‘Asiatics,’ ‘Orientals,’ and the origins of COVID-19

Society & Culture

COVID origins theories, from the "wet market" to the “lab leak,” illustrate how an old racial form gave way to a new one that reflects anxiety over Asians as hyperproductive, robotic, and technologically advanced.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Andrew Liu:

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to The Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily newly designed China Access Newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China, from hundreds of different news sources, or check out all the original writing on our website at supchina.com. We’ve got reported stories, essays, and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and of course, a growing library of podcasts.

We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region, to China’s ambitious plans to shift its economy onto a post-carbon footing. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Today, I’m pleased to welcome Andrew Liu, assistant professor of history at Villanova University in Philadelphia. Andy is the author of Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China, and publishes some excellent essays in n+1, a thrice yearly magazine that focuses on literature, culture, and politics. And it’s because of one of those essays in n+1, an essay titled Lab-Leak Theory and the Asiatic Form, that I’ve asked Andy to join me today. It’s an arresting piece, and one that, for me at least, caused the scales to kind of fall away from my eyes as it were. It made the pieces suddenly fit. So, Andy, welcome to Sinica.

Andrew Liu: Yeah, thanks a lot for inviting me. I look forward to it.

Kaiser: So, to you listeners, this is the sort of conversation that I think is gonna benefit from you having actually read the essay. It’s not very long. And since you’ve already entered listening mode, perhaps instead of going to nplusonemag.com, that’s the letter “n” plus O-N-E mag.com, and searching for the piece, or clicking the link in your show description, you can actually just hop over to the China Stories podcast and listen to Andy himself reading it there. So, go ahead and hit pause, and we’ll still be here when you get back.

All right. We’re back. Andy, at its heart, this piece is about why one representation, one stereotype about east Asia and maybe more specifically about China came to be supplanted by another one. I think you found an excellent illustration of this that’s just been happening in real time right before our eyes. We’ve watched it happen just in the last couple of years during this pandemic: the way that the dominant explanation of the origins of COVID-19 shifted from the zoonotic origin, or really in its crass early form, the wet market theory to the so-called lab leak theory.

Now, to be sure, this shift hasn’t happened among scientists, though the lab leak theory has made some inroads, even among people who are scientifically trained, but it is certainly now dominant in the public mind. I should add this essay of yours, just to caveat, it isn’t about which of these theories is correct or true or what you actually believe, but rather about why one came to dominate over the other one. So, in a nutshell, what are these two modes of thinking about East Asia?

Andy: Maybe to back up and explain the essay a little bit, it was kind of a sequel to an essay I wrote last year about wet market, the wet market theory. I wrote it at the very beginning of the pandemic when everyone was debating, where did this come from? The idea of wet market was circulating. And a lot of people, not just me, were kind of pushing back on this. My answer to this idea that COVID was a byproduct of Chinese culture and tradition, which is kind of the argument I make in everything I write is that what you call a Chinese culture and tradition is actually this byproduct of global forces and capitalism and so on.

So, I was kind of writing an update. This essay is kind of an update to that essay written in 2021. And at the time, I was realizing that the wet market debate had kind of been settled in the sense that it was no longer okay to talk about it in polite society by 2020, but what had replaced it, almost at an inverse relationship in 2021, was the lab leak theory, right? And Nicholas Wade, former New York Times journalist, put it back in public last spring. That theory argues that it wasn’t an accident from wild endangered species in the Huanan Seafood Market. It was a leak from a Chinese laboratory.

The argument in the essay is like, well, these are both forms…you could argue these are both forms of racism, right? They’re both scapegoating China for this global pandemic. I think that’s the general mainstream consensus that especially Asian-American groups would say, like, “These are just racist theories, Trump scapegoating Asia and Asian-Americans.” But I think the question that raises though is like, well, these are very different theories. And if you’re just gonna say, “These are just racism,” that doesn’t explain why wet market became labeled a racist theory and was kind of forbidden from being talked about in 2020.

But in 2021, as you said, now there is some pushback, but for a lot of 2021, there was a lot of mainstream legitimacy granted to the lab leak theory. The litmus test I give is Jon Stewart talked about the lab leak theory on The Colbert Show. So, that’s like, oh, okay, liberals are located with this theory, all of a sudden. The basic premises of the essay is I was drawing on this distinction that I found. It’s in a lot of the literature on Asia and Asian-American literature, but Colleen Lye at Berkeley, kind of put it really pithily by saying, we’re kind of familiar with this idea of Orientalism that Edward Said made popular with post-colonial theory studies, but to specifically talk about the U.S. relationship with East Asia and Chinese and Japanese workers all the way to the 21st century, there’s a different kind of racial stereotype that she calls Asiaticism, like the “Asiatic,” which I’m not exactly sure like the origins of the distinction between those categories.

But Asiatic tends to be the term that emerged a lot when discussing, for instance, like Chinese labor in California, or Japanese labor in the west coast. So, Asiatic becomes a little bit, takes on a slightly different connotation than Oriental or Asian. And the difference is, we can dig into the Saidian version a little bit more if you want, but I think-

Kaiser: Yeah, let’s do that. Let’s do that. Let’s actually talk about it because I think, I mean, most of us will have read Said in college, or whatever. But in a nutshell, what did he say, and where was this Orient that he was talking about?

Andy: Yeah. So, Said writes in the ‘70s, this book that basically invents post-colonial theory, one of the most influential books in the last few decades, called Orientalism, about sort of Western ideas about the Orient. And if you look into it more specifically, he’s really talking about France and Britain dominating the Islamic world or South Asia, Middle East, parts of north Africa like Egypt. So, but the idea of Orientalism, this idea like a Western sort of condescending view towards the East, it’s such a seductive and all-encompassing category that I think a lot of people latched onto it and would cite Said or cite postcolonial theory to talk about, basically prejudiced, biased, racist views of all sorts of parts of the world, right? So, naturally, I don’t know if you had this experience taking classes on East Asian studies, right? When I was a student in the 2000s, admittedly, I was at Columbia where Said was teaching. I was assigned to Orientalism every class I took – East Asian studies, South Asian studies, Asian American literature. And the assumption was this is about Oriental people, and we’re gonna talk about racial stereotypes, and there’s nothing better to read than Edward Said.

