaucratic politics. It underscores how much of what we know now we already knew in 1967, and how incremental the increasing in our knowledge of the state structure has been since then. It demonstrates – and raises useful discussion/debate questions about – reliance on a small number of data sources (elite interviewing, refugee accounts, etc.).

Baum, Richard. 2011. “The Road to Tiananmen: Chinese Politics in the 1980s.” In Roderick MacFarquhar (ed.), The Politics of China: Sixty Years of The People’s Republic of China (3rd edition). New York: Cambridge University Press, 337-467.

This chapter provides a concise but thorough account of the events leading up to the Tiananmen Square Uprising. Baum’s description of fang and shou, or the cycles of liberalization and repression, is a useful framework for understanding not only that period but also other periods of change in Chinese politics.

Cai, Hongbin, and Daniel Treisman. 2006. “Did Government Decentralization Cause China’s Economic Miracle?” World Politics, vol. 58, no. 4: 505-535.

This is one of the better articles unpacking why “market-preserving federalism” is not a helpful description or explanation for China’s economic growth.

Diana Fu and Greg Distelhorst. 2017. “Grassroots Participation and Repression under Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping,” China Journal, no. 79: 100–122.

The first article to systematically assess what has changed under Xi, and just as importantly what has not. Is China really more repressive now than before? How do we know?

Dickson, Bruce J.  2003.  Red Capitalists in China: The Party, Private Entrepreneurs, and Prospects for Political Change.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

This book studies China’s private entrepreneurs. Using original surveys of private business owners and government officials, it provides an insightful analysis of how the Party adapts to changing economic environments to co-opt new business elites, the political beliefs and behaviors of private entrepreneurs, and the government-business relations in China. 

Donaldson, John A. 2011. Small Works: Poverty and Economic Development in Southwestern China. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

This book, which examines poverty alleviation in Yunnan and Guizhou, speaks to important, widely discussed debates about the political economy of development. It is also just an excellent example of how to do subnational comparative research on China.

Duara, Prasenjit. 1998. Culture, Power, and the State: Rural North China, 1900-1942. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

This book contributes to our understanding of state-society relations and state-building in China. Duara proposes the concept of a “cultural nexus of power” to understand how power and authority were exercised in rural areas. The nexus is composed of hierarchal and intersecting organizations and informal networks, including marketing communities, lineage groups, irrigation associations, and temple societies. These organizations are infused with norms and symbols that provide meaning to their members, such as reciprocity, kinship bonds, ritual and religious belief. The cultural nexus serves as the framework that structures access to power and resources in local society as well as provides legitimacy and stability for the imperial state. Ultimately, the integrity of the nexus was undermined by the modernizing state.

Economy, Elizabeth. 2018. The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

It is unfortunate that political scientists and public policy experts are often talking past each other.  To fill this hole, graduate students need to learn how Washington sees China.  This is the best book to understand politics of Xi Jinping’s China and how those who are involved in policymaking of U.S.-China relations perceive the current China.

Esherick, Joseph W., and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom. 1990. “Acting Out Democracy: Political Theater in Modern China.” The Journal of Asian Studies 49(4): 835–65. doi: 10.2307/2058238.

This is a rich and insightful analysis of the Tiananmen student movement. It can be used to motivate student discussion about political culture.

Fei, Xiaotong, Gary G. Hamilton, and Wang Zheng. 1992. From the Soil The Foundations of Chinese Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Arkush, R. David. 1981. Fei Xiaotong and Sociology in Revolutionary China. Cambridge, MA.

Fei Xiaotong’s ethnographic writings on China remains fresh and illuminating until this day. In thinking about state-society and party-bureaucracy relations, I continue to draw inspiration from his insights. It pairs exceedingly well with Arkush’s biography of Fei Xiaotong, which is surprisingly relevant for the study of China and the world today. The biography illuminates the vast cultural divides between China and the West in the 20th century and Fei’s ability to bridge it.

