Feb 10 • 55M

Sinocism Podcast #4: The Economist's David Rennie on online nationalism, discourse power, reporting from China, US-China relations

Bill Bishop
Comment3
Share
 
1.0×
0:00
-54:44
Open in playerListen on);
A podcast from Bill Bishop, author of the Sinocism newsletter, in which we talk to experts from around the world to help us all get smarter about China. Topics discussed include politics, foreign relations, business, finance, culture, history and markets. Nearly 100,000 investors, policymakers, executives, analysts, diplomats, journalists, scholars and others read Sinocism for valuable insights into China.
Episode details
3 comments

Episode Notes:

This episode's guest is David Rennie, the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist and author of the weekly Chaguan column. Our topic is online discourse, nationalism, the intensifying contest for global discourse power and US-China relations.

Excerpts:

I spoke to some very serious NGO people who've been in China a long time, Chinese and foreigners who said that this was the worst time for NGOs since 1989, and the kind of mentions of espionage and national security was a very serious thing. So then I had to make a decision, was I going to try and speak to someone like Sai Lei. Clearly he is an extremely aggressive nationalist, some would call him a troll and there are risks involved in talking to someone like him. But I felt, I'm one of the few English language media still in China, if I'm going to add value, I need to speak to these people.

I had a very interesting conversation with a CGTN commentator…He said, I can't tell you how many Western diplomats, or Western journalists they whine. And they moan. And they say, how aggressive China is now and how upset all this Wolf warrior stuff is and how China is doing itself damage. And he goes, we're not, it's working. You in the Western media, used to routinely say that the national people's Congress was a rubber stamp parliament. And because we went after you again and again, you see news organizations no longer as quick to use that. Because we went after you calling us a dictatorship, you're now slower to use that term because we went after you about human rights and how it has different meanings in different countries. We think it's having an effect…

One of the things I think is a value of being here is you have these conversations where the fact that we in the West think that China is inevitably making a mistake by being much more aggressive. I don't think that's how a big part of the machine here sees it. I think they think it worked….

To simplify and exaggerate a bit, I think that China, and this is not just a guess, this is based on off the record conversations with some pretty senior Chinese figures, they believe that the Western world, but in particular, the United States is too ignorant and unimaginative and Western centric, and probably too racist to understand that China is going to succeed, that China is winning and that the West is in really decadent decline…

I think that what they believe they are doing is delivering an educational dose of pain and I'm quoting a Chinese official with the word pain. And it is to shock us because we are too mule headed and thick to understand that China is winning and we are losing. And so they're going to keep delivering educational doses of pain until we get it…

The fundamental message and I'm quoting a smart friend of mine in Beijing here is China's rise is inevitable. Resistance is futile…

And if you accommodate us, we'll make it worth your while. It's the key message. And they think that some people are proving dimmer and slower and more reluctant to pick that message up and above all Americans and Anglo-Saxons.

On US-China relations:

The general trend of U.S. China relations. to be of optimistic about the trend of U.S. China relations I'd have to be more optimistic than I currently am about the state of U.S. Politics. And there's a kind of general observation, which is that I think that American democracy is in very bad shape right now. And I wish that some of the China hawks in Congress, particularly on the Republican side, who are also willing to imply, for example, that the 2020 election was stolen, that there was massive fraud every time they say that stuff, they're making an in-kind contribution to the budget of the Chinese propaganda department…

You cannot be a patriotic American political leader and tell lies about the state of American democracy. And then say that you are concerned about China's rise…

..their message about Joe Biden is that he is weak and old and lacks control of Congress. And that he is, this is from scholars rather than officials, I should say, but their view is, why would China spend political capital on the guy who's going to lose the next election?…

The one thing that I will say about the U.S. China relationship, and I'm very, very pessimistic about the fact that the two sides, they don't share a vision of how this ends well.


Links:

China’s online nationalists turn paranoia into clickbait | The Economist

赛雷:我接受了英国《经济学人》采访,切身体验了深深的恶意 

David Rennie on Twitter @DSORennie



Transcript:

You may notice a couple of choppy spots. We had some Beijing-VPN issues and so had to restart the discussion three times.

Bill:

Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the `Sinocism podcast. It's been a bit of a break, but we are back and we will continue going forward on a fairly regular schedule today. For the fourth episode, I'm really happy to be able to chat with David Rennie, the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist and author of the weekly Chaguan column. Our topic today is online discourse, nationalism, and the intensifying contest for global discourse power.

Bill:

I've long been a fan of David's work and the approximate cause for inviting him to join the podcast today was an article on the January 8th issue of The Economist on online nationalism. Welcome David.

David:

Hello.

Bill:

So just to start, could you tell us how you got to where you are today?

David:

I've been a foreign correspondent for frighteningly long time, 24 years. And it's my second China posting. I've been out there so long. I've done two Chinas, two Washingtons, five years in Brussels. I was here in the '90s and then I went off, spent a total of nine years in Washington, DC. And then I came back here in 2018 and I was asked to launch a new column about China called Chaguan, because previously I wrote our Lexington column and our Bagehot column about Britain and our Charlemagne column about Europe. They all have strange names, but that's what we do. And so this is my fourth column for The Economist.

Bill:

We last met, I think in 2018 in Beijing in what seems like before times in many ways at The Opposite House, I believe.

David:

And the days when we had visitors, people came from the outside world, all of those things.

Bill:

Yes. You are quite the survivor, as they say. Although there are advantages to not worry about walking outside and getting sick all the time. Although it's better here in DC now.

David:

It's a very safe bubble. It's a very large bubble, but it's a bubble.

Bill:

So let's talk about your article, the January 8th issue. It was titled “China's online nationalist turned paranoia into click bait”. And I thought it was a very good distillation of the surge in nationalists and anti foreign content that is really flooding or was flooded the internet in China. And you interviewed one of the people who's profiting from it because it turns out that not only is it good from a sort of a sentiment perspective, but it's also good from a business perspective.

