09/05/2012 11:28 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

What Should Obama and Romney Read on China?

In mid-August, the Los Angeles Times ran an interesting feature in which a nicely diverse set of authors provided summer reading suggestions for the two main presidential candidates. The respondents flagged a lot of good books, some timeless and some timely, but one thing was missing: a book devoted to China.

The omission seems noteworthy, given how important the country has become to the United States economically and geopolitically. Surely, Obama and Romney could benefit from reading a book on the country -- ideally one informed by scholarship, free of jargon, and attentive to history but thoroughly up to date.

Fortunately just such a work was published on August 10: Red Rising, Red Eclipse. It's a collection edited by Geremie Barmé, who directs the new China in the World Centre at Australia National University. And as for how accessible it is, you don't have to take this professor's word for it. Right after it appeared, Ian Johnson, who won a Pulitzer covering China for the Wall Street Journal and now writes about the country for the New York Times and other publications, used the phrase "very very readable" in a tweet praising Red Rising, Red Eclipse.

The book focuses on the period lasting from the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games to the present and is the inaugural "China Story Yearbook," launching what promises to be an extraordinarily useful series for specialists in Chinese studies and also for those simply curious to get a smart, quick take on the PRC. The book is one project of a multi-faceted collaboration between ANU and the excellent Beijing-based group Danwei, which is known for its insightful tracking of trends in Chinese popular media. Danwei's founder, Jeremy Goldkorn, is among the leading analysts of the Chinese Internet, which continues to serve as the closest thing to a public sphere in China.

The book is linked to a new blog, the "China Story Journal" that, among other things, will publish regular "lexicon" entries that examine the way that Chinese government officials, their critics, and other citizens of the PRC use and understand key terms, such as "human rights" (the subject of an early post).

There are many appealing things about Red Rising, Red Eclipse. It contains a valuable section devoted to urban trends in China, for example, and another that translates selected important posts from the Chinese Internet. One of its best qualities is simply that it manages to pay close attention to dissecting Chinese government propaganda and emphasizes the influence state media has, yet continually shows why readers need to avoid falling into the common trap of assuming that all or even most citizens of the PRC think the same way about big topics.

And although this hardly matters for presidential campaigns that don't need to pinch pennies, there's another big plus about the book: its price. Team Romney and Team Obama can download it as an e-book for free at

* A longer version of this piece was first published on the History News Network homepage September 3; realizing that presidential candidates and their advisers are so pressed for time that pointing them to articles as opposed to books may be most useful, that longer version also flags two exceptionally good recent short commentaries on China.