In this episode of Chinese Whispers, we look ahead to the 20th National Party Congress, where senior members will gather to review the future direction of the party and unveil new leaders. What should China-watchers expect? Will Xi be able to fill the standing committee with those loyal to him?
To discuss this important moment in the communist calendar is author of the Sinocism substack Bill Bishop and Professor Victor Shih, expert in Chinese elite politics and author of the new book Coalitions of the Weak.
If you enjoy this podcast, you can now register your interest for an upcoming Chinese Whispers newsletter, at www.spectator.co.uk/whispers.
In the last four decades, hundreds of millions of Chinese have moved into cities. Today, two thirds of the country live in urban areas (compared to just one third in 1985), and many of these are hubs with tens of millions of people – mega-cities that many in the West have never heard of before.
What does this fast urbanisation do to communities and tradition? On this episode, my guest Austin Williams (an architect turned journalist and academic) explains how these populations were thrown up into 'vertical living'. ‘If Ayn Rand had created a country, then China would be it’, says Austin. In other words, the family unit matters more than the community surrounding you.
This episode is a deep dive into urban life in China. Austin and I discuss the residential compounds that we in the West have seen so much of through reporting of China's lockdowns; the demolitions required to pave the way for this wave of urbanisation, which, sadly, left some towns disembowelled without rebuilding (see Austin's film Edge Town about one such settlement outside the city of Suzhou); and we debate whether it's a good thing that traditional Chinese aesthetics are returning to the country's modern architecture.
If you enjoy this podcast, you can now register your interest for an upcoming Chinese Whispers newsletter, at www.spectator.co.uk/whispers.
After a long summer of hustings, Liz Truss has finally been confirmed today as the next leader of the Conservative party. As she gets the keys to Downing Street, she'll finally be able to carry out her vision of Sino-British relations. But what is that vision?
On the latest Chinese Whispers, I speak to Sam Hogg, editor of the must-read Beijing to Britain newsletter, about what we know about Truss's views on China so far. Will she declare a genocide in Xinjiang? What is an acceptable level of trade with Beijing?
The difficulty for Truss is that she has never had to balance her opinions on China with the wider remit of government (for example, when it comes to the trading relationship that she lambasted her rival Rishi Sunak for pursuing, while at the Treasury). As Sam points out, taking the example of declaring a genocide in Xinjiang (something she has privately expressed support for):
‘When you officially recognise that a genocide is taking place, that puts an onus on the country that has done so to try and actively stop that, using a variety of means (that could be sanctions for example). With that in mind, one can see why it’s a useful campaign pledge, but a difficult policy to carry out once in power’Then she might be held hostage by China hawks on the backbenches – those MPs like Iain Duncan Smith who have lent her his support, but may want to see her be as vocally sceptical of China in Downing Street as she has been so far. In that case, there could be a vibe similar to how the hardline Brexiteers held previous Conservative prime ministers to ransom on seeing through their visions. ‘She’s made a series of political contracts with various backbenchers about how hawkish she is going to be towards China. And each of these backbenchers will have a limited amount of patience’, Sam points out.
We won't have long to find out as she gets her feet under the desk at No. 10 and, in a couple of months, meets with President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Indonesia.
What does China want with Xinjiang? Its systematic repression of the Uyghur people and other regional minorities has shocked the world, eliciting accusations of genocide from politicians and activists across the West. The Chinese Communist Party claims that its re-education camps are an anti-terrorism measure, but surely if anything is going to radicalise vast swathes of a non-Han population, it’s their forced internment and (for many) subsequent incarceration. So what is the CCP’s long term aim?
According to Raffaello Pantucci, senior associate fellow at the think tank Rusi, ‘the Central Government recognises that a very strong security crackdown is not necessarily going to deal with these problems in perpetuity’. Instead, ‘long-term stability for Xinjiang is going to come from economic prosperity’.
That’s where Central Asia comes in. On this episode, I talk to Raffaello about China’s relations with the five ‘Stans that sit cushioned between China (to their east) and Russia (to their north). As with China’s relationship with any developing region, Beijing is motivated by access to its significant oil and mineral resources. But there’s something special about Central Asia - Raffaello argues that it’s an extension of Beijing’s Xinjiang strategy: ‘It’s really about trying to improve the prosperity in this border region around Xinjiang to help improve its prosperity and stability… If you’re going to make Xinjiang economically prosperous, you’re going to have to find a way of connecting it to the world.’
Raffaello’s new book is Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, based on a decade of travel in and around the region (there were two when they started, but Raffaello’s co-author, Alexandros Petersen, died in a Taliban attack in Kabul eight years ago). As well as the Xinjiang implications, Sinostan looks at China’s oil and gas trade with these resource-rich countries, the cultural exchanges (or lack thereof, and often promoted by Confucius Institutes) and the difference in approach between Moscow and Beijing, all of which we discuss on the episode.