Bill:

And that person Sai Lei, interestingly enough, then recorded your conversation and turned it into a whole new post and video about the whole experience of talking to a foreign correspondent. Can you tell us a little about the story and why you chose to write it and just to add the links to David's article and the Sai Lei article will be in the podcast notes.

David:

So I heard from friends and colleagues, a couple of things in two directions. One was that in the world of private sector media, a couple of reasonably well known explainer sites, popular science video companies had been taken out of business by nationalist attacks. One was called Paperclip, the other called Elephant Union. And their crime in the eyes of online nationalists had been to talk about things which are fairly uncontroversial in Western media, that eating beef from the Amazon or eating beef that is fed soy grown in the Amazon is potentially bad for the rainforest and maybe we should eat less meat.

David:

But because this was in the Chinese context, that China is the biggest buyer of soybeans, this explainer video was attacked as a plot to deny the Chinese people the protein that they need to be strong, that this was a race traitor attack on the Chinese. And it was outrageous because the West eats so much more meat than China. And so that was one element of it. And I heard that these companies had been shut down. The other was that I'd been picking up that this was an extremely bad time for NGOs, particularly Chinese NGOs that get money from overseas. And we'd seen some really nasty attacks, not just on the idea that they were getting money from overseas, but that they were somehow guilty of espionage.

David:

And there was an NGO that did incredibly benign work. Tracking maritime and Marine trash, as it floats around the coasts of China based in Shanghai, Rendu Ocean. I'd done a column on them the year before I'd been out with their volunteers. It was a bunch of pensioners and retirees and school kids picking up styrofoam and trash off beaches, weighing it, tracking where it came from and then uploading this data to try and track the fact that China is a big generator of the plastic and other trash in the oceans. They were accused of espionage and taking foreign money to track ocean currents that would help foreign militaries, attack China, that they were guilty of grave national security crimes.

David:

And they were attacked in a press conference, including at the national defense ministry. And they're basically now in a world of pain. They're still just about clinging on. And so these two things, you have these NGOs under really serious attack, and you also have this attack on online explainer videos. The common theme was that the nationalist attack, they were somehow portraying the country and its national security was a weird combination of not just the security forces, but also private sector, Chinese online nationalists. And in particularly I was told there was a guy called Sai Lei. That's his non to plume who was one of the people making videos taking on these people. He went after celebrities who talked about China should be more careful about eating seafood.

David:

This was again, sort of race traitors. And he was using this really horrible language about these celebrities who talked about eating more sustainable seafood that they were ‘er guizi”, which is this time about the collaborationist police officers who worked with the Japanese during the World War II. He calls them Hanjian, the s-called traitors to the Chinese race. Very, very loaded language. Went after a group that’s working with Africans down in the south of China, talking about how they faced discrimination. This got them attacked. They had talked also about the role of Chinese merchants in the illegal ivory trade that got them attacked by the nationalists.

David:

So I thought this question of whether the government is behind this or whether this is a private sector attack on that. There's the profits to be made from this online nationalism struck me something I should write about. So I talked to some of the people whose organizations and companies had been taken down, they were very clear that they thought that was a unholy nexus of profit, clickbait and things like the communist youth league really liking the way that they can turbocharge some of these attacks-

Bill:

Especially on bilibili, they use that a lot.

David:

Especially on... Yeah. And so there's this weird sort of sense that, and I spoke to some very serious NGO people who've been in China a long time, Chinese and foreigners who said that this was the worst time for NGOs since 1989, and the kind of mentions of espionage and national security was a very serious thing. So then I had to make a decision, was I going to try and speak to someone like Sai Lei. Clearly he is an extremely aggressive nationalist, some would call him a troll and there are risks involved in talking to someone like him. But I felt, I'm one of the few English language media still in China, if I'm going to add value, I need to speak to these people.

David:

Yes. And so I reached out to the founder of a big, well known nationalist website who I happen to know. And I said, do you know this guy Sai Lei? And he said, I do, I'll get in touch with him. Sai Lei was very, very anxious about speaking to the Western media. Thought I was going to misquote him. And so eventually we did this deal that he was going to record the whole thing. And that if he thought I had misquoted him, that he was going to run the entire transcript on full on this other very well known nationalist website that had made the introduction. So I said, okay, fine. I have nothing to hide. That's all good. I wrote the column. I quoted Sai Lei. I didn't quote a tremendous amount of Sai Lei because what he said was not especially revealing.

David:

He was just an extremely paranoid guy. And there was a lot of whataboutism and he was saying, well, how would the American public react if they were told that what they eat damages the Amazon rainforest? And I said, well, they're told that all the time-

Bill:

All the time.

David:

It was an incredibly familiar argument. It's on the front page of America newspapers all the time. And so he wasn't willing to engage. And so, I ran this. He then put out this attack on me. It's fair. Look, I make a living handing out my opinions. I knew he was recording me, was it a bit disappointing that he cut and edited it to make me sound as bad as possible rather than running the full transcript. I mean, I interviewed a troll and that was the thing. He attacked me on the basis of my family, which then triggered a whole bunch of stuff that was pretty familiar to me, a lot of wet and journalists get a lot of attacks and it was an unpleasant experience, but I feel that the added value of being here is to talk to people, who The Economist does not agree with.

David:

And his fundamental problem was that I was using online as a disapproving time. But my line with people like him, or with some of the very prominent nationalists online academics, media entrepreneurs, also with the Chinese foreign ministry, when I'm called in is my job in China is to try to explain how China sees the world. To speak to people in China to let their voices be heard in The Economist. And I absolutely undertake to try and reflect their views faithfully, but I do not promise to agree with them, because The Economist does not hide the fact that we are a Western liberal newspaper. We're not anti-China, we are liberal. And so, if we see illiberall things happening in Abu Ghraib or in Guantanamo Bay or-

Bill:

DC.

