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Sinica Podcast

A weekly discussion of current affairs in China with journalists, writers, academics, policy makers, business people and anyone with something compelling to say about the country that's reshaping the world. A SupChina production, hosted by Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn.
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Now displaying: 2019
Aug 8, 2019

This week, while Kaiser is vacationing on the Carolina coast, we are running a March 2014 interview with Orville Schell and David Moser. Orville is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society in New York and formerly served as dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. The discussion in this episode centers on the book co-authored by Schell and John Delury, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, and the role of select members of the Chinese intelligentsia in the formation of modern China.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

7:56: Orville opens the discussion describing how he and John Delury arrived at Wealth and Power as the title for their book: “For us, to try to sense what was the main current flowing through Chinese history — it was in fact, we concluded, this desire to see China great again. To become a country of consequence, and ‘wealth’ and ‘power’ really described it. And it was something that almost everybody in some form or [another] — whether nationalist, communist, dynastic, anarchist, Christian — they all understood that aspect, and I think that was a tremendously important, animating impulse that got us to the present.”

25:21: Orville recalls sitting in the front row at a summit held between Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton, the dialogue of which is included in Wealth and Power: “I was sitting right there during [the summit], in the front row, watching Jiang Zemin with ‘Bubba,’ the master of repartee, and trying to imitate him. It was quite touching, he did quite well. And looking back on it, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that Hu Jintao or Xi Jinping would risk such a wager.”

41:56: Jeremy asks Orville about his placement of Liu Xiaobo at the end of his book, and what Liu’s question is for China and China’s future. He responds candidly: “I think the question that he poses for China, and indeed all of us, is: What’s the real goal? For him, the real goal is not to simply be wealthy and powerful…and I think also what’s lurking in the back of his critique is something that the leaders now sort of see but are quite surprised by. Namely that getting wealthy and getting powerful doesn’t, as everybody thought for these 170 years, create ipso facto respect. And that is what is really wanted. That’s why there’s such an incredible fixation on soft power.”

Recommendations:

Orville: Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground, by Emily Parker, and Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, by Evan Osnos.

David: Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China, by Anne-Marie Brady.

Jeremy: The blog East by Southeast.   

Kaiser: The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919, by Vera Schwarcz.

Aug 1, 2019

Emily Feng is one of the rising stars among China reporters. She’s about to take up her post in Beijing as National Public Radio’s correspondent after an illustrious run with the Financial Times. In a show taped a few months ago, Emily speaks with Kaiser and Jeremy about her most recent reporting for the FT, covering important topics related to Xinjiang and technology. She also reflects on why, as a Chinese American, she feels like she’s under added pressure to present accurate and balanced reporting on China.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

14:02: Emily discusses the changing scope of topics that have garnered media coverage recently: “This year, rather than having conversations about #MeToo or Black Lives Matter, which, I think, really dominated discussions in the past two years, it's been about Chinese students [and] Chinese identity.”

She also discusses a scandal at Duke University — Emily’s alma mater — in which an assistant professor at Duke University urged Chinese students via email to “commit to speaking English 100 percent of the time.” “Chinese Americans have always been very politically quiet. And I come from a Chinese-American family, [so] this is what has been taught to me: Don’t stick your head up. But I think that with what’s happening in the U.S.-China relationship, Chinese Americans are going to have to figure out what their stance is to partake more in political discussions happening on campuses [and] at the local government level.”

18:49: Emily, who has reported extensively on Xinjiang, reflects on her trips there in 2017 and 2018, and the rapidly deteriorating conditions for Uyghur Muslims in the region. “It was very, very evident that things were different. People [in 2017] could still talk freely about what was happening. You would talk to people in taxis, in restaurants — I met up with a number of Uyghur friends and they talked quite comfortably, but fearfully, about how their phones were being hacked and people were going to jail because of content they had shared that was vaguely Muslim from four or five years ago.”

Outside of the capital of Urumqi, things were different, she explains. “I went to Hotan and Kashgar in October 2017, and Hotan was just another level. It was a police state. There were tanks and cars on the streets. There were checkpoints maybe every three or four blocks within the city. It was incredibly segregated.”

38:34: Emily wrote a deep-dive story on Hikvision, a Chinese CCTV company, which touches on the moral entanglement that U.S. companies face in supplying authoritarian governments with the nuts and bolts needed to monitor and sometimes oppress or imprison individuals abroad: “There are only a handful of companies out there that can make the type of commercially competitive semiconductors, components, [and] memory hard drives that go into the electronics we use every day — including the type of surveillance technology that China uses. So, that gives American companies a huge amount of power in saying, ‘This is whom we will sell to and this is whom we will not.’ But they’re understandably reluctant in making that distinction and making what they see as political decisions because their focus is the bottom line.”

Recommendations:

Jeremy: Sticky Notes: The Classical Music Podcast, by Joshua Weilerstein.

Emily: The show Schitt’s Creek, available with a Netflix subscription.

Kaiser: Another Netflix show, Russian Doll.

Jul 25, 2019

The Washington Post recently published an open letter signed by five scholars and former government officials: M. Taylor Fravel, Stapleton Roy, Michael Swaine, Susan Thornton, and Ezra Vogel. The letter laid out seven main arguments for why the U.S. should not treat China as an enemy, and not surprisingly, the letter got a lot of pushback from more hawkish China-watchers. This week on Sinica, Kaiser and Jeremy talk to Michael Swaine, the primary author of the open letter, about the origins and intentions of the letter and the reactions to it. Michael is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

 

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

 

17:40: Michael expands on a point highlighted in the letter that was met with criticism from the wider community — “We do not believe Beijing is an economic enemy or an existential national security threat that must be confronted in every sphere” — which he says was “in part intended to try to get at [the] point that [China] is not a predatory economic entity, as the White House tends to describe it.” He acknowledges economic malfeasance by China, but pushes back on prevailing opinions on Pennsylvania Avenue regarding China’s approach to trade with the United States, noting that “of course, it’s based upon this one-dimensional, categorical, hair-on-fire notion that the Chinese are this predatory economic entity that’s out to screw everybody except themselves. It’s a fundamentally cartoonish depiction of what China is.”

 

27:27: What do Chinese leaders think of the United States leadership and its change of posture in the past few years? Michael speculates on where he thinks the Chinese bureaucracy’s mind is regarding foreign policy, arguing that, while there may be two highly polarized parties on either end of the spectrum, Xi Jinping lies somewhere between the two: “Xi Jinping may actually be in that middle ground, not in terms of domestic policy, but in terms of foreign policy. That is to say, he recognizes, or he thinks that, China can’t get out of the world, it can’t un-integrate from the world, it’s got to keep on trying to work with the world. And there are very concrete reasons why the United States and China, even though they may not like each other in terms of values and such, they have to cooperate.”

 

He goes on to explain the shock that the leadership felt from the policy shifts after the 2016 election: “The Chinese leadership were taken aback by the rapidity and the extremity of the shift in the Trump administration against China. They didn’t quite expect it. They didn’t see it coming.”

 

36:52: What of the U.S.-China relationship beyond the current era of Trump? What should U.S. policymakers and interlocutors be articulating to their counterparts in Beijing? Michael provides his view: “We from China, a country with whom we can engage on issues that are vital to both countries and the world, we want a China whose interests are going to be supportive of continued global economic growth and development, and we want a China who is not bellicose or intimidating, through military arms, its neighbors…and that it needs to work with other parts of the international order in order to establish a more common approach to these security issues, economic issues, et cetera,”

 

46:05: What is the most effective approach in the U.S.-China relationship? Has the West “created a monster,” as described by Janos Kornai in a recent Financial Times article, or is there a case for reciprocity? Michael says that we “need to implement policies that are more based upon the idea of mutual accommodation,” and emphasizes the “problematic” view that “there is no such thing as mutual accommodation with the Chinese, because the Chinese will take what you give and they will pocket it and give you absolutely nothing in return.” He adds, “I think the historical record does not support that.”

 

Recommendations:

 

Jeremy: Read the letter ‘China is not an enemy’ in the Washington Post.

 

Michael: Check out the exhibit on the pre-Raphaelites in the United States, located in the National Gallery in Washington, or just check out some art in general.

 

Kaiser: The music of Anais Mitchell, a folk singer/songwriter, and the musical author behind the musical Hadestown.

 

Jul 18, 2019

This week, we speak again with Antony Dapiran, a corporate lawyer in Hong Kong and the author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong, to catch up on the fast-moving events in the former British colony. Antony talks about the occupation of the Legislative Council (LegCo) building by protesters, the curious decision by Hong Kong authorities to allow the occupation of that building — which has usually been a red line, to be defended at all costs — and the support that this seems to have within the broader movement. We also discuss reactions of mainland Chinese to events in Hong Kong and ponder what could come next.