Obviously, I find there’s a lot valuable in Said, but I don’t know if you had this experience. But when you read Said, and then you’re like trying to think about China or trying to think about East Asia, you’re a little bit like, “But Said doesn’t say anything really about China or Japan?” And he doesn’t have to, right? He’s really concerned about sort of racism against Muslim people in the Middle East. So, it’s not his burden necessarily to explain the whole world.

Kaiser: Right. That’s true.

Andy: But there is a bit of a mismatch between citing Orientalism, and then just assuming there’s a smooth applicability to understanding the history of Asia or East Asia, let’s say.

Kaiser: I suppose it’s obvious enough, but maybe we should talk specifically about how the whole discourse around wet markets and that zoonotic origin, the alleged eating of bats and that sort of thing. And that was actually one thing that happened to a niece of mine, in Berkeley of all places. She was standing out on a street corner when somebody rode by her on a bicycle and shouted “bat eater” at her.

Andy: Yeah. Totally.

Kaiser: What was it about this that sort of fits into this Orientalist frame, this Saidian Orientalist frame?

Andy: Yeah. So I think, for Said, Orientalism is this premise that the East is the opposite of the West. And if the West embodies values like individualism, ultimately, technological innovation, creativity, sort of I don’t know, like boldness of action. I don’t know if that’s the right description. The East represented the opposite, like a sort of slavish mentality to a collective, sort of submission to an Oriental despot, like an emperor in Asia. And above all, like, instead of believing in science, and technology, and these things that have liberated the west, Asians are stuck in tradition and superstition.

And so, the wet market theory was premised on this idea that there are these animals that shouldn’t be brought into human society and should definitely not be sold in a sort of unsanitary, unhygienic place, like a wet market.

Kaiser: Sure.

Andy: And the examples, and this is all based on I think the actual research that went into, like where did SARS come from? It came from, I think civet cats, like wild animals that shouldn’t have been sold in Guangdong, then leading to Hong Kong, right? So, the theory was these are animals that do not belong in human society, but because of Chinese, maybe traditional medicine or traditional superstition, they eat animals like pangolins, which are on the endangered species list.

So, even though science and the civilized world knows you shouldn’t eat this stuff, you should eat like industrial agriculture I guess instead, Chinese people persist in eating things they shouldn’t be eating. That was sort of the Orientalist streak there. Again, everyone pointed this out at the time. And that’s why, by the middle of 2020, people stopped talking about it because they kind of knew it was politically incorrect, even if they believed it.

Kaiser: But this Asia that we face today, this Asia, the China specifically of high-speed rail networks and quantum computing and AI supremacy, it obviously doesn’t fit into this old Orientalist conception. So, there’s this other idea of East Asia, which is this Asiatic racial form. And, as you said, it was put forward by Colleen Lye. That was in a book that she wrote in 2004. I have not actually read it called America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945. Can you, can you briefly talk about what attributes people give to this form, but what do they impute to the Asiatic?

Andy: Yeah. For Colleen, I think the pithy way she put it was Asians, so either immigrants or people in Asia, are characterized or distinguished by excessive economic efficiency. If you think about Orientalism, what it’s really saying is Asia, all Asians are excluded from the sort of march of progress, which is really about, in a lot of ways, the 18th, 19th century economic industrial progress. So, they’re excluded from that.

By contrast, the Asiatic, they’re not just inside the economic market to progress. They’re actually excessive. They’re too obscenely, too efficient, too economic, hyper modern, hyper economic and all that. So, in a lot of ways, it’s like the sort of inversion of the Orientalist stereotype. And if you think about it a little bit more, and maybe you had the same experience, you said it kind of connected dots for you. It connected dots for me as well.

Because you grow up in the U.S., for instance, hearing all sorts of stereotypes about Asian-Americans. And again, you wanna dismiss it as Orientalist or racist, but stereotypes like the model minority that all Asians are good at math and science and so on. And you can say that’s racist and prejudicial, and it is, right? But it’s a different type of stereotype than the stereotype of Said and Orientalism. In fact, it is kind of the opposite. I think, for me, there’s long decades of cognitive dissonance. That again, I think not everyone… Colleen’s not the only one to write about this, but when she put it that way in such stark terms, for me as well, a light bulb went off in my head. I was like, this actually explains a lot and puts together a lot of pieces of the puzzle for me.

Kaiser: So, her book covers this period that ends really with the second World War though. And this is sort of before Japan and then China, or Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and China all emerge as sort of countries of pretty prodigious technological prowess, right?

Andy: Right.

Kaiser: There’s all this stuff in her book, of course, about the model minority myth and about the yellow peril, but she doesn’t get into through our modern times. But before we look at sort of the more recent decades and this new conception of Asia, I think that some of the things that she talks about are already present in earlier encounters with China by the West. So, in the description by witnesses to the Mongol onslaught in the 13th century, in this myth of Prester John, this sort of Asiatic ruler who was a Christian and was gonna fight the Mongols, in the 14th century I guess it was Marco Polo, and his book got really popular in much of the writing about China during the enlightenment.

I wonder whether you think that these two ideas of Asia, the Oriental and the Asiatic forms, do they run in parallel, in a kind of dualism with one kind of ascendant for time and then the other but always both present? Or, for you, are they sequential? Are they serial? I mean, does one give way to the other in our narrative, in like as a dominant narrative?

Andy: Yeah. No, that’s a really good question. That’s something I thought about as I was writing it because obviously for presentation purposes, for a short piece, you just wanna make the distinction clear. So, I think there’s a clear logical distinction, but obviously history and logic are not the same thing. That historically it’s a mixture. I think of the metaphor of a pendulum swinging back and forth or parabola. I don’t know if that’s how you get like two dimensions in there.