David:

Being done by Donald Trump or being done by Boris Johnson or Brexit, or Viktor Orbán or in China, we will criticize them because we are what we say we are. We are a liberal newspaper. We have been since 1843. And what's interesting is that online, the reaction was... For a while, I was trending on Bilibili. And that was new. And I take that on the chin. I mean, I'm here, I'm attacking nationalists. They're going to attack back. I think what's interesting is that the online of nationalist attacks were, I hope that the ministry of state security arrest this guy, he should be thrown out of China. Why is he in China? They should be expelled. This guy has no right to be in China.

David:

I think that at some level, some parts of the central government machinery do still see a value to having newspapers like The Economist, reasonably well read Western media in China. And it's this conversation I've had a lot with the foreign ministry, with the State Council Information Office, which is as you know, it's the front name plate for the propaganda bureau. And I say to them, we are liberals.

David:

We are not anti-China any more than we're anti-American because we criticize Donald Trump, but you know where we're coming from, but I do believe that if China is concerned about how it's covered, if they throw all of us out, they're not going to get better coverage. I mean, some of the most aggressive coverage about China in the states comes from journalists who never go to China and economists who never go to China. And I think that, that argument resonates with some parts of the machine, to the people whose job is to deal with people like me.

David:

What I worry about is that there are other parts of the machine, whether it's the Communist Youth League or whether it's the ministry of state security or some other elements in the machine who do also see a tremendous value in delegitimizing Western media full stop, because if you're being criticized and you don't enjoy it. Tactic number one, whether you are Donald Trump talking about fake news, or Vladimir Putin talking about hostile foreign forces, or the Chinese is to delegitimize your critics.

David:

And I do think that that is going on in a way that in the four years that I've been here this time. And if, I think back to my time here 20 years ago, I do think the attempts to go after and intimidate and delegitimize the Western media they're getting more aggressive and they're trying new tactics, which are pretty concerning.

Bill:

So that's a great segue into the next question. But first, I just want to ask the nationalist website that you said ran Sai Lei's piece that was Guancha.cn?

David:

Yeah. And so it's probably not secret, but so I know a bit, Eric Li, Li Shimo, the co-founder Guancha.

Bill:

Eric actually famous for his TED Talk, went to Stanford business school, venture capitalist. And now, I guess he's affiliated with Fudan, And is quite an active funder of all sorts of online discourse it seems among other things.

David:

That's right. And I would point out that The Economist, we have this by invitation online debate platform and we invite people to contribute. And we did in fact, run a piece by Eric Li, the co-founder of Guancha, the nationalist website a couple of weeks before this attack, that Guancha ran. And I actually had debate with some colleagues about this, about whether as liberals, we're the suckers that allow people who attack us to write, he wrote a very cogent, but fairly familiar argument about the performance legitimacy, the communist party and how that was superior to Western liberal democracy.

David:

And I think that it's the price of being a liberal newspaper. If we take that seriously, then we occasionally have to give a platform to people who will then turn around and attack us. And if I'm going to live in China and not see of my family for a very long period of time, and it's a privilege to live in China, but there are costs. If you are an expert, then I'm not ready to give up on the idea of talking to people who we strongly disagree with. If I'm going to commit to living here to me the only reason to do that is so you talk to people, not just liberals who we agree with, but people who strongly disagree with us.

Bill:

No. And I think that's right. And I think that also ties in for many years, predating Xi Jinping there's been this long stated goal for China to increase its global discourse power as they call it. And to spread more the tell the truth, tell the real story, spread more positive energy about China globally instead of having foreign and especially Western, or I think, and this ties into some of the national stuff increasing what we hear is called the Anglo-Saxons media dominate the global discourse about China. And to be fair, China has a point. I mean, there should be more Chinese voices talking about China globally.

Bill:

That's not an unreasonable desire, or request from a country as big and powerful as China is. One thing that seems like a problem is on the one hand you've got, the policy makers are pushing to improve and better control discourse about China globally. At the same time, they're increasing their control over the domestic discourse inside the PRC about the rest of the world. And so in some ways, yes, there's an imbalance globally, but there's also a massive imbalance domestically, which seems to fit into what you just went through with Sai Lei and where the trends are. I don't know. I mean, how does China tell a more convincing story to the world in a way that isn't just a constant struggle to use the term they actually use, but more of an actual fact based honest discussion, or is that something that we're just not going to see anytime soon?

David:

I think there's a couple of elements to that. I mean, you are absolutely right that China like any country has the right to want to draw the attention of the world to stuff that China does. That's impressive. And I do think, one of my arguments when I talk to Chinese officials as to why they should keep giving out visas to people like me is, when I think back to the beginning of the COVID pandemic, I've not left China for more than two years. I've not left since the pandemic began, you had a lot of media writing that this incredibly ferocious crackdown was going to be very unpopular with the Chinese public. And that's because of the very beginning you had people, there lots of stuff on Chinese social media, little videos of people being beaten up by some [inaudible 00:16:26] in a village or tied to a tree, or their doors being welded shot.

David:

And it did look unbelievably thuggish. And people playing Majiang being arrested. But actually about three weeks into the pandemic, and I was traveling outside Beijing and going to villages and then coming back and doing the quarantine, you'd go into these villages in the middle of Henan or Hunan. And you'd have the earth bomb at the entrance to the village and all the old guys in the red arm bands. And the pitchforks and the school desk, or the entrance to the village with a piece of paper, because you got to have paperwork as well. And you've realized that this incredibly strict grassroots control system that they'd put in motion, the grid management, the fact that the village loud speakers were back up and running and broadcasting propaganda was actually a source of comfort.