On China’s usurpation of Russia in the region, it’s striking that some public opinion is deeply suspicious of the new power in the region, a general Sinophobia that crystallises in numerous conspiracy theories (for example that roads built by Chinese companies are specifically designed to the weight of Chinese tanks). Welcomed by governments keen to benefit from the economic clout of their neighbour, some Chinese companies end up trying to hide their presence to avoid the ire of the locals. Raffaello recounts that ‘there are some cities in Kazakhstan, particularly in the oil regions, where we know CNPC [China National Petroleum Corporation] is a big player, but we just couldn’t find evidence of them. You’d ask the locals “where are the CNPC guys” and they’d say “we don’t know what you’re talking about”’.
But China’s influence is very much there. It remains a ‘huge lacuna in Western strategic thinking’ that cannot be ignored, Raffaello says. Tune in to get ahead on this next geopolitical hot topic.
This episode is sponsored by the SOAS China Institute. Buy tickets for their three day course on China and the media at www.spectator.co.uk/soas.
Learn more about China's relationship with Afghanistan here: https://www.spectator.co.uk/podcast/will-china-become-afghanistan-s-new-sponsor-
Nancy Pelosi’s controversial trip to Taiwan made headlines across the world this week, after President Xi’s warnings to the US ‘not to play with fire’. Furious, Beijing has responded with economic sanctions and a flurry of missiles over and around the island, as well as sanctioning Pelosi and her family. But as the West frets about possible escalation, often lacking from the discussion is what Taiwanese people actually think. In fact, as Taipei-based journalist Brian Hioe explains to Cindy Yu in this episode, most people there were less worried about the visit than you might expect. ‘There’s been so much in terms of Chinese military drilling or activity directed at Taiwan for a decade, people are quite used to it.’
Comparisons to the calm in Ukraine before the Russian invasion are unfounded: ‘we are not seeing troops massing’. That is not to say, though, that the situation is without danger. A more limited and realistic threat is of China imposing a blockade, or attacking one of Taiwan’s outlying islands. Other possible repercussions include a salvo of cyberattacks, one pro-China actor having already hacked supermarkets and train station displays on the island this week.
So given all these dangers, why did Pelosi come at all? Perhaps telling is the Taiwanese government’s silence over whether it actually invited her. US domestic politics is probably a factor, as is her own legacy. Regardless of her motivation, President Biden said the move was unwise, and the situation remains delicate.
Careful diplomatic management of the crisis requires reliable information. But in the context of Taiwan, that is by no means a given. Brian explains the bizarre dynamic that exists between international and Taiwanese media, where each assumes the other is better informed. ‘The two sides are actually somewhat bad at fact-checking each other. Then they’re just amplifying what is sometimes discrimination but primarily misinformation.’
Tune in to hear more about the view from Taipei.
China’s property market accounts for something between 20 and 29 per cent of the country’s total GDP. The seemingly never-ending rise of residential blocks were how ordinary people like my family could see and touch China’s miraculous economic growth. Home ownership was to be expected, especially for young men looking to marry and start a family. Across the country, 70 per cent of household wealth is held in real estate.
But in recent months, China's property hasn’t been so hot. The sector has shrunk 7 per cent year on year. Developers have run out of money to complete complexes that they've already sold; while consumers across dozens of cities are refusing to pay their mortgages in protest. 'The thing about real estate is that it's intensely pro-cyclical – everything that's good feeds on itself in the boom, and everything that's bad feeds on itself in the downturn', the economist George Magnus tells me in this episode of Chinese Whispers. He's the author of Red Flags: Why Xi's China is in Jeopardy and has been warning about the underlying problems in China's economy for years.
Also on the podcast is Lulu Chen, a Bloomberg journalist reporting on real estate trends in Asia. She was one of the first to break the story of the mortgage protests. The picture they paint is one of a long overdue bust in the cycle.
Back in the 90s when the country was fresh out of communism, most housing was still allocated by the state or employers. Since then, market reforms allowed people to buy and sell their own places (China's home ownership rate is 95 per cent). The market became hotter and hotter, and the proliferation of new builds (in order to keep up with demand) meant that developers were selling homes before they'd even built them. Real estate companies ran on borrowed money.
All good and well when the money was flowing. But in the last few years, the amount of corporate debt wracked up by this model concerned policymakers in Zhongnanhai, who then put forward the 'three red lines' stipulating debt controls on real estate companies. Evergrande was the first to trip, but since then, even companies thought to be in the green have fallen to an industry-wide contagion of fear and default. Then came the harsh and sudden lockdowns of zero Covid which added fuel to the fire as consumer confidence and earnings were destroyed.
