Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with The China Project. Subscribe to Access from The China Project to get access to, not only our great daily newsletter, but all the original writing on our website at thechinaproject.com. 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 Beijing’s ambitious plans to shift the Chinese 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.
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I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Joining me is my good friend, Jīn Yùmǐ 金玉米, president for life of the Nashville Chapter of the Jiang Zemin Fan Club. And my condolences with this latest — I think it’s like the 19th report or rumor of his passing — turns out this time to be true. Anyway, yeah, condolences, man. Jeremy, greet the people, won’t you?
Jeremy: Kaiser, if you believe that the dearest elder, the toad king has died, I don’t really know what to say, except that you are too simple, too naive.
Kaiser: Me and Justin Trudeau, right?
Kaiser: Well, today, we are very pleased to have, as a guest, Yuan Yang, a reporter for the Financial Times, now based in London, but who for many years was stationed in Beijing. Yuan now covers the China-Europe relationship, and that will be the focus of our conversation with her. Yuan Yang, welcome to Sinica at last.
Yuan Yang: Yes, it’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.
Jeremy: A warm welcome to you, Yuan. Before we jump in, maybe you could tell us a bit about yourself. You were born in China and spent your early childhood there, but moved to the UK while still quite young. Is that right?
Yuan: That’s right. I was born in China. I lived with my grandparents who are from the southwestern province of Sichuan until I was four years old, and then I came with my parents to the UK. And they were part of this wave of early 1990s students and academics who were trying to basically get as far away from China as possible.
Jeremy: The feeling is familiar. So, how did you make your way into journalism and what has your focus as a reporter been over the years?
Yuan: My path into journalism has not been straightforward. I studied economics. The first thing I did, more or less after university, was in the campaigning world, actually. I set up an NGO called Rethinking Economics, which helps improve economics education. And from there, I went into economics journalism, and then into China journalism. And I’ve always loved writing and storytelling ever since I could write. I remember very clearly when I learned to write English at the age of six, it was all kind of Beatrix Potter-esque books, short stories about rabbits and small farmland animals. I don’t know if you are familiar with the grand tradition of Beatrix Potter we have in Northern England.
Kaiser: Oh, yeah.
Yuan: And my grandparents were quite influential in, I think, that love of storytelling because there was such a strong oral storytelling tradition, folk storytelling tradition that they really emphasized. So, to cut a long story short, I became a journalist with the FT in 2016 and was posted to Beijing where I covered the economy and then the technology sector, and then became the deputy bureau chief, took care of the bureau doing the COVID years, and I moved back to London a few months ago in the summer.
Kaiser: Ah, okay. I really started to take notice of your writing during your time as the tech reporter at FT. I had a keen interest in that. Of course, that was about what? Six years ago. And you had a quite a good run there, I think. I thought you really got it. And you had some, I think, very original angles of… They were quite different, the take that was pretty refreshing compared to a lot of the reporting that was coming out of China at that time. Can you talk about some of the pieces from that period that you were particularly proud of or that you found maybe really challenging to report out?
Yuan: Yeah. And can I tell you how I became the tech reporter, which was itself a bit of a happenstance story?
Kaiser: Oh, for sure.
Yuan: I walked into the bureau one day and I said to my colleague, our then Deputy Bureau Chief, Lucy Hornby, who has done an amazing reporting on corporate scandals in China.
Kaiser: Oh yeah. I love Lucy.
Yuan: We all love Lucy. I said to Lucy, “Have you seen what’s happened to the price of Bitcoin? It’s crazy.” This is around 2016, ‘17. The Bitcoin price explosion at the time was considering. I will not confirm or deny whether I used it to get pound sterling into China. But I was curious about this and many other internets of cultures. And Lucy was like, “Yuan, if you care about that kind of stuff, you should just write about it.” And I think it was a marker of, I think, maybe generational shifts in newsrooms in terms of attention to consumer tech in particular and interest in tech issues. Because at that time, in 2016, even though, of course, we know, particularly in hindsight, the huge explosion in China’s internet tech giants, Alibaba and Tencent and so on, it was not a major story then I would say in the news. And it became a really major story for the next few years. What I want to emphasize there is that the rise of consumer tech in China, and particularly the internet giants was a story that I think hits many by surprise, because for a long time we were covering Chinese companies not thinking of them as stories in their own right, in terms of their own success and their own scale. And China’s tech giants, be that Alibaba or Huawei, I think really changed the story.
Kaiser: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, 2016, to me, was really the inflection point. It was the moment when we went from sort of dismissively regarding Chinese tech companies as just mere copycats, incapable of, of anything really original, to suddenly realizing, oh my God, they’re…
Jeremy: Eating our lunch.
Yuan: Yeah. I think the theme that I’ve covered in various different stories is about trying to uncover the dysfunction that’s often within the Chinese system and within Chinese tech policy. Often, we hear the opposite, which is Western commentators overemphasizing the successes of the Chinese system and its technological achievements in terms of control. For example, one story I did during the pandemic was looking at the ways in which lots of different data gathering and surveillance efforts within the government were not joining up because different provinces were not sharing the data with each other, meaning that they weren’t tracking people potentially carrying the virus when they moved over potential borders.
