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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: July, 2019
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.

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