Kaiser: All you Asians are good at math.

Andy: Yeah. I just –

Kaiser: What’s a parabola?

Andy: I can’t actually do the formula for it. No, like there’s a book called, you probably know this book, Adam Smith in Beijing by Giovanni Arrighi.

Kaiser: Sure. Yeah.

Andy: He has a whole chapter about Voltaire and Smith, the same people you’re talking about. They really admire China up until the middle of the 1800s, like all Western Europeans basically. I mean, yeah, you could probably trace that tradition to Chinoiserie and Orientalist fascination in the middle of the last millennium by Western Europeans. And, in a lot of ways, it does feel like sometimes time is a flat circle, and we’re kind of coming back to things that were well known, or that were widely believed before the 19, 20th century. And, in a lot of ways you could perhaps provincialize Orientalism and say, “Well, that was a thing,” right?

That the sort of racism against Orientals was a thing, but especially when it comes to China, it was very pronounced. I think, in my classes, I think it really begins with…I don’t know like really reaches a peak with the Sino-Japanese war and the Boxer Uprising, and this idea that China’s barbaric and they’re beheading their own people, and so on. That imagery really lasts, I’d say from… That creates the groundwork for Chinese studies and for a lot of negative stereotypes of China for much of the 20th century.

But we’re entering what? The fourth, fifth decade of Reform and Opening at this point where maybe, for younger people, it’s less taken for granted that China’s a backward country, and that actually, it’s more taken for granted that China’s this scary economic power that’s gonna overtake the West as a power.

Kaiser: Yeah, for sure.

Andy: Right. And it’s a mixture of both, obviously. It’s always a mixture of both, but the question is sort of what is predominant? I think you’ve written about this also, right, in your piece on the technology war between the U.S. and China? But a lot of people have written that some sort of turning point seems to have taken place in the last two decades.

Kaiser: You’d narrow it to, I think, the period between, let’s say, 2015 and 2017. That seems to have been for me a kind of turning point.

Andy: Yeah.

Kaiser: Yeah, I think one of the things that you observed most keenly was you talked about this kind of notionally positive reporting about how countries like South Korea and Japan and Taiwan were handling the pandemic well, and how there was this subtext. Sometimes I think, people even said it out loud, about a more communitarian or a more collectivist society, and they would invoke the Confucian family state hierarchical ordering of society. A lot of people, rightly, I think rolled their eyes at a lot of this.

But I think it needs to be said that there were also a lot of people, including a lot of my Chinese friends, who really did kind of buy into this. It was like Asian values was back, baby!

Andy: Yeah. Totally.

Kaiser: Does this argument, does it fit neatly to you into the Asiatic form thing? I mean, because yeah, there was this Borg collective, cog in the machine cast to it, but there’s also this almost, well, kind of old school Said Orientalist invocation of this hoary Confucian tradition. That seemed to me to be of the other type. So, they’re both kind of present even in that.

Andy: For sure. It’s a mixture. I’d say for, basically the people in the U.S. who would say “We can’t do it like they can because we can’t possibly expect it to curb the freedoms of our people as opposed to Asians who have no freedom to begin with.” That would obviously be like an Orientalist, sort of old-fashioned Orientalist idea. Whereas a lot of people, including myself, was quite admiring of the Asiatic characteristics of Asian thought. Wow, they’re really wearing masks, and they’re really just… And their government’s really taking care of their people and giving them the opportunity to opt out of working until it was safe.

We make fun of these stereotypes, but also, we trade in these stereotypes.

Kaiser: Totally

Andy: I totally accept Asiatic stereotypes all the time. I wanna buy a Japanese car, not an American car, and that kind of thing. Yeah. So, I think there’s definitely an Asiatic aspect to the sort of seemingly neutral reporting on how good Asia was.

Kaiser: I think you put your finger on the thing that I think connects these two modes, these two kind of racial types, which is that unfreedom bit. I mean, you argue, actually in your essay, that the old Sinophobia script doesn’t really account for the change we’ve seen between them. But for me, I feel like it does pivot around this one thing about unfree. I mean, whether we are using the kind of the old Orientalist mode, where they’re all the thralls of the Oriental despot, or whether we go to the Asiatic mode where they’re all like these soulless automatons.

Either way, what they don’t seem to have is individual agency. What they don’t have is freedom. I feel like that… I mean, and that was another thing that was just so present in the whole discussion. You were saying right now, it’s like both Americans and people who were really opposed to the — they always use the word draconian — to the draconian lockdowns.

Andy: Draconian. Yeah.

Kaiser: And my Chinese friends, they would invoke freedom. It’s like, meiguoren tai ziyou (美国人太自由 měiguórén tài zìyóu; Americans are too free). It was like, it was all kind of about freedom. It felt like that was like the thing around which these two… The intersection point between these two.

Andy: Right. Yeah. I mean, I think that’s part of it. I think that this is kind of a point of tension in the analysis, for instance like Colleen Lye’s analysis, which is the Asiatic is on the side of excessive hyper capitalism. Now, there’s still a difference. So, her main example, her first example, and this is the example of Asian-American studies is always Chinese exclusion. And in that case, well, we’re dealing with Chinese workers, so how are they on the side of capital? Well, they’ve become kind of seen as a threat to white workers because they’re slaves to white capitalists, like Vanderbilt and Stanford would use Chinese coolies, right? And so on.

But on the other hand, I think another point she’s making, and another scholar Iyko Day has made this point, that another way that Asiatic stereotypes function is in a way that’s very comparable to antisemitic stereotypes, which is to say that Chinese business, Chinese is itself capital. Like business people or just Chinese capital is the sort of free-floating thing that is… Which is why it’s very compatible with conspiracy theories.

It’s kind of this free-floating thing that you don’t quite see, but is borderless, and fluid, and mobile. So, sometimes I do agree. Asiaticism, it really is about the sort of coolie in either California or in Guangdong making stuff for cheap. But sometimes it’s also that there’s these like mischievous, nefarious, ne-er-do-well Chinese capitalists that are just like the sort of “Jewish conspiracy.” That their problem is that they’re too free, right? That they can’t be checked, that they’re invisible, but they actually pull all the levers between financing and whatever.