Different agencies have always tried to kind of hug data for themselves and not had the incentives to be generous with sharing with other departments. Sometimes they can’t share it just because of basic differences in the way that they format and arrange the data. And so, while there are obviously huge ambitions in the Chinese government to be able to surveil and to be able to make all data cohesive, those efforts are really very piecemeal and very difficult to enforce. I always try in my reporting to try to paint both the successes, but also the failures, of Chinese technological policy. I think that’s a much more objective view than to be overly excited about the successes of what is from afar seen as a monolithic, technically proficient state.
Kaiser: Yeah, I completely agree. I mean, and we do toggle between these two modes where we either completely underestimate or completely are breathless and over-hyped about China’s technological prowess. So yeah, it’s really great to have written all that and balanced.
Yuan: I think it goes for many of the achievements or ambitions, let’s say, of Chinese government and Chinese local governments. We forget that a lot of the material that we consume about China is local governments or Chinese initiatives, basically blowing their own trumpet. They’re telling the state media in China, “Look at our achievements. They’re so great. We’re going to be able to, to control all of this by 2025 or whenever.” These are the ambitions. And too often, as I think happen, for example, with social credit, a lot of social credit reporting that’s reported uncritically as the actual achievements of the state, but in fact, it’s all PR. It is a form of propaganda to say, look at how much power we have and how effective we’re being. And the stated ambitions often fall much short of reality.
Jeremy: It’s kind of like the bumper grain harvest. We all know that that story is nonsense, but when it comes to the surveillance abilities of the Chinese state, we’ll believe anything.
Yuan: Right. That’s very true. And that’s a double standard that we should be concerned about in terms of not doing the party’s propaganda for it. When a local government says, “Look at us and our amazing social credit system that we’re able to incentivize all kinds of behavior”, we shouldn’t just swallow that whole and think that that is actually what’s happening on the ground. We know that the party lies about many things. It also lies about its own achievements. On the other hand, also not to underestimate the power and control of Chinese surveillance, which even at the kind of messy and disconfigured and chaotic level it is at now, it does have a huge impact on people’s lives. So, I think it is really about getting a clear-eyed view of China without making it much more perfect than it is.
Jeremy: And that attitude of yours, obviously, is also very applicable to what you’re doing now. Let’s perhaps shift the discussion. I’d like to ask you first about German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s recent trip to Beijing, and the many issues that his government faces from COSCO’s acquisition of just under a quarter of the Port of Hamburg, to technology exports, to human rights issues. As I understand it, there’s quite some division in German political circles now about China. One example we recently looked at in our coverage of the Scholz visit was how Chancellor Scholz seems more interested in engagement with China, perhaps than his colleague, the President, Frank Walter Stein Meer, who called for Germany to reduce lopsided dependencies wherever we can in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
And he particularly called out China. I should remind our American listeners that the Chancellor has the real power, not the president, but it seemed to me a good illustration of Germany’s political dilemma. And then, of course, you have the German companies, including Volkswagen, which has a plant in Xinjiang, which its former CEO defended, and BMW, which just announced new investments of billions of dollars into electric vehicle plants in China. So, how would you characterize the China debate in German elite political and business circles?
Yuan: Well, firstly, one thing to emphasize is that the German government is, of course, a coalition government, the so-called “traffic light coalition”. Scholz has to balance lots of different concerns with his coalition partners who may not be on the same page as him personally, and even within his own party. And what I think is really interesting within German politics is how all parties, and I think we’ve seen this, to some extent in the UK and in the U.S., it’s all parties, not just one that have moved significantly more to the hawkish direction about China. One example I’d like to give is the Free Democratic Party, the FDP, who is often historically beein the free trade party. In his historical terms, they would be pro-unlimited trade with China and anti-anything that might mean withdrawal from that.
Now, they, over the last few years, have also become much more concerned about lack of reciprocity in trade, because now their view is not so much that free trade means anybody can sell anything to anyone, but also, what are you getting from them in return? And do they also allow you the same market access? In Germany, the most pro-free trade party has now become pretty skeptical about the terms in which Germany trades with China. And I think that’s really indicative of a broader set of concerns about reciprocity and equality in the trading relationship with China. Now, in terms of Scholz’s trip to China, which came very shortly after the Party Congress, which again, once more crown President Xi as Party leader for a third term and instilled many of his own yes-men even more solidly into the government and got rid of any opposition that could have been to his policies.
There was a concern, I think, in among German parliamentarians that the optics and the timing of Scholz’s visit were really off. Why go for less than a day be surrounded by a COVID bubble? That means that you can’t really engage with most people face-to-face, have meetings that have to be done over a video call because of that. And all this for what? I was quite sympathetic to those concerns, and particularly to the lack of coordination at a European level of what the first European leader visiting Beijing after the pandemic would say. And there’s been reporting in the Politico about this, about how Macron, the French president had also approached Scholz and tried to negotiate joint messages and a joint meeting. And apparently, according to Politico, Scholz went on regardless.