Fravel, M. Taylor. 2008. “Power Shifts and Escalation: Explaining Chinas Use of Force in Territorial Disputes.” International Security 32(3): 44–83. doi: 10.1162/isec.2008.32.3.44.

Fravel’s article, drawn from his first book, provides a valuable framework for understanding China’s behavior toward its neighbors.  It is especially helpful for considering both internal and external security problems, and how the CCP’s view of the relationship between the two leads to specific foreign policy behaviors.

Friedberg, Aaron L. 2005. “The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable?” International Security, vol. 30, no. 2: pp. 7-45.

An excellent, fair-minded survey of the range of views about the prospects for the bilateral relationship that explicitly connects IR scholarship about China with the most important strands of IR theory. It also helpfully considers variations within these approaches and what they suggest about US-China relations. Though published in 2005, the theoretical comparisons remain relevant and provide a jumping off point for discussion about how US-China relations have changed and which theories have proven most helpful for understanding events since the early 2000s.

Gallagher, Mary E. 2002. “‘Reform and Openness’: Why Chinas Economic Reforms Have Delayed Democracy.” World Politics 54(3): 338–72.

The article has three main strengths that are exceptionally useful to teach students on politics of globalization in China. First, it presents the best explanation of the logics of how FDI influences the politics and processes of China’s economic reform. Second, it conducts superb process tracing of new labor practices in China in the 1980s. Third, it offers a well-structured comparative discussion of economic reforms in Soviet, Hungary, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Geddes, Barbara, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz. 2018. How Dictatorships Work: Power, Personalization, and Collapse. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Although most of the human beings have historically and geographically lived under authoritarian rule, majority of the studies in political science have focused on politics in democratic countries.  Studies on Chinese politics may fill this hole by putting their works in the perspectives of comparative authoritarianism.  This is a good book for graduate students to learn how to do that.

Goldstein, Avery. 2005. Rising to the challenge: China’s grand strategy and international security. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

This book is an important contribution to research on “China in the World” by carefully detailing China’s grand strategy which emerged during the mid-1990s and continues to evolve. In Xi’s era, we continue to witness the aim to “increase the country’s international clout” but less effort to not trigger “a counterbalancing reaction.” This book helps us understand Beijing’s ever-evolving foreign policy making process.

Gueorguiev, Dimitar D., and Edmund J. Malesky. 2019. “Consultation and Selective Censorship in China.” Journal of Politics, vol. 81, no. 4.

King, Pan, and Roberts (2013) use sophisticated methods to arrive at the conclusion that the paramount concern of the Chinese authorities in social media censorship is to prevent collective action and that political criticism is not a concern. Gueorguiev and Malesky argue that flaws in research design bias the strong conclusion about political criticism, by failing to take into account the significant temporal coincidence of social media volume bursts and Chinese government active solicitation of public input on policy topics. This article reanalyzes the data and produces a more conservative conclusion about censorship of political criticism. Any syllabus with King, Pan, and Roberts (2013) should also include this article.

Guriev, Sergei M. and Treisman, Daniel. 2018. “Informational Autocrats.” Social Science Research Network, Working Paper

Does not specifically deal with China but offers a rich and yet relatively simple theoretical framework unifying censorship, propaganda, cooptation, and repression.

Heilmann, Sebastian. 2008. “Policy Experimentation in China’s Rise.” Studies in Comparative and International Development. Vol. 43: 1-26.

This paper, the most theoretical and streamlined of Heilmann’s body of work, is the clearest statement of how Chinese policy-making works and how the regime has managed policy change and reform within a one-party state and rigid institutional context. Many scholars have noted China’s use of experimentation, but Heilmann shows how the process actually works alongside political hierarchy.

Huang, Yasheng. 2008. Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State. New York: Cambridge University Press.