Kaiser: Interesting. No, I know. I mean, I remember years ago, my dad who would be like in Costco, and a woman would come up to him and say, “Excuse me, sir, you look like you know something about computers.” And I mean, that was the kind of, what do we call them now? Microaggressions. Yeah, it was kind of what they would call microaggressions.

Andy: Totally. Right. Yeah.

Kaiser: But yeah, I mean, and I would always debate my dad about that. I’d say, “Look, I mean, this is that model minority myth thing. This is that thing, and it’s gonna come back to bite you. He was…

Andy: So, was your dad flattered when he was –

Kaiser: Yeah. So, he was. He was like, “Ha-ha. Yeah, I think that’s very funny. I might find myself saying the same thing. I guess, I would like inherently trust a Chinese man with glasses.” Anyway, pretty funny, but I feel like we see the same things in Chinese stereotypes about Jewish people where they cannot accept that they are, in any way, anti-Semitic when they say, “No, no, no. I mean, Jews are good at handling money, and they’re like us.”

Andy: It’s a compliment. Yeah.

Kaiser: Pretty funny.

Andy: Funny. Yeah. It’s a compliment. I mean, and there’s a lot of documentation of X, Y, Z group around the world being called the Jews of X group. There’s been an analogy that Chinese people are seen as the Jews of Southeast Asia and parts of Southeast Asia where they have historically kind of been in control of finance. There’s groups in India like the Parsis or the Gujarati or the Jews of India.

Kaiser: Sure.

Andy: It’s not just like a culturally specific stereotype. It’s actually a quite common one that has a lot to do with trying to make sense of these chaotic, impossible to understand dynamics of a global economy.

Kaiser: Yeah. I mean, Armenians in that part of the world. I mean, but it’s easy for me to just imagine any kind of well-intentioned liberal, who’s just sure that the image of this technologically robust and kind of science powered and industrious hardworking long term thinking East Asian person is just an unalloyed compliment, as you say, and it couldn’t be construed as racist. Let’s spell out, what are the dangers, what is so wrong with this Asiatic form? It’s not innocuous.

Andy: Right. Yeah. I mean, this gets into a lot of the stuff that I think a lot of Asian-American studies kind of has a lot of hand wringing about, soul searching about this model minority myth. I mean, the main consequence, of course, is that it’s a bit dehumanizing, and it leads to what I think is going on with the lab leak theory stuff. What I did was I kind of dug into literature on the lab leak. There’s all these nice sounding, very technical descriptions of how the lab leak happened.

And they dig further into like, where are the sources coming from? Who are these people making these statements? I think, almost the majority of the people, not the majority, a good amount of people advancing the lab leak are basically national security people who are suspicious of China for what they believe is a bioweapons program.

And they might have a bioweapons program. I don’t know. But a lot of this is basically based on a projection of a sort of a China that they can’t trust. So, China that’s in competition with the United States, a China that actually has plans to dominate and rule the world. And so, obviously if you dehumanize or if you reduce a group to sort of these sort of super abilities and counter pose them to everyone else who’s just like a normal person and is not like the sort of evil and dehumanizing aspects of capitalism, then it leads to a seductive theory that if we just got rid of this one group, or if we, in this case, like ban this group or expel this group, then that would address a lot of the issues.

I mean, the antisemitism analogy is… A lot of what I think this literature is coming from is from a piece of work by Moishe Postone, who argued that like a lot of anti-Semitism in the 20th century was about workers or middle-class people trying to scapegoat Jewish people for all the ills and the vicissitudes of the global economy that would make them rich and then make them poor. And it was like this horrible system. In a lot of ways, it’s… So, that’s what Nazism was about. I’m not trying to like jump to the 10,000th degree of like this all leads to Nazism.

But it is sort of a scapegoat theory where people are trying to make sense of things like, well, the America’s in its fourth decade of economic decline and COVID is this horrible thing that’s doing lots of terrible things to lots of people. And who do we blame for all this? If you attribute this to China, or to Chinese people, right, as the people who are secretly behind closed doors, secretly in control of what’s wrong with the global economy, or they unleashed this thing called COVID to the rest of the world. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how this could have really negative disastrous consequences.

Kaiser: Yeah. I mean, we’re seeing this a lot with even voting machines and things like that. There’s a lot of the right-wing conspiracy stuff that doesn’t stop at Hugo Chavez. It all goes all the way to Beijing.

To me, it almost couldn’t have been better timed, I mean, if you wanted to scapegoat China, I mean, when COVID broke out in China, China was already kind of becoming the villain. We were already in the throes of this trade war of this nasty, kind of cold war in technology. The atrocities in Xinjiang were coming to light. The repression in Hong Kong was sort of at its max. Also, it was very much in the news. And so, there’s like a certain narrative expediency to casting COVID as a Chinese plot.

And you’re absolutely right. I think that there was like a deliberate effort to conflate lab leak theory with biological weapons theories. It was like purposefully smudged by people like Pompeo and people like Matt Pottinger, and working through the people who they had on speed dial on their phones in the Washington press corp. So, yeah, it’s really kind of horrifying.

How specific though, are these ideas to China, or are they applied more broadly to a generic idea of East Asian? Because, I mean, for me, at least I keep hearing echoes of Japan’s rise 40 years ago in a lot of the same stuff.

Andy: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think about Japan a lot in terms of ‘70s, ‘80s Japan, as a prototype, and obviously China and Japan are very different. And there’s gonna be specific versions of it with China, specific versions with Japan. But there’s a very clear tipping point in the ‘70s and ‘80s where Japan is this miracle junior partner of the United States. They make all these great goods for us. They’ve absorbed all the lessons of how great American capitalism is. They didn’t go communists unlike China and North Korea, right?