Now, I think that says a lot more about a weakness of European unity than anything else. In fact, I think the meeting that Scholz had and the points that he put across were well made, and the part obviously that he prioritized discussion of the war in Ukraine. And President Xi, even according to the China’s own state media readouts, which are generally obviously much more watered down than the other parties’ readouts, even they said, “We do not see Russia’s threat of nuclear war as an appropriate thing to be threatening. And of course, we’re completely opposed to nuclear war.” This is just in the days after Russia was amplifying its rhetoric about there being a threat of a dirty bomb attack from Ukraine, thus opening its own path to justifying nuclear war in Ukraine.
I think given the actual meetings that happened, the points that Scholz made, I think that they were brave and necessary, but everything that led up to the trip, I can completely see why he annoyed many members of his own government with it.
Kaiser: So, would you say that the kind of attitudinal shift that you personally saw, sort of the problems running up to the meeting, the problems of the optics of the meeting itself, and then the fruit that it seems to have born, would you say that that shift was sort of shared among the sort of the German press, among the German chattering classes?
Yuan: I think for some, yes, certainly for some of the kind of China policy think tank folks, they saw the results. And of course, Ukraine is still a much higher priority for the German public than almost anything to do with China just in terms of China itself. It has been really complicated though. I mean, the response has been complicated by the various different approvals and blockages of foreign investment that happened in the days just up to and after the trip. So, I think the approval, for example, of COSCO, the China shipping company to buy a minority stake in one of the container terminals at the Port of Hamburg, that kind of, in some ways, overshadowed the trip. And people I think are still pretty mad about it sometimes in the German media and was seen as a concession that was made to make the trip easier.
Kaiser: This shift in German attitudes has really kind of closely paralleled shifts that we’ve seen in the Anglosphere as well with popular opinion. If you look at the Pew Global surveys, global attitude surveys, it’s very clearly shifting in the same direction. When I’ve talked to Chinese diplomats about this phenomenon and sort of pushed them on the same, “Look, it doesn’t seem to be just the United States. Could it be that something that China is doing in the world is making much of the developed world really, really… turning them against China as it were?” They’ve always said, “No, this just speaks to the discursive power of the American media and how America can still bully Europe and how the Europeans don’t have any meaningful strategic autonomy yet.” What’s your sense of this? Do you think that there’s anything to that? Or do you think that Germany, for its own reasons, has sort of moved in that direction?
Yuan: Simple explanations are the most persuasive, and so it’s much simpler, I think, for Chinese observers to describe the entire of Europe’s foreign policy as being U.S. driven, because then you basically have one explanation for like a bunch of countries.
Yuan: And I do see that attitude more broadly, for example, among Chinese friends of mine, when we talk about the West, and I talk about being a European journalist. Sooner or later, they’ll end up talking about American journalism or American journalist in China. And so, being a European journalist, I think is also being somewhat in the middle of that discussion of us and China. Certainly, the U.S. and people in the U.S. and people in China see the world as being either mono or bipolar in terms of power between the U.S. and China, and Europe is kind of nowhere to be seen. I completely, I see where that kind of psychology… I definitely recognize that psychology that you are describing.
Kaiser: The thing that’s always fascinated me about looking at China from the European perspective is that for at least a long time, it was possible to see sort of a developed world perspective that was free of that kind of obsession with national security. So, you could see a less tainted view of China. And there were still obviously a lot of problems, but they were kind of separated from national security. But it doesn’t seem to be that way anymore, especially if you look at the UK, right? I mean, where now national security seems to be very much on everyone’s lips, and that’s why-
Jeremy: Can we put that into a question, and looking beyond Germany to the whole European Union and the UK, post Brexit?
Jeremy: Are European countries at all of one mind with respect to United States tech policies toward China? You have already mentioned that the European Union isn’t very unified when it comes to China, but specifically about technology policies and the America’s attitude, how have the Europeans responded to American efforts to enlist them, the Huawei sanctions, the entity lists related to Xinjiang, and now the foreign direct product rule that was announced in October?
Yuan: Oh, gosh. I think the tech sanctions on China and well, U.S. unilateral sanctions in any domain are one thing that get up the backs of European partners because they know they will take the hit, their companies will take the hit in one of the biggest export markets for policies that they effectively have no control over. An example of this from a few years ago, when the original Huawei sanctions were being formulated, reportedly, the U.S. went to the Wassenaar Agreement countries, which is a military civil dual-use agreement of convention of European countries. They have to agree by consensus. The U.S. presented its proposal of Huawei sanctions. People didn’t agree. It’s a consensus organization. It’s quite common that people don’t agree. And then the U.S. went ahead and did it anyway.