This book profoundly challenges previous models of Chinese political economy and
redefines the relationship between the state and business in different periods of China.
It offers a provocative argument on the shift from private entrepreneurship to state
capitalism that is helpful to generate debates among students.

Jervis, Robert. 1976. Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

This book highlights the importance of the beliefs of decision-makers about others’ intentions in international politics. Chapter two introduces “the Spiral Model,” which captures how mistaken beliefs can lead to a war that nobody wants. The model is particularly relevant to the study of bilateral relations between states with starkly different domestic institutions, such as those of the United States and China, because the differences create additional difficulties for decision-makers to understand each other’s intentions.

Johnston, Alastair Iain. 2003. “Is China a Status Quo Power?” International Security, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 5-56.

Pretty much everything that Iain Johnston writes is outstanding, and quite a few of his articles and books typically make their way onto my syllabi. I especially like this article because it is framed around a question that motivates much analysis of China in the United States, it does an excellent job integrating international relations theory into the analysis, and it sets up clear benchmarks through which to evaluate the question posed.

Kastner, Scott L., Margaret M. Pearson, and Chad Rector. 2016. “Invest, Hold Up, or Accept? China in Multilateral Governance.” Security Studies, vol. 25, no. 1: 142179.

Precursor to the book version China’s Strategic Multilateralism: Investing in Global Governance (2018) but contains the main arguments and cases. The theory is a bit tautological and underdeveloped, but an excellent piece for students to build on to make their own contribution to this very nascent literature.

King, Gary, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts. “How censorship in China allows government criticism but silences collective expression.” American Political Science Review 107.2 (2013): 326-343.

While Roberts’ subsequent book provides is more accessible and covers a broader sweep of issues, it is valuable to read this paper on its own. Students will benefit from thinking through how to quantitatively test important hypotheses stemming from fieldwork and other qualitative research and how to reconcile when findings from different approaches appear contradictory.

Koss, Daniel. 2018. Where the Party Rules: the Rank and File of Chinas Communist State. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Koss challenges prevailing theories about the contributions of authoritarian parties and offers an alternative argument based on his analysis of the origins and importance of regional variation in CCP governance.

Kuran, Timur. 1991. “Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989.” World Politics, vol. 44, no. 1: 7-48.

While not about China, this article raises significant questions about the Tiananmen
events. If, as Kuran claims, the East European communist regimes indeed collapsed
because popular protests came as a surprise for the leadership, were the 1989 protests in
China anticipated? The Tiananmen Papers provides an answer and offers possibility for
innovative comparative analysis.

Landry, Pierre F., Xiaobo Lu, and Haiyan Duan. 2018. “Does Performance Matter? Evaluating Political Selection Along the Chinese Administrative Ladder.” Comparative Political Studies, vol. 51, no. 8: 1074-1105.

So much research on political selection is focused at high levels, mainly the province. This article analyzes data on chief executives at provincial, municipal, and county levels. It theorizes, tests, and shows why economic performance may be more important at lower levels and loyalty at higher levels.

Lee, Ching Kwan. 2018. The Specter of Global China: Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

This book makes a major contribution to research on “China in the World”. It explicates theunique characteristics of Chinese capital through systematic comparisons with non-Chinese capital, and engages theoretically with a rich set of political economy literature, from Marx to Varieties of Capitalism. The data, gathered through many years of fieldwork, is rich and compellingly presented. Graduate students should get a lot out of this book on both theoretical and methodological levels.

Li, Lianjiang. 2016. “Reassessing Trust in the Central Government: Evidence from Five National Surveys*.” The China Quarterly 225 (March 2016): 100–121. 

This paper provides an overview of the research on trust in government in China and an original updated analysis of hierarchical trust. Li examines both the theoretical and methodological issues related to political trust in China. The paper discusses some of the pitfalls with survey data from China, but also shows that a lot can be done with publicly available data. An instructive companion assignment could be for students to either replicate Li’s analysis or conduct a similar analysis with another publicly available dataset.

