Skip to main content

Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future
By Ian Johnson

Oxford University Press, September 2023
400 Pages

Sparks: China’s Underground Historians and their Battle for the Future describes how some of China’s best-known writers, filmmakers, and artists have overcome crackdowns and censorship to forge a nationwide movement that challenges the Communist Party on its most hallowed ground: its control of history.

The past is a battleground in many countries, but in China it is crucial to political power. In traditional China, dynasties rewrote history to justify their rule by proving that their predecessors were unworthy of holding power. Marxism gave this a modern gloss, describing history as an unstoppable force heading toward Communism’s triumph. The Chinese Communist Party builds on these ideas to whitewash its misdeeds and glorify its rule. Indeed, one of Xi Jinping’s signature policies is the control of history, which he equates with the party’s survival.

But in recent years, a network of independent writers, artists, and filmmakers have begun challenging this state-led disremembering. Using digital technologies to bypass China’s legendary surveillance state, their samizdat journals, guerilla media posts, and underground films document a regular pattern of disasters: from famines and purges of years past to ethnic clashes and virus outbreaks of the present. . .

Based on years of first-hand research in Xi Jinping’s China, Sparks challenges stereotypes of a China where the state has quashed all free thought, revealing instead a country engaged in one of humanity’s great struggles of memory against forgetting―a battle that will shape the China that emerges in the mid-21st century.


“Johnson vividly describes the work of independent documentary filmmakers, independent journalists, amateur historians, novelists, and memoirists who obsessively pursue the forbidden truths of totalitarian misrule in China.” ― Foreign Affairs

“For decades, Ian Johnson has conducted some of the most important grassroots research of any foreign journalist in China. With Sparks, he turns his attention to history―not the sanctioned, censored, and selective history promoted by the Communist Party, but the independent histories that are being written and filmed by brave individuals across the country. A powerful reminder of how China’s future depends on who controls the past.” ― Peter Hessler, National Book Award-winning author, and New Yorker writer

“Sparks tells the stories of underground historians who are determined to write down China’s hidden histories of famines, massacres, and virus outbreaks. These stories show why Xi Jinping wants to control history―because memories like these are sparks of light in a heavy darkness.” ― Li Yuan, New York Times columnist

“China’s most famous modern writer Lu Xun predicted that ‘as long as there shall be stones, the seeds of fire will not die.’ In Sparks, Ian Johnson introduces us to a new generation of unofficial historians―modern-day ‘seeds of fire.’ Their work will survive the Xi Jinping era, both to shed light on the past and to illuminate China’s better future.” ― Geremie R. Barmé, editor, China Heritage

About the Author

Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who has spent twenty years in China writing for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, as well as serving for five years on the editorial board of The Journal of Asian Studies. He is the author of three other books that focus on the intersection of politics and civil society, including The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, and Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China. He is the senior fellow for China at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism
By Martin Wolf

Penguin Press, February 2023
400 Pages
. . . Liberal democracy is in recession, and authoritarianism is on the rise. The ties that ought to bind open markets to free and fair elections are threatened, even in democracy’s heartlands, the United States and England.
Around the world, powerful voices argue that capitalism is better without democracy; others argue that democracy is better without capitalism. This book is a forceful rejoinder to both views. . . For all its flaws, argues Wolf, democratic capitalism remains far and away the best system for human flourishing. But something has gone seriously awry: the growth of prosperity has slowed, and the division of its fruits between the hypersuccessful few and the rest has become more unequal. The plutocrats have retreated to their bastions, where they pour scorn on government’s ability to invest in the public goods needed to foster opportunity and sustainability . . . Citizenship is not just a slogan or a romantic idea; it’s the only idea that can save us, Wolf argues. Nothing has ever harmonized political and economic freedom better than a shared faith in the common good.
This wise and rigorously fact-based exploration of the epic story of the dynamic between democracy and capitalism concludes with the lesson that our ideals and our interests not only should align, but must do so, for everyone’s sake. Democracy itself is now at stake.


“. . . (Wolf’s) new book . . . is steeped in an uncommonly clear-eyed awareness about the fragility of civilization . . . The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism is an essential read for its articulation of the perilous crossroads at which the future of enlightened liberal civilization now stands . . . A tour de force.” —Los Angeles Review of Books

“Martin Wolf has been an incisive commentator on economics and politics for a long time. This book is an excellent and thought-provoking synthesis of his views on democratic capitalism and how to fix it.” —Ben Bernanke, former chair of the Federal Reserve

“Martin Wolf brings together many decades’ worth of thought and analysis into this superb synthesis. An important guide for anyone seeking answers to the most difficult questions of our time.” —Anne Applebaum, The Atlantic staff writer and author of Twilight of Democracy

