Following China

The first batch of outsiders to operate inside China after the revolution and report on it based on their first hand experiences were called China Hands. I wish I could have been one but I didn’t get there until 2000.

Altogether, I made half a dozen trips to at least ten different Chinese cities on business trips for Utah State University over the next five years, sometimes staying for several months. I was the Guest of Honor at numerous faculty dinners, featuring food I’d never encountered before and too much drinking. I’ve been inside private homes, spoken to parents about their child’s high school transcript, and made presentations in public schools. Still doesn’t come close to qualifying me as a China Hand.

China Watchers are a different and more recent breed, as I understand the term. China Hands were often business people sharing their observations. China Watchers tend to be China Watchers, period — they are explicitly focused on interpreting China so the rest of us don’t have to. They are more likely to be journalists or academics. If I was just starting my career, it would be an attractive direction. But I’m not.

I’m a retired person, still very active in new media technologies and international projects, who once traveled to China some. The only reason for me to follow China at all is that I am basically interested in everything.

And China isn’t just some small random topic. China is at the center of so many crucial areas, I honestly don’t understand why most educated people aren’t thinking and talking about China all the time. What’s more important? Climate change? China is now the world’s biggest problem and the world’s leading problem-solver when it comes to climate change. It has no choice.

Every dimension of our future will be heavily influenced if not dominated by China. The China 2025 project is a public blueprint of how this will take place in the realms of science and technology. Social credit systems being implemented now are a blueprint for 21st century social control. China’s ‘Influencers’ and its tight integration of online community with e-commerce show us how culture will be shaped and marketed.

How could I not be interested?

I may not be a Hand or a Watcher, but I am an active China Follower. I realized a long time ago that I could not rely on traditional sources of news and opinion. Their frequency and depth of coverage are aimed at a more casual audience, looking for a simple overview that conforms to a consensus western model of China.

I have no agenda. I’m not trying to establish a reputation for my insights, assuming I ever have any, about China. But I also don’t want to be part of someone else’s agenda, someone else who has an axe to grind or a reason for trying to sell a particular view of China. Doing my best to avoid that means opening myself up not just to multiple sources, but to multiple types of sources. I want to hear from established channels, each with a different angle, and from less officially sanctioned outlets.

Newsletters

I follow China digitally. No analog things. The first way I keep up is through what I let into my In-Box by subscribing.

I try to be careful about subscribing because I feel a strong need to keep up with what I choose to subscribe to. It makes me feel bad if I don’t. E-Newsletters sitting there Unread weigh on me like an unfulfilled obligation.

I allow myself one daily China-related newsletter — SupChina, edited by Jeremy Goldkorn and part of an independent media group focused on China, with a mission of trying to “help make sense of a complex country that is reshaping the world.”

The newsletter includes daily commentary on current events, both in politics and Chinese culture in general. It also usually has an extensive set of links to coverage of many aspects of China in other publications. The tone is smart and serious, but without the bland carefulness of most smart and serious publications. SupChina is definitely respectable, but it has its own distinctive, younger voice.

SupChina has a premium level, with greater depth and access to online discussions. The idea is intriguing but I don’t really need it. The free version gives me what I want.

My most significant non-daily China newsletter uses the same freemium strategy. Bill Bishop writes Axios China as a weekly (Friday afternoon) newsletter in the ‘Smart Brevity’ style all the Axios newsletters share. He focuses on 4–5 stories in each issue and writes about them at different levels of resolution, so you can move on at any time or go deeper into each story. Bishop is the consummate pro’s pro — Sinocism, his paid subscription newsletter has been called, “the Presidential daily briefing for China hands.” Axios China is perfect. Sinocism is more than I need.

I do not subscribe to any newspapers in any form. However, I do receive, for free, the digital edition of the South China Morning Post weekly summary. It’s one of my favorite sources, with lots of striking color pics and 5–6 feature articles from the previous week. No newspaper published in China can be considered truly independent, but the Morning Post is not an obvious propaganda mouthpiece for the Party, as most other newspapers are.