Li, Lianjiang and O’Brien, Kevin J., 2006. Rightful resistance in rural China. Cambridge University Press.

This book has been deeply influential to our understanding and conceptualization of protest and contention in China (and beyond) since its publication.

Lieberthal, Kenneth G., and David M. Lampton. 1992. Bureaucracy, Politics and Decision Making in Post-Mao China. Berkeley (Calif.): University of California Press.

This volume highlights the nature of “fragmented authoritarianism” in Chinese politics, which set the foundation for our understanding of policymaking in complex Chinese political system.

Manion, Melanie. 1993. Retirement of Revolutionaries in China: Public Policies, Social Norms, Private Interests. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Detailed documentation of elite transformation in the 1980s, which helps us understand the political side of Deng’s reforms. The method of elite interviews used by Manion is still useful today and should be taught to every graduate student interested in China.

Manion, Melanie. 2015. Information for Autocrats: Representation in Chinese Local Congresses. New York: Cambridge University Press.

This book, together with Truex (2016), challenges conventional wisdom and convincingly shows that there is meaningful representation in authoritarian China. Its masterful multi-method research design combining original delegate surveys with semi-structured interviews should be especially beneficial to graduate students who are thinking about dissertation research design.

Manion, Melanie. 2016 “Taking China’s Anticorruption Campaign Seriously.” Economic and Political Studies, vol. 4, no. 1: 3-18.

This article offers one of the most comprehensive analyses on how Xi’s anti-corruption campaign differs from the previous efforts, especially the institutional and incentive changes brought by the campaign. Although new events occurred after the publication of the article, it offers a great example of combining theoretical lenses with ongoing empirical details.

Mertha, Andrew. 2009 “Fragmented authoritarianism 2.0”: Political pluralization in the Chinese policy process. The China Quarterly: 995-1012.

Mertha introduces a new framework for understanding the pluralization of policymaking in China. While the cases are about hydropower policies, the underlying logic is readily applicable to other areas of domestic and foreign policies in contemporary China.

Michelson, Ethan. 2008, “Justice from Above or Below? Popular Strategies for Resolving Grievances in Rural China, China Quarterly, 193, 43-64.

Ethan Michelson does very good work in my view, but his (sociological) work is not widely read among political scientists studying China, which is a pity. His best works are published in mainstream sociology journals. His CQ article on conflict resolution was the only one I could find in my bibliography database right now.

Montinola, Gabriella, Yingyi Qian, and Barry R. Weingast. 1995. “Federalism, Chinese Style: The Political Basis for Economic Success in China.” World Politics 48(1): 50–81. doi: 10.1353/wp.1995.0003.

The article discusses the concept “market-preserving federalism” in the China context and argues market-preserving federalism as the political foundations for China’s economic growth. The concept has been widely acknowledged in mainland China. It also receives many criticisms, which should be read together with this article.

Naughton, Barry M., and Kellee Tsai. 2015. State Capitalism, Institutional Adaptation, and the Chinese Miracle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (especially Chapter 1-3)

The edited volume helps graduate students engage the debate on what the so-called “China model” is and is not. Understanding China’s version of state capitalism also helps students discuss Chinese foreign economic policy, as Beijing frequently puts giant state-owned enterprises to work in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives.

O’Brien, Kevin J. “Rightful Resistance.” World Politics: vol. 49, no. 1: 31-55

The article discusses the concept of “rightful resistance” in a broader context. For a more detailed discussion of how this concept is played out in the China context, students can read O’Brien, Kevin and Lianjiang Li, 2006. Rightful Resistance in Rural China. Cambridge University Press.

Oi, Jean Chun. 1999. Rural China Takes off: Institutional Foundations of Economic Reform. Berkeley: University of California Press.

A highly influential book that provides not only a compelling account of China’s rural industrialization, but also various distinctive insights into property rights, the role of local governments, and the political logic of economic policymaking in China.