And then, starting in this time of economic depression in the ‘70s into the ‘80s is when Japan is seen as an enemy. Very famously the murder of Vincent Chin, which was like a mistaken identity attempt to scapegoat Japanese workers for the decline of the Detroit auto industry. And then, I think, the most poetic or the most vulgar way to connect the two is to think about, there’s this famous appearance by Donald Trump on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1988, where he talks about…

She asks him, “Are you gonna run for president?” Donald Trump says, “No, I’m not gonna run for president. But I have a lot of issues with the Japanese and the way that they’re ripping us off, and we need to protect ourselves from the Japanese, and so on.” And if you just replace the word Japan with China, that’s basically every speech he’s given since 2015. There’s other analogies there, like there’s a famous freak-out when Japanese business people bought Rockefeller Plaza in the ‘80s.

And there’s similar freak out when, I forget the name, I wrote about this in a different piece, how a Chinese hotel group wanted to buy a hotel group in the U.S., and CFIUS prevented them from buying it on the same fear that they were gonna take over all property in the U.S. and so on.

Obviously, Japan is what? A fraction of the size of China, and they’re totally different countries and so on. But I think, just to peel back a little bit. The point of the Asiatic racial form is that it is kind of transposable, so, for instance, with a lot of Asian values discussion, both Asian values, but Asian demonization. That could be applied to China, could be applied to Japan, it could be applied to Korea, it could be applied to Singapore depending on just however, wherever it’s kind of expedient to use the stereotype.

But certainly, I think, first Japan, then China is the clear pattern, both in the last few decades, but I think, for Colleen Lye also, if you think about the 19th century, there’s first Chinese labor that was excluded and then it was Japanese labor into World War II that gets scapegoated as the sort of infringement upon white labor and white freedom in the west coast.

Kaiser: Yeah, exactly. Andy, I mean, I’m glad that you kind of fessed up and said that you invoke the Asiatic stereotypes yourself sometimes. Because I always wonder about, I mean, after reading your essay, I was thinking about talks that I’ve given or even things that I’ve written before about technology and tech development in China. And I’ve always talked about how it takes place in a very different kind of social and cultural matrix. It’s produced and it’s consumed in a different way.

There’s a posture toward futurity, a posture toward technology that’s quite different. I mean, the laugh line now used is that we, in the West, are in our Black Mirror phase where China’s still in its Star Trek phase. But I mean, I try to be careful not to ascribe these differences to some kind of inherent quality or culture, or whatever, but instead to just like the more concrete historical experience of, for example, having seen your material life improve pretty much in lockstep with the power and quality of the device you have in your hand.

And there’s also power structures and institutions that create incentives, like China is a really deeply technocratic place. It’s like the way you climb the ladder is you’re really good at math and engineering. But I would still, I mean, even after reading your essay, I’d still feel pretty confident in saying that there are different sets of societal attitudes toward technology toward the future, toward science. I mean, do I need to hang that up now? Do I need to think, oh no, no…

Andy: No.

Kaiser: Okay. Good. Thanks.

Andy: No, sorry. Yeah, no. When you were saying earlier about like, what’s wrong with the Asiatic form? Obviously, there are dangers with it, but I also, my approach to it, and this might just be like the ivory tower approach. It’s not necessarily to moralize about how bad racism is. Like, we know racism is bad, but more just think about trying to explain where it comes from and how racial form is kind of symptomatic of something. It’s kind of like an iceberg where you only see the tip.

The point is not to say, well, that tip doesn’t exist. That’s bad. It’s more like, well, where does that tip come from? Where does that big complex stuff that’s under the surface? For me, what I think is interesting, in addition to saying racism is bad is also to say, well, why are these racial forms or stereotypes, why are they so plausible? As I mentioned, like lab leak theory, the last poll I saw, and this last poll that was taken was December, and 70 percent of the country, of the U.S. believed in lab leak. Majority of Western Europe believed in the lab leak theory.

Kaiser: Wow.

Andy: As you said at the very beginning, like, I don’t know what happened. I kind of think it’s natural. I strongly believe it’s natural transfer, but I’m obviously not a scientist. And what’s so interesting is there isn’t any smoking gun on either side, but the opinions have changed so rapidly. If there’s no smoking gun there, what is there? What there is, I think, a certain what’s the word? Plausibility or resonance between what the stereotype reports to explain and also what people are kind are feeling in their everyday life as the history they’ve experienced in their life.

In the last 30 years, 20 years, if you’re not from China, you have this distinct impression of that place is backwards and traditional to, wow, that place really makes everything that I buy. Everything I read in the newspaper is about how Huawei is gonna put 5G networks into my country, how TikTok might be used to spy on us or something. These are things that I think people…I don’t know. I’m not a psychoanalyst, but I feel like there’s something subconscious going on with the material basis for a lot of these stereotypes.

To get back to your question though, I think you’re right. If it is the case that China has a different attitude towards science and technology in the United States, which I don’t think you can deny, that’s not something we should close our eyes to, but it’s more like we should just avoid explaining it through racial or cultural explanations and just think about, well, how did it come to be this way?

And the science explanation is always so interesting, because again, if you read Chinese history, in the 19th century into 20th century, what was the stereotype about China? They’re really bad at science, they’re really bad at technology, right? This is the Needham question, which we talked about in a previous episode. So, how did it become… It can’t be a cultural explanation why Chinese people are so good at math and science because…

Kaiser: They weren’t not so very long ago. Right?

Andy: Exactly. The stereotype two lifetimes ago was that they’re horrible at math and science. So, this isn’t cultural or natural. This is a product of history, probably state programs, precisely because May 4th intellectuals were so bad at math and science. Precisely because of that, they instituted all these programs to support math and science in a way that the United States used to support, but very obviously doesn’t do very much in my opinion, as much anymore, right?

Kaiser: So, Andy, thank you for absolving me of that. But just as we can talk about China’s scientific prowess or technological prowess without invoking stereotypes, we can also talk about, say the theory of a zoonotic origin without invoking this idea of wet markets, or at least using wet markets in a way that doesn’t exoticize or Orientalize them though. And you can talk about the problem of like trade in rare animals, alongside things like the expansion of human zones of habitation into previously wild areas as being deeply freaking problematic and increasing the risk of zoonotic transmission, animal borne diseases, making the jump to humans.

I think it’s one of the things I really liked about your essay was that it just sort of… it showed that, that is possible. I mean, you modeled that kind of ability to do that without Orientalizing.

Andy: Yeah. I mean, just like a footnote to that. The thing I found out writing the first essay about the wet market is if you look at the pangolin trade, yeah, you could say that it’s a traditional thing that people ate. But also, like the trade in pangolin spiked since the ‘80s, coinciding with all this new wealth in East Asia and China, and mining in Southeast Asia, black markets for pangolin. So, again, pangolin consumption could be seen as a sign of traditional barbarity, but it’s also just a sign of increasing wealth of China, which again is not a sign of China’s pre-modern, pre-capitalist character. It’s a sign of how hyper capitalist and hyper consumerist China is these days.

Kaiser: Yeah. I mean, which takes me back. I mean, that’s really… You’ve come back to it several times now in the course of their conversation here, but really, the nub of your argument is about China and its relationship with global capitalism. Right? I think that’s fascinating. You said something that I think was really pithy and very intriguing in your piece that I’ll read it to you. It says, “What we think of as culture is often just a reflection of a particular place’s relationship or relation to global capitalism.” Now, I mean, there are some people who are gonna say, “Ah, I smell an academic Marxist here. Superstructure is just a…”

But expand on that a bit. What do you mean? And maybe specifically in the case of China, I mean, maybe in the case of China, it’s blindingly obvious how the Chinese condition relates to global capitalism, but for the purposes of this essay specifically, how do you think that our understanding of China in global capitalism helps us understand the prevalence, the ascent, and the eclipse of these different theories about COVID origins? That seems like a bit of a stretch?

Andy: Yeah. I’d have to plead guilty. I guess I smell really badly.

Kaiser: Redolence of academic Marxism.

Andy: I mean, but yeah, this is basically the basis of my argument, which hopefully, people can find persuasive with or without all the footnotes and all the academic jargon. Let me first say like, we tend to use culture in two different ways. And I’m not against all forms of using the word culture. We tend to use culture as the opposite of the economy. I totally get ideas are not the same thing as making and selling goods, but we also tend to use culture as a way to distinguish Chinese versus Japanese versus American culture. And that is what I am taking aim at.

There’s a tradition, a very useful tradition that’s not just for academics, also activists and writers in general, taking this argument from Marx about what he called fetishism. The basic premise is capitalism is super complex, it’s chaotic. We don’t understand all the dynamics that go into why something costs as much money as it does. So, what we tend to do is we ascribe the social characteristics of things to their natural quality. So, if I buy a $10 cup of coffee, why does it cost $10? It probably has to do with like labor and production costs and supply chains.

But really, I don’t think about it. I say, this coffee costs $10 because it’s really good coffee, right? Or it’s overpriced because this is really a $4 coffee. What does that actually mean? We’re kind of conflating two levels of analysis. Like, one is this abstract social economic world, and the other’s like the actual physical, natural control characteristics. There’s a tradition of people who are thinking about race that I think persuasively have said like race is kind of the same thing.

We had this world in the 19th century when racial science really hardens, where you have different groups that fit into different positions within the global economy, and that’s a product of history. The most obvious example is African slavery and the descendants of Africans who are the labor force of the United States and the United States South. Well, that is a product of history, but race science says it’s not about history. It’s about their natural qualities, like brain size, bodies, all that stuff.

Then by the 20th century, and that’s also by the way, all throughout the Chinese exclusion debates, right? It’s about people with yellow skin have different muscles and organs than people with white skin and so on. There’s a basis for that. Right? Then by the 20th century, racial science comes and goes, but then it gets replaced by kind of cultural explanations, like a culture of poverty or a culture of hard work, model minorities, and so on.

So, a lot of times cultural explanations, I think, not always, but a lot of times what they’re trying to do is make sense of a very, again, a chaotic global system where some people are very rich, some people are very poor. People’s fates and fortunes are always kind of on the up and down in ways we don’t understand. The way we tend to comprehend it is usually through national analysis. That’s this idea of a national form, or Colleen Lye is also saying racial analysis, racial form. So, race and nation are often used as containers to domesticate all these contradictions that we have, that we can’t explain with the global economy. What Orientalism was trying to explain was, well, why is Asia so poor?

It’s because of their culture, right? It’s traditional, it’s backwards, right? That’s very plausible in the 19th century. In the 20th century, what is Asiaticism trying to explain? How the, I don’t know if you can curse, how the eff did Japan, and then Taiwan and Korea, now China, how did they get so rich so quickly? It has to do something with samurai culture, or Confucianism, or lack of freedom and despotism and lack of democracy and so on. This isn’t again, to say that none of the stuff is true or has any kernel of truth to it. Right? But a lot of ways, again, we’re taking natural explanations or explanations that are outside of history as a substitute for history, as a substitute for like, what happened in the sixties and seventies and eighties that led up to all this?

Kaiser: That was very well done. Very well said. I got one more question for you before I want to ask you also a bit about your book, about Tea War. I know that you wrote this in late ‘21, I suppose, and it was published in early ‘22, but in April of ’22. At the time you wrote it, I think probably the world still saw China’s response to COVID-19 largely, well, I mean, sort of grudgingly admiring way. They really had kept level… I mean, there were a lot of people who were skeptical about total numbers, but clearly, they weren’t edging up on a million deaths the way we were then, but now I think that that’s changed quite a bit.

There are a lot of people talking, both within and outside of China, about the failures of zero-COVID and the folly of it. Do you find that the Orientalist and Asiaticist narratives in the West’s reaction, do they map onto the responses to this, to zero-COVID?

Andy: Are you saying, oh, in like the recent weeks?

