What does Mongolia bring to mind? Maybe Genghis Khan. It’s in central Asia somewhere, isn’t it? Unless you’re a fan of sumo wrestling, that’s likely to be about the extent of your associations. Johan Nylander sets out to correct that, at least with respect to Mongolia’s economy, with his The Wolf Economy Awakens. It’s a cruise through Mongolia’s economic situation, and especially its economic future.

Ming China in 1642 had suffered a series of disasters. Floods, and then drought had destroyed successive rice crops, sending the price of grain to astronomical levels. As one schoolteacher wrote: “There was no rice in the market to buy. Even if a dealer had grain, people passed by without asking the price. The rich were reduced to scrounging for beans or wheat, the poor for chaff or rotting garbage. Being able to buy a few pecks of chaff or bark was ecstasy.” The Ming Dynasty collapsed two years later.

“The fall of the Ming dynasty,” writes Timothy Brook in his fascinating new monograph The Price of Collapse: The Little Ice Age and the Fall of Ming China, “has traditionally been narrated as a period of political factionalism, failed administration, dwindling tax revenues, and rural rebellion, all of which has been shrouded by the larger judgment of moral failure.” Attaching this transformational event instead to the Little Ice Age—a centuries-long cold snap that intensified in the early 1600s—is, after a moment’s thought, pretty self-evident. The contribution of the book is not so much the correlation (which has been noted before) given in the (admittedly engaging) title, but rather Brook’s systematic and rigorous use of price data to build a picture of what was going on.

Electrifying Indonesia: Technology and Social Justice in National Development, Anto Mohsin (University of Wisconsin Press, December 2023)
Electrifying Indonesia: Technology and Social Justice in National Development, Anto Mohsin (University of Wisconsin Press, December 2023)

Electrifying Indonesia tells the story of the entanglement of politics and technology during Indonesia’s rapid post-World War II development. As a central part of its nation-building project, the Indonesian state sought to supply electricity to the entire country, bringing transformative socioeconomic benefits across its heterogeneous territories and populations.

Sir John Seeley once claimed that the British had “… conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” This would have bemused the many adventurers, mercenaries, and administrators who dedicated their lives to displacing indigenous power across India. More pragmatic than perfidious, Albion accommodated hundreds of princely states ruled by sundry begums, nawabs, nizams, and maharajas.

Despite a reputation for abstruse thought, the French intellectual Michel Foucault once explained his research in a straightforward manner: “I set out from a problem expressed in the terms current today and I try to work out its genealogy. Genealogy means that I begin my analysis from a question posed in the present.” Keyu Jin took that approach to heart in The New China Playbook, a work that explains China’s present by tracing its economic genealogy since 1978. 

Sometimes one ends up reviewing the book one read rather than the one that was written. Lin Zhang’s The Labor of Reinvention: Entrepreneurship in the New Chinese Digital Economy is more sociology than tech, more labor theory than business. But it is also a granular, grass-roots, bottom-up view of the past couple of decades of the development of China’s digital landscape. As such, she provides color and detail to the developments that have been covered in a far more generalized and ad hoc way as business stories.