48 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
    • 4.9 • 52 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.

    How powerful is the People's Liberation Army?

    How powerful is the People's Liberation Army?

    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.

    • 42 min
    Does China want to change the international rules-based order?

    Does China want to change the international rules-based order?

    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.

    • 35 min
    Algorithms and lockdowns: how China's gig economy works

    Algorithms and lockdowns: how China's gig economy works

    ‘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. 

    • 41 min
    Reinventing the Chinese language

    Reinventing the Chinese language

    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.

    • 45 min
    The Taiwanese view on Ukraine

    The Taiwanese view on Ukraine

    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

    • 35 min
    Freud and China: a love affair

    Freud and China: a love affair

    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.

    • 40 min

Customer Reviews

4.9 out of 5
52 Ratings

52 Ratings

Blaithin2022 ,

Super Podcast

Really informative!

Jakdec22 ,

Fascinating, articulate and memorable

I learn more from eavesdropping on these 30 minute discussions than in even the better 600- page books! Brava and thank you.

Lynn-Willow ,

The best Podcast on China-related topics

I’ve always felt very frustrated by the mainstream coverage on China, whether it be from western media or Chinese state-sponsored media.

This podcast has simply been a breath of fresh air for me with its nuanced perspectives on China. Cindy and her guests do an excellent job in explaining and breaking down China related topics and putting them into appropriate context. I felt that I have learned so much about Chinese society, politics, and culture.

Kudos and keep up the great work!

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