62 episodes

A fortnightly podcast from the Spectator on the latest in Chinese politics, society, and more. From Huawei to Hong Kong, Cindy Yu talks to experts, journalists, and long time China-watchers on what you need to know about China.

Chinese Whispers The Spectator

    • News
    • 4.6 • 25 Ratings

A fortnightly podcast from the Spectator on the latest in Chinese politics, society, and more. From Huawei to Hong Kong, Cindy Yu talks to experts, journalists, and long time China-watchers on what you need to know about China.

    Echoes of 1989: where the protests go next

    Echoes of 1989: where the protests go next

    Comparisons with 1989’s Tiananmen Square protests are too often evoked when it comes to talking about civil disobedience in China. Even so, this weekend’s protests have been historic. It’s the first time since the zero Covid policy started that people across the country have simultaneously marched against the government, their fury catalysed by the deaths of ten people in a locked down high rise building in Xinjiang. Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, Xi’An, Urumqi, Nanjing (my home city) have all seen protests over the weekend. Most of them attack the zero Covid policy, but some have called out ‘Down with Xi Jinping’.

    After two days of protests, these cities, especially Shanghai, now see heavy police presence, with the authorities searching phones of any seeming troublemakers. This weekend’s burst of free speech may already have been snuffed out. Can the protestors sustain their momentum given the tight grip of the state? 

    I'm joined by Professor Jeff Wasserstrom at UC Irvine, an expert on protests in the mainland and Hong Kong, and Isabel Hilton, a long time China watcher and founder of China Dialogue.

    • 40 min
    Second class citizens: the lives of China's internal migrants

    Second class citizens: the lives of China's internal migrants

    When the city of Zhengzhou, home to the world’s largest iPhone factory, locked down recently, some of its factory workers had nowhere to go. Hoping to escape Covid restrictions, many of them walked miles along motorways to their hometowns, their journey captured by video and shared on social media in China and out.

    This episode is all about China’s migrant working class – poorly paid and often poorly educated people from the countryside who go to cities like Zhengzhou for better lives. There are hundreds of millions of these so-called ‘internal migrants’, making their story an important part to understand if you want to understand modern China.

    Even now, 'on average urban residents are making at least more than 2.5 times the income as the average rural resident', Professor Cindy Fan tells me on this episode. She's an expert on Chinese migration and population patterns at UCLA. Most commonly, migrants will send their earnings back to home villages and towns, where they have left behind family members. Often, children are being looked after by grandparents while the parents are earning away from home.

    Cindy and I discuss the role played by these migrants – often unwelcomed in the cities but vital for urban areas to develop, grow and function. We go deep into the hukou system – household registration – that gives urban residents rights and privileges that migrant workers cannot access, making them second class citizens. But ultimately, as the Chinese are wont to do, many migrant workers make the system work for them. They don't necessarily want to swallow urban life wholesale:




    'Rural migrants are pretty smart... Yes they are victims… but at the same time, they are also weighing their options, they’re also strategising. They’re not just passive.'

    • 40 min
    Reflections on the 20th Party Congress: how Xi took complete control

    Reflections on the 20th Party Congress: how Xi took complete control

    This week Xi Jinping has taken his new Politburo Standing Committee on a group trip – to Yan’An, the base of Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution after the Long March. The symbolism is easy to see.

    On this episode of Chinese Whispers, Bill Bishop, author of the popular Sinocism newsletter, and Professor Victor Shih, author of Coalitions of the Weak, have returned to reflect on the Party Congress just past. It's been a more dramatic event than many (inside and outside the party) expected, starting with a brave, lone protestor hanging a 42-character banner off a popular bridge in Beijing, lambasting the authoritarian regime; and ending with the forcible removal of former general secretary Hu Jintao in front of the world's media.

    At the congress itself Xi overturned decades-long norms dictating the top leadership of the party – age no longer seems to necessitate retirement, while the Politburo has not a single woman. Above all, Xi has started his third term as general secretary with a loyal cabal of men around him. Did he not want more competent people in the top jobs? 'Loyalty is merit', Bill suggests.

    What does this mean for China, and the world? Victor makes the point that Xi is putting the pieces in place to push through unpopular decisions – for example, an invasion of Taiwan. 'If you think about it, why would you want people whom you trust absolutely to fill every single position? Because even Chairman Mao didn’t do this'. It also means that as Xi becomes more truly dictatorial, the West needs to engage with him more, not less. 




    We just don’t know the kind of information about the US, about other countries, that are landing on Xi Jinping’s desk. And this information can be incredibly distorted. So if anything, just presenting an alternative view of how the world works could be helpful. He may not believe you… but if you’re able to look him in the eye and tell him something, at least he’ll be forced to think about it.As for the party itself, the three of us digest the Hu Jintao incident. Regardless of what you think happened, one thing is for sure – it was a deep and utter humiliation for Hu, especially given China's deep-set Confucian respect for elders. The idea that there is any organised CCP opposition against Xi has been put to bed.