Kaiser: Yeah, recently.

Andy: I think, well, one thing I would say, I’ll have to speculate on that in a second, but the other point, I guess I would say is like, in the essay itself, I was saying one way to undermine or cut through Asiaticism as the lab leak conspiracy, to the extent it is a conspiracy theory, is to show China really isn’t that omnipotent. They’re not really the puppet master behind the global economy. They face a lot of the same problems that people in the U.S. and Western Europe do. They are also freaking out about their economy. They’re also exporting all this capital that they have, and they don’t know how to invest it in, so on and so forth and, and zero-COVID, and all the recent hand ringing about zero-COVID.

And China is like, yes, is zero-COVID a rational policy? But also, how can we balance zero-COVID against the prospects of economic shrinking, or economic, whatever, stagnation in China? They’re not gonna reach their GDP goals or so on. In a lot of ways, I think it’s playing out in a way that’s very predictable. Not surprising if you actually follow China closely, which is like, yeah, there are a lot of problems with their policies. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered that might not be that visible if you’re just following it from very far away. In terms of the… I don’t know.

I guess, I’m kind of out of the loop in terms of what does the world think about the COVID policies? I think The New York Times basically is reporting like, or the mainstream U.S. reporting, I think is sort of suggesting like the average Chinese person is gasping for freedom underneath the burden of these zero-COVID policies. It is almost, I guess you could say it’s Orientalist, this idea that this despotic state that is undemocratically suppressing the freedoms of the Chinese citizen, who deep down longs for the same freedoms that we do. Right?

I don’t know. Yeah, so I don’t know if that cuts against Asiaticist explanation, but I also think there hasn’t been any new polling in terms of these origins theories, and then we’re getting to this point where people have stopped caring about the origins theories. I still suspect most people believe in lab leak though. I think, for a variety of reasons, that also probably have to do with the Western liberal attempt to sort of deal with these as well, kind of leads to a lot of suspicion about, “Hey, what’s being covered up?” Why are mainstream U.S. newspapers so dismissive of the lab leak? That must be because it’s true or something.

Kaiser: Your bellwether for the sort of great unwashed masses was Jon Stewart. For me, I mean, among the intelligentsia, my bellwether was when Zeynep Tufekci started going in on that, I mean…

Andy: So, what does she think right now?

Kaiser: No, she’s all about the lab leak.

Andy: Really? Wow.

Kaiser: Yeah. It’s really depressing.

Andy: Wow. That’s shocking. I didn’t know that.

Kaiser:: Yeah. No, it really is you’d think that somebody like her would have a little sensitivity to Asiatic representation.

Andy: Yeah. I thought she was good. Well, sorry. She is very good.

Kaiser: Yeah, she is otherwise good.

Andy: I didn’t realize she was… Yeah.

Kaiser: Yeah. It’s heartbreaking kind of. Anyway, Andy, tell us about Tea War, which I have not had a chance to read yet, but it’s on my list. I’m definitely gonna get to it, especially having now read some of your other stuff. It’s great. It’s about China and India and global capitalism. Yeah?

Andy: Yeah.

Kaiser: What time does it span?

Andy: So, it starts with that most famous topic in Chinese history, the Opium War, but it’s looking at the other side, like very famously opium is the product of a trade triangle. The British go to India, India opium to China, Chinese tea back to Britain. The flip side to the opium story is also this creation, or this kind of emergence, of the Chinese tea trade with the Canton trade in the 18th century, leading to the Opium War as like the commodity that the rest of the world, Western Europe, can’t get enough of.

Within the academy, there’s been this resurgence of interest in the history of capitalism, dealing with… In reaction to the ‘08 crisis. And there’ve been books about cotton. There’s famously very good books about sugar, and the way to think about … One way to think about it is, well, if you think about what was the Asian commodity that was in such great demand that helped make the global economy go around in the 19th, 20th century, I think, not entirely, but for a large chunk of it, it was tea.

And then we get into things like silk and textiles and so on. But not only that, if you go to the grocery store today, you don’t just see Chinese tea, you see Japanese tea, we see a lot of Indian tea. But Indian tea is not an old quote unquote traditional institution. It was created by the British under the British empire as a colonial experimentation, this territory called Assam, which is on the border, right?

Kaiser: Northeastern India.

Andy: Right. Yeah. By Burma or Myanmar, Yunnan. I was just originally interested in that story. Like these British colonial administrators literally bring what they assume are Chinese tea makers, but are just like average workers from Jiangxi, living in Guangdong. They bring them over to Assam, and like, tell us how to make tea. Eventually they figure it out, and their tea industry takes off. And then what eventually happens is by the turn of the 20th century, the Indian industry, under the auspices of British capitalism, British colonial capitalism, surpasses the Chinese industry, which is this huge, shocking thing, because tea is always this Chinese commodity.

So, a lot of these same questions about, why does China fail? Why are they so bad at technology? What is so inherently superior about Western civilization? They actually come up. And as I have suggested with regards to the lab leak essay, my argument is sort of like, well, this economic competition, which is dynamic and changing, and like, China’s on top, the India’s on top, and China’s back on top, that gives rise to cultural explanations that we find all throughout the 20th century, about the limits of Oriental civilization, all the bounties that occidental civilization can give us.

But what appears as a very nice and tidy, just-so cultural explanation for why one industry succeeds and why one fails, is a result of all these kind of complex economic interactions. Obviously, I’m not gonna make big civilizational statements, but it’s kind of the same question as like the Great Divergence and the Needham question. The sort of big questions that used to occupy a lot of, what used to be called Orientalist scholarship. And just saying, under underlying a lot of this, if you look at the case study of tea, is stuff that wasn’t predetermined and natural. It was actually like a very contingent historical process that also has a lot to do…

The other part of the story is kind of making a claim that China, which has often been seen as the opposite of capitalism, pre-capitalists, or only having the sprouts of capitalism was actually pretty much embedded within global capitalism by the 19th century.