And now, that has led to a further discussion about, how do we agree to these military, for example, military sanctions? Do we need consensus? How do we formulate a better way of discussing these issues with the U.S.? But it has seemed that no matter what mechanism it is, whether it’s consensus of majority, in the end, the U.S. does get its way by unilaterally issuing them anyway. Obviously, the discussion of how Europe comes to agree on sanctions is almost less important than the fact that U.S. just really, really wants them. Now, with the foreign product rule sanctions, you’re referring there to the recent swathe of sanctions limiting what chip-related technologies can be sold to China, and that’s limiting China’s future chip development.
Now, again, there were background discussions with European partners, also with East Asian partners like Japan and South Korea because those are where the major companies reside. And the world’s, in some ways, when the world’s most important companies for the chip supply chain lies in Netherlands, it’s called ASML, and it produces the machines that engrave the circuit patterns onto chips. That company obviously is hugely exposed to the China market, roughly I think about 10th or more of its sales by now. And that company also has a big interest in exactly what is the limit of what can be sold, what counts as advanced chips that cannot be sold and so on.
There have been discussions between European partners and the U.S. And the problem is those discussions are always going to be pretty one sided, because in the end, the U.S. will decide, and it’ll decide how much pain it’s willing to inflict on its partners. I do sense a lot of discontent with how trading partners are treated as a result of these sanctions.
Kaiser: Right. The American Commerce Department also entity listed quite a number of Chinese companies that were associated with surveillance in Xinjiang. I wanted to turn a little bit to Xinjiang because several national parliaments in European countries, I believe the European Parliament itself, have, since 2017, used very, very strong language about the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Have they basically been on board with the American responses, broadly speaking? And has the EU response been unanimous or are there cracks in that too?
Yuan: I think at this point there is pretty much consensus within the EU on the moral problem of Xinjiang and the human rights atrocities there, particularly following the UN report from the office of the high commissioner for human rights, which stated that these trustees could amount to crimes against humanity, and which reconfirmed the previous reports we’ve been hearing and writing about mass incarceration, about forced labor transfers, and also about the huge slump in fertility, and raised the question of whether there was forced sterilization. The next question is what to do about it. And certainly, Uyghur human rights activists have been trying to bring legislation and bring campaigns to stop countries from importing goods made with slave labor from Xinjiang region. And there are various directives and bills on this going through both the European Parliament and national governments.
And what looks like is going to happen is that the European Parliament is going to come up with market monitoring instrument. Unlike the U.S. measure, which blocks imports from the region, and is about protecting what goes into the country, this measure would be more consumer focused. So, it would be that anybody in the European Union who has evidence to suspect that the goods that they’ve bought within the EU have been made with slave labor, then they can bring cases against companies. And that would also include slave labor within the EU. So, it’s not so much about imports and exports. It’s about forced labor and it’s about selling force labor goods within the EU. And that will also include forced labor from Xinjiang.
Kaiser: Right. So, it’s not technically country-specific, although…
Kaiser: Xinjiang was clearly the impetus for this.
Yuan: Yeah, exactly.
Jeremy: So, we’ve talked about Huawei, the Foreign Direct Product Rule. There’s the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science acts. And, of course, as you hinted out, although these measures are aimed at China, they have consequences for Europe. So, what does it look like right now if you’re a German company with big export markets in both China and the United States, and you’re feeling all of this political pressure over your supply chains?
Yuan: Yeah, I was in Germany a couple of months ago, and I met a lot of the business associations in Berlin and Frankfurt. And one of them, which is the VDMA, the Association of Machinery Makers, they described how, for their members, many were really caught in the middle of U.S. sanctions on the one hand, and Chinese suspicion, and domestic self-sufficiency drives, on the other hand, and were creating three separate supply chains, like kind of triplicate supply chains.
Yuan: One for China, which doesn’t include U.S. products, because the Chinese customers are worried that one day, they might not be able to get ahold of U.S. products. They don’t see that as a stable supply chain. And one for the U.S., which doesn’t include Chinese products because of security concerns from the U.S. side. And the third one for Europe, where it’s like, “yeah, throw everything in and mix it all around.” What’s really surprising to me is that those companies very much were already doing this and making plans to do this further in order to shore up the security of their supply chains. I think this kind of action also highlights how what might start off as a national security concern or a cyber security concern for the U.S., then, for example, in the case of the Huawei sanctions, then becomes like a supply chain security economic and business concern for Europe and for the rest of the world.
Because these sanctions from the U.S., just fall from the sky, from the point of view of a German company, they have to be as prepared for a new swathe of sanctions on high-end technology as much as they have for the COVID disruptions on supply chain and slow logistics in China. These are parts of the geopolitical weather they cannot control. And so, the way that they can try to control them a little bit is to diversify their supply chains around the world. Now that’s really hugely costly for many companies. And as a result, the small and well, in many circumstances, it’s a small and medium enterprises in Germany, the Mittelstand, as they’re called, and much highly valued as a force for economic growth within Germany who find it much more tough to survive in this geopolitical uncertainty and in the current economic climate, and the big companies that are still successfully investing and profiting from China.