    • 32 min
    Censorship and sexuality: being gay in China

    Censorship and sexuality: being gay in China

    I recently caught a rare viewing of a 2001 Chinese film, Lan Yu. It tells the story of two gay men falling in love and finding domestic life throughout the reform and opening years of China. The filmmakers never bothered to apply for approval from the censors, knowing that its homosexual storyline would never make it past the moralistic Communist censors.


    On this episode, I take a look at the place of homosexuality in the traditional Chinese mindset and under these years of Communism. My guests are Zhang Yongning, the producer of Lan Yu, and Liu Yiling, a a writer covering Chinese society, technology and internet culture who has written about the the dating apps that millennial gay men now use. We discuss the homosexuality rooted in traditional Chinese literature, like Dreams of the Red Chamber, balanced against the Confucian need to procreate and pass on lineage. It turns out that, much like ancient Greece, the problem wasn’t so much the gay sex so long as you still set up families and had children, Yongning says.


    With the influx of Christianity through missionaries, there took on a ‘pathological’ view of homosexuality, more akin to the western homophobia, says Yiling.


    When it comes to political attitudes, Yiling makes the astute point that ‘Chinese history has always moved in patterns of fang shou (open and close)’. Under Communism, you might expect the kind of restrictive attitudes towards divergent lifestyles, but much of this had moved in more liberal ways since reform and opening, forming the backdrop to Lan Yu’s story. Yet the sticking point is always whether these minority groups ask for political or civil rights. Unlike feminists under the MeToo movement which has been shut down by the government, gays haven’t united politically. ‘If they start asking for rights, then they will be in huge trouble’, Yongning says.


    We don’t get much time to talk about other LGBT communities, but I’ll certainly come back to those in future episodes.

    If you enjoy this podcast, you can now register your interest for an upcoming Chinese Whispers newsletter, at www.spectator.co.uk/whispers. It'll be everything you love about the podcast.

    • 30 min
    Succession and power: a look ahead to the 20th Party Congress

    Succession and power: a look ahead to the 20th Party Congress

    Every five years, Beijing goes into heightened security as senior members of the Chinese Communist Party gather. The National Party Congress is an occasion for the party to review its track record and determine its future direction, but most crucially, it’s a moment to unveil future leaders.

    Older members of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee are retired while fresh blood is brought in, including at the very top – the General Secretary. Under a norm set down by Deng Xiaoping, this General Secretary is meant to be changed every other congress – in other words, every ten years. But at this upcoming Congress, most China watchers expect Xi Jinping to remain in position, beginning his third term in power.

    So to look ahead to this important event in the Communist calendar, in this episode Cindy Yu speaks to  author of the Sinocism newsletter Bill Bishop and Professor Victor Shih, expert in Chinese elite politics and author of the new book Coalitions of the Weak. They discuss the possibility that Xi will be officially titled 'The People's Leader', that a senior Communist official, recently sentenced to death, may have been wiretapping the President (and what this means for his control of the party) and just how much the Politburo Standing Committee could be packed with Xi allies (Victor observes that a 'brilliant political move' by the President has so far been to put his enemies in difficult positions so as to erode their credibility, for example putting the relatively more liberal Wang Yang in charge of Xinjiang policy).

    But whatever happens, what we won't see in this congress is a successor. Xi is here to stay, and who would want to be appointed successor anyway? 'It's basically putting a large target on your back and your front', Bill says.

    Tune in for a detailed primer looking ahead to this monumental event in the CCP calendar.

    If you enjoy this podcast, you can now register your interest for an upcoming Chinese Whispers newsletter, at www.spectator.co.uk/whispers. It'll be everything you love about the podcast.

    • 58 min
    History and belonging: life in a Chinese mega-city

    History and belonging: life in a Chinese mega-city

    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.

    • 36 min

Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5
25 Ratings

25 Ratings

Roewen W ,

Great show

Just the right level of assumed knowledge. Great variety of subject matter. Cindy Yu’s occasional personal reflections are nicely judged

luv abc ,

Happy listening

Nice lighter style of conversation that also is very educational, doesn’t take itself too seriously and levels western misunderstandings. Cindy’s style and ability to let her guests talk openly is very good and makes for informative listening.

Foot forward ,

Sets a podcasting standard

Growth in the genre has produced uneven offerings. Cindy Yu by contrast presents a reliably interesting and informative show in an interview format. Chinese, Western ( and Spectator) viewpoints are all competently embraced.

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