“Martin Wolf is a great humanist and a sharp analytical mind. He unfurls here a bracing indictment of democratic capitalism and an inspiring defense of it. To defend the values of freedom and dignity, democracy and capitalism must both be reformed. A necessary book—and a guide—for our times.” —Daniel Ziblatt, professor, Harvard University, and coauthor of How Democracies Die

“The arrival of this book could not be timelier as the global economy darkens further. Who better than Martin Wolf, with his masterful knowledge of history and understanding of economics, to identify the twin threats of predatory capitalism and demagogic politics and to plot a narrow corridor to escape? It takes someone with a knowledge of the entire forest to isolate the rot at the base of the trees.” —Carmen M. Reinhart, professor of economics, Harvard University

About the Author

Martin Wolf is associate editor and chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, London. He was awarded the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 2000 for services to financial journalism. Wolf won the Overseas Press Club of America’s prize for Best Commentary in 2013 and the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award at the Gerald Loeb Awards. Wolf is the author of The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned—and Have Still to Learn—from the Financial Crisis.


Waiting to Be Arrested at Night : A Uyghur Poet’s memoir of China’s Genocide
By Tahir Hamut Izgil
Translated by Joshua L. Freeman

Penguin Press, August 2023
271 Pages
Waiting to Be Arrested at Night is the story of the political, social, and cultural destruction of Tahir Hamut Izgil’s homeland. Among leading Uyghur intellectuals and writers, he is the only one known to have escaped China since the mass internments began. His book is a call for the world to awaken to the unfolding catastrophe, and a tribute to his friends and fellow Uyghurs whose voices have been silenced.

. . . The Chinese government’s brutal persecution of the Uyghur people had continued for years, but in 2017 it assumed a terrifying new scale. The Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim minority group in western China, were experiencing an echo of the worst horrors of the twentieth century, amplified by China’s establishment of an all-seeing high-tech surveillance state. Over a million people have vanished into China’s internment camps for Muslim minorities.
After Tahir, a prominent poet and intellectual, . . . attempted to travel abroad in 1996, police tortured him until he confessed to fabricated charges and sent him to a re-education through labor camp. But even having endured three years in the camp, he could never have predicted the Chinese government’s radical solution to the Uyghur question two decades later. . . Once Tahir noticed that the park near his home was nearly empty because so many neighbors had been arrested, he knew the police would be coming for him any day. One night, after Tahir’s daughters were asleep, he placed by his door a sturdy pair of shoes, a sweater, and a coat so that he could stay warm if the police came for him in the middle of the night. It was clear to Tahir and his wife that fleeing the country was the family’s only hope.

“Tahir Hamut Izgil evokes the fear and danger of daily life for a Chinese ethnic minority that has been the target of a brutal crackdown . . . Waiting to Be Arrested at Night is an outlier among books about human rights. There are no scenes of torture, no violence and few sweeping proclamations about genocide. Izgil writes with calculated restraint. As his title suggests, the terror is in the anticipation. This is in effect a psychological thriller, although the narrative unfolds like a classic horror movie as relative normalcy dissolves into a nightmare.” —Barbara Demick, The New York Times Book Review

“Harrowing . . . Waiting to Be Arrested at Night serves as one of the best available histories of the genocidal policies in Xinjiang since 2015, and is especially valuable as an on-the-ground, first-person account. The story is all the more powerful for the matter-of-fact way Izgil tells it. . . —The Boston Globe

“Izgil’s memoir is a story about how to survive in, and to negotiate one’s way through, a society in which repression has become routine, and the power of the state is unfettered. The book’s restraint is also its strength. The tension in the narrative flows from the dread captured in the title—the dread of waiting to be arrested, to be vanished into detention, a dread no Uyghur can escape.” —The Guardian

“[Waiting to Be Arrested at Night] is lyrical, heartfelt, and perfectly paced; the narrative unfolds with a slow, simmering burn. Never shying away from vulnerability, the author shines a much-needed light on the complex, contradictory emotions of trading a homeland for a lifetime of both safety and survivor’s guilt. A profoundly moving memoir about China’s oppression of the Uyghurs.” —Kirkus (starred review)

“Waiting to Be Arrested at Night is a terrifying, compelling read of one family’s efforts to escape the jaws that were closing around them and millions of others in China’s far western region of Xinjiang. Drawing the reader into a vortex of fear and suspicion, Izgil has put forth a narrative that reads like a horror novel but is more disturbing because it tells a true story of out-of-control authoritarianism. Highly recommended for general readers and anyone seeking a readable first-person account of China’s surveillance state.” —Ian Johnson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

“I was riveted and chastened by Tahir Hamut Izgil’s memoir of surveillance, internment, violent persecution, and miraculous flight. The humanitarian crisis affecting China’s Uyghur citizens is an indictment of all nations and all people. Izgil’s crystalline, courageous prose is a wake-up call for everyone invested in the myth—and also the possibility—of freedom.” —Tracy K. Smith, former poet laureate of the United States

About the Author and Translator

Tahir Hamut Izgil is one of the foremost poets writing in Uyghur. He grew up in Kashgar, attended college in Beijing, and worked as a film director in the Uyghur region. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, and elsewhere.