One of my most independent and unpredictable sources is an occasional newsletter called, iLook China, by Lloyd Lofthouse. An unabashed China-phile, Lofthouse can be counted on to present China in a favorable light, no matter what he chooses to feature in each issue, sometimes an historical piece, sometimes his unique take on current events. Lofthouse is also the author of, “My Splendid Concubine,” the fascinating story of the Sir Robert Hart, founder of the modern Chinese Maritime Customs Service.

Following China also means following China outside of China — and no place on the planet is getting more attention from China at this time than Africa. Most western commentary emphasizes the danger of new colonialism when China lends money for major development projects to African nations that could find it difficult to repay. China in Africa: The Real Story often challenges the main narrative and frequently makes an evidence-based case for China as a positive force on the continent. The newsletter is not published on a regular schedule and is one of several publications by the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.

The Paulson Institute at the University of Chicago would have to be considered a channel for the 1% perspective, as Paulson has served as CEO of Goldman-Sachs and Secretary of the Treasury, where he bailed out his billionaire colleagues with our money. He has been considered a China Expert throughout his career and Macro Polo is the publication through which I learn how his Institute views China.

I would like to be able to keep up with stories and trends in Chinese culture, not just politics, economics and tech. SupChina does some of that, but Magpie Kingdom promises, “actionable cultural insights on Chinese consumers, translated into business strategy.” I wish they published more often.

Long Form Journalism

The previous section was not a definitive guide to China-related newsletters, nor is this little section any kind of definitive guide to the many great journalists who have focused on China. I am in no position to produce such a guide; all I can do is describe the idiosyncratic collection of sources I have assembled over the years and rely on now. In fact, when it comes to Long-Form Journalism, less might be more useful; I really only have two must-read China writers.

Peter Hessler began his career writing about China. He has written four books and numerous articles, mostly in ‘National Geographic’ or ‘The New Yorker,’ and is a 2011 MacArthur ‘genius grant’ winner for his “keenly observed accounts of ordinary people responding to the complexities of life in such rapidly changing societies as Reform Era China.” I read “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze” while I was traveling and working in China. He went much further and deeper than I ever did, but the observations he shared confirmed what I thought I was seeing and feeling in my interactions with people.

Evan Osnos is ‘The New Yorker’s’ current China correspondent. I look forward to every new piece he writes like I used to look forward to a new record albums. There’s something different about his writing, something fun. China writing is usually so serious. Evan Osnos manages to be super intelligent while still finding the fun in the mind blowing transformation occurring before our eyes. I think many would consider his, ‘Making China Great Again,’ in the January 8, 2018 edition of ‘The NewYorker’ to be an important perspective-setting piece.

Podcasts

Finally. I am a major podcast listener and the podcast medium is easily my favorite way of Following China. Reading is work. I have to focus and I can’t do anything else but read when I’m reading. Podcasts feature the human voice and engage me conceptually and emotionally, plus I can fold laundry while I listen, or walk on the beach, or workout, or do anything that does not require major concentration.

I am also careful about subscribing to podcasts. I just do not like the feeling of un-listened-to audio files automatically piling up on my devices. It probably sounds a little crazy, but I go directly to iTunes or the individual podcast sites and download what I want to one of my portable MP3 players. It takes a little time, but I know what I have and it’s arranged just the way I want it. I know exactly what to anticipate, to look forward to.

When I take my daily walks or do my workout, I don’t think of myself as exercising. I think of myself as listening to a podcast. It helps get me out the door.

Podcasts take on the personality of the host or hosts, especially for long-term listeners. That’s one of the reasons why the Sinica Podcast, with Jeremy Goldkorn of SupChina and Kaiser Kuo is my favorite. They’re both interesting and opinionated people and they let plenty of their true selves show on the podcast. Kuo, for instance, lived in Beijing for over 20 years and is a legendary member of the heavy metal scene there. He is also very smart and fun to listen to. Together they interview people on everything from AI to the Uyghurs. I would describe them as loving critics of China.