Perry, Elizabeth J. 1980. Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

To understand the origins of the Chinese revolution, this is a must read. Perry compares patterns of contentious politics in the late Qing era and the early Republican era and shows that why the Chinese Communist Party was fundamentally different from earlier rebels. The use of archival materials should also be taught in today’s graduate seminars.

Perry. Elizabeth, 2007, “Studying Chinese Politics: Farewell to Revolution?”, China Journal, 50.

I feel that understanding of Maoist politics is really important in contemporary politics, particularly in Xi-era. Political scientists need to read more history. Liz has rightly reminded us of that.

Perry, Elizabeth J. 2010. “Popular Protest in China: Playing by the Rules.” In China Today, China Tomorrow: Domestic Politics, Economy and Society. The Journal of Asian Studies 

The chapter presents, quite convincingly, a novel analysis of China’s popular protests that departs from more common assessments. More importantly, it engages and explains the logics behind alternative discussions of social movements in China. It further offers a comparative analysis of social movements in the socialist period and during the early reform era.

Platt, Stephen R. 2018. Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age. New York: Knopf

Although this might seem to be an odd choice for this list, Platt’s highly readable look at the history that led up to the Opium War resonates with many aspects of China’s interaction with the outside world in the 21st century. The book provides students with a clear sense of the added value of historical research for political scientists specializing in China’s international relations—not only improving on the stylized accounts many of us invoke when discussing frictions between China and the West (and the difficult challenges has long faced along its periphery), but also deepening students’ knowledge about the history that is part of the intellectual inheritance for China’s leaders today as they think about their country’s expanding role in international affairs.

Roberts, M. E. (2018). Censored: distraction and diversion inside China’s Great Firewall. Princeton University Press.

Roberts offers a rich empirical and theoretical account of the nature and consequences of the GFW. This is the book on censorship in China, and it will be so for some time.

Schurmann, Franz. 1973. Ideology and Organization in Communist China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Though this book is now approaching half a century old, it is still essential to understanding where the CCP comes from, especially its organization and governing ideology.

Shirk, Susan L. 1993. The Political Logic of Economic Reform in China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

This book introduces the “Selectorate” concept, which enhances our understanding of the political logic of economic policymaking during reform China. The book also contains very rich and rare case studies/interviews that reveal internal elite struggle.

Shirk, Susan L. 2017. China: Fragile Superpower. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The book is an easy read with a simple point: the best way to understanding the CCP’s foreign policy posture is to consider its domestic political position.

Shue, Vivienne. 1990. The Reach of the State: Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

An important book that provides an overview of China’s state development from the late imperial era to the early reform era. The concept of the “honeycomb” society is still relevant for understanding today’s state society relations.

Shue, Vivienne, and Patricia M. Thornton. 2018. To Govern China: Evolving Practices of Power. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

This new edited volume, drawing on an excellent interdisciplinary and multi-method collection of essays on the state of Chinese politics challenges the “authoritarian resilience” paradigm by conceptualizing Chinese governance as a series of “cross-cutting” and “fluid” practices that shape the often contradictory course of China’s evolution. The “practices approach” is inspiriting in thinking about China in comparative perspective, both empirically and theoretically.

Stern, Rachel E., and Kevin J. O’Brien. 2011. “Politics at the Boundary.” Modern China 38(2): 174–98. doi: 10.1177/0097700411421463.

This conceptual article presents a “bottom-up” view for theorizing about the Chinese state by examining its preferences through the lens of societal experiences with official policies and regulations. The metaphor of “mixed signals” is still apt today in describing the interactions of many critical voices with the party, and the conceptual thinking should inspire students to empirically study the state through the prism of society.

Tang, Wenfang. 2016. Populist Authoritarianism: Chinese Political Culture and Regime Sustainability. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

State of the art and comprehensive treatment of public opinion and political trust in China

Tsai, Kellee S. 2006. “Adaptive Informal Institutions and Endogenous Institutional Change in China.” World Politics, vol. 59, no. 1: 116–41.

