“We hear, in the media and in comments by politicians, a lot of very glib statements that oversimplify China, that suggest all of China is one thing or one way,” says Michael Szonyi, a professor of Chinese history and director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. China, of course, is as complicated as — if not more complicated than — any other country, and misunderstandings about it among Americans are both common and consequential. The relationship with China is “arguably — in anyone’s estimation — the most important bilateral relationship that the U.S. has,” says Jennifer Rudolph, a professor of modern Chinese political history at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
Jennifer and Michael edited a book to address 36 questions that ordinary people, especially Americans, ask about China. The book is titled The China Questions: Critical Insights Into a Rising Power, and it draws on the expertise of the Fairbank Center and prompts these accomplished academics to write 2,000-word essays for a general audience that they typically never aim to reach.
View the entire list of questions on the Harvard University Press website. A sampling:
Jeremy: Drawn Together: The Collected Works of R. and A. Crumb, by Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb. The husband-and-wife pair became known for their funny, vulgar comics in the late 1970s, though Robert’s zany work goes back a decade earlier.
Jennifer: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo. A work of creative nonfiction about a young boy and his family, and how the system is stacked against them.
Michael: The Fairbank Center website, which features a blog and a podcast. Also, Michael’s new book, titled The Art of Being Governed: Everyday Politics in Late Imperial China. And The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, by Greg Grandin.
Kaiser: The North Water: A Novel, by Ian McGuire. A dramatic tale that includes whaling, murder, and brutality, and whose overall flavor Kaiser describes as Joseph Conrad meets Cormac McCarthy meets Herman Melville meets Jack London.
Outside observers typically view China’s media as utterly shackled by the bonds of censorship, unable to critique the government or speak truth to power in any meaningful sense. In part, this is true — censorship and other pressures do create “no-go” zones for journalists in China, as well as gray zones that sometimes rapidly turn red.
But Maria Repnikova, a professor at Georgia State University, believes that the critical role of media in China is underappreciated. While allowing that “speaking truth to power” in the sense of a free press in a liberal democracy is obviously not how China works, many investigative journalists and journalist-intellectuals play a surprisingly active role in giving feedback and constructive criticism to the Party-state.
Maria discusses this theory in her new book, Media Politics in China: Improvising Power Under Authoritarianism, for which she interviewed 120 sources — journalists, officials, and experts — to uncover exactly how the improvised “dance” of mutual feedback between the media and the government in China really happens. On Sinica, she discusses both this research and her work on Russia, comparing the management of media in both countries and questioning how we should understand the role of media in authoritarian countries in general.
Jeremy: The Afrikaners: Biography of a People, by Hermann Giliomee, a fascinating history of the people who migrated to South Africa from the Netherlands, from the time that they arrived and began calling themselves African right to the end of apartheid.
Maria: Losing Pravda: Ethics and The Press in Post-Truth Russia, by Natalia Roudakova, one of the best overviews of the delegitimization of media in Russia, from the Soviet period to the Putin period.
Kaiser: Pop music of the late 1970s. Kick back, go on Spotify, and listen to some Billboard top 100 hits from ’77 to ’79.
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China, as we say at the beginning of each Sinica Podcast episode, is a nation that is reshaping the world. But what does that reshaping really look like, and how does — and should — the world react to China’s role in globalization?
Few are better placed to answer these questions than Kishore Mahbubani, a veteran former diplomat from Singapore who recently ended a stint as dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He remains on the faculty there but is taking a sabbatical, in part to write a book for Penguin UK titled Has the West Lost It? His most recent book was titled The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace.
In this podcast, Kishore, as he often does, brings up a number of provocative ideas (read here a piece in the World Post last year in which he raises many of the same ideas), particularly for Americans. Among them:
Kishore: A recommendation to visit Indonesia, what Kishore calls “one of the most underrated and underappreciated countries in the world.” A decade ago, it was hit hard by the financial crisis and many Westerners thought it would fracture as a country — but now, it is the most successful democracy in the Islamic world.
Kaiser: A typically tongue-in-cheek tweet from New York Times reporter Chris Buckley, which purports to show how the Warring States–era political philosopher Han Feizi explained the selection process for the Politburo Standing Committee at the 19th Party Congress last fall.
Associated Press (AP) reporter Gerry Shih was hard at work in 2017 writing a remarkable series of articles on China’s Uyghur Muslim minority. By traveling not just to China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where 10 to 15 million Uyghurs live, but also to Syria, where some have fled and taken up arms with militant groups, he sought to answer the most politicized and consequential questions about the ethnic group. These include:
His four articles released in December were as follows:
They are part of a larger AP series titled “China's Uighurs on edge,” comprising 12 stories that seek “to flesh out the profile of a people whose voices have largely been silenced or gone unheard under the blanket of security in the region.” They also were published around the same time that the Wall Street Journal (paywall) and BuzzFeed published similarly alarming stories about the police state in Xinjiang.
For more on Muslims in China, check out a previous Sinica Podcast titled “Islamophobia in China, explained by Alice Su and Ma Tianjie,” and an article on SupChina that seeks to answer the question “Where does Chinese Islamophobia come from?”
Jeremy: A re-recommendation for Birding Beijing, a great site if you’re interested in birds in China. It is now in the second year of tracking cuckoos who fly all the way from Africa to China to migrate. (Also listen to a Sinica Podcast and read a SupChina Q&A with the website’s founder, Terry Townshend.)
Gerry: The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia's New Geopolitics, by Andrew Small of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. With Belt and Road’s rising importance, it is a must-read, Gerry says.
Kaiser: Kialo.com, a place for online debate that’s supposed to help people bridge contentious issues. It enforces ground rules, limits the number of words you can use, and crowdsources the most compelling arguments on both sides for each claim.