David:

That it gave people a sense that they could do something to keep this frightening disease at bay. And I think to me, that's an absolute example that it's in China's interest to have Western journalists in China because it was only being in China that made me realize that this strictness was actually welcomed by a lot of Chinese people. It made them feel safe and it made them feel that they were contributing to a national course by locking themselves indoors and obeying these sometimes very strange and arbitrary rules. In addition, I think you are absolutely right, China has the right to want the foreign media to report that stuff.

David:

Instead of looking at China through a Western lens and saying, this is draconian, this is ferocious, this is abuse of human rights. It's absolutely appropriate for China to say no, if you're doing your job properly, you will try and understand this place on China's own terms. You will allow Chinese voices into your reporting and let them tell the world that they're actually comforted by this extremely strict zero COVID policy, which is tremendously popular with the majority of the Chinese public. That is a completely legitimate ambition. And I never failed to take the chance to tell officials that's why they should give visas to have journalists in the country, because if you're not in the country, you can't think that stuff up.

David:

What I think is much more problematic is that there is alongside that legitimate desire to have China understood on China's own terms, there is a very conscious strategy underway, which is talked about by some of the academics at Fudan who work for Eric Li at Guancha as a discourse war, a narrative war, or to redefine certain key terms.

Bill:

And the term and the term is really is like struggle. I mean, they see it as a public opinion war globally. I mean, that the language is very martial in Chinese.

David:

Absolutely. Yeah. And do not say that we are not a democracy. If you say that we are not a democracy, you are ignoring our tremendous success in handling COVID. We are a whole society democracy, which it's basically a performance legitimacy argument, or a collective utilitarian, the maximizing the benefits for the largest number of argument. It's not particularly new, but the aggression with which it's being pushed is new and the extraordinary resources they put into going after Western media for the language that we use of our China. And I had a very interesting conversation with a CGTN commentator who attacked me online, on Twitter and said that I was a... It was sort of like you scratch an English when you'll find a drug dealer or a pirate.

David:

Now there's a lot of Opium War rhetoric around if you're a British journalist in China. You're never too far from Opium War reference. And for the record, I don't approve of the war, but it was also before my time. So I actually, the guy attacked me fairly aggressively on Twitter. So I said, can you try and be professional? I'm being professional here why won't you be professional. He invited me with coffee. So we had coffee. And we talked about his work for CGTN and for Chaguan and his view of his interactions to Western media. And he said, this very revealing thing. He said, the reason we do this stuff is because it works.

David:

He said, I can't tell you how many Western diplomats, or Western journalists they whine. And they moan. And they say, how aggressive China is now and how upset all this Wolf warrior stuff is and how China is doing itself damage. And he goes, we're not, it's working. You in the Western media, used to routinely say that the national people's Congress was a rubber stamp parliament. And because we went after you again and again, you see news organizations no longer as quick to use that. Because we went after you calling us a dictatorship, you're now slower to use that term because we went after you about human rights and how it has different meanings in different countries. We think it's having an effect.

David:

And so I think that this attempt to grind us down is working, although in their view, it's working. And I think that, that ties in with a broader conversation that I have a lot in Beijing with foreign ambassadors or foreign diplomats who they get called into the foreign ministry, treated politically aggressively and shouted at and humiliated. And they say, how does the Chinese side not see that this causes them problems? And I think that in this moment of, as you say, an era of struggle, this phrase that we see from speeches, from leaders, including Xi, about an era of change, not seen in 100 years.

David:

They really do feel that as the West, particularly America is in decline and as China is rising, that it's almost like there's a turbulence in the sky where these two the two axis are crossing. And that China has to just push through that turbulence. To use a story that I had kept secret for a long time, that I put in a column when Michael Kovrig was released. So, listeners will remember Michael Kovrig was one of the two Canadians who was held cover couple of years, basically as a hostage by the Chinese state security. And fairly early on, I had heard from some diplomats in Beijing from another Western embassy, not the UK, I should say, that the fact that Michael Kovrig in detention was being questioned, not just about his work for an NGO, the international crisis group that he was doing when he was picked up.

David:

But he was also being questioned about work he'd been doing for the Canadian embassy when he had diplomatic immunity. The fact that that was going on was frightening to Western diplomats in Beijing. And soon after that conversation, I was sitting there talking to this guy, reasonably senior official. And I said to him, I explained this conversation to him. And I said, I've just been having a conversation with these diplomats. And they said, the word that they used was frightened about what you are doing to Michael Kovrig. And I said, how does it help China to frighten people from that country?

David:

And he'd been pretty cheerful up till then. He switched to English so that he could be sure that I understood everything he wanted to say to me. And he said, this absolute glacial tone. He said, Canada needs to feel pain. So that the next time America asks an ally to help attack China, that ally will think twice. And that's it.

Bill:

That's it. And it probably works.

David:

It works. And yeah. So I think that, again, one of the things I think is a value of being here is you have these conversations where the fact that we in the West think that China is inevitably making a mistake by being much more aggressive. I don't think that's how a big part of the machine here sees it. I think they think it worked.

Bill:

No. I agree. And I'm not actually sure that they're making a mistake because if you look at so far, what have the cost been? As you said, I mean, behavior is shift, but I think it's definitely open for question. I mean, it's like the assumptions you still see this week, multiple columns about how China's COVID policy is inevitably going to fail. And I'm sitting here in DC, we're about to cross a million people dead in this country, and I'm thinking what's failure. It's a very interesting time.

Bill:

I mean, to that point about this attitude and the way that there seem to be prosecuting a very top down or top level design communication strategy, Zhang Weiwei, who's at Fudan University. And also I think Eric Li is a closer associate of his, he actually was the, discussant at a Politburo study session. One of the monthly study sessions a few months ago, where I think the theme was on improving international communication. And talking about, again, how to better tell China's story, how to increase the global discourse power.

Bill:

Some people saw that as, oh, they're going to be nicer because they want to have a more lovable China image. I’m very skeptical because I think that this more aggressive tone, the shorthand is “Wolf warriors. wolf-warriorism”, I think really that seems to me to be more of a fundamental tenant of Xi Jinping being thought on diplomacy, about how China communicates to the world. I mean, how do you see it and how does this get better, or does it not get better for a while?

David:

It's a really important question. So I think, what do they think they're up to? To simplify and exaggerate a bit, I think that China, and this is not just a guess, this is based on off the record conversations with some pretty senior Chinese figures, they believe that the Western world, but in particular, the United States is too ignorant and unimaginative and Western centric, and probably too racist to understand that China is going to succeed, that China is winning and that the West is in really decadent decline.

David:

And so I think that these aggressive acts like detaining the two Michaels or their diplomatic an economic coercion of countries like Australia or Lithuania. They hear all the Pearl clutching dismay from high officials in Brussels, or in Washington DC-

Bill:

And the op-eds in big papers about how awful this is and-

David:

And the op-eds and yeah, self-defeating, and all those things. But I think that what they believe they are doing is delivering an educational dose of pain and I'm quoting a Chinese official with the word pain. And it is to shock us because we are too mule headed and thick to understand that China is winning and we are losing. And so they're going to keep delivering educational doses of pain until we get it. I think they think that's what they're up to-

Bill:

And by getting it basically stepping a side in certain areas and letting the Chinese pursue some of their key goals, the core interests, whatever you want to call it, that we, yeah.

David:

That we accommodate. Yeah. The fundamental message I'm quoting a smart friend of mine in Beijing here is China's rise is inevitable. Resistance is futile.

Bill:

Right. Resistance is futile.

David:

And if you accommodate us, we'll make it worth your while. It's the key message. And they think that some people are proving dimer and slower and more reluctant to pick that message up and above all Americans and Anglo Saxons. And so they're giving us the touch, the whip. Now, do I think that, that is inevitably going to be great for them? And you ask how does this end well? I mean, I guess my reason for thinking that they may yet pay some price, not a total price, is that they are engaged in a giant experiment. The Chinese government and party are engaged in a giant experiment, that it didn't matter that much, that the Western world was permissive and open to engagement with China.

David:

That, That wasn't really integral to their economic rise for the last 40 years that China basically did it by itself. And that if the Western world becomes more suspicious and more hostile, that China will not pay a very substantial price because its market power and its own manufacturing, industrial strength, we'll push on through. And so there'll be a period of turbulence and then we'll realized that we have to accommodate. And I think that in many cases they will be right. There will be sectors where industries don't leave China. They in fact, double down and reinvest and we're seeing that right now, but I do worry that there are going to be real costs paid.

David:

I mean, when I think back to... I did a special report for The Economists in May, 2019 about us generations. And one of the parts of that was the extraordinary number of Chinese students in us colleges. And I went to the University of Iowa and I spoke to Chinese students and you know that now, the levels of nationalism and hostility on both sides and the fear in American campuses, that's a real cost. I mean, I think if you imagine China's relationship with the Western world, particularly the U.S. as a fork in the road with two forks, one total engagement, one total decoupling, then absolutely China is right. There's not going to be total decoupling because we are as dependent as we were on China's, it's just-

Bill:

Right. Not realistic.

David:

China is an enormous market and also the best place to get a lot of stuff made. But I wonder, and it's an image I've used in a column, I think. I think that the relationship is not a fork in the road with two forks. It's a tree with a million branches. And each of those branches is a decision. Does this Western university sign a partnership with that Chinese university? Does this Western company get bought by a Chinese company? Does the government approve of that? Does this Western media organization sign a partnership with a Chinese media organization?

David:

Does this Western country buy a 5g network or an airline or a data cloud service or autonomous vehicles from China that are products and services with very high value added where China wants to be a dominant player. And that's an entirely reasonable ambition, because China's a big high tech power now. But a lot of these very high value added services or these relationships between universities, or businesses, or governments in the absence of trust, they don't make a bunch of sense because if you don't trust the company, who's cloud is holding your data or the company who's made you the autonomous car, which is filled with microphones and sensors and knows where you were last night and what you said in your car last night, if you don't trust that company or the country that made that, none of that makes sense.

David:

And I think that China's willingness to show its teeth and to use economic coercion and to go to European governments and say, if you don't take a fine Chinese 5g network we're going to hurt you. If you boil that down to a bumper sticker, that's China saying to the world, or certainly to the Western world stay open to China, or China will hurt you. Trust China or China will hurt you. That's the core message for a lot of these Wolf warrior ambassadors. And that's the core message to people like me, a guy who writes a column living in Beijing. And a lot of the time China's market power will make that okay. But I think that's, if you look at that tree with a million decisions, maybe more of those than China was expecting will click from a yes to a no.

David:

If you're a Western university, do you now open that campus in Shanghai? Do you trust your local Chinese partner when they say that your academics are going to have freedom of speech? And what's heartbreaking about that is that the victims of that are not going to be the politic bureau it's going to be people on the ground, it's going to be researchers and students and consumers and-

Bill:

On both sides. I mean, that's-

David:

On both sides. Yeah.

Bill:

Yeah. That's the problem.

David:

Yeah.

Bill:

So that's uplifting. No, I mean, I-

David:

I've got worse.

Bill:

Wait until the next question. I think I really appreciate your time and it'd be respective but I just have two more questions. One is really about just being a foreign correspondent in China and the Foreign correspondents' Club of China put out its annual report, I think earlier this week. And it's depressing you read as it's been in years and every year is extremely depressing, but one of the backdrops is really the first foreign ministry press conference of the last year of 2021. It really struck me that Hua Chunying, who is... She's now I think assistant foreign minister, vice foreign minister at the time, she was the head of the information office in I think the one of the spokespeople, she made a statement about how it was kicking off the 100th anniversary year.