Kaiser: Fascinating. So, are they putting any kind of political pressure? Are they trying to sort of lobby through Berlin or through Brussels to try to get Washington to soften a little on that?
Yuan: That’s a very good question. I get the impression that businesses already think that the U.S. sanction system is going to carry on rolling. That’s not been the focus of their lobbying. Opposing sanctions from the U.S. feels much more morally dubious for German companies who might agree with some of the principles behind the sanctions, but not agree with the extent of the sanctions, etc.
Jeremy: I mean, sanctions are always a difficult thing to get your head around. I mean, I grew up in apartheid South Africa when we had sanctions. I am very sympathetic to the argument that the sanctions simply reinforced the kind of what we used to call a lager mentality, like draw inside the Volkswagens. That the white government almost used it as a propaganda about the total onslaught of the rest of the world attacking us, and that the people who really suffered were poorer black South Africans. That’s an argument that people used to make, and it’s not-
Kaiser: So, like in China. Absolutely.
Yuan: But were they effective? Because I think the South Africa sanctions of apartheid are held up as the standard for effective sanction regimes.
Jeremy: They are, but I always point out that apartheid only collapsed when the Cold War ended and America stopped being interested in funding proxy wars in Southern Africa against communist governments. For me, that is the big reason. That’s the timing. That’s why apartheid ended was because the Cold War ended and there was not going to be anymore backing for South Africa. But this is a whole different show.
Yuan: I mean, I agree with you on the difficulty of sanctions regimes, even in Xinjiang, for example. The Xinjiang economy has tanked, I mean, as a result, partly of the security lockdown. It’s simply very difficult to do trade and business when you can’t even go into a shopping center without having all of your bag scanned and your ID taken. Han Chinese business people have fled away from that region because of the lack of business opportunities. And the only group of people who cannot leave the tanking economy are Uyghurs and ethnic Muslim minorities who cannot leave. There is a huge issue around what is the efficacy of sanctions. On the other hand, I agree, like consumers should be able to A, know whether their products are made with slave labor, and B, choose not to buy products-
Jeremy: Make moral choices. Absolutely.
Kaiser: Right. Speaking of moral choices, so for Americans watching what’s happened in Ukraine since February 24th, there’s been this understandable impulse to immediately draw parallels between Russia, Ukraine, to China, Taiwan. Have you seen anything like that happening among Europeans, and maybe what, broadly speaking, have European attitudes toward China and its pro-Russian neutrality stance, what have those attitudes been like? Has it badly damaged China’s standing in Europe?
Yuan: Yeah, definitely. I mean, when I was in China, which is at the start of the outbreak of war, I would hear from afar concerns in Europe whether this was going to repeat itself with China and Taiwan. And I was thinking, is this the case of only the most pessimistic views get amplified in the media and if I’m hearing all these doomsday scenarios? When I came back to Europe and started interviewing companies here, those were the scenarios they would bring up to me without me mentioning Taiwan. I would say, “What are your concerns for the future trade outlook with China?” Taiwan is very much up there even without me putting it…
Kaiser: No prompting. Yeah.
Yuan: …on the agenda. I think that’s partly because of the narrative of dependency, for example, on Russian energy in particular. That is really dominant in European discussions about trade right now. There’s a whole question of how will Europe continue to fuel itself over the winter, and how did Europe allow itself to become so dependent on a country that was clearly not an ally for energy? I think that’s why the question dependency is then being transposed onto China and Taiwan, not just in the event of an invasion of Taiwan disrupting supply chains and so on, but also, in the event of deterioration of the political climate in China of relationships with Europe and so on. What else are we dependent on China for? I think the state of this conversation is very frustrating for me right now because I’m the kind of person who likes to see, not just a list of complaints with what’s wrong with status quo, but some searching for a vision for how things might be in the future.
And right now, we have a lot of cons on the list of what are the possible scenarios in which trade links with China will be disrupted. But I don’t see a coherent economic vision for what less or different trade with China would look like. And quite quickly, that will be the future that we slip into just because of the force of the current economic, not even political forces at play. And so, I think we need to understand, what does European growth that’s not propelled by Chinese exports and Chinese growth look like?
Jeremy: So, it sounds to me like you don’t think there’s much chance that the Europe-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment will be revived. And so, that was–
Yuan: I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks there’s much chance of the CAI being revived, but maybe–
Jeremy: That basically died in 2021, right? That was when it was supposedly going to be ratified in 2020, 2021, and then it kind of died on the vine.
Yuan: Yeah. Well, the EU’s position on that is so long as there are Chinese sanctions against European parliamentarians, which there still are because of the back-and-forth sanctions of human rights in Xinjiang, then the CAI will not pass through parliament as long as there are members of parliament that are still sanctioned. I think that is a standoff. I don’t think either side is interested enough in the CAI in itself to revive it.
Jeremy: On a different topic, what has the European reaction to the meeting between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden in Bali been like? Are the Europeans feeling a little relieved that we’re not about to go to war or what are the optics?
