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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: April, 2019
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.”

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