Listen to Antony’s earlier interview on Sinica: Umbrella Revolution 2.0 – or something else? Antony Dapiran on the Hong Kong demonstrations.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

4:51: July 1 is a public holiday in Hong Kong that celebrates the creation of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. This year, members of the Legislative Council, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam, celebrated a bit differently, as Antony recounts: “Traditionally, the morning of that day has been marked by a flag-raising ceremony at [Golden] Bauhinia Square at the convention center, which was the site of the ceremony itself…This year, protestors had indicated that they were planning to protest that flag-raising ceremony. And, as a result, the whole area was sealed off by police. Carrie Lam and all the dignitaries were forced to watch the flag-raising ceremony from inside [the LegCo building].”

8:19: Antony describes the scene around the LegCo building on the afternoon of July 1. After “a good six or seven hours” of the protestors “battering away” at tempered-glass windows, protestors breached and briefly occupied the building. The passivity of the police puzzled onlookers. After protestors broke through, the police withdrew. Antony has doubts about the explanation given by the Hong Kong Police: “The police themselves said there were ‘operational challenges’ using things like tear gas and pepper spray, but again, I’ve seen them using those very tools in that same space before, so I don’t quite buy that.”

Another theory Antony has heard suggests that the Hong Kong government made a deliberate choice to “allow the protestors to do this, possibly as something of a calculated gamble that in doing this, they would do themselves a disservice or do some harm to their own image and cause the protests themselves to lose support across the broader community.”

13:57: Antony explains that the protestors vandalized the LegCo building in a “very targeted and highly symbolic fashion,” with a focus on “symbols of the Hong Kong government’s undemocratic control of Hong Kong and symbols of Beijing state power.” Books in the library were left untouched, and cash was left for drinks taken from refrigerators. However, in the main legislative chamber, individuals spray-painted over the portion of Hong Kong’s official emblem that says “The People’s Republic of China.” Antony: “Certainly, I think there was a sense that the way in which [the protestors] went about it was not a wanton act of destruction, but a carefully considered symbolic act.”

21:53: Antony forecasts what he thinks will ensue as a result of the continued dissatisfaction among the Hong Kong populace. More protests are to come, “in all of the 18 districts in Hong Kong over the coming weeks and months,” which could signal a call to action to the broader population outside of the central business district. “This movement is, in interesting ways, unlike past protest movements in Hong Kong, really spreading out among the people,” he states. “That combined with the desire to keep up the pressure from the protestors’ side is going to create a really interesting dynamic if the government can’t find its way to doing something to defuse the situation and start giving people something that they want.”

Recommendations:

Jeremy: A thread on Twitter by novelist Jeannette Ng on the topic of Mulan, which contains this Foreign Policy article that describes the many different versions of the story.

Antony: The Mekong Review, a quarterly literary journal focused on Southeast Asia.

Kaiser: Peter Hessler’s new book, The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution.

Jul 11, 2019

This week, Kaiser chats with Huihan Lie, founder of the genealogical research startup MyChinaRoots, and with two of his colleagues, Clotilde Yap and Chrislyn Choo. The three have fascinating things to say about why a growing number of people are taking a new interest in their ancestry in China, how their company goes about finding information on the family histories of people even several generations removed from China, and some of the surprising and occasionally scandalous things they unearth when they start digging.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

5:17: While working as a consultant, Huihan began to research his own family history on the side. He describes the meaning of the experience to him: “I went to some ancestral villages on my father’s and my mother’s side, and I had never felt such a deep impact, such a personal connection to myself, to history, also to my parents, my family, and my grandfather. And as I started speaking to other people about my experience, I noticed the effect that it had on them.”

21:57: What are some of the methods that the team at MyChinaRoots uses to investigate undocumented family lines? Clotilde says that there are sometimes extraordinary clues written on tombstones, where ancestors “would have transcribed their names depending on the dialect that they spoke, but also the language that they spoke in the country of arrival.” She adds that some Chinese graves include not only the names of ancestors but also their hometowns back in China.

24:54: What remained of Confucian-rooted family records, or 族谱 zúpǔ, which one could assume were destroyed, after the Cultural Revolution? Huihan explains that their success rate of finding these records are quite high, roughly 80 percent. “A lot of it, of course, has [been destroyed]. But very importantly, in the south, there was a big resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s of clans getting back together and, basically, elderly villagers doing a collective brain dump and reestablishing and republishing their collective family records.”

51:14: In a race against time, the team at MyChinaRoots is making efforts to preserve family histories as well as investigate them. They are in the process of creating an online database for customers to interact and connect with relatives. Huihan tells Kaiser that there is “nothing left” of his own mother’s ancestral village, stating, “What we feel strongly about is preserving these cultural treasures because we wouldn’t want to stop economic development, even if we could. But what we can do is preserve cultural heritage online, and let it live on virtually.”

Recommendations:

Clotilde: A food blog on modern Chinese cooking, The Omnivore’s Cookbook, complete with starter kits and a guide to essential Chinese spices and ingredients.

Chrislyn: The one-stop shop for pop culture television, TV Tropes.

Huihan: “Haitian Fight Song,” by Charles Mingus — in Huihan’s words, the “most intense, greasy, fat, ugly, in-your-face music” available.

Kaiser: A Richmond, Virginia-based band named Collin Phils, which Kaiser saw live in Chapel Hill. Soon to be headed to tour throughout China — check out the tour dates on the website.

Jul 3, 2019

This week, Kaiser and Jeremy chat with Taylor Fravel, one of the world's leading authorities on the People's Liberation Army. Taylor has a brand-new book out called Active Defense: China's Military Strategy Since 1949, which examines the changes to the PLA's strategy, why they happen, and why, just as importantly, in some moments when we'd expect major changes in strategy, they don’t happen. Join us for this deep dive into the drivers of strategic change in this emerging superpower.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

15:33: One of Taylor’s main findings from his research in writing the book was the internal decision-making structure within China’s military: “One thing that I really came away with after doing this research is how much, in some respects, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) functions like a Party organization and not just a military organization.”

28:21: Taylor discusses how the combat experiences of the PLA in the 40s and 50s have a legacy into the present. In 1956, the PLA shifted their strategies away from an emphasis on mobile warfare (opportunistic engagement) to positional warfare (defending a fixed position): “Mobile warfare was the dominant way of fighting in the Civil War and much of the Korean war…so this is important in the context of the 1956 strategy, because it was a strategy that clearly rejected the emphasis on mobile warfare from the Civil War and said, ‘Look, we have to try to defend our new country, and we don’t want to cede large tracts of land to an invading country if we don’t have to.’”

38:34: Taylor explains the history behind China’s shift to the strategy of active defense in 1980: “The concept of active defense is associated with the early period of the Civil War in the 1930s, and then Mao’s writings about the operations in the encirclement campaigns at that time. And so, it’s a strategic concept that flows through China’s approach to strategy after 1949, and every strategy is said to be consistent with the concept of active defense.”

So, what is it? “Strategically, China is defensive — it’s not offensive, it’s not an aggressor, it’s not a hegemon, but nevertheless, to achieve these defensive goals it will, at the operational and tactical levels of warfare, use offensive operations and means.”

46:36: Yet another strategic change occurred in 1993, when military guidelines emphasized the need to “win local wars in conditions of high technology.” Taylor describes the key takeaways: “I think this is the point in time, in 1993, when China really decides it’s going to try to wage war in a completely different way than it had in the past. And it believed it could do so in part because it no longer faced an existential threat of invasion from the Soviet Union or, previously in the 1950s, from the Americans. And so, the national objectives in using military force had changed from ensuring the survival of a country to prevailing in territorial disputes, as well as Taiwan’s reunification.”

Recommendations:

Jeremy: The Pl@ntNet app, which Jeremy is using extensively to identify the flora of Goldkorn Holler with “extraordinary accuracy”.

Taylor: Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms, published by the National Defense University Press; and Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping by Klaus Mühlhahn.

Kaiser: An interview with Peter Hessler by Jordan Schneider on the ChinaEconTalk podcast.

Jun 27, 2019

Antony Dapiran is a seasoned corporate lawyer who has worked in Hong Kong and Beijing for the last two decades. In that time, he’s become a historian of protests in Hong Kong and the author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong (2017), which explores the idea of protest as an integral part of Hong Kong’s identity. In a conversation with Kaiser and Jeremy, Antony brings a historical perspective to his analysis of the current demonstrations over the highly unpopular extradition bill, the shelving of which has not slaked the anger of demonstrators.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

7:46: Reports emerged last week that suggested that the extradition bill, met with fierce opposition in Hong Kong, originated from the office of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, rather than in Beijing. Antony provides his take on this development: “People felt it could only be the hand of Beijing behind this, directing the Hong Kong administration to do it. Otherwise, why would it be done in such a roughshod fashion on such an issue that was clearly going to be of great sensitivity in Hong Kong and potentially against the interest of the Hong Kong community? Notwithstanding how surprising it is, it really does raise questions about the competence of Carrie Lam and her administration.”

