In 1793, a British trade mission to China was firmly rebuffed by the emperor Qianlong. Europe had nothing that was of any interest. Two centuries later, Western nations were being infiltrated by Chinese agents bent on industrial and military espionage. After 200 years of sometimes harrowing instability, China is back on its feet and ready to celebrate. Yet parts of China are still ruled as colonies, prompting "terrorist" insurgency, dissidents are imprisoned, and cripples have been cleared from Beijing's streets. The Beijing Olympics are as much a political statement as a sporting event. Shades of Munich 1936?
China's city-rich eastern seaboard, with a population in excess of the US, prospers mightily. Meanwhile, close on a billion souls in the interior are trapped in a dismal poverty unalleviated by adequate educational and health-care provision. Thus, it may be said, has it ever been. At times - during the Han, Tang, Song and Ming dynasties - Chinese civilisation outshone all others. But the human price paid for its marvels - whether its archaic bronze production, the First Emperor's Mausoleum, the Great Wall, or the Grand Canal - has always been high.
Across 3,000 years, political ideologies have come and gone, but one constant has been the rigorous subordination of all but the most privileged to the viability of the Middle Kingdom. Even under the Communist Party's avowedly socialist regime, wage-bargaining is barely countenanced. Chinese labour is enduringly plentiful, and perennially exploited. The core reason is not hard to identify. Just because it is so large, populous and diverse, China can only be held together by authoritarian government. As history shows, when the centre breaks China disintegrates into dire factionalism, most recently in 1912, with the final collapse of the Qing dynasty. Yet invariably the pendulum swings back again. As one regime forfeits the "Mandate of Heaven" - for want of any actual mechanism of accountability, the imaginary source of political legitimacy - so sooner or later it is assumed by another, always at the hands of a dictatorial strongman. If he succeeds in rebinding the empire, then by definition he merits heaven's approval.
Three new histories explore China's authoritarian traditions. The cyclical ebb-and-flow is a main theme of John Keay's absorbingly readable China: a History (Harper Press, £25), as it has been of other histories, not least those compiled by the Chinese themselves. Indeed, while the Chinese may boast an almost uninterrupted tradition of historiography dating to the middle of the first millennium BC, the same tradition is also one of relentless spin and propaganda. As each dynasty compiled a record of its predecessor, so each emphasised why it deserved the Mandate. For the Chinese, writing history is not so much a matter of objectively reconstituting the past as bolstering the present.
In his pleasingly cultured account of the great sweep of China's evolution (at one point, Confucius is likened to Dr Johnson), Keay takes sceptical cognisance of this. Regularly he challenges the judgements of the dynastic historians, particularly as they adversely affect such rulers as Wang Mang and the Empress Wu Zetian, who, though they governed China effectively enough, did themselves no service when they failed to establish their own dynastic houses. Keay also suggests that the Mongol invasion of the 13th century - of all "barbarian" incursions the most resented - spared the empire from another bout of fragmentation, lining it up nicely for the conservatively-minded Ming a century later.
Yet at the last fence Keay draws up short. He takes his story only as far as the Communist triumph of 1949, dispatching what has followed, including the excesses of Mao Zedong, in a threadbare epilogue. "And the rest," he writes, '"is headlines." Tibetans and Xingjian's Muslim Uighurs may presently find themselves under the cosh, but nothing unusual about that, Keay intimates.
But an antidote is to hand. Jonathan Fenby's Penguin History of Modern China (Allen Lane, £30) is every column-inch a newsdesk blockbuster, packed with facts and breathless drama as well as quick-fix sketches of its main protagonists and quotable quotes. Chiang Kaishek's neo-fascist Nationalist (Guomindang) party is memorably compared to a toilet that "however often you flush it, still stinks", in the words of a 1920s Russian Comintern agent.
Fenby's intricate narrative, taking us from the unsettlingly messianic Taiping rebellion of the mid-19th century through to the post-Mao economic boom, is very much that of a seasoned pressman determined to compel his readers. Inevitably, Mao himself commands centre-stage - to begin with as the wily survivor imposing himself on a struggling communist movement, then as the "Great Helmsman", the leader-turned-psychopath scourging his own people with the Great Leap Forward and, from 1966 until his death in 1976, the infamous Cultural Revolution.