Yuan: I think it’s obviously good that President Xi is now back on the international speaking circuit. And in addition to meeting with the German leader, has also met with leaders of the U.S., France, Japan, and so on. And that, in itself, I think offers reassurance that face-to-face meetings can do a lot more than phone calls, which were all that we had over the last three years when President Xi was self-isolating along with most of the Chinese leadership. But it really, it’s this kind of the start of the engagement rather than the conclusion. There’s no great heartening conclusions to be drawn yet. I will say that both the Chinese state-media readouts and the foreign side, so the U.S. or the French, or whatever readouts, which often are usually very different because they emphasize completely different things, and the Chinese ones, I’m sure are much less complete. Both versions, both sides’ accounts of what happened at those bilateral meetings try to be quite positive and diplomatic about areas of cooperation, even with the U.S., which strikes quite a different tone to the tone of Chinese media in general about the U.S.-China relationship.
So, it’s a bit like you can be quite, if you’re a Chinese media commentator, you can be quite hawkish and quite nationalistic up until your president actually meets with the president of the U.S., in which case you have to then echo the kind of diplomatic and win-win type, both sides messaging of that, which I think is actually a good restraint on Chinese media discourse.
Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. I totally agree. So, China has never made a secret of its hopes to see Europe really emerge as a strategically autonomous poll in a multipolar configuration of geopolitics, right?
Yuan: I think Europe has an ambition too. I think people here are pretty on board with that.
Kaiser: Yeah. But I think, I mean, if you look at what’s happened since February 24th, I mean look, prior to that, I think you’re absolutely right, European leaders were not happy about having to make a choice between Beijing and Washington. But since February 24th, I mean, I think anyone recognizes that even if this winter gets really cold, there may be cracks, but there’s not going to be gigantic fissures in the Transatlantic Alliance system. It’s not going to be a total rupture. I mean, so if I were in Beijing and I were looking at this, and nurturing hopes that Europe might become more meaningfully autonomous, I guess I would pin my hopes on 2024.
I would be thinking, gosh, all the European capitals must be looking at that race and thinking, oh my God, if another Trump, or even DeSantis, sort of Trump-lite, comes into office, what’s going to happen to American support for Ukraine? What’s going to happen to tariffs on European goods? I wonder what these scenarios look like right now when viewed from European capitals.
Yuan: The departure of Trump and the advent of Biden has done great things for the optimism from Europe and transatlantic partnerships. But I do think that there is a broader concern around the stability of that partnership, even without Trump right now. He will run for office again regardless of how likely that is. There is a threat, basically, I think that the EU has been burnt by the Trump presidency, and that will last a lot longer than Trump’s own influence on politics does. Because it highlights how fickle the American partnership can be under a change of president. I think that the Ukraine war has, of course, brought together the rest of Europe, and united it in tackling a common enemy. And that is something I think that the Chinese are trying to grapple with and trying to understand.
I think there’s almost I think an attitude in Beijing of wariness about the durability of European unity over Ukraine. One scholar was telling me about how there are now Chinese diplomats visiting European countries, not to have formal meetings with their opposite sides, but to gather information on essentially how far the European Unity Project can go, how disgruntled are the Europeans at the start of this long winter that’s ahead of us, almost as if to try and test the hypothesis that Europe will eventually, despite the unity now, that Europe will eventually crumble because of its problems with imports of energy and grain and so on. Certainly, China’s holding its breath for European Unity Project to fall apart.
Kaiser: And are the Europeans hedging at all? I mean, are they sort of reluctant to burn bridges with China in case the GOP does come back into power in 2024?
Yuan: I don’t think that people see it as playing the U.S. off against China, or China as an insurance policy against the U.S., because China cannot help Europe in terms of security and defense as the U.S. could, I don’t think that they’re comparative in that way. It’s more that there are like two really hard realities going on. One is that many European economies, although not all, Lithuania’s not that dependent on China.
Kaiser: Apparently not all.
Yuan: Some are very much tied to China’s growth. And those economies experts have already taken a hit because of the COVID economic slowdown in China and so on. That’s already a point that’s in crisis right now. I wouldn’t say this is anticipation of a future crisis. I think, economically, the crisis of trade with China has already arrived for Europe. And then, on the other hand, the rise of China in terms of new energy vehicles, in terms of green technology has also caused both the EU and the U.S. to say, “Okay, we need to think about our own industrial policy, and we need to think about our own technological leadership.” And that has led to policies like the Inflation Reduction Act, in part which tries to increase U.S. domestic innovation in certain green sectors, including in electric vehicles.
Now, that then creates a situation where Europe is like, well, China has industrial strategy. The U.S. has industrial strategy. Do we need an industrial strategy? And there’s been a resurgence of industrial strategy, which for a long time was a taboo for free marketers in the European Union.
Jeremy: The ’90s are truly dead, huh? Let’s move to the United Kingdom and talk about the new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. As I understand it, during the course of his business and political life, he hasn’t been particularly consistent on China. He has, in the past, advocated for stronger trade ties, but at least since he first tried to become Prime Minister, when he was competing with Liz Truss, he jumped on the get tough on China bandwagon very quickly. This week his tone on China seemed to soften again. What do you make of him and where he might take UK-China relations?