Bill:

And I'm just going to read her couple sentences to get a sense of the language. So she said, and this was on the, I think it was January 4th, 2021, "In the 1930s and 1940s when the Guangdong government sealed off Yunnan and spared, no efforts to demonize the CPC foreign journalists like Americans, Edgar Snow, Anna Louise Strong and Agnes Smedley, curious about who and what the CPC is, chose to blend in with the CPC members in Yunnan and wrote many objective reports as well as works like the famous Red star over China, giving the world, the first clip of the CPC and its endeavor in uniting and leading the Chinese people in pursuing national independence and liberation."

Bill:

And then went on with more stuff about how basically wanting foreign correspondents to be like Snow, Strong or Smedley. How did that go over? And I mean, is that just part of the, your welcome as long as you're telling the right story message?

David:

So there was a certain amount of... Yeah. I mean, we also got this from our handlers at the MFA, why couldn't it be more like Edgar Snow? And I fear the first time I had that line in the meeting, I was like, well, he was a communist, if that's the bar, then I'm probably going to meet that one. Edgar Snow went to Yan’an he spent a tremendous amount of time in Mao hours interviewing Mao. If Xi Jinping wants to let me interview him for hours, I'd be up for that. But I would point out that Edgar Snow, after interviewing Mao for hours, then handed the transcripts over to Mao and had them edited and then handed back to him. And that probably would not be-

Bill:

But doesn't work at The Economist.

David:

That wouldn't fly with my editors. No. So I think we may have an inseparable problem there. Look, isn't it the phrase that Trump people used to talk about working the refs? I mean, what government doesn't want to work the refs. So, that's part of it. And I'm a big boy, I've been at Trump rallies and had people scream at me and tell me, I'm fake news. And it was still a good thing to meet. I've interviewed Afghan warlords who had happily killed me, but at that precise moment, they wanted the Americans to drop a bomb on the mountain opposite.

David:

And so they were willing to have me in their encampment. So, the worker of being a journalist, you need to go and talk to people who don't necessarily agree with you or like you and that's the deal. So I'm not particularly upset by that. What is worrying and I think this is shown in the FCC annual server, which is based on asking journalists in China how their job goes at the moment is there is a sense that the Chinese machine and in particular things like the communist youth league have been very effective at whipping up low public opinion.

David:

So when we saw the floods in Hunan Province in the summer of 2021, where in fact, we recently just found out that central government punished a whole bunch of officials who had covered up the death doll there, journalists who went down there to report this perfectly legitimate, large news story, the communist youth league among other organizations put out notices on their social media feeds telling people they're a hostile foreign journalists trying to make China look bad, to not talk to them, if you see them, tell us where they are. And you've got these very angry crowds chasing journalists around Hunan in a fairly worry way.

David:

And again, if you're a foreign correspondent in another country, we are guests in China. So, the Chinese people, they don't have to love me. I hope that they will answer my questions, because I think I'm trying to report this place fairly, but I'm not demanding red carpet treatment, but there is a sense that the very powerful propaganda machine here is whipping up very deliberately something that goes beyond just be careful about talking to foreign journalists. And I think in particular, one thing that I should say is that as a middle aged English guy with gray hair, I still have an easier time of it by far because some of the nastiest attacks, including from  the nastiest online nationalist trolls.

David:

They're not just nationalists, but they're also sexist and chauvinist and the people who I think really deserve far more sympathy than some like me is Chinese American, or Chinese Australian, or Chinese Canadian journalists, particularly young women journalists.

Bill:

I know Emily Feng at NPR was just the subject of a really nasty spate of attacks online about some of her reporting.

David:

And it's not just Emily, there's a whole-

Bill:

Right. There's a whole bunch.

David:

There's a whole bunch of them. And they get called you know er guizi all sorts of [crosstalk 00:37:15]. And this idea and all this horrible stuff about being race traitors and again, one of the conversations I've had with Chinese officials is, if you keep this up, someone is going to get physically hurt. And I don't think that's what you want.

David:

And again, I fall back on the fact that I'm a Western liberal. What I say to them is if you tell me that a Chinese-British journalist is not as British as me, then you are to my mind, that's racial prejudice. And if some right wing Western white politician said to me that a Chinese immigrant wasn't fully American, or wasn't fully British, that's racism, right?

Bill:

That's racism. Yeah.

David:

And I think that is the really troubling element to this level of nationalism. China is a very big country that does some very impressive things that does some less impressive things and does some very wicked things, but we have every reason to give it credit for the things it does well. And it is not that surprising when any government tries to work the refs.

David:

And get the best coverage they can by intimidating us and calling us out. I've interviewed Donald Trump and he asked me, when are you going to write something nice about me? I mean, we're grownups, this is how it works, but if they are making it toxic for young women journalists to work in China, or if they are driving foreign correspondent out of China, because their families they're under such intimidation that they can't even go on holiday without their children being followed around by secret police. I think there will be a cost.

Bill:

But that may be a what the Chinese side sees as a benefit, because then it opens the field for them controlling how the story's told. And then you can bring in a bunch of people or pull a bunch of people out of the foreigners working for state media, hey, the new Edgar Snow, the new Agnes Smedley. I mean, that is one of the things that I think potentially is what they're trying to do, which seems self-defeating, but as we've been discussing, what we think is self-defeating the policy makers, or some of them may see as a success.

David:

So what I think they're confident of is that being aggressive and making us much more jumpy is a win, but throwing all of us out, I think the people at the top get that, that's not a win because the New York times and the BBC and the Washington post, they're still going to cover China, even if they can't have people in China. And a bunch of that coverage is not going to be stuff that China likes, North Korea doesn't have any resident foreign correspondent, but it doesn't get a great press.