Joshua L. Freeman is a historian of modern China and a translator of Uyghur literature. His writing and translations have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, and elsewhere. He is an assistant research fellow at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, in Taiwan.

Autocracy Rising: How Venezuela Transitioned to Authoritarianism
By Javier Corrales

Brookings Institution Press, 2023
256 Pages

Venezuela, which once enjoyed periods of democratically elected governments in the latter half of the twentieth century, has descended into autocratic rule, coupled with economic collapse. In his new book, Autocracy Rising, veteran scholar of Latin American politics Javier Corrales explores how and why this happened.

Corrales focuses on two themes: party systems and institutional capacity. He argues that Venezuela’s democratic backsliding advanced when the ruling party obtained far too much electoral clout while the opposition fragmented. The state then took control of formerly independent agencies of the state. This allowed the ruling party to use and abuse of the law to favor the president—which in turn generated a permanent economic crisis.
After succeeding Hugo Chávez in 2013, Nicolás Maduro confronted, unexpectedly, another change in the party system: a rising opposition. This triggered deeper autocratization. To survive, the state was compelled to modernize autocratic practices and seek alliances with sinister partners. In short,
Maduro concentrated power, paradoxically, by sharing power.

Autocracy Rising compares what occurred in Venezuela to twenty other cases throughout Latin America where presidents were forced out of office. Corrales illuminates the depressing cycle in which semi-authoritarian regimes become increasingly autocratic in response to crisis, only to cause new crises that lead to even greater authoritarianism


. . . Autocracy Rising rigorously examines the paradox of the perseverance of the Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro in the midst of economic collapse and severe international sanctions. Corrales offers three compelling explanations for Maduro’s survival: asymmetric party system fragmentation, wherein the strength of the ruling party (rooted in deep networks of clientelism and cronyism) eclipses a fragmented opposition; institutional destruction and colonization, with the state exercising tremendous control over the electoral authorities, the coercive apparatus, and the courts (what Corrales labels ‘autocratic legalism’); and, most originally, institutional innovation (‘functional fusion’) in which institutions begin to multitask. The military acquires business functions, a constituent assembly becomes a legislature, local political councils become food distribution networks, and criminal syndicates acquire some of the functions of the state. In addition, Corrales provides valuable comparative case studies: Nicaragua offers a similar story of ascendant authoritarianism, but Colombia and Ecuador suggest that liberal democracy can fight back. Somewhat surprisingly, Corrales concludes that Maduro’s rule remains tenuous, well short of true autocratic consolidation.― Foreign Affairs

Autocracy Rising is a timely and important contribution to the study of a country that has been perplexing to policy-makers and under studied by academics…. Well-documented, carefully argued, accessible research on Venezuela, from experts with experience in the country, is hard to come by. In light of this gap, the book deserves the attention of anyone interested in the rise of autocracy in Venezuela. The issue has spurred countless op-eds, speeches and even episodes of TV shows, but it had yet to be the subject of the careful treatment that Corrales undertakes in his book. In addition to making a valuable contribution to comparative politics, the book is relevant to policy-makers tackling the thorny question of democratic recession in the western hemisphere.― International Affairs

In this empirically and theoretically important book, Corrales explains Venezuela’s transition to full authoritarianism under Nicolás Maduro. This transition seems surprising because the multiple crises the semi-authoritarian regime faced by the mid-2010s might well have caused its collapse instead. Corrales anchors his explanation on two key variables, both broadly useful for comparative analysis….This is a pathbreaking work based on a comprehensive literature and is both definitive on the case of Venezuela and innovative for broader analysis of democratic backsliding. Highly recommended. Advanced undergraduates through faculty; professionals.― Choice Reviews

About the Author

Javier Corrales is Dwight W. Morrow 1895 Professor of Political Science at Amherst College. He is the coauthor of Dragon in the Tropics: Venezuela and the Legacy of Hugo Chávez (Brookings, 2015).


Discriminatory Clubs: The Geopolitics of International Organizations
By Christina L. Davis

Princeton University Press, July 2023
472 Pages

Discriminatory Clubs shows how international organizations are like social clubs, ones in which institutional rules and informal practices enable states to favor friends while excluding rivals.