12:10: Given the stark pushback against the bill, did Lam and her team see this coming? As a career civil servant, she has never had to undergo a general election, so this fumble could be a result of “cluelessness,” according to Antony. “There are a number of jokes going around Hong Kong that she doesn’t know how to catch the MTR, or that when she first moved into the Chief Executive’s residence, she didn’t know where to buy toilet paper.”

13:57: Is the comparison to the Umbrella Movement of 2015 an apt one? Antony gives us his opinion: “They organized and mobilized themselves rather by way of online chat forums, private messaging groups on Telegram and WhatsApp — it’s even being said that they’re using AirDrop to communicate instructions and messages on the ground. And that is a really strong contrast to the Umbrella Movement of five years ago, which, even as a student movement, had very clear leadership and was very much centrally organized.”  

He continues, “I think part of the reason why the protesters, this time around, are avoiding that model is precisely a direct response to the Hong Kong government’s aggressive prosecution and jailing of the Umbrella Movement leaders.”

24:46: What has happened since the Umbrella Movement in 2015? “The Umbrella Movement was regarded as a failure — it didn’t achieve its aims,” Antony states. “And then, in the five years since then, the Hong Kong government has steadily tightened the screws on dissent in the city… Using the cover of the legal system and Hong Kong’s rule of law has resulted in what I call a campaign of ‘lawfare’ for that reason.”

35:57: What of the leadership in Beijing and its take on the protests, and the handling of the protests by the Hong Kong government? Antony explains: “The vacuum that’s likely to be left by the much diminished authority of Carrie Lam in itself presents either an opportunity or a threat.” The opportunity being that, while the Legislative Council has “almost been reduced to rubber stamp function,” this may reinvigorate legislators in Hong Kong — whereas the threat may be that Beijing sees the vacuum as Hong Kong’s inability to govern itself, and “decides that it needs to intervene.”

Recommendations:

Jeremy: A Twitter account, @finnegansreader, which is a bot reading James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake line by line. There is a sister account for the author’s Ulysses, @ulyssesreader.

Antony: The author Dung Kai-cheung, and his masterpiece, Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City.

Kaiser: Total War: Three Kingdoms, a turn-based strategy game by Creative Assembly, and John Zhu’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms podcast.

Jun 20, 2019

Ryan Hass, who served as the Director for China on the National Security Council during President Barack Obama's second term, is alarmed at the direction that the U.S. policy toward China has been taking, and offers good sense on what we could be doing instead. While clear-eyed about Beijing, he warns that the path Washington is now on will lead to some dire outcomes. Ryan joins Kaiser in a show taped at the Brookings Institution, where Ryan now serves as a Rubenstein fellow with the John L. Thornton China Center.

Today, we also publish on SupChina an essay by Ryan titled, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” In the essay, Ryan explains why the U.S.-China relationship will not return to the days before President Trump was elected, and suggests five questions the U.S. policy community could use to structure its thinking towards China going forward.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

3:10: China-watchers have witnessed tumultuous change in the U.S.-China relationship since President Trump’s election in 2016. Ryan elaborates on changes in Washington: “For 40 years, center-right and center-left policymakers basically had their hands on the steering wheel of American policy toward China. That changed two years ago.” However, this may not hold true outside the Beltway, according to Ryan: “If we look at polling by Pew, or the Chicago Council…what we find is that most Americans don’t think of China either as a partner or as a rival. They have mixed feelings on China.”

14:12: Ryan shares his opinions on the current moment we find ourselves in concerning the bilateral relationship with China. “I personally think that we are in the most precarious moment in the U.S.-China relationship that we have been in since 1979, or perhaps 1972,” he states, explaining that conflicting diagnoses on the main areas of contention result in greater disarray. Ryan adds that actors in Beijing claim that the United States’ “anxieties about China’s relative rise” in Washington have resulted in the heavy-handed policies, whereas on the other hand, those in Washington claim China has “stepped back from the path of reform and opening,” thus justifying the current approach.

32:13: Has the argument of containment reemerged in the era of Trump? Kaiser suggests that, with arms sales to Taiwan, F-35 sales to Japan, and the increasingly severe action and rhetoric taken against Huawei, one could hesitantly say yes if viewing the current state of affairs from Beijing’s perspective. Ryan responds: “There was a point in time when I could say confidently yes, that [containment] is an unreasonable conclusion for Beijing to draw… It’s harder for me to make that same case credibly anymore.”

However, he does make a poignant case for optimism: “I guess I am just reluctant to accept the fatalism that seems to be so enrapturing the Beltway right now that it is impossible for our two countries, or systems, to coexist with each other because they are fundamentally at odds.”

40:53: The nature of the relationship between the United States and China will be one of increased competition. What can be done about it? Ryan suggests a more proactive approach, saying: “For me, the core question, though, isn’t whether we as Americans should feel righteous in our indignation about certain Chinese behaviors, but really: What should we be doing about it?”

Recommendations:

Ryan: The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal, by Bill Burns, a source of inspiration for Ryan in his diplomatic career, and the Hamilton soundtrack.  

Kaiser: Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, a collection of essays by Michael Chabon.

Jun 13, 2019

This week, Kaiser is joined by Nury Turkel of the Uyghur Human Rights Project in an in-depth conversation with Wu'er Kaixi (Örkesh Dölet), best known as one of the student leaders in the Tiananmen protests that rocked Beijing 30 years ago. He talks about the heady intellectual freedom of the 1980s, the movement's goals in 1989, the frustrations of exile, and his growing involvement in the Uyghur diaspora's efforts to draw attention to Beijing's draconian detentions of Uyghurs and other Muslims in China's Xinjiang region.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

17:41: Nury references a movement that is often overlooked in the context of late 20th century democratic movements around the world that served as an inspiration for the Tiananmen student movements: “In 1989, we were imitating Poland. That’s a very important reference that the world should know. What happened in 1989 feels like the Solidarity movement in Poland. We saw it [come] along step by step, and it was very inspiring.”

25:34: Nury describes the dramatic scene of several hundred thousand university students from local colleges marching a circuit around the second ring road that encircles the center of Beijing: “When we took the ring road — I mean, 100,000 students took the ring road… what’s more exciting is the people standing by on the two sides of the ring road. [They were] Beijingers. Their support is the [thing] that gave us all the confidence. [There had] to be half a million people there that day.”

59:02: Nury asks Kaixi about inaction on behalf of both Muslim and Western governments regarding the ongoing internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. He responds: “The real reason the Uyghur movement has not been on the map — there are many, many factors that contribute to that: Number one, unfortunately, Uyghur people [follow] an Islamic faith. Let’s look at this with all honesty. Today’s world [is] not that honest. Today’s world is not that courageous. We don’t live in a perfect world. And the Western world finds it much more convenient to neglect the Uyghur movement.”

Jun 6, 2019

SupChina.direct — China consultants, on demand. Submit your project needs, and we will match you with qualified China consultants.


This week, Kaiser sits down with Jude Blanchette in the Sinica South Studio in Durham, North Carolina, to talk about Jude's new book, China's New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong, which just came out on June 3. Jude explains the origins of the neo-Maoists and others on the left opposition, and how overlooking the conservative reaction to reform and opening impoverishes our understanding of China and its politics.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

9:33: The show begins with a discussion on Diāo Wěimíng 刁伟铭, an editor of the prominent neo-Maoist website Utopia (乌有之乡 wūyǒu zhī xiāng), and his untimely death in a vehicle collision while leading a group of Chinese tourists in North Korea visiting the grave of Mao Zedong’s grandson. Jude states: “Not only is his story fascinating and the story of why the heck they were in North Korea, but also [because] the news of the bus crash was originally suppressed.” The sensitivity of information about neo-Maoists reflects how their relationship with the Communist Party is “fraught” and “complex,” Jude says, who adds that this relationship “has been evolving for decades and continues to evolve now.”

18:48: Are there online platforms that lend themselves to radicalization in China? Jude explains how individuals find these communities organically, and moments around the turn of the millennium that prompted galvanization, the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade among them. “Several key print publications were shut down by Jiang Zemin in 2002 and 2003, and these were old, established, thick theoretical journals that essentially had been the only remaining outlets for the conservative intellectuals…and after those publications were shut down, they really cast about to see what to do next, and I think had there been no internet, it would have been quite difficult to reconstitute a movement. But they saw this fledgling piece of information technology…this provided a public square, so to speak, where people could come together.”