Bill:

And the other group, of course, but beyond the foreign journalists is all the PRC national journalists working for the foreign correspondent as researchers and, I mean, many of them journalists in all but name because they can't legally be that I've certainly, been hearing some pretty distressing stories about how much pressure they're under. And I think they're in almost an impossible situation it seems like right now.

David:

Now they're amazingly brave people. They're completely integral to our coverage. And many of them, as you say, they're journalists who in any other country, we would be getting to write stuff with their own bylines. I mean, in incredibly cautious about what we have our Chinese colleagues do now, because they are under tremendous pressure. I mean, not naming news organizations, but the just the level of harassment of them and their families and is really bad. And it's the most cynical attempt to make it difficult for us to do our jobs and to divide Chinese people from the Western media.

David:

But fundamentally at some level, this does not end well because, and this is not me just talking up the role of the Western media, because I think we're magnificently important people, but at some level there's a big problem under way with this level of nationalism in modern China. I was in China in the '90s, you were in China in the '90s, I think. We remember it was-

Bill:

'80s, '90s, 2000s. Yeah.

David:

Yeah. You were there before me, but it was not a Jeffersonian democracy. It was a dictatorship, but this level of nationalism is much more serious now. Why does that matter? Well, because I think that for a lot of particularly young Chinese, the gap between their self perception and the outside world's perception of China has become unbearably wide. They think this country has never been so impressive and admirable. And yet I keep seeing foreign media questioning us and criticizing us. And that just enrages them. They can't conceive of any sincere principle on our part that would make us criticize China that way.

David:

And going back to my conversation with the online nationalist Sai Lei, when he was saying, well, how would the Americans take it if they were told that eating avocados was bad for the environment? When I said to him, but they are told that. There are lots of environmental NGOs that talk about sustainable fisheries, or the cost, the carbon footprint of crops and things in the West. The two countries are pulling apart and the pandemic has just accelerated that process. And so if you are a Chinese nationalist, not only are you angry about being criticized, but you don't believe that the West is ever critical about itself. You think that the West is only bent on criticizing China. And that gap in perceptions is just really dangerously wide.

Bill:

And widening, it seems like. I mean, I'm not there now, but it certainly, from everything I can see outside of China, it feels like that's what's happening too.

David:

Yeah. We need to know more about China.

Bill:

I agree.

David:

And report more about China. And I don't just say that because that's how I earn my living. I think it's really, really dangerous for us to think that the solution is less reporting about China.

Bill:

Well, and certainly, I mean, and all sorts of avenues, not just media, but all sorts of avenues, we're seeing a constriction of information getting out of China. And on the one hand China's growing in importance globally and power globally. And on the other hand, our ability to understand the place seems to be getting harder. And it goes back to, I mean, we just, I think it'll be a mistake if we just get forced into accepting the official version of what China is. That's disseminated through the officially allowed and sanctioned outlets in China. Maybe that'll help China, but I'm not sure it helps the rest of the world.

David:

And it's not compatible with China's ambitions to be a high tech superpower. China wants to be a country that doesn't just-

Bill:

That's a very fundamental contradiction.

David:

Yeah. China wants to sell us vaccines and wants the Western world to buy Chinese vaccines and approve Chinese vaccines. Why has the FDA not yet approved Chinese vaccines? Well, one reason is because China hasn't released the data. You can't play this secretive defensive hermit state and be a global high tech superpower. And China is a very, very big country with a lot of good universities, a lot of smart people. It has every right to compete at the highest levels in global high tech. But you can't do that, if you are not willing to earn trust by sharing the data, or by letting your companies be audited, when they list overseas. They need to decide.

Bill:

Or being able to handle legitimate criticism. I mean, certainly there has been illegitimate criticism and the attacks on the Western media, I mean, I know the BBC was a frequent target last year. And I think they were able to pull out some errors of the reporting and then magnify it. I mean, it is a struggle. And I think one of the things I think is on the Chinese side, they're very much geared up for this ongoing global opinion struggle. And we're not and we're never going to be, because it's just not how our systems are structured. So it's going to be an interesting few years.

David:

It is. And it's a tremendous privilege to still be here. And as long as I'm allowed, I'm going to keep letting Chinese people, letting their voices be heard in my column. That's what I think I'm here for.

Bill:

Okay. Last question. Just given your experience in living in DC and writing for The Economist from here, where do you see us, China relations going? And there is a one direct connection to what we just talked about, the foreign journalists where there theoretically has been some sort of an improvement or a deal around allowing more journalists from each side to go to other country. Although what I've heard is that the Chinese side was been very clear that some of the folks who were forced to leave or were experienced are not going to be welcome back. It's going to have to be a whole new crop of people who go in for these places, which again, seems to be, we don't want people who have priors or longer time on the ground, potentially.

David:

We think that each of the big American news organizations just going to get at least one visa, initially. And that Is going to be this deal done and it's high time. And you're right, as far as we can tell the people who were expelled or forced to leave are not going to come back. And that's a real tragedy because I have Chinese officials say to me, we wish that the Western media sent people who speak good Chinese and who understand China. And I was like Ian Johnson and Chris Buckley, these people lived for, their depth of knowledge and their love for China was absolutely unrivaled. So, if you're going to throw those people out, you can't complain about journalists who don't like China.

Bill:

Exactly.

David:

The general trend of U.S. China relations. to be of optimistic about the trend of U.S. China relations I'd have to be more optimistic than I currently am about the state of U.S. Politics. And there's a kind of general observation, which is that I think that American democracy is in very bad shape right now. And I wish that some of the China hawks in Congress, particularly on the Republican side, who are also willing to imply, for example, that the 2020 election was stolen, that there was massive fraud every time they say that stuff, they're making an in-kind contribution to the budget of the Chinese propaganda department.