Advances an important theoretical model for how institutional change in China happens through an examination of the development of the private sector. Is an early and important article in the literature on adaptive/resilient authoritarianism.

Tsai, Lily L. 2007. Accountability without Democracy: Solidary Groups and Public Goods Provision in Rural China. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Tsai argues that “embedded and encompassing” groups in rural China exert moral pressure on grassroots officials, rendering local government accountable to popular interests even in the absence of democratic institutions.

Veg, Sebastian. 2017. “The Rise of ‘Localism’ and Civic Identity in Post-Handover Hong Kong: Questioning the Chinese Nation-State.” The China Quarterly 230: 323–47. doi: 10.1017/s0305741017000571.

This is a good piece to help us understand how HK’s identity has come into increasing conflict with the national identity.

Walder, Andrew G. 1994. “The Decline of Communist Power: Elements of a Theory of Institutional Change,” Theory and Society, vol. 23, no. 2: 297-323.

One of the few articles to theorize the institutional nature of communist regimes and how economic reform challenges party power. Also provides a useful framework for examining what the CCP has done/is doing to adapt its institutions to economic and social change, and whether they are likely to be successful.

Walder, Andrew G. 2017. China under Mao: a Revolution Derailed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

This book not only synthesizes the world’s best studies on the Mao era but also draws directly from the author’s decades of deep research on the subject. Reading the book, which represents the mainstream historiography, can lay down a good foundation for graduate students to understand the history of the tumultuous period that continues to condition and shape the mindset of Chinese leaders, elites, and society today.

Wallace, Jeremy L. 2014. “Juking the Stats? Authoritarian Information Problems in China.” British Journal of Political Science 46(1): 11–29. doi: 10.1017/s0007123414000106.

Wallace examines information problems in autocracies by testing whether and when economic data are manipulated in China.  The article proposes specific mechanisms of information distortion, predicting not only the degree of misinformation but what type of information is likely to be mis-reported and at what time.  His findings about the rate of exaggeration of growth also parallel cross-national studies of this question, suggesting the generalizability of the theoretical framework beyond China.  

Weiss, Jessica Chen. 2003. “Authoritarian Signaling, Mass Audiences, and Nationalist Protest in China,” International Organization, vol. 67, no. 41: pp. 1-35.

A seminal piece that links contemporary IR theories about audience costs and signaling with the important empirical issue of nationalism as a constraint on China’s foreign policy. As ever, the article is significant not only because of the argument it presents, but also because it has provoked debate about its central claims and motivates discussion that leads students to look at other work on related issues about China’s foreign policy decision-making and the importance of nationalism as an influence on China’s international behavior.

Weiss, Jessica Chen. 2019. “A World Safe for Autocracy?” Foreign Affairs. (November 5, 2019).

On the challenge of China’s rise to the international liberal order, Weiss’ essay provides a balanced, thoughtful primer.

Yang, Jisheng. 2012. Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Yang provides the definitive account on the Great Leap Forward and the Famine. Perry Link says this book is “the most stellar example of retrospective writing on the Mao period from any Chinese pen or computer” and many would agree. In terms of research method, this book should be taught as the gold standard for archival research.

Zhang Liang, compiler & Andrew Nathan and Perry Link, editors. 2001. The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership’s Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People – In Their Own Words. New York: Public Affairs.

Though its authenticity has been disputed, the book offers unique insights into leadership
decision-making during the most important political crisis in post-Mao China.

Zhou, Xueguang. 1993. “Unorganized Interests and Collective Action in Communist China.” American Sociological Review, vol. 58, no. 1: 54–73.

Using cases from the 1950s and the 1980s, Zhou explains how mass collective action can sometimes occur in highly repressive environments. Important model for understanding informal dynamics in social mobilization.