27:34: What is neo-authoritarianism? What are the linkages between this ideology, the neo-Maoists, and the increasing prominence of technology? Jude tells the story of this theory in China and of the early progenitors, one of whom now sits on the Politburo Standing Committee.

31:21: How does the radical left in China view the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989? Jude notes: “You would think given what we know about the current political program of neo-Maoism that they would either minimize or deny that there was any sort of massacre on June 4th, but in fact that’s actually not the case…there’s actually a much more nuanced position on things like the Cultural Revolution and June 4th than you would originally think.”

57:32: During Wen Jiabao’s tenure in office, Jude claims there is a reason why he pointed to the Cultural Revolution — to warn against the increase in radical leftist political views: “I do think there is a reason Wen Jiabao chose to invoke the spirit of the cultural revolution when essentially he wanted to warn about the neo-Maoists and Bo Xilai. That there is this thread of radical politics, which is always a threat to the Communist Party. And the most powerful fuel for this radical style of politics is not this sort of Liu Xiaobo, Ai Weiwei [style of] constitutional democracy. That’s not what the Party is really afraid of. It’s more afraid of people who outflank it from the left.”

Recommendations:

Jude: Behind the Curve, a film investigation into the “Flat Earth” community.  

Kaiser: How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, by Daniel Immerwahr, a story of the United States beyond the lower 48 states.  

May 30, 2019

This week on the Sinica Podcast, we are happy to share a live recording from the third annual SupChina Women’s Conference. Jeremy and Kaiser sat down with Ambassador Charlene Barshefsky, now a senior international partner at the law firm of WilmerHale, and a former United States Trade Representative under the Clinton administration. She came to New York for a candid discussion on her views regarding the recent deterioration of trade talks, her own experiences in the office of the United States Trade Representative, Huawei’s role in the dispute between the U.S. and China, and more possibilities in the trade war moving forward.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

3:42: What caused the trade deal to go up in smoke? The tariff hikes? The executive order banning Huawei? Chinese negotiators reneging on previously agreed-upon wording? Charlene provides her opinion — noting a misjudgement on Trump’s negotiating style, among other factors: “First of all, a continued and persistent misapprehension on the part of Xi Jinping about Donald Trump…coupled with seeing a text in full. Which, when one sees constituent parts, might not seem too overbearing, but when one sees in full relief, looks exceptionally overbearing, making China look, perhaps, small. Coupled with a sense on the part of China that certain of the provisions, in total, either impinged on China’s sovereignty with respect to changes in laws, or were unrealistic with respect to the extent of purchases the U.S. wanted China to make, or were themselves not emblematic of the negotiations that took place.”

14:37: How can leaders preempt the common criticism of trade deals that the final agreement erodes the sovereignty of their country? Charlene suggests an interesting rhetorical strategy to take during the negotiating process: “Let’s suppose I say to you: I will never agree to a deal that puts in question the sovereignty of my country. Never. I will never do that. And then you do a deal. Which, actually, puts in question the sovereignty of your country. But because you’ve said, quite convincingly, you’d never do a deal that does that. Whatever it is you did over here, by definition, is not that. So, you’ve covered yourself.”

22:44: What is the Trump administration’s approach to macroeconomic policy, and how could this view affect the bilateral relationship with China and other U.S. trade partners? Charlene offers some perspective on the bigger picture: “I think the Trump administration is quite interested in managed trade. I think this is really the calling card — that is to say, ‘We want you to buy more from us. And if you don’t buy more from us in the following quantity over the following time frame, well, we’re just going to have to impose tariffs on you to even out the score.’ Whatever score is being kept in his mind.”

She continues: “One of the difficulties with these kinds of solutions is that they’re often very costly to consumers. They’re intended to divert trade from the existing suppliers to your suppliers…it just takes the hunk that was Brazil’s, or Argentina’s, or Europe’s, or South Africa’s, and gives it to the United States. Those countries, most assuredly, will not stand still for it as their industries, who are trading fairly, suffer from the repercussions of what is a managed trade approach.”

30:07: Attacks on Huawei via public denunciation and executive orders seem to have hit China in a way that tariffs and other escalatory measures have not. Jeremy asks, “How does this sledgehammer approach to Huawei complicate China’s negotiating position?” Charlene acknowledges national security concerns regarding the company but also underlines the importance of interchange in the 21st-century tech ecosystem: “Huawei is just stuck in the middle. There’s a security aspect, and a highly positive, innovative, and economic aspect. So, could there be a better way to protect the security aspect, or mitigate that aspect, while not losing this other very important part of the Huawei equation? I don’t think the administration was interested in trying to thread that course, at least not at the present time. But at some point, it will be necessary to thread that course, or we will see not just Huawei disadvantaged, but most of our major tech companies highly disadvantaged as well.”

May 23, 2019

This week's podcast was recorded at the Caixin "Talking China's Economy: 2019 Forecasts and Strategies" conference in Chengdu in April. Kaiser spoke with Professor Hé Fān 何帆 of the Antai College of Economics and Management at Shanghai Jiaotong University, and Michael Anti, CEO of Caixin Globus, which tracks Chinese global investment. They chat about how "globalization," which once meant "Americanization" to many Chinese, has taken on a much broader meaning as SAFE concerns over capital flight have reeled in the "gray rhinos" after an investment spree, and as a stricter CFIUS regime has made U.S. investments more difficult.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

7:04: Professor He Fan explains the nature of the bilateral investment relationship between the United States and China in the 21st century: “Recently, the number [of Chinese investment in the United States] in 2017 is above six billion US dollars and accounts for four percent of China’s outbound foreign direct investment. And I haven’t seen — even when talking about [China’s investment in] other parts of the world, the Belt and Road, other countries — but I haven’t seen a dramatic decline of China’s investment in the United States. And if you look at the numbers, I think we tend to overestimate the importance of bilateral investment.”

14:13: How much scrutiny is being placed on Chinese investment in the United States, and what does the outbound investment landscape from China look like at the current moment? Michael: “Actually Chinese companies have two challenges to put the investment out: first, is the government ... But, in terms of the many Chinese internet companies — they have US dollar funds. Because they have US dollars in Hong Kong. Not all in Silicon Valley, not necessarily in Beijing. So that kind of money isn’t really controlled by the Chinese government. Then, they meet the second challenge. The American government, [or] CFIUS. CFIUS is now blocking, I would say 90 percent of Chinese tech investment in the United States.”

19:10: Are immigration and Chinese investment linked? Michael sees a link, and points out investment in southern Europe and Japan as examples - however Professor He Fan pushes back: “I think we can find this link between immigration and investment, but then, it would be very difficult to use this as a proxy to predict where Chinese money will go, because Chinese people are everywhere. I’ve traveled to more than fifty countries and there is only one country where I cannot find many Chinese people. It’s Cuba. Because it’s a planned economy and Chinese people are not allowed to do business there.”

He Fan continues, “People are talking about decoupling of China and the United States. For me, it’s very difficult to imagine the decoupling of the two largest economies in the world … to be frank, I think people in Washington D.C. and Beijing tend to overestimate their influence. And people in Chengdu are much better.”

28:13: Who is doing the overseas investment in areas outside of the United States, state-owned enterprises or privately owned enterprises? Professor He Fan introduces the Wenzhou index: “In other foreign markets, in Africa and Southeast Asia for example, my understanding is private companies discovered those new markets first and then [were] followed by some of the state-owned enterprises. So, private companies, like businessmen in Wenzhou and Yiwu, they always move faster than state-owned enterprises.”

42:14: He Fan give a prognosis for China’s relationship with its regional neighbors, Japan and Korea. Besides a notable warming of relations — could the downturn in U.S.-China relations rekindle the bilateral relationship in these countries? He Fan doesn’t think so, whose compass points southward: “I think this improvement of the bilateral relationship between China and Japan is a strategy …  there’s no place where China can close the gap, if there’s really decoupling between China and the United States. But, maybe a new market in China will increase their investment and trade in the near future — my guess is Southeast Asia.”

Recommendations:

Michael: Two TV shows: Billions and The Good Fight.

He Fan: His new book, 变量 biàn liàng by Hé Fān 何帆, and a French book, Le piège américain (“The American Trap” in English).

Kaiser: A Woman First: First Woman by Selina Meyer and Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah.

May 16, 2019

This week on Sinica, Kaiser and Jeremy speak with Sulmaan Wasif Khan, assistant professor of international history and Chinese foreign relations at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, about his book, Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping. He makes the case that China’s overriding concern is for maintaining the security and integrity of the state — something that, given China’s long history of foreign invasion, warlordism, civil war, and contested borders, hasn’t been easy.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

4:55: Does grand strategy need to be articulated, or communicated clearly to the general population? Usually the answer is yes, where nation states unify diplomatic, economic, and military power to pursue broadscale goals. However, China’s case is different, according to Sulmaan: “There does seem to be this overarching national objective, there is a sense in which the different categories of power [diplomacy, economics, and military] were calibrated to achieve that overarching national objective, but you don’t get it articulated that often, if at all.”