Tune in to hear about just how bad the situation is this time (as I suggest to George, haven't warnings sounded about China's property bubble for years now?) But remember, economic problems can quickly turn into political ones for a government that bargains for legitimacy from economic growth. I ask Lulu what the ramifications of a property bust that makes the middle class poorer could be. She sums up the stakes nicely:
'[The Chinese] have this idea of the world and what it’s like. Life is always going upwards, and tomorrow is going to be better than yesterday. And that’s kind of the mentality of people born in the 70s, especially 80s, 90s... They’ve never experienced a full economic cycle… So it really changes their world view of what life is going to be like for them in the future. It really casts doubt on whether the economy and the future of the country is going to as they envisioned when they were growing up’That's why this moment is one to watch.
Semiconductors are the most important thing that you've never heard of. These little computer chips provide the processing power for everything from cars and iPhones, to unmanned drones and missiles. In Beijing's Made in China 2025 industrial strategy, through which China seeks to move up the value chain to become a high-tech superpower, semiconductor self-sufficiency was one of the targets.
Beijing is falling far behind on this target. MIC 2025 stated the aim of meeting 70 per cent of China's demand through domestic production by 2025, but, seven years on, it is only meeting 20 per cent of its domestic needs (by one estimate). The world's leading manufacturer of semiconductors is in fact in Taiwan. The Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Company dominates more than half the global market, and controls 90 per cent of the cutting edge 5 to 10 nanometre sector (in this industry, size matters; the smaller the chip, the better). Even American companies like Intel outsource a substantial amount of production to TSMC.
A tech arms race is underway. In order to control the supply of this small but vital component, China and the US are desperately funnelling money into their own national champions, whilst 'kneecapping' each other's efforts, as my guest Nigel Inkster tells me on this episode. He's the former director of operations and intelligence at MI6 and author of The Great Decoupling: China, America and the Struggle for Technological Supremacy .
We discuss Washington's relatively effective efforts on this front – from instituting export controls on western companies (not just American) that supply Chinese semiconductor companies, to pressurising TSMC to share its know-how worldwide (TSMC will open an Arizona branch in two years, thanks to pressure from President Trump). It's got wolf warrior and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian hopping mad; he has accused the American approach as being 'technological terrorism'.
Yet America's approach could be instructive for the UK, where there's a live political question over the Chinese acquisition of Newport Wafer Fab, a relatively low-end semiconductor manufacturing site that is the subject of an ongoing national security review.
Some in the West also fear that TSMC's success will lure China to invade Taiwan, while some in Taipei see the company as their 'silicon shield', Nigel says, as its accidental destruction (or at the hands of the Taiwanese or American governments) may deter China from an aggressive incursion.
On the episode, Nigel and I discuss all this and more (whether China is inherently less innovative, how painful and inevitable a tech arms race would be, and Nigel's reaction to MI5 and the FBI's recent joint warning about Chinese espionage).
You probably wouldn’t expect to see the Cultural Revolution in Chinese films, or the Great Leap Forward, or the Tiananmen Square protests. But for a certain generation and a certain corner of the Chinese film industry, these were actually common themes to deal with. Their films weren’t always welcome to the censors, but they weren’t always banned, either.
I recently wrote a column for The Spectator on Chinese cinema, and the golden age it experienced just after the end of the Cultural Revolution. You’d be surprised at the amazing political – and social – subversiveness of directors like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. This episode is all about that golden age and what has come after, where, depressingly, it’s now films like Wolf Warrior 2 that dominate the box office.
Joining me is Chris Berry, Professor of Film Studies at Kings College London who specialises in Chinese cinema. We talk about how their trauma of living through the Cultural Revolution drove the so-called 'Fifth Generation' directors; the bold portrayal of queer characters which got them into trouble with the censors; and how commercialisation has changed the landscape for Chinese directors who are now dictated by the box office. Pictured here is Leslie Cheung in Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, where Cheung portrays a queer Beijing opera singer.
China's social credit system is notorious. This Black Mirror-esque network supposedly gives citizens a score, based on an opaque algorithm that feeds on data from each person's digital and physical lives. With one billion Chinese accessing the Internet and the growing prevalence of facial recognition, it means that their every move can be monitored – from whether they cross the road dangerously, to whether they play too many video games and buy too much junk food. Those with low scores have lower socio-economic status, and may not be able to board planes and trains, or send their children to school. It's all part of a Chinese Communist Party directive to further control and mould its citizens.
Except it's not. Speak to any Chinese person and you'll quickly realise that their lives are not dictated by some score, with their every move monitored and live-feeding to some kind of governmental evaluation of their social worth. In fact, the western narrative of the social credit system has deviated so far from the situation on the ground that Chinese Internet users went viral mocking western reporting on Weibo: '-278 points: Immediate execution'.
Telling me this story on this episode of Chinese Whispers is Vincent Brussee, a researcher at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics), who has recently released a detailed paper looking at what the social credit system really entails on the ground (Merics was part of the group of European organisations and individuals sanctioned by Beijing last year).