Where race or socioeconomic status may be a basis for discrimination by social clubs, geopolitical alignment determines who gets into the room to make the rules of global governance. Christina Davis brings together a wealth of data on membership provisions for more than three hundred organizations to reveal the prevalence of club-style selection on the world stage. States join organizations to deepen their association with a particular group of states—most often their allies—and for the gains from policy coordination. Even organizations that claim to be universal, to target narrow issues, or to cover geographic regions use club-style admission criteria. Davis demonstrates that when it comes to the most important decision of cooperation—who belongs to the club and who doesn’t—geopolitical alignment can matter more than the merits or policies of potential members.

With illuminating case studies ranging from nineteenth-century Japan to contemporary Palestine and Taiwan, Discriminatory Clubs sheds light on how, for global and regional organizations such as the WTO and the EU, alliance ties and shared foreign-policy positions form the basis of cooperation.


“Why do many international organizations keep particular states out? Christina Davis takes on functionalist explanations of international cooperation to argue that states want prospective members to be on the same geopolitical wavelength in order to safeguard their security in a volatile world. Discriminatory Clubs is destined to be a classic.”―Liesbet Hooghe, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and European University Institute

“In this magisterial work, Davis presents a sweeping reinterpretation of multilateralism. She portrays international organizations as social institutions that value association. As such, they necessarily discriminate in the processes of state entry and exit. Membership politics reflects geopolitics, even within organizations that ostensibly have solely economic goals.”―Lisa Martin, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“International organizations are a pillar of the so-called post–World War II liberal international order. While it is common to see them as transforming international politics by bringing nations together, the picture is more complicated. Through theoretical rigor and the marshalling of extensive empirical evidence, Davis shows how membership in these clubs is another tool by which states, both great powers and small states alike, perpetuate the continuation of power politics.”―Paul Poast, University of Chicago

About the Author

Christina L. Davis is the Edwin O. Reischauer Professor of Japanese Politics in the Department of Government at Harvard University. She is the author of Why Adjudicate? and Food Fights over Free Trade.


Five Times Faster: Rethinking the Science, Economics, and Diplomacy of Climate Change
By Simon Sharpe

Cambridge University Press, June 2023

As Greenland melts, Australia burns, and greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, we think we know who the villains are: oil companies, consumerism, weak political leaders. But what if the real blocks to progress are the ideas and institutions that are supposed to be helping us? Five Times Faster is an inside story from Simon Sharpe, who has spent ten years at the forefront of climate change policy and diplomacy. In our fight to avoid dangerous climate change, science is pulling its punches, diplomacy is picking the wrong battles, and economics has been fighting for the other side. This provocative and engaging book sets out how we should rethink our strategies and reorganise our efforts in the fields of science, economics, and diplomacy, so that we can act fast enough to stay safe.


“Now more than ever, there is an obvious need for a full assessment of the risks of climate change to be given to heads of government and their advisers. . . I strongly support this book, which brings the risks of climate change and potential solutions to a wider audience. There is no-one I can think of in the world who could do this better than Simon Sharpe.” — Sir David King, Founder and Chair, Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge University; Former Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Government; former UK Climate Envoy

“Simon has witnessed first-hand how progress is being impeded by … [and] his book presents a blueprint for the way climate science should be conducted and presented, how thinking about the economy should change, and international diplomacy be redesigned. It’s a much-needed new take on a problem we’ve been wrestling with for decades but making only sporadic progress in addressing.” — Baroness Bryony Worthington, leading creator of the UK’s Climate Change Act; former Europe Director, Environmental Defense Fund; member of the UK House of Lords

“In a crowded market, this book promises to stand out head and shoulders above the rest as a seminal, timely, and much needed synthesis of the lessons learned from five decades of effort by scientists, the business community, and politicians on how to address the threat of climate catastrophe. Simon Sharpe has been a thought leader at the core of diplomatic and government activity … The lessons learned that he describes, and the approaches he recommends, could genuinely cut Gordian knots and allow new levels of progress. . . “ — Chris Rapley CBE, former Director of the Science Museum, former Director of the British Antarctic Survey

‘As the world is suffocating under extreme weather events, widespread food and water scarcity, destruction of ecosystems, and a series of other interrelated climate-linked crises, Simon Sharpe’s book is a breath of fresh air … Five Times Faster takes you on a captivating – yet alarming – journey through the complexities of climate change … Simon’s book is an important leap in the right direction.’ Mariana Mazzucato, University College, London, and author of Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism

About the Author

Simon Sharpe is Director of Economics for the Climate Champions Team and a Senior Fellow at the World Resources Institute. He designed and led flagship international campaigns of the UK’s Presidency of the UN climate change talks (COP 26) in 2020–2021; worked as the head of private office to a minister of energy and climate change in the UK Government; and has served on diplomatic postings in China and India. He has published influential academic papers and created groundbreaking international initiatives in climate change risk assessment, economics, policy, and diplomacy.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.