Bill:

I agree completely there. It's not a joke because it's too serious, but it's just ludicrous, hypocrisy and shortsightedness. It's disgusting.

David:

You cannot be a patriotic American political leader and tell lies about the state of American democracy. And then say that you are concerned about China's rise. So there's a general observation about, if dysfunction continues at this level, then-

Bill:

No wonder the Chinese are so confident.

David:

Yeah. I mean, the Chinese line on president Biden is interesting. One of the big things about my first couple of years here when president Trump was still in office was, I'd any number of people in the states saying confidently that Donald Trump was a tremendous China hawk. I never believed. And I've interviewed Trump a few times and spoken to him about China and spoken to his China people. I never believed that Donald Trump himself was a China hawk. If you define a China hawk, as someone who has principled objections to the way that China runs itself. I think that Donald Trump couldn't care less about the Uighurs and Xinjiang. In fact, we know he approved to what they were doing.

David:

Couldn't care less about Hong Kong couldn't care less frankly, about Taiwan. His objection to the China relationship was that I think he thinks the American economy is the big piece of real estate, and you should pay rent to access it. And he thought China wasn't paying enough rent. So he was having a rent review. I mean, that's what the guy. It was about, they needed to pay more and then he was going to be happy. So he was not a China hawk. What was really interesting was that here in China, officials would be pretty open by the end, took them time to get their heads around Trump. For a long time they thought he was New York business guy. Then they realized that was, he wasn't actually like the other New York business guy they knew.

David:

And then they thought he was like a super China hawk. And then they realized that that wasn't true. By the end, they had a nail. They thought he was a very transactional guy. And the deal that they could do with him was one that they were happy to do, because it didn't really involve structural change on the Chinese side. Then their message about Joe Biden is that he is weak and old and lacks control of Congress. And that he is, this is from scholars rather than officials, I should say, but their view is, why would China spend political capital on the guy who's going to lose the next election?

Bill:

And not only the next election but is probably going to lose control of the House, at least in nine, what is it? Nine months or 10 months. So why worry? And that they do and I think, I mean, one of the big milestones will be the national security strategy, the national defense strategy, which in the Trump administration they came out in the December of the first year and then January for the NDS. It's February, we still haven't seen those here. I think certainly as you said, but certainly from Chinese interlock is the sense of, is that they can't come to an agreement on what it should be, the U.S. China policy.

David:

Yeah. And China has some legitimate concerns. I mean, for example, if you are Xi Jinping and you're trying to work out how ambitious your climate change timetables going to be. How much pain are you going to ask co-producing provinces in the Northeast to take to get out to carbon neutrality as quickly as say, the Europeans are pushing you to do. And part of the equation is America going to take some pain too, or are we going to end up being uncompetitive? Because America's not actually going to do the right thing? Well, Joe Biden can talk a good game on climate as an area for cooperation with China. But if he loses the next election and Donald Trump or someone like Donald Trump wins the White House then if you're shooting pink, why would you kind of strike a painful deal with America if you don't think it's going to last beyond 2024?

Bill:

Right. You'll do what makes sense for your country and not offer anything up to America because we already have a record of backing out of these deals. That's the problem.

David:

So that has real world consequences. The one thing that I will say about the U.S. China relationship, and I'm very, very pessimistic about the fact that the two sides, they don't share a vision of how this ends well. There is no end game that I think makes both sides happy, because I think the Chinese vision is America sucks it up and accommodates.

Bill:

Right. Resistance is futile.

David:

Yeah, exactly. And the American vision, I think, is that China stumbles, that China is making mistakes, that the state is getting involved in the economy too much. That Xi Jinping is centralizing power too much. And that somehow China's going to make so many mistakes that it ends up to feed defeating itself. I think that's one of the arguments you here in DC.

Bill:

Yes. It's wishful thinking it's not necessarily based on a rigid rigorous analysis. It seems like it's much more wishful thinking.

David:

So, that is a reason to be pessimistic about the medium and the long-term. The one thing that I will say based here in China is that when I write really specific color about things like what does China think of the idea of Russia invading Ukraine? And I talk to really serious scholars who spent their lives studying things like Russia policy or foreign policy or international relations, or if I talk to really senior tech people, Chinese tech companies, they do take America's power very seriously. Even though there is absolutely sincere disdain for American political dysfunction.

David:

I think that America's innovation power, the areas of technology, whether it's semiconductors or some forms of AI algorithms where America just really is still ahead by a long way, the really serious people, when you talk to them off the record, they still take America seriously. And on that Ukraine example, what was really interesting, the prompt for that was seeing commentators in the U.S. saying that Xi Jinping would like Putin to invade Ukraine because this was going to be a test that Biden was going to fail and America was going to look weak. And maybe that would lead Xi Jinping to then invade Taiwan.

David:

And when I spoke to Chinese scholars, really serious Chinese scholars of Russia, their Irish, it's like, no, no, no. Russia is an economy, the size of Guangdong and they sell us oil and gas, which is nice. But our trade to them is not enough to sacrifice our relationship with America.

Bill:

Thank you, David Rennie. That was a really good conversation. I think very useful, very illuminating. The links, some of the articles we talked about, the links will be in the show notes. And just a note on the schedule for the sinocism podcast. It is not, I think going to be weekly or biweekly as I thought originally, I'm still working it out, but it will be every, at least once a month. I hope it's the plan, if not, a little more frequent depending on the guests.

Bill:

So thanks for your patience and look forward to hearing from you. I love your feedback. The transcript will be on the website when it goes live. So please let me know what you think. And as always, you can sign up for sinocism at sinocism.com, S-I-N-O-C-I-S-M.com. Thank you.