The reality of social credit is unfortunately much less exciting and sexy than you might fear. For one, the technology simply isn't there. ' When the social credit system was envisioned, or when it was designed in the early 2000s, government files in China were still held in dusty drawers… In 2019 when I worked in China I still had to use a fax machine. That was the first time in my life that I ever saw a fax machine', Vincent tells me. The system is not linked with someone's digital data, but fundamentally only their interactions with the government (for example, permits and licences). Data that e-commerce and social media companies collect on their users, which must be extensive, are not connected with the government's own data (probably because of the CCP's growing suspicion of Chinese tech firms).
But more fundamentally, the social credit system is not just one system. 'It's more of an umbrella term', Jeremy Daum tells me on the episode. He is the senior research fellow at Yale Law School's Paul Tsai China Center, who also runs the blog China Law Translate (which does what it says on the tin). Jeremy has spent years myth-busting the social credit system. He says that for some institutions, social credit is a financial record ('credit' as in 'credit card'); for others, it is a way of black-marking unscrupulous companies that in the past fell short of, say, food safety standards (a particularly sensitive topic in China, given the milk powder scandal). In fact, social credit often functionally works as a way of determining how trustworthy a company is, like a government-run Yelp or Trustpilot system ( the Merics report found that most targets of are companies rather than individuals).
So how did reporters get the social credit story so wrong? In reality, though the social credit system itself is fairly boring, the way this narrative exploded and took hold is a cautionary tale for the West in our understanding of China. 'The western coverage of social credit has hardly been coverage of social credit at all. It is coverage of us, seen through a mirror of China', says Jeremy, arguing that it tapped into our deep fear of unbridled technology and surveillance. On the episode I also speak to Louise Matsakis, a freelance journalist covering tech and China, who was one of the first to point out the disparity in the social credit narrative and the reality on the ground. Together, we unpack what lessons there are for studying, understanding and reporting on China from this whole saga.
For further reading, here are the sources we mention in the episode:
- The Chinese Whispers episode with Jeremy Daum on the fightback against facial recognition: https://www.spectator.co.uk/po...
- The Merics report: https://merics.org/en/report/c...
- China Law Translate's Social Credit section: https://www.chinalawtranslate....
- Louise Matsakis in WIRED, ' How the West Got China's Social Credit System Wrong': https://www.wired.com/story/ch...
All eyes are on the Communist leadership this year, as the months count down to autumn’s National Party Congress, where Xi Jinping may be crowned for a third term. But how much do we really know about the Party’s leadership? In particular, can we better understand them through looking at the experiences that they've had?
Take Xi Jinping, who is what is known as a 'princeling' – his father was the Communist revolutionary Xi Zhongxun, one of the Party's early cadres. How did that upbringing impact him, and his faith in the Chinese Communist Party?
Also consider the Cultural Revolution – the sixtysomethings on the Politburo Standing Committee would have been teenagers during that decade of turmoil. How did it form who they are as leaders today?
Joining me on the podcast is Professor Kerry Brown from Kings College London, whose latest book is Xi: A Study in Power, so very knowledgeable on the President himself; as well as Professor Steve Tsang, a historian at SOAS.
It’s clear now that Vladimir Putin didn’t expect his army to perform quite so badly when invading Ukraine. As much as that is celebrated in much of the world, it will be a cause for concern – or at least a moment for learning – amongst Beijing’s military leaders. Because Russia has always been a heavy influence and source of strategy and equipment for China’s People’s Liberation Army, ever since the days of the Soviet Union. So could the PLA – which hasn’t been in active combat since Vietnam in 1979 – similarly flounder?
That's the burning question my guests and I discuss in the latest episode of Chinese Whispers. Timothy R. Heath is an expert on the Chinese military at the American think tank, the RAND Corporation, and tells me that: 'A lot of the issues that we're seeing in the Russian military is going to be of high concern to the PLA because there's a very good chance the Chinese military could have some of the similar issues'.
We also discuss the possibility of low morale when it comes to fighting an enemy who looks and speaks like you – as some Russian soldiers have found disconcerting in Ukraine. Could an invasion of Taiwan throw up similar problems? Tim argues that it could, and draws parallel with another event – the enlisting of the PLA for suppressing the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. It was a decision that saw many soldiers (though not enough) refusing to obey orders. 'The experience of the PLA was such a shock for the military and the CCP that a decade later, the Chinese government took the PLA out of the job of suppressing domestic dissent.'
In fact, the lack of trust in its soldiers' loyalty is such that today's PLA is one of the only armies to offer a 'suicide pill', so says Professor Li Xiaobing, a Chinese military historian at the University of Central Oklahoma who served in the PLA himself . '20,000 Chinese soldiers were captured during the Korean war. After the war, 70 per cent of the Chinese POWs didn't want to go back to China, and they went to Taiwan. So that's really embarrassing for the Chinese government in the Cold War'.