Sinica produces two other podcasts that are more focused –TechBuzz China and China EconTalk. I like them both, because there are so many areas I know nothing about within those topics and because the Sinica hosts manage to present information and conduct interviews in conversational style. They are younger than the hosts of China podcasts originating in think tanks or universities. Due to the scale and the rate of change in China, it is impossible not to be slightly mind blown after every episode, and to see our US tech and economic world in a new perspective.

I listen to Sinica podcasts at least 3–4 times every week. I listen to several other China podcasts less frequently, but they provide a different perspective that I want to be exposed to. The most measured and formal one is the China in the World podcast, hosted by Paul Haenle and produced by the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. Haenle tends to interview older, very established diplomats and foreign policy thinkers who rarely say anything surprising.

The ChinaPower podcast, with Bonnie S. Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), is also a very authoritative channel with contributors who have been high government or military positions. CSIS is one of the world’s leading think tanks on the topic of security, which tends to mean traditional defense and intelligence programs. This podcast is directly concerned with China’s rise and features more candid discussions from a wide variety of experts.

Australia is in a unique position relative to China and questions about China’s reach and methods have been raised there for years. Hosted by Graeme Smith and Louisa Lim, the Little Red Podcast interviews have a different flavor than the ones coming out of Washington DC corridors of power. It feels more immediate and journalistic.

Finally, I should mention that it is inevitable to for anyone not educated in China to find key gaps in knowledge of China’s history or undertaking of its culture. One way to address these gaps is with the help of the China History Podcast and China Sayings, by Laszlo Montgomery. There are many China History podcasts. Lazslo’s is not the most extravagant by any means; it’s just him and a microphone. But the guy can tell a story and keep your attention. Plus he tends to drill down into topics so you can catch up efficiently and in depth. Need to know more about Deng Xiaoping? Binge the six-part story in China History Podcasts; boom, you’re caught up.

Books

I still read them, but strictly speaking they are not part of ‘Following China.’ Books, like China History Podcast, are how I fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge as a result of learning absolutely nothing about China in my entire formal education. My first book about China was Chairman Mao’s ‘Little Red Book,” which I bought on the street in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1967. I was 18. I had no context for understanding it, not that anyone else did. I had a lot to learn.

I will write about the China books that have helped the most, fiction and non-fiction, in another article. Weighty China tomes are still in my rotation. At the moment I am reading John Pomfret’s, “The Beautiful County and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.” The early parts feel like a novel. The more recent parts engage me more critically.

Going Forward

I am involved in a Virtual Reality project in Cambodia. It’s another way of following China, because China’s presence is so strong there. I have discussed the difficult second-language decision with parents — English (by far the main choice for the past 20 years and more) or Mandarin (rapidly gaining in popularity). I have seen areas where large numbers of Cambodians have been displaced to make way for Chinese-funded development. The Sihanoukville section of Cambodia’s coast is becoming a Chinese resort.

During my childhood, we were conditioned to feel a certain way about Red China — wary. ‘The Little Red Book’ made China cool for a generation of baby boomers waking up into their own cultural revolution. Then Nixon, and Deng, started chipping away at the differences and China has been on a fast track of growth and ascendancy. Change had been brewing for a while but in the summer of 2018 the world entered the China-US Tariff war phase.

Why do I spend at least five hours per week of my best time trying to follow all this? Of course it’s partly because China’s trajectory will affect what is left of my life and it definitely will affect my children and grandchildren’s lives. But I think the real reason I put in the time and effort is that it’s such a cool story, more intriguing, unpredictable and multi-layered than anything I have encountered in fiction. The more I invest, the more fun it is.

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Tom Nickel

Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos