John Pomfret's China Lessons, mentioned earlier, is a subtle and insightful account of China's political evolution and devolution. Timothy Clissold's Mr. China is a subtle and insightful account of China's political and economic evoution and devolution -- and is absolutely hilarious as well. Two aspects of life that loom larger and larger in my own experience are central themes here. One is what I think of as the "paradox of slipshodness."
Detail by detail, nothing works all that well even in booming, modern China -- in distinct contrast to Japan, there appears to be very little ingrained sense of making sure things are done just the right way. To put it mildly. Yet the whole enterprise lurches forward. Sheer force of numbers? Who knows.
The other aspect is "trust but verify." Sometimes the Chinese people Clissold dealt with were deliberately misleading him. Other times it just turned out not to be convenient for them to follow through on commitments they made to him. Whatever -- just about nothing he was "promised" ended up actually coming true. Sounds all too familiar. Read this book!