Tune in to this episode to hear more incredible insights from my guests about this most elusive yet important modern military force.
China is often accused of breaking international rules and norms. Just last week at Mansion House, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: 'Countries must play by the rules. And that includes China'.
So what are its transgressions, and what are its goals for the international system? My guests and I try to answer this question in this episode through looking at China's attitude to and involvement in international organisations, past and present. Professor Rana Mitter, a historian at the University of Oxford and author of China's Good War , points out that there's a fundamental difference in China's approach compared to, say, Russia. 'Russia perceives itself as, essentially, a country that is really at the end of its tether in terms of the international system. Whereas China still sees plenty of opportunities to grow and expand its status'.
To that end, China is actually a member of dozens of international organisations, most notably – as we discuss in the episode – sitting on the United Nations Security Council, which gives it veto power on UN resolutions (though, Yu Jie, senior research fellow at Chatham House, points out that China is most often found abstaining rather than vetoing). It wants a seat at the table, but it also frequently accuses our existing set of international norms and rules as designed by the West. To begin with, then, China is seeking to rewrite the rules in its own favour – Jie gives the example of China's ongoing campaign to increase its voting share in the IMF, on the basis of its huge economy. 'It's not exactly overthrowing the existing international order wholesale, but choosing very carefully which parts China wants to change.'
This multilateral engagement has a historical basis. Nationalist China was keen to be seen as an equal and respected partner in the international community, and Rana points out – something I'd never thought of before – that China after the second world war 'was a very very unusual sort of state… Because it was the only state, pretty much, in Asia, that was essentially sovereign… Don’t forget that 1945 meant liberation for lots of European peoples, but for lots of Asian peoples – Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaya, wherever you want to name – they basically went back into European colonialism'. This (together with its then-alliance with the United States) gave the Republic of China a front row seat in the creation of the United Nations and, before then, the League of Nations.
It didn't take long for Communist China to start building links with the rest of the world, either. Mao 'had not spent decades fighting out in the caves and fields of China to simply become a plaything of Stalin’, Rana points out, making its multilateral relations outside of the alliance with the USSR vitally important. After it split with Moscow, and before the rapprochement with the US, the Sixties was a time of unwanted isolationism, ' which is well within living memory of many of the top leaders', says Rana, adding more to its present day desire to have as much sway as possible in the world, which still comes through international organisations.
Finally, my guests bust the myth – often propagated by Beijing – that China had no role in the writing of today's international laws, pointing out that Chinese and other non-western thinkers played a major role in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . What's more, do western ideas have no place in guiding and governing China? After all, Karl Marx was certainly not Chinese, and that doesn't seem to bother his Chinese Communist believers.
‘One Shanghai courier uses own 70,000 yuan to buy necessities for people’, one Weibo hashtag trended last week. Instead of being seen as a damning indictment on what the state’s strict lockdown has induced people to do, the courier was lauded as a community hero and the story promoted by the censored platform. These kuaidi xiaoge (‘delivery bros’) are most likely gig economy workers. The industry was already an integral part to the Chinese urbanite’s life before the pandemic, but Covid has consolidated that role, as low-paid and hardworking gig economy drivers literally became critical to the survival of millions.
The Chinese gig economy is in many ways more advanced. The services are more extensive (grocery shopping and even designated drivers – a stranger to drive your car home on drinking nights – have been the norm for years) and the algorithms are more ruthless (closely monitoring and continuously shaving off delivery times. ‘The pandemic really brought the plight of these workers into the mainstream consciousness for the first time’, Viola Rothschild, my guest on this episode, tells me.
She is a PhD candidate at Duke University, and one of the few people – academics and journalists alike – who have looked into the Chinese gig economy. I’ve known Viola for years – we first met when we read for a masters in contemporary Chinese studies together.
On the episode, we discuss what working conditions are like (she recommends this article), the interactions between the state and the private sector (the largest players in the field are Alibaba and Didi Chuxing, both companies that have been penalised by the Chinese government in recent years), and what the pandemic – and particularly the Shanghai lockdown – has done to workers. We discuss the government’s efforts to improve working environments, but Viola tells me:
‘What workers get through unionisation is really about what the state wants to give them, if their goals align with the state’s at any given time in terms of pressuring these companies. This is especially thrown into clear relief when we see how the state treats workers who try to organise outside of this apparatus’
By that, Viola is referring to the kuaidi xiaoge who’ve been arrested for organising their own unions – it’s still deeply ironic that the most successful purportedly Marxist state in the world today is deeply suspicious of workers creating their own unions.
But fundamentally, as I push back at Viola, the problem is not only the private companies or the communist state, but also the consumers who demand faster and cheaper services. In that, ‘I think that the Chinese gig economy has a tonne in common with its American and British, and worldwide, counterparts’, Viola says. I totally agree.
After defeat in the Second Opium War, Chinese intellectuals wracked their minds for how the Chinese nation can survive in the new industrialised world. It’s a topic that has been discussed on this podcast before – listeners may remember the episode with Bill Hayton, author of The Invention of China, where we discussed the reformers and revolutionaries like Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei. But for some reformers, the problem with China wasn’t just feudal politics or Confucian staleness, but its ancient language.
Spoken Chinese could be any of a vast number of regional dialects which were too often mutually unintelligible. Meanwhile, written Chinese was extremely complicated, not helping the rock bottom literacy rates of the common people (30 per cent for men and 2 per cent for women). Literary and official writing were also uniformly written in 'classical Chinese', a concise poetic form of the language which was not the way that people spoke (the vernacular). The difference can be thought of as the difference between Latin and English pre-Reformation. Of even more concern was the fact that Chinese wasn’t easily adaptable to the new communication technologies that were revolutionising the world at the time, like telegraphy and typewriters (above, a picture of a 1986 model of the Chinese typewriter). These western-invented methods were based on alphabetic languages – which Chinese simply isn't.
Earlier this year, I reviewed Kingdom of Characters, the new book from Jing Tsu, who is Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale. Jing’s book is an excellent account of the efforts to simplify, modernise and adapt this ancient language from Chinese and westerners alike. She joins me on this episode to talk through all of the problems outlined briefly here, and how a series of reformers, politicians and linguists throughout the 20th century tried to resolve these problems – sometimes with solutions nothing short of extraordinary. Of her mission, Jing says: 'I wanted to put a western reader in the shoes of these adorable, curmudgeonly, hard to take but utterly human Chinese characters'.
We discuss the different upbringings we had – me in the People's Republic of China and Jing in the Republic of China (Taiwan) – and how that impacts our relationship to the traditional and simplified versions of the Chinese script and how important that script is to the Chinese national identity. We talk about the incredible and often positive influence westerners had on this language revolution (a narrative to do with that century of humiliation I didn't hear much about in a traditional Chinese upbringing). And explore whether Chinese could ever be the lingua franca that English is.
Taiwan is not Ukraine. But despite the very important differences in their situations, the Russian invasion can still shed much light on Taiwan's future. Even many Taiwanese think so – and have followed the developments closely, with solidarity marches held for Ukraine, protests at the Russian embassy and the Ukrainian flag lighting up Taiwanese buildings.
On this episode of Chinese Whispers, my guests and I discuss the mainstream take on Ukraine (and also the not so mainstream – such as the view that America can't be relied upon, given it hasn't despatched troops to Ukraine). I'm joined by Brian Hioe, editor of New Bloom, an online magazine covering youth culture and politics in Taiwan, and Professor Kerry Brown from Kings College London, author of The Trouble with Taiwan.
We give a primer on Taiwanese politics – what does the thriving democracy look like? How are elections held, and what are the major political parties? We discuss how China – instead of particular social or economic issues – is the main political topic dividing the left and the right (the 'Greens' and the 'Blues'), and whether, with mainstream Taiwanese opinion becoming ever hawkish on China in the aftermath of the Hong Kong National Security Law, the more pro-China forces in Taiwanese politics, such as the Kuomintang, really have a future in the country (Kerry says: ‘I don’t think the KMT can be written off.')
In a crowded continent, there are also other power-brokers. We talk about the influence of America, and where Japan – Taiwan's erstwhile coloniser – fits in with all this. There have been calls for Japan to be more heavily armed in order to deter a Chinese invasion. How would the Taiwanese feel about that? Brian tells me:
‘Views of Japan differ sharply between the pan-green and the pan-blue camp. For the KMT, they remember a lot of the Sino-Japanese war and the crimes committed by the Japanese from that period. But for the pan-greens, who are sometimes descended from those that were in Taiwan for the Japanese colonial period, [remember] the period as a time of higher living standards and improved education, and in which Taiwan is being brought up as a colony rather than these political killings and mass violence, etc. They have a much more romanticised views of a Japanese colonial period.’In the end, economics may supersede politics. If President Tsai Ing-wen can't deliver on the economy given her tough stance on China (which is still Taiwan's biggest trading partner), then domestic politics may be in for another shakeup. As Kerry says: ‘It’s the issue that we all wrestle with. Their biggest economic partner is also their biggest security threat’.