Yuan: The get tough on China bandwagon is, I would say, like the easiest bandwagon to jump on. It’s moving very slowly. There’s not much of a barrier to entry. You can just get on it without any expertise.
Kaiser: Just walk onto it.
Yuan: Exactly. Yeah. It’s a very open-access bandwagon. Genuinely, I think that’s part of the reason why China, from a few years ago, almost being not really mentioned in parliamentary politics in the UK has become such a topic of discussion and debate. Enormous. In every foreign affairs committee meeting, China will come up. I think the social dynamics of this is quite interesting as well, because for a long time, obviously the relationship with the EU was the foreign policy issue that dominated British politics. And after the Brexit referendum, there’s been a huge kind of reconfiguration within the Conservative Party, half of which was pro-Brexit, half of which was anti-Brexit of what would the new foreign policy stands to look like, and is there a foreign policy that we can agree on given how much our party disagrees on internally about the European Union?
So, it turns out, yes, there is a policy that everyone can agree on, not just within the Conservative Party, but more widely, which is the China-bashing bandwagon. I think because of the amount of consensus on China’s skepticism within the government, it’s become very much, during the conservative leadership debate earlier this year, became a kind of one-upmanship competition between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. The two contenders who each had their turn, in fact, in being prime minister for a short while. I think that describes a bit why Sunak seems inconsistent, in retrospect because of tacking much more to the right in terms of China hawkishness during the leadership hostings.
There are obviously legitimate concerns behind the hawkishness that’s appeared. And in some ways, it’s almost like the UK is catching up for a decade of being quite complacent about its relationship with China by having like this kind of really concentrated three months of China skepticism.
Jeremy: Make up for the failed golden era under David Cameron.
Kaiser: Aw, poor David Cameron. Yeah. Yuan, this has been fantastic. I want you to talk about the new book that you’re working on, which I understand is about social mobility in the post-’80s generation, I guess the rough equivalent of China’s millennials. Tell us about that insofar as you are able.
Yuan: Yes. This is the manuscript I’ve handed in, in July before started my current role as Europe China correspondent. And we’re in the great old revisions process right now. And it’ll be published probably in early 2024 by Bloomsbury in the UK and Penguin Viking in the U.S. As you mentioned, it’s broadly about social mobility for the post ‘80s and ‘90s generation, i.e., my generation, i.e., the generation that grew up after the reform and opening-up period that witness both the boom and then the slowdown of the capitalist experiment in China, which is still, I would say, an experiment. The impetus behind the book partly was to capture certain stories of women I got to know very well while I was based in China for six years.
Among my friendship group in in Beijing, in other parts of China, I’ve seen quite amazing stories of mobility, both rises and falls of people born in poverty in the ‘80s and ‘90s, who then made it to the capital of people who were born in into middle-class city life, and then who gave it away for political reasons. And so, it is about social mobility, but it’s not a book written as a kind of economics text. It’s a book written more like a novel and it follows these women’s lives in a narrative style across their lives.
Kaiser: Well, I hope we will be your first stop once you get the book published, and that you’ll come back on a program to talk about it. And I really look forward to reading it. I’m sure it’ll be great.
Yuan: Thank you. I hope so too.
Kaiser: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk. Just really looking forward to that book. And do you have a working title for it yet?
Yuan: The title is Private Revolutions.
Kaiser: Ah, I like that. Private Revolutions, really good.
Jeremy: That’s layered. Very layered.
Kaiser: Indeed. Indeed. Let’s move on to recommendations, but first, Jeremy, give us a plug.
Jeremy: All right. My appeal is very simple. If you like this podcast, please subscribe to the China Project Access to get an ad-free version of this show every Monday, four days before the public release. Your ears will thank you for it. You will also get access to all of our other great content and our newsletters.
Kaiser: Yay. All right, let’s move on to recommendations. Jeremy, why don’t you start?
Jeremy: Sure. So, this week, Dave Chappelle, the comedian has been in a bit of trouble for some remarks he made on Saturday Night Live about Jews. And I just want to recommend, if you want to hear some really rude things about Jews, there’s this incredible comedy special by a Ari Shaffir who grew up…
Kaiser: Who doesn’t, right?
Jeremy: … an Orthodox Jew. And it’s simply called Jew and it’s free on YouTube, and it’s wonderful.
Kaiser: Yeah, right. So, antisemitism originating from Jewish people is okay. Huh? Is that what you’re saying?
Jeremy: It’s not actually antisemitism. It’s called humor.
Kaiser: I know. I’m sure it’s fine. It meets with your half-Jew approval. Okay. All right. His name is Ari Shaffir, you said?
Kaiser: All right, we’ll check it out. I will. Yuan, what do you have for us?
Yuan: Can I have two recommendations or is there anyone…
Kaiser: Absolutely. No two’s fine.