14:44: How much useful insight on contemporary Chinese politics can be gleaned by looking to the past? Sulmaan breaks it down: “China’s imperial past [is] much less grand than it’s typically considered to be… China’s empires at different points had different security threats. At various points, it wasn’t an Asia-centric order. So, simply imposing one version of the imperial past on China’s millennia of history, and saying, ‘This is the way it’s always been,’ seems to be a little misguided.”

One feature from the imperial era that sticks out? Disorder. Sulmaan continues: “If you think about the Taiping Rebellion, for example, if you think about the Opium Wars — these are things that I think Chinese leaders still look to in the imperial past and worry about. The stories of the Opium Wars have never left the consciousness of the leadership, or Chinese people, for that matter. And that’s important to remember.”

30:07: “Hide your strength and bide your time” is a maxim spoken by Deng Xiaoping that has been used to define much of the era of reform and opening up. But is this truly an apt description of the time? Sulmaan states: “Hide and bide doesn’t really begin to sum up what [Deng] is up to. If you think about the sheer scale of economic change going on there, it’s kind of hard to keep that hidden — he’s almost like a kid when it comes to one country, two systems and joint development, how much he brags about those to anyone who will listen. That’s not hide and bide. If you’re sitting across the strait in Taiwan, you’re not seeing a lot of hiding and biding.

41:58: What are China’s future intentions on a grand strategic scale, and how do policymakers in the West feel about it? Sulmaan explains his view: “It says something about the way we typically think about China and other countries — that that kind of alarmism gains traction. There’s that old Atticus Finch line about walking around in someone else’s shoes and seeing how they feel, and I think much of the American foreign policy establishment is pretty bad at that. If the Chinese are doing something that we don’t like, it’s undemocratic or tyrannical. If the Russians are doing something we don’t like, ditto. If you’re not doing it our way, there’s something fundamentally wrong with you.”

Recommendations:

Jeremy: Nathan Hale — cartoonist, author, and illustrator of graphic novels for children.

Sulmaan: Watership Down, by Richard Adams. A useful vessel for understanding China and a source of grand strategic wisdom.

Kaiser: Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America, by Vegas Tenold, and Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, by Kathleen Belew.

May 9, 2019

On this week's show, recorded live in New York on April 3, Kaiser and Jeremy have a wide-ranging chat with former New York Times China correspondent Howard French, now a professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism. We talk about his book Everything Under the Heavens and China's ambitions and anxieties in the world today.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

7:31: How do Chinese people react to Western reporting about China? Howard has noticed a shift in his students from the People’s Republic of China and suggests, “Because of the changing climate in China, [Chinese students] have a greater appreciation of some of the liberties that go into being able to express criticism about China or being able to think off the beaten path about China.”

23:48: The three discuss Howard’s book, Everything Under The Heavens, and some of the themes in it. Howard: “So the argument that runs through the book is that, if not DNA, then these two realities of [China’s] longevity and continuity on the one hand, and size on the other hand, have created habits of language and habits of mind and patterns of diplomacy that are fairly consistent, but we can see them repeating themselves in variations over a very, very long period of time.”

32:56: Is China a revisionist power or a status quo power? Before Jeremy can finish asking this question, Howard replies, “It’s both.” Howard explains how this could be possible: “There is an insistent notion in China that I admire. I don’t think it’s always to China’s benefit, but I admire the instinct, if instinct is the right world. ‘For every problem we should find a Chinese way to answer it.’ And so, if international relations can be construed as a problem…then finding a Chinese way alongside of accepting incumbent arrangements is a reflex that one is likely to continue to see in China.”

44:46: The relationship between the United States and China appears to have arrived at a critical juncture. In response to Kaiser’s request to provide a prognosis for U.S.-China relations, Howard contests that “most of the liability of the present moment is actually bound up in the present moment.” He continues, “There will be consequences to pay even if Trump goes [in 2020]…and that the United States, I think, no matter what happens in the succession year after Trump, in the best of scenarios, will still have surrendered some not inconsiderable part of its prestige and power in the world.”

Recommendations:

Jeremy: The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthy Kids, by Tom Hodgkinson, a case for laissez-faire parenting.

Howard: Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order, by J.C. Sharman, and River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, by Walter Johnson.

Kaiser: An article in the London Review of Books, Is this the end of the American century?, by Adam Tooze.

May 2, 2019

This week on Sinica, Kaiser and Jeremy chat with Wendy Cutler, vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute, about a new paper she has authored that calls for coordination between the U.S. and other countries in managing issues related to China trade. She makes the case for working through the WTO and other multilateral organizations, and explains why China is more apt to respond more positively to multilateral over bi- or unilateral approaches.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

4:08: American and Chinese economic advisers Robert Lighthizer and Liu He are said to be inching toward finalizing an agreement on bilateral trade in the early weeks of May. To begin, Wendy offers some insight into what developments could come: “I think we’re going to see a pretty robust agreement between the United States and China. It’ll have up to 150 pages of commitments, including market access commitments, purchasing commitments, structural reform commitments, as well as an enforcement mechanism to make sure China lives up to its obligations under the commitments.”

16:11: Wendy suggests that the building of new coalitions may be necessary, given the difficulty in gathering the 164 votes from each World Trade Organization member country needed for a formal agreement, and urges openness on collaboration on different issues with a wider range of partners. “What we’re advocating is that the United States doesn’t get fixated on working with the same countries on certain issues…  If the United States has concerns, chances are other countries have concerns, too. So reach out to other countries and see if, at a minimum, you can share information, and maybe, at a maximum, coordinate responses or even send joint representations to China on what needs to be changed. There’s a range of options.”

25:28: What of investment restrictions on Chinese companies in the United States? Wendy elaborates on her suggested strategy: “We suggest that the United States work and coordinate with other countries to see what they’re doing in this area. Because, for the United States, we don’t want to see a situation where we put so many restrictions on Chinese access to our market, and then China just turns elsewhere. Our measures are then less effective.”

29:41: Could this approach lead to a less antagonistic relationship with China, at least regarding trade? Wendy explains: “My hope is that with a U.S.-China trade agreement in the offing, I think, once again, we’re in the endgame and we’ll see a trade agreement soon. We’ll see, at least on the trade front, a reduction in tensions in this area and hopefully this reduction will maybe spread to other areas. I do think we’re in a new world now — that there’s going to be tensions between the United States and China in all of these areas — but I’m hopeful that through the close contacts our negotiators have forged as a result of the U.S.-China trade talks, that this could help deescalate a lot of tensions as they are emerging…”

Recommendations:

Jeremy: A free bird identification app called Merlin Bird ID, produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Wendy: Finding a few songs to help the Chinese and U.S. negotiators to get through the highs and lows of international trade talks.

Kaiser: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou.

Apr 25, 2019

This week on Sinica, China-watching wunderkind Julian Gewirtz joins Kaiser and Jeremy to chat about his recent paper on the American futurist Alvin Toffler (author of Future Shock and The Third Wave), who found a surprisingly receptive audience in the China of the early 1980s. His ideas on the role of technology in modernization were widely embraced by leaders of China's reform movement — including both Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平 and his right-hand man, Zhào Zǐyáng 赵紫阳. Julian describes how Toffler came to the attention of the reformers, and discusses the lasting impact of his influence.

11:51: As the Cultural Revolution ended, Chinese officials and intellectuals began to look for ideas that could breathe new life into the Chinese intelligentsia and bureaucracy. A translator named Dǒng Lèshān 董乐山 went to the United States, repeatedly came across The Third Wave, and subsequently invited Toffler to come to China. And so he did, with many copies of his book. One thing led to another, and Toffler’s work came under the gaze of the State Council and Zhao Ziyang himself. Jeremy reflects, “This is, in some ways, a story of China for foreigners in the 1980s and 1990s — you could have any shtick if you were a hustler. You could arrive in Beijing with your books and hand them out. The next thing, the Politburo is listening to you. Those days are long gone.”

15:35: In writing his first book, which focused extensively on economists, Julian came across Alvin Toffler’s name repeatedly. Upon delving further into research for his paper on Toffler, he got a bit more than he expected: “To be totally frank, I did not expect, when I started looking into it, that I would end up finding a story, from the Chinese perspective, of very significant interest that was more than just an intellectual craze or fad, but that really connected to fundamental questions about technology policy, how the Chinese state should support new technologies, and in a sense, the future that the Chinese leadership was envisioning for China itself.”