Additional listening: do tune in to a previous episode with Professor Rana Mitter, if you need a primer on why exactly Taiwan's history means that it is in this position and how the shared language and culture with the People's Republic of China came about
This episode of Chinese Whispers is slightly different – instead of taking a look at a theme within China, my guest and I will be seeing China through the eyes of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Professor Craig Clunas, chair of art history at Oxford University, has curated a new exhibition at London’s Freud Museum, which displays Freud’s collection of Chinese antiquities. On this episode, I talk to Craig about what these pieces – jades and figurines – meant to Freud, especially in the context of 20th century Europe, where there was appreciation of Chinese art but, as we discuss, not quite the matching level of knowledge. We’ll also chat about the reception of Freud’s theories in China, especially given the country’s turbulent intellectual history since the May Fourth Movement a hundred years ago. Craig sums up the love affair between Freud and China nicely:
‘Just like Freud is using his Chinese things to think with, Chinese thinkers are using Freud to think with.’
The exhibition itself is small but fascinating, and runs until 26 June.
As mentioned in the episode, here is the link to a previous edition of Chinese Whispers with Rana Mitter, for those who want to hear more about China since the May Fourth Movement: https://www.spectator.co.uk/podcast/china-s-long-history-of-student-protests.
China’s population is ageing. It’s estimated that a quarter of Chinese people will be elderly within three decades. The relaxing of its one child policy – first to two children in 2016 and then to three last year – hasn’t stimulated fertility rate, which is still stagnant at 1.7 births per woman. In November last year, nappy producers supposedly pivoted their marketing towards elderly clients over parents of babies.
Demographers and economists warn about the problems that an ageing – and eventually shrinking – population will cause, in China and elsewhere. On this episode, I speak to the demographer Wang Feng, Professor of Sociology at University of California, Irvine, about what awaits China. For Professor Wang, care of the elderly will soon become an issue, with more than 365 million over 65s expected by 2050. The Chinese welfare state is minimal (ironic given its socialist pretensions), something of a ‘postcode lottery’, I put to Professor Wang. He says that ‘China has already missed the time window for establishing an equitable national social security system’ – it has already become too expensive, too fast.
We also discuss the one child policy at length – its logic at the time, whether Communist leaders foresaw the problems it would cause for their successors and, fascinatingly, whether there was any opposition within the Chinese Communist Party to the policy (the answer is yes – and if you caught my episode on the legacy of Deng Xiaoping, you will not be surprised to learn that the resistance was led by Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang). Professor Wang points out that one of the reasons why the policy took so long to go even as China liberalised relatively in the 1990s and 2000s, under the helm of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao:
‘They were people who grew up, like myself, at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Their knowledge of population was all learned from the time when China implemented the one child policy, when there was so much propaganda about how population would be the root of all problems for China. I think that generation of leaders were deeply intoxicated by these teachings’In a way, there’s poetic justice for a government who thought that, in Professor Wang’s words, ‘you can just plan [births] and constrain them as you would grow trees or wheat’. Today’s China, regardless of the loosening of the one child policy (to two in 2016; and three last year, which I wrote about at the time), is just not having babies. For the Professor, there’s a fundamental truth: ‘The ageing society is not something that China, or any other country, can reverse’. The crux lies in how to adapt society to be better prepared – fixing the welfare state, the healthcare system, and maturing the financial system so the ageing population can invest for retirement.
In 2008, President George Bush was the star guest at Beijing’s opening ceremony. Fourteen years later, under a cloud of diplomatic boycotts led by the US, the guest of honour spot was filled instead by President Putin. Under a confluence of factors over the last decade, China and Russia are closer now than they have been since the Cold War.
On this episode of Chinese Whispers, I talk to Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, about how this situation came about. If the beginning of the end of the Cold War can be traced back to the Sino-Soviet split – allowing a bipolar world to be split into three when China began rapprochement with Nixon’s America – then what does today’s alliance mean at this moment in geopolitics?
For Alex, there were three reasons why China and Russia have got closer. China’s hunger for oil and gas makes Russia a much-needed new trading partner (and vice versa). The two were able to fudge territorial disputes along the 3000 mile border they share (Alex points out to me that Russia has only been able to amass troops on the Ukrainian border because their military presence on the Sino-Russian border is the lightest it has been for a century). They share similar political cultures - strongman-ship supported by powerful and corrupt oligarchs and a nationalistic society - and similar national leaders (‘for the first time after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we have two leaders that are age mates and soul mates’).
‘The secret sauce’ that binds the collaboration together, according to Alex, is the US’s increasing confrontation with both. What we see from Washington today is a reverse Kissinger - where the two authoritarian countries are being pushed closer together by an increasingly hawkish America. Take Nord Stream 2 - any weaning off of the German market from Russian gas will simply make the Chinese market even more important for Moscow. But it’s not clear that the West has many alternatives.
Getting closer to China is not necessarily a good thing for Russia, either. For one, the relationship is unbalanced. In a reversal of Cold War dynamics, the size of China’s high value economy today means that Chinese business matters more to Moscow than Russian to Beijing. ‘Ten, fifteen years down the road,’ Alex says, ‘China will have more leverage’. Could a more powerful China try to bully its weaker ally in commercial and security spheres? Possibly, but the die may already have been cast: ‘unfortunately, the sources of grievances and conflict between Russia and the US run so deep [that] the Russian leadership is so emotionally invested that there is no easy way out.’