Tens of millions died as a result of Mao's "mass-line" campaigns, and yet he was accommodated by a majority of his comrades. The reasons? Fear, and the bald fact that, like other strongmen before him, he reunified China after 40 years of mayhem. At the heart of the Cultural Revolution was a war on the "Four Olds": old thoughts, old culture, old customs, and old habits. But not included was the historic integrity of the Chinese empire, which Mao restored.
Fenby - a former editor of the South China Morning Post as well as of The Observer - concludes that, for all its newfound economic prowess, "politically the People's Republic is in a time warp that can be traced back to 221 BC. [It] does not fit into a conventional global category". Apprised of Keay's book, he might concede that, politically, China is its own category. Yet in timely fashion Keay and Fenby complement each other, just as, as the Olympics open, both are complemented by Jasper Becker's mischievously-titled City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China. (Allen Lane, £20).
Combining a profound knowledge of China's capital with intimate reportage, Becker is able to pursue his quarry thematically as well as chronologically. The result is a rich, rewarding tapestry that includes illuminating chapters on eunuchs, Peking Opera and a gifted generation of writers and artists mown down during the Cultural Revolution.
As might be expected of the author of Hungry Ghosts, which first exposed the full horrors of Mao's Great Leap Forward, lamentation outbids celebration. The Forbidden City apart, old Beijing, with all its humdrum variety and charm, its thousands of shrines and courtyard houses, has vanished, "bulldozed to rubble" to make way for an unappetisingly futuristic metropolis of public buildings, apartment blocks and shopping malls. To achieve this, Becker tells us, after 1997 President Jiang Zemin press-ganged a million-strong peasant workforce while hundreds of thousands of Beijingers were made homeless, perhaps as a punishment for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Like all else in the empire, urban renewal brooks no dissent or public consultation. Ironically though, the new Beijing seems to have been inspired by Le Corbusier, Albert Speer and other such dehuma nising Western architectural planners.
Justin Wintle's biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, 'Perfect Hostage', is published by Arrow
The story continues... books that unlock China today
Ma Jian (Chatto)
Impossible to publish in China, this landmark novel by a dissident in exile has already claimed a place as a classic work of witness. Shot in the Tiananmen bloodbath of 1989, Dai Wei lies comatose. In his mind, he revisits the idealism and the naivety of the student protest movement, while outside the bulldozers of a wealth-chasing country crush memories and hopes.
The Good Women Of China
When Xinran Xue's radio programmme, Words on the Night Breeze, began, it let the demons of memory out of the post-Mao bottle. Chinese women of all backgrounds told their stories of suffering and survival through the Cultural Revolution and beyond. Their shocking testimonies lie behind nearly every family history in the land.
20 Fragments Of A Ravenous Youth
Xiaolu Guo (Chatto)
In the novel that made her name in China, Xiaolu Guo delivers a typically beguiling blend of chick-lit romance, lyrical wistfulness and droll social satire. Adrift in the scary, smoggy boom-town of Beijing, country-girl Fenfang fails to make it in the movies, tumbles from flat to flat and lover to lover, but keeps her wits about her.
What Does China Think?
Mark Leonard (Fourth Estate)
Bookstore shelves groan with accounts of China's economic ascent. But few Sinologists bother to report on the lively debates among the country's thinkers and policy-makers. Leonard fills this gap with a survey of the fierce arguments about human rights, development and China's place in the world. A hundred flowers bloom – though, still, largely in the shadows.
Michael Dutton, Hsiu-ju Stacy Lo & Dong Dong Wu (Harvard)
This engrossing book merges travel writing, sociology and streetwise reportage. From Mao's tomb to designer malls, karaoke bars to "Pandaman", who parodies Olympic hype, these intellectual sleuths search for clues to the hidden city beneath the headline stories. Their Beijing hums with ghosts of the past, as well as with every kind of futuristic dream.