22:31: Technology policy, and mastering the implementation of such policy, has been a focus for Chinese leadership stretching to the beginning of reform and opening. Julian explains the importance of science and technology policy as China opened to the world: “We see a global information technology revolution occurring, and worry among Chinese leaders that, just as they’re opening to the world, just as China is beginning its process of catching up, maybe they’ll be left behind again. And the impetus to try to get ahead of the information technology revolution, which is one of the central goals that Deng and Zhao work on together, is, I think, a crucial aspect of the 1980s that we haven’t really understood so well thus far.”

32:21: Science and technology are venerated in China in a way that draws a stark contrast with the United States. “The nerds are the jocks in high school,” says Jeremy, to which Kaiser remarks, “Exactly. But they don’t ride by in the Camaro and shout, ‘Jock!’” Julian explains what this means on a broader scale: “We need to begin by looking at [Chinese technology] on its own terms, before we import our own ideas onto it. The reason that studying the transnational flow of ideas, someone like Toffler becoming big in China — the reason that can be so revealing, I think, is that it allows us to accentuate dimensions that differ or are unusual, or are surprising to observers from outside, again centering on that Chinese perspective, the Chinese leadership’s view of these things, and how certain ideas play there in a different way than how they play in the United States.”

Recommendations:

Jeremy: A 2006 People’s Daily interview with Alvin Toffler, who, contrary to popular belief, has some interesting ideas.

Julian: Poems by W. S. Merwin, “The Hydra” in particular, and Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China, by Xiaolu Guo.

Kaiser: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker, and “The Two Cultures,” an essay by C. P. Snow.

Apr 18, 2019

China's most famous Canadian, Mark Rowswell, became famous — or at least "feimerse" — after appearing in the Spring Festival Gala on CCTV in 1990. In recent years, he's pioneered a hybrid between the xiangsheng (相声 xiàngsheng; crosstalk) for which he's known and Western-style stand-up comedy. Mark joined Anthony Tao and David Moser at the storied Bookworm on the final night of the Bookworm Literary Festival on March 30 to talk about the Chinese language, comedy, and the difficulties of Chinese soft power.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

11:51: Learning Chinese is difficult — however, the specific types of difficulties that individuals are presented with often vary widely. Ethnically Chinese people are often held to a higher linguistic standard than their Caucasian counterparts, whereas foreigners who speak Chinese have become less of a rarity — and consequently less professionally valuable — in recent years. Mark explains: “I’ve had friends say, ‘You know the Chinese respect the ugly American. They don’t respect the sensitive, understanding Chinese-speaking foreigner. They like foreigners to be foreign.’”

29:22: Dīng Guǎngquán 丁广泉, a late titan of the Chinese comedy world, was one of Mark and David’s mentors. Non-judgmental and highly attentive to his disciples’ strong and weak points (he once wrote a scene describing David as muddle-headed and forgetful), he created a platform for many foreigners to enter the world of performance in Chinese. Mark states: “For us, it was very much a partnership, because he wasn’t all that well known in China, either. I had the name, the image, the fame that brought these opportunities to perform, but he was the guy who knew how to do it. I wouldn’t know how to do this by myself. That had a huge impact on me.”

32:43: “Your Chinese is so good!” A woman had overheard Mark telling Anthony the name of a restaurant in Chinese and promptly complimented him. According to Mark, the reactions he gets when speaking Chinese with shopkeepers or taxi drivers hasn’t changed much in 20 years, pushing back on the idea that the novelty of foreigners speaking Chinese has faded. David quips, “What does that tell you? That Chinese is very hard to learn.” “Well,” Mark contests, “we still do a bad job of it.”

44:04: Is the difficulty of the Chinese language a hindrance on China’s ability to export soft power? Mark explains: “First of all, the Chinese state sort of organizes everything so it has to be an official program. And secondly, Chinese people, I think, just tend to tense up when they sense that they’re dealing with foreigners — they have to be careful about what they say, and they’re a ‘representative of China,’ you know, they have this huge emotional burden that they bring to it. I think that’s the main problem China has with soft power: They don’t let their people express that power.”

Recommendations:

David: Recommends investigating books by Earnshaw Books, a Hong Kong–based publishing house, founded by Graham Earnshaw. Graham’s music can also be found online on his Bandcamp page.

Mark: Thirteen Invitations (十三邀 shísān yāo), by Xǔ Zhīyuǎn 许知远, a video series that can be found on Tencent Video here.

Anthony: The website What’s on Weibo, the Beijing Invitational Craft Beer Festival, hosted by Great Leap, and The Last Tribe on Earth, by Liane Halton and Anthony Tao.

Apr 11, 2019

Is the ongoing anti-corruption drive a sincere effort to root out official wrongdoing? Or is it a political purge of the enemies of Xí Jìnpíng 习近平? These questions have been hotly debated since the outset of the campaign in 2013. Now Peter Lorentzen of the University of San Francisco and Xi Lu of the National University of Singapore have harnessed data to examine the anti-corruption drive in the hopes of settling the question. Kaiser sat down with Peter on the sidelines of the recent Association for Asian Studies Conference to talk about the findings in their paper, “Personal Ties, Meritocracy, and China’s Anti-Corruption Campaign.”

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast: 

22:57: Of the many officials that have been purged since 2012, “three big tigers” in particular stand out: Sū Róng 苏荣, Líng Jìhuà 令计划, and Zhōu Yǒngkāng 周永康. Of the provinces Xi Lu and Peter analyzed, economic performance was a large contributing factor for official promotion except for Jiangxi, Shanxi, and Sichuan. Here, Peter provides background on these three officials, their downfall, and the “tiger territories” they previously oversaw.  

30:34: In 2012, Bó Xīlái 薄熙来 was considered one of the main contenders to challenge Xi Jinping’s ascent to power. His association with the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, reportedly ordered by his wife, brought a swift end to his political success. However, Peter was surprised by what he found regarding his political network in the aftermath: “If you rank people using the Google PageRank algorithm, you find Bo Xilai was below 20th. What that means, in practice, is that in our data there were not many people reported as being his cronies who were subordinate to him compared to a lot of other people.”

32:42: What does the inability of Politburo Standing Committee members to protect their personal networks say about the current political climate in China? Peter: “Even when you clump all other six Politburo [Standing Committee] members together, we didn’t see a sort of protective effect. Their associates, people we believed to be connected with them, were just as likely to go down as anyone else. So the question is: Why were they not able to protect their people?... This is not something we can observe directly in our data, but my sense is that it does show the demise of the collective leadership, first-among-equals approach.”

39:26: How many people have been subject to the corruption crackdown? Peter studied those who were investigated, whose names were published in reports by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection by 2015. “We’re looking at the first wave of the crackdown, but that was just a thousand people [whose names we could get]. I was looking at some estimates last night, and I think people are saying that the total number as of the end of last year was 20,000 to 30,000 people overall. And you know, they’re not all people who looked wrong at Xi Jinping some day. So it’s pretty clear that he’s got to have some other way of deciding who goes down.”

Recommendations:

Peter: Two sitcoms, Speechless (available on ABC) and Kim’s Convenience (available on Netflix).

Kaiser: Two playlists on Spotify, “Instrumental Madness” and “Got Djent?”

Apr 4, 2019

Kaiser sat down with Nury Turkel, chairman and founder of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, at the recent Association for Asian Studies conference in Denver for an impromptu catch-up on the current crisis in Xinjiang. Nury last appeared on the Sinica Podcast half a year ago. They discussed the policy options available to the U.S. as well as the difficulties of trying to get through to Chinese elites and ordinary Chinese people alike.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

2:31: The conversation begins with a recap of vote counts and support behind bipartisan bills that are currently working through the U.S. Congress: the Uighur Intervention and Global Humanitarian Unified Response (UIGHUR Act) and the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. Nury says that there could be more news on these bills in the coming months: “We were told that there’s a chance that [the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act] will be finalized…sometime this summer.”

6:44: Nury calls for a larger international coalition to decry the horrors in Xinjiang, and highlight the shadow that Uyghur internment will cast on the longer history of China, stating, “In the end, we want two things. One, we want the camps to be shut down. It’s an embarrassment to the Chinese people, even in their history. It needs to be shut down. And, two, we want to be able to restore the Uyghur people’s basic dignity. Give them their dignity and respect back.”

17:48: After reporting emerged on the supposed death of famed Uyghur musician Abdurehim Heyit, Beijing pushed back with a dubious “proof of life” video. This has resulted in a social media movement to raise awareness about the horrors being committed in Xinjiang, #MeTooUyghur. Nury comments: “So, this #MeTooUyghur movement is building up still. What is amazing about this is that a lot of Uyghurs who were not comfortable sharing their stories are coming out. So, the more people show up and come out telling their stories, the more people know about it. Eventually, it will result in some tangible action.”