On this episode we also discuss the malleability of national memory (Russian aggression during the 19th century often flies under the radar of Chinese nationalists), in what ways China’s relations with the US are still better than with Russia and exactly how China could react to any transgression on the Ukrainian border. Tune in.
All political parties have weaknesses for jargon and buzzwords, and the Chinese Communist Party more than most. It's why Party documents – whether they be speeches, Resolutions or reports – can be hard going. Sentences like the following (from the Resolution adopted at the Sixth Plenum) abound:
‘All Party members should uphold historical materialism and adopt a rational outlook on the Party’s history.’
‘We need to strengthen our consciousness of the need to maintain political integrity, think in big-picture terms, follow the leadership core, and keep in alignment with the central Party leadership’
In other words, full of platitudes and dense Marxist terminology.
So what is, then, the purpose of official Party documents? Can they ever reveal division within the Party, or say anything new at all? And throughout the fusty rhetoric, who is the audience, who are these words designed for?
On this episode, I’m joined by two guests expert at reading the Communist tea leaves. In this wide ranging – and slightly longer than usual – Chinese Whispers, we discuss the power of political language and how the Chinese Communist Party makes the most of it, why it’s important to control the historical narrative, and exactly what, if anything, does Xi Jinping Thought entail.
My guests are Professor Rana Mitter, a historian of China at the University of Oxford and author of numerous books, the latest being China’s Good War; and Bill Bishop, who curates the newsletter Sinocism. Bill’s newsletter is a must-have round up of the most important political and economic China news, in your inbox four times a week. Very much worth every penny, and frequently featuring translated Party documents and Chinese articles.
To continue the conversation, we also mention a couple of past episodes of Chinese Whispers:
I interview the exiled Professor Sun Peidong about the witch hunt against her at a top Shanghai University: https://www.spectator.co.uk/podcast/healing-the-cancer-of-the-cultural-revolution.
I discuss just why Taiwan is so important to China with Rana and analyst Jessica Drun: https://www.spectator.co.uk/podcast/why-does-china-care-about-taiwan-.
You can also find my review of Jing Tsu's Kingdom of Characters here: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-great-chinese-puzzle-how-to-adapt-the-language-to-modern-communication-technologies.
'If table tennis set the stage for China’s international diplomacy, then volleyball rebuilt the nation’s confidence', ran one article in the People's Daily around the time of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Sports has had a long political history in China, my guest in this week's Chinese Whispers tells me. She is Dr Susan Brownell, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri. She has been in and out of China since the 1980s, when she went to Peking University as a student and ended up represented the institution as a track runner.
On this episode, I'm keen to find out why exactly China cares about the Olympics just so much. And it certainly does – Susan and I reminisce about 2008, when China spent $100 million on a four-hour long opening ceremony and $7 billion on the whole Games. Working in Beijing that year, Susan saw, firsthand, the excitement that local officials and people put into the preparations ('There were huge programmes to teach English to everybody, especially in Beijing. You know, the old ladies and the taxi drivers'), but also the fear and intensity that came with this – 'all the government officials involved in the effort were just kind of quaking'.
The reason for all this – and the reason why a snub at the imminent Winter Olympics, as numerous countries around the world announce boycotts, will be remembered by China – is because sports has long been political. In the ping pong diplomacy of the 1970s, games played between Chinese and American teams allowed Nixon's America and Mao's China to get closer to each other. In the five women's volleyball team world victories of the 1980s, China was able to find a new source of national pride, as its people tried to recover from the wounds of the Cultural Revolution. In 2008, seven years after accession to the WTO and at a time when a more liberal China could still be imagined, the Summer Olympics provided a chance to show the world what 21st century China was all about. 'It was China's coming out party', Susan says.
To be sure, this Olympics matters less – winter Olympics always do, and after all, China has 'already emerged as a superpower'. But even so, it will have a political dimension – just see how China eagerly invited President Putin last year.
On the episode, we also make a brief digression into the demolitions that happened in Beijing – leading to headlines in the New York Times like 'Olympics Imperil Historic Beijing Neighborhood'. Susan corrects media reports and says that, in fact, in the areas reconstructed for the Games, it was mainly small shops not residences that were destroyed. She befriended one man who was dislocated from his mechanical repair shop there and became a taxi driver because of the Olympics, and I recall a 'demolition era', where China's rapid growth meant the words chaiqian (demolish and relocate) were commonly marked on old buildings across Chinese cities. But tune in to hear how some ingenious Chinese – including members of my own family – welcomed the destruction of their property as it allowed them to game the system of government compensation.