Yuan: Two recommendations. Okay. So, one piece of music. Emily Wells is an American composer and multi-instrumentalist, and she’s currently on her European tour to play her most recent album called Regards to the End. She is a really kind of multi-genre composer, so I find it very difficult to summarize what she does. It’s like a mixture of orchestral pop, R&B, and all of it is done by her solely. So, when she’s performing on stage, which I saw a couple of weeks ago in London, she’s playing the violin, singing, looping herself, playing the keyboard, and even playing her own drums to kind of weave this super multilayered music.
Yuan: She came into her early career was as a classical violinist, and she’s now, I guess, producing more, I guess, in the pop genre. But it’s incredibly satisfying to listen to because it feels like it wakens you on many, many different layers. I think she’s just an amazing composer. So, that’s a musical recommendation. Her name’s Emily Wells.
Yuan: My book recommendation is going to be a classic of science fantasy, and that’s Ursula Le Guin.
Yuan: I recently read The Dispossessed, which is about… Well, it’s partly about into planetary travel. It’s also about two different planets or two different civilizations. Very broadly, you can call one a communist and one capitalist, and about a scientist who travels from one to the other and starts to realize that the kind of home trues that they grew up with in their own country, in their own civilization about what capitalism or communism meant are completely different to what they find in the other country.
Kaiser: Oh, great. I mean, I love the Earth Sea Trilogy. I haven’t read Dispossessed yet. I’ll put it on my list right away.
Yuan: Yeah. So, these are more like… In Ursula Le Guin’s more like adult fiction, there’s the series that includes The Dispossessed. And she has a lot of yeah, adult fiction. Although who are we to question the line between children’s and adult fiction?
Kaiser: That’s what I always say. Yeah, I mean, I don’t like this whole, “Oh, that’s just a YA novel.” My other recommendation, actually I’m saving it for another show that I’m taping later, is for something that’s sometimes dismissed as YA, but is actually just a great novel. So, thanks. Those are great recommendations. Emily Wells, I’ll definitely check her out too. She sounds fantastic. I have two recommendations as well. One is a website and one is a TV series. The website is called monguli.com, M-O-N-G-U-L-A-I.com. it’s an e-commerce site where you can buy all sorts of artisanal crafts and other products made in Mongolia; wolftail fur hats, and Mongolian boots, both of which I just recently purchased, as well… No, I did.
Jeremy: Are you becoming a cosplayer, Kaiser?
Kaiser: Yeah, something like that. And a deal. I got a deal on a deel. D-E-E-L, those Mongolian traditional garbs. This one looks really cool. It’ll keep me warm in the winter. Traditional belts and quivers and bow cases and saddles, and even they’ve got like yurts or gers. Apparently-
Yuan: Kaiser, I think you’re one of the few Americans who can pull off this look.
Kaiser: Yeah, no, I think I can. I’m pretty sure I can. I’ve done it before. The bows that are on sale there, by the way, don’t buy those. I asked around and it sounds like they’re terrible. I don’t recommend those. But the rest of the stuff looks great. I have this great pair of boots that I got that came from them. It’s monguli.com, check it out. My other recommendation is for a show on Netflix called Barbarians. In German, it’s Barbaren. Are you maybe detecting a theme here, Jeremy? This is actually about the-
Jeremy: A middle-aged man cosplaying as a… I get it.
Kaiser: This is actually about…
Jeremy: Some people buy Ferraris.
Kaiser: Right. And I’m just like larping, or something like that. This is actually about the dramatic tribes fighting Rome expansion in the time of Tiberius. So, the first season is actually focused on the German leader, Arminius, who just has the most amazing story. I remember reading about him when I was young. He was sent as a hostage to Rome in his early childhood and grew up in Rome kind of as a Roman, but then went back and then ended up leading the German tribes in that very famous battle of Teutoburg Forest where they ambushed a couple of legions actually under Varus, and they completely wiped them out. And then the second season, that’s where it culminates in this Teutoburg Forest. The second season is about sort of the Romans pushing back under Germanicus. So, I actually pulled out my old copy of Tacitus and was checking about Germanicus. It’s a lot of fun. It’s an amazing period of history. One thing that I really loved about it is that the Germans speak German — that’s not surprising — but the Romans speak Latin. I mean, it’s all subtitled, of course, but they speak Latin. And it’s kind of amazing. I’ve never seen that in a show before.
Yuan: One of the few instances of employment for a live Latin interpreter.
Kaiser: Exactly. Right. I mean…
Jeremy: That’s good to know.
Kaiser: You really get a bunch of priests. But it’s really cool. It’s really cool. Check it out. I just finished it last night, the second season. Very, very good. All right, thanks so much. Jeremy, great to see you again, as always.
Jeremy: Yeah, likewise. And thank you, Yuan. That was fascinating.
Kaiser: Yeah. Yuan, thank you so much. That was really fantastic. Thanks.
Yuan: Thank you for having me on.
Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by The China Project 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 email@example.com, or just give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts as it really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @thechinaproj, and be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you next week. Take care.