27:12: The Uyghurs’ ongoing internment has taken a heavy toll on them. Nury explains: “The Uyghur communities around the world [are] going through a really tough time. Crippling anxiety, a sense of guilt, hopelessness…basically [making] the Uyghurs feel disconnected from their family members. Just basic things, such as calling your parents to say, ‘How are you?’ Just imagine that you hear your mother died in a concentration camp through Radio Free Asia. Just imagine that you recognize your children in the Chinese government propaganda material as a happy child…just imagine that you manage to go to your homeland and you are not able to see your sister because your iris was not scanned or [not] part of the government data. Just imagine that you walk out and try to go to your parents’ cemetery and the Chinese government prevents you because of your religion.”

39:58: How can individuals reach out and help sympathetic Han Chinese who are in China and willing to make a stand for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang? Nury underlines the high stakes involved, not only for the Uyghurs, but for all of China: “At least recognizing that what the Chinese government is doing in the 21st century, criminalizing the entire population [of Uyghurs] collectively, is not good for Chinese civilization.”

Mar 28, 2019

This live Sinica Podcast recorded in New York on March 6 features Samm Sacks, Cybersecurity Policy and China Digital Economy Fellow at New America. She and Kaiser Kuo discuss the many facets of U.S.-China technology integration and competition, touching on topics such as data security, artificial intelligence, and how to build “a small yard with a high fence.”

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

11:04: Decoupling is a theme that has defined one of the more extreme potential outcomes of the fraying U.S.-China relationship. Are these conversations prevalent outside of Washington? What about the Silicon Valley tech community? Samm addresses these questions here, among others: “The reality is when we think about technology development, whether it’s joint research, supply chains, collaboration of sciences — these things don’t really map nicely onto political borders. And these are really diffuse networks that, when you try to decouple [them], there’s just a disconnect here.”

21:13: What is the relationship between technology companies and the Communist Party? What impact does China’s Cybersecurity and National Intelligence Law have on the companies’ supposed obligations to cooperate with authorities on sharing private data? When two passengers using Didi, a popular ride-share service in China, were killed, the company cooperated reluctantly, resulting in a bizarre legal limbo. Samm explains: “Chinese legal scholars were saying, wait a second, if Didi is to fall in line on this data-sharing agreement, that’s a violation of China’s Cybersecurity Law, because the Cybersecurity Law has a framework around the conditions where data is collected and shared. So again I think there’s a lot more churn than people understand.”

27:46: What is important data? China’s Cybersecurity Law has outlined broad data localization requirements. Does the government have the ability (or capability) to review the huge amounts of data going in and out of the country? Samm points out: “One of the outcomes I would look for if we were to see the so-called structural issues on the tech side, one would be is the Chinese government going to agree to allow more kinds of commercial data out of the country without these arduous security audits?”

34:41: Is China deliberately exporting its model of censorship to governments and countries throughout the world? What of the future of domestic surveillance in China? Who is discussing the ethical and legal implications of artificial intelligence being brought into everyday life and society, and where? Samm attended a Track 2 dialogue between Berkeley Law and Beijing University Law and discusses the conversations in the academic world regarding algorithmic bias, and contesting decisions made by artificial intelligence here.

40:58: Samm elaborates on the concept of “small yard and high fence.” What are some actionable items in the technological tussle unfolding between Washington and Beijing? She provides her guiding principle: “Having a constructive bilateral trade and investment relationship with China, particularly with technology, is in the interest of the United States. And we cannot take an approach that is going to use blanket bans and discrimination based on national origin. We need to use tools like law enforcement as the scalpel they were intended to be because of the integration of our two systems. Otherwise, we end up shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Recommendations:

Kaiser: Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott.

Samm: Catastrophe, a British sitcom available on Prime Video.

Mar 21, 2019

This week on the Sinica Podcast, Kaiser and Jeremy are joined by Eric Olander, host of the China in Africa Podcast from the China Africa Project, and by Anzetse Were, a developmental economist based in Nairobi. They explore questions related to Kenyan debt and development, as well as Sino-American competition in East Africa.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

10:33: When did China begin to put concerted diplomatic effort into relations with African countries? What were the optics of China’s push into the African continent? Anzetse highlights three examples that led to China’s success in dealing with businesses and governments: “[Chinese diplomats] are quite humble in their articulation, certainly to African people, saying, ‘While this has been the Chinese experience, we don’t know what you want, what you can learn and what you don’t want to learn.’ So they’re not prescriptive. But of course the biggest thing that African governments like is that they don’t lecture about anything.”

19:05: Is China leading African countries into “debt traps”? What are the primary causes for concern regarding the debts of African governments, and the wider international community? Anzetse explains that it’s a confluence of factors, including transparency issues and the effects of kindling trade relationships with new partners: “There is concern in the global north, particularly Europe and North America, as to reexposure in African governments to debt…and their concern is that they’re doing it with a party that the world does not really understand in terms of how it deals with debt defaults and how it deals with repayments owed. I think that Europe and North America were much more comfortable when debt owed was in their hands, obviously because they had [control], but I think because they had a common understanding on how this would be addressed. They do not know how the Chinese are going to do this.”

42:21: America is restructuring the way it provides aid to the rest of the world through the International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) and the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development Act (BUILD Act), in an attempt to compete with China in the developing world. How effective is this restructuring? Eric provides some insight: “It’s not challenging China at all. It’s not intended to challenge China. Instead, they actually complement each other very, very well. So, a country like Kenya can turn to China for infrastructure and massive loans from the Chinese for a public sector type of development. But then, IDFC and the U.S. come in to fund American business and Kenyan business that can’t get funding anywhere else.”

49:36: What effect is the Belt and Road Initiative having in Africa? What about the African countries that are excluded from the plans, as China has made inroads, for the most part, on Africa’s eastern seaboard? Anzetse states: “I think the Chinese began to understand, ‘We do not want to start dividing African sentiments on China, we’re going to find a way to make sure all the regions in Africa are represented in this Belt and Road Initiative. Whether it will be practical is not clear.”

Recommendations:

Jeremy: I Didn't Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation and In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo, both by Michela Wrong.

Eric: Competing against Chinese loans, U.S. companies face long odds in Africa, an article in the New York Times by Ed Wong.

Anzetse: Rhinocéros, by Eugène Ionesco.

Kaiser: Lake Success: A Novel, by Gary Shteyngart.

Mar 14, 2019

This week’s Sinica was recorded at UPenn’s Center for Study on Contemporary China. Jeremy and Kaiser speak with three prominent scholars on China: Sheena Greitens, associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri, Rory Truex, assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, and Neysun Mahboubi, research scholar at the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania. The group tackles a topic that has long beleaguered China-watching circles: self-censorship. In addition, it focuses on a paper that Sheena and Rory published last summer, Repressive Experiences among China Scholars: New Evidence from Survey Data.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

22:41: Sheena describes the categories in which she and Rory organized “repressive experiences” in China, the center of their research, comprising 13 types of repression divided into three buckets: “The three broad categories that we looked at were restrictions on access to China itself, restriction on access to materials once you’re in China doing research, and monitoring and surveillance of that research by authorities in China.” According to their research, 20-25 percent of those interviewed had difficulty accessing archived materials, and 10 percent of visiting China scholars had been “invited” by authorities to speak with them and explain their research. When Chinese colleagues and interlocutors at host institutions are included in the sample, the figure jumps to 15 percent.

29:45: Rory’s hypothesis going into this project was that there would be a spike in repressive experiences and research after Xi Jinping’s ascent to power in 2012. Perceptions certainly trend in that direction. However, data from their research didn’t reveal major temporal trends related to these repressive experiences, with one caveat: “I talk to people who do a lot of fieldwork, and they say it’s actually much harder even to have interviews at all anymore. The one thing where there was a temporal trend was access to archives. If you talk to historians, they’ll talk a lot about how the archives are being sanitized, and projects, books, and dissertations that were feasible 10 or 15 years ago are no longer feasible today.”

48:05: What exactly is self-censorship? Neysun, Sheena, and Rory all take slightly differing views on what characterizes it. Rory discusses the calculus behind self-censorship, and identifies external stimuli that may have an impact on research and published materials in the United States: “We might be at the opposite [point of the problem], where the professional incentives [of researching contentious topics], plus the political environment in the United States are such that saying anything positive, or even neutral about the Communist Party is difficult to do, and difficult to publish.”

1:08:59: What role do China-watchers play in the larger conversation that, in the modern era, seems to be undergoing constant recalibration? What of the dichotomy among China-watchers, à la hawks versus doves? Here, Neysun, Sheena, and Rory all offer insight into these questions and suggestions on the way forward.

Recommendations:

Jeremy: Two jazz albums, Live at the Pershing, by Ahmad Jamal, a live recording from 1958, and Money Jungle, a studio album by Duke Ellington.

Neysun: Evening Chats in Beijing: Probing China’s Predicament, by Perry Link.