Kaiser˘: Yeah. No, that sounds like the kind of book that I would absolutely love. I love the kind of Great Divergence, the Pomeranz, and all that stuff. I also love those sort of single commodity explorations to sort of tell a gigantic macroeconomic story, Cod that was Mark Kurlansky, Salt.

Andy: Exactly. Yeah.

Kaiser: Yeah. Tea. Tea’s a good one. I read a coffee book recently, which was…

Andy: Yeah. Coffee is a… Yeah, I actually, I’m a coffee drinker and not a tea drinker. So, I always tell myself–

Kaiser: I’m a tea drinker now. I’ve switched.

Andy: You are? You switched? Was the caffeine too much for you or?

Kaiser: Yeah, I mean, it’s a different buzz. I mean, it’s like less spiky. I feel like I get a longer ride, and I’m more in charge of it. I like it though.

Andy: Yeah. Well, I always told myself I was more objective about tea because I don’t actually drink it. I mean, I drink it like… I start with coffee, then I might have a tea in the afternoon.

Kaiser: Yeah. I still have to have a coffee at some point in the middle of the afternoon. Right now, I think my next, it’s three o’clock right now, and I’m thinking maybe coffee, because I’m gonna edit this podcast right away afterward. Andy, man. That was fantastic. I look forward to reading the book and I look forward to having you back on the show again because obviously we have tons to talk about.

Andy: Yeah. Thanks for the invitation. It was great.

Kaiser: Yeah. So, stick around, we’re gonna move on recommendations, but first, a quick reminder that the Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina. And if you like the work that we do with Sinica, or with any of the other many, many shows in the Sinica Network, the best thing you can do to support the work we do is subscribe to our wonderful China ACCESS newsletter. Your subscription makes it possible for us to do these things. We’re rolling out a really, and speaking of commodities and commerce, The Silk and Coffee Podcast, which will be…It’s the first podcast that we’ll be doing in Spanish. There will be an occasional English language episode, and we’ll run one of those on Sinica so you can get a taste of it. It’s a wonderful podcast. And it’s all about China in Latin America. And speaking of China in Latin America, the wonderful China in Africa Podcast has now branched out. One of their two weekly shows is now the China Global South Podcast, which is going beyond just Africa to talk about Latin America, about Southeast Asia, about South Asia, and of course, the Middle East and North Africa. So, it will be very cool. Stay tuned, more good shows coming your way.

All right. Recommendations, Andy, what you got for us?

Andy: Yeah. So, I thought of two when you asked for recommendations. The first is more fun. The second is more serious. The first is kind of a memoir, a book written by the writer, Hua Hsu, who writes for The New Yorker.

Kaiser: Yeah, sure.

Andy: Right. Yeah. He has a memoir coming out, kind of growing up, about growing up in the Bay. He’s Taiwanese American, kind of childhood into college. I was able to read a review copy, it’s coming out in a few months. So, but you can pre-order it now. And it’s basically, I would summarize it as like the life of an Asian American hipster in the ‘90s.

Kaiser: Yeah. He’s really into music.

Andy: Yeah. There’s a long section on Pearl Jam versus Nirvana. And I think he’s very Gen X. I’m more Millennial Gen X, but I could still kind of relate to his experience about the ‘90s pop culture a lot. So, it’s a fun read and it’s serious at times as well, but it’s really well written.

Kaiser: Yeah. I think he’s like right between us and age, so yeah. I’m squarely Gen X, but…

Andy: Yeah. I grew up in Seattle, so I didn’t understand… I was more Pearl Jam than Nirvana, to my great shame. Growing up, I later realized I made the wrong choice.

Kaiser: Yeah. Well, they’re both great. You can like them both.

Andy: The second recommendation is more serious. I was just kind of thinking there’s a lot of, I don’t know if other people feel this way as well; there’s a lot of despair right now about what’s going on in terms of what we can actually do to address stuff in the U.S.. My recommendation is I made a donation, or I’ve been making donations to local abortion funds to concretely address some of the limits to restrictions to access, especially in states with anti-abortion law. So, I made a donation to a fund run by friend of a friend called Abortion Care for Tennessee, abortioncaretnd.org.

But obviously, there are many funds that people could find that they’re comfortable with. But just in general, I feel like of all the crazy things in the news today, this is the one, one of the few ways that are very concrete and direct, and you can feel like you’re actually are contributing to something rather than just the social media post or something. That’s another recommendation.

Kaiser: Thanks. That’s a great one. Yeah. I think we all know which states are really sort of in peril right now, so I think it’s a really good idea to focus on abortion funds that are in those states rather than just locally. I mean, so far, I mean – touch wood – North Carolina seems to be okay, but we shall see.

Andy: Yeah. And now is like a weird window where these laws are about to kick in, but maybe not yet. So, I think it’s a good time, or it’s important time right now.

Kaiser: So, my recommendation for the week is the show, Borgen, which I know I’m totally late to this party because it’s been like, everyone’s been watching it forever. Andy, have you seen Borgen?

Andy: What medium is this, or-

Kaiser: No, no. It’s a Danish West Wing kind of show, except it’s more serious than West Wing. It doesn’t have that kind of smarmy and ultra-glib kind of… Well, there’s a lot of really fun dialogue. I mean, obviously I don’t hear it in the original Danish. I’m reading the subtitles, but just from the subs, it just looks extremely witty. But it’s great. It’s a political, sort of infighting, and just it’s marvelous. I think there are four seasons of it. I’ve just started the first season. I’m only like four or five episodes in, but already absolutely hooked. So, thank you to all the many people who have recommended this show for me because it’s summer, I can kick back a little more and enjoy some TV. It’s on Netflix, check it out. It’s called Borgen.

Andy: It’s Netflix.

Kaiser: Andy, man, that was great. I really enjoyed talking to you, and I look forward to meeting in person sometime.

Andy: Yeah, thanks a lot. This is great.

Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at sinica@supchina.com, or just give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts as this really does help people discover this show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @supchinanews.

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