Sheena: Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westwood, and Harry and the Terrible Whatzit, by Dick Gackenbach.

Rory: The website www.chinachange.org, a website that provides reports, commentary, and analysis on human rights in China.

Kaiser: Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, by Sulmaan Wasif Khan.

Mar 7, 2019

This week, we feature the second half of an extensive interview (first part here) with Shelley Rigger, a political scientist at Davidson College and the leading U.S. expert on the politics of Taiwan. This second half of the interview, which covers the history of Taiwan from the 1990s to the present, was conducted by Neysun Mahboubi of the UPenn Center for the Study of Contemporary China Podcast (one of our favorite China podcasts), and is republished here with the Center’s permission.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

3:39: Shelley and Neysun discuss the nature of the relationship between Taiwan and China in the early 1990s, with identify the opponents and proponents of unification with the mainland. Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國 Jiǎng Jīng-guó, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, who succeeded his father as premier) allowed for veterans of the Chinese civil war to return to the mainland on humanitarian visits. These veterans were accompanied by their children, who saw economic opportunities on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. Shelley: “They get off the plane, and what Dad sees is, ‘I don’t recognize my hometown.’ What the son or son-in-law sees is, ‘This is perfect for my business.’”

17:55: What is it about Taiwanese independence that makes it such a contentious topic for officials in Beijing? What has been the result of the social, economic, and cultural interactions between Taiwan and the mainland since the 1990s? What role did Taiwanese investment in China play in the ’90s, and what about Chinese investment in Taiwan in the 21st century? Shelley and Neysun, Taiwan and China scholars respectively, talk through these questions.

33:49: Are there red lines in Beijing on the topic of Taiwanese independence? What are the primary points of inflection and contention in the relationship? What effect does a U.S. presence in Taiwan have on the Taiwan-P.R.C. relationship? Shelley explains: “Are we going to remind Beijing that we are in it in that way, and that in some sense the inability to solve this problem [of independence] that they have chosen for themselves is our fault? Are we going to put that right up in their faces, or are we going to say, ‘Taiwan is okay. We’re okay. We don’t need to, as my dad says, kick the skunk.’”

38:51: What about the U.S.-Taiwan relationship under the current U.S. administration? The phone call between Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīng-wén) and then president-elect Trump, which was intended to be private, certainly strained the relationship after being picked up by international media and tweets by Trump blaming Taiwan for the ensuing debacle that unfolded. Shelley: “The other thing about this administration that’s especially worrisome from the Taiwan perspective is that it’s very unpredictable, as you said, and so the possibility that Taiwan could be a bargaining chip or introduced into some transaction is ever-present…”

51:58: Taiwanese identity, and its role in the world, has undergone seismic changes throughout its history. Shelley points out that the discussion within the island nation has somewhat settled, but not without certain reservations: “The debate over identity that was raging in Taiwan in the 1990s and 2000s is pretty settled on the idea that, with the exception of the indigenous peoples and the ever-growing number of immigrants to Taiwan, our roots are in China…but that does not need to define us politically, and our community, the community of shared fate or common destiny that we belong to as Taiwanese, is specific to this island…”

Feb 28, 2019

This week, we feature the first half of an extensive interview with Shelley Rigger, a political scientist at Davidson College and the leading U.S. expert on the politics of Taiwan. This first half of the interview, which covers the history of Taiwan through 1996, was conducted by Neysun Mahboubi of the UPenn Center for the Study of Contemporary China Podcast (one of our favorite China podcasts), and is republished here with the Center’s permission.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast: 

11:05: What was Taiwan’s status in the global world order before the normalization of U.S.-China relations, and in what direction did that status shift after 1978? How did this event help shape Taiwanese identity? Shelley begins the podcast by describing the importance of the history of the island nation.

15:00: After Taiwan was handed over to the Republic of China in 1945, the Chinese civil war continued on the Chinese mainland. Because the Nationalists’ efforts were primarily focused on defending the mainland, Taiwan became a “troublesome backwater” to the larger battle being fought across the Taiwan Strait. Shelley describes this post–World War II period in Taiwan: “The Nationalists are fighting hard to save the heartland of China, and so Taiwan became a kind of ‘troublesome backwater,’ a sideshow. But for the people of Taiwan to realize they had become this kind of sideshow and that their island was supposed to be kind of a platform from which the Nationalists could prosecute this other war, and could achieve their real goal, that was kind of shocking.”

24:05: When the Nationalists fled mainland China to Taiwan in 1949, they brought with them many officials who were elected two years previously on the mainland to “repopulate the legislature.” Shelley states: “Those people, those individuals, retained their seats from 1947 to 1991 because the logic went: ‘We can’t replace these guys until we can have an election back in their home district in Hubei, or Xinjiang, or wherever, so they have to just keep their seats.’”

39:35: From the 1970s onward, there were big changes in the Taiwanese psyche for a number of reasons. Taiwan had lost its seat at the UN Security Council, and Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had canceled a mutual defense treaty with the Republic of China. Some thought the island nation was soon to be nonexistent. Shelley argues that it was instead liberating: “It released Taiwan from the necessity to pretend to be China, and it opened the door to reimagining Taiwan in a new way. So the obligation of the Taiwanese people and even Taiwan as a physical geographical space to subjugate itself to the destiny of China is gone…”

 

Feb 21, 2019

This week, Sinica is live from Fordham Law School in New York City! This episode features Zhā Jiànyīng 查建英, journalist and author of China Pop: How Soap Operas, Tabloids, and Bestsellers Are Transforming a Culture and Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China, who joined Jeremy and Kaiser at a Sinica Live Podcast event on January 14. The three discuss the experiences of Zha’s half-brother, Zhā Jiànguó 查建国, a democracy activist in China who was charged with subversion of state power and subsequently jailed for nine years. In addition, they pore over the political realities of contemporary China, the likelihood of reform, and the pressures that “moderate liberals” encounter in the face of rising suppression of political freedoms in the country.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast: 

3:34: In the era of “stability maintenance” in China, netizens have coined unique nicknames for actions that censorship and security officials take to maintain order. “To be harmonized” (被和谐 bèihéxié), or to have speech censored, is the most well known, but there are many others. “To be touristed” (被旅游 bèi lǚyóu), or sent packing on a mandatory vacation accompanied by friendly police officers, is the subject of Zha’s writing, in this case. Zha elaborates: “I think this is a very eerie kind of symptom of the police state moving, in fact, you might say a little more sophisticated way of silencing or [getting] rid of those troublemakers in different spheres, right? Some of them are Party officials, others are critics like petitioners, NGO activists, or civil rights lawyers.”

18:24: Jeremy asks if Zha has ever been concerned whether her work as a journalist could potentially put her brother in danger. She says no, but adds that she intentionally kept him in the dark when writing her 2007 piece “Enemy of the State,” which was featured in The New Yorker, to protect him. Zha: “Still, the one point I did insist on was to not have the famous New Yorker fact-checkers call him beforehand because I knew all his phones and everything was tapped and monitored. And so I didn’t tell him I was writing this.”

29:58: Zha and Kaiser talk about political dissidents and activists. According to Zha, some of them endorse unfortunate and dated ideologies: “I don’t know, I used to think of them as liberals. Now I think maybe they need a different hat or label, you know — they’re sexist, because some of them in more recent phenomena really had a lot of trouble with #MeToo. The movement had kind of a short play in China…and there’s lots of people who have trouble with Islamic culture as well.”

32:17: High-profile Chinese dissidents and activists on a growing number of “sensitive” dates are often “touristed” for weeks on end. However, there is one caveat: No cell phones are allowed. Zha elaborates: “Back then, there were just these certain anniversaries or Party congresses. But now, China has emerged into this global powerhouse. So all kinds of global forums that are held in Beijing or in Qingdao or in Shanghai have also become sensitive days. And so, in such locations, the police would usually take selective numbers of ‘troublemakers’ out of the site of that city.”

57:53: Kaiser asks Zha about the modern Chinese intelligentsia: What role do Chinese intellectuals play in the political life of a country? Is their role understood in circles outside of China scholars? She responds, “Basically, the intellectuals played a very particular, important role of advising the emperor then, and now the leaders about the direction of the country, or they also are seen as the spokespeople for the common people…so they’re given this special kind of status or platform to govern or change the society. So that’s why this whole crackdown, right now, this whole ruthless crackdown on the intellectuals by stripping or removing platforms for their voices is so disturbing and casts such a chilling effect.”  

Recommendations:

Jeremy: Red Moon, by Kim Stanley Robinson, an interstellar work of speculative fiction.

Zha: The Ceremony 大典, by Wáng Lìxióng 王力雄. Also a podcast, The History of Rome, by Mike Duncan.

Kaiser: A Beijing-based band called The Spice Cabinet.

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