Sinica Podcast

A weekly discussion of current affairs in China with journalists, writers, academics, policy makers, business people and anyone with something compelling to say about the country that's reshaping the world. Hosted by Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn and powered by
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May 17, 2017

When Joseph Nye, Jr., first used the phrase soft power in 1990 in his book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, China did not factor much into his calculus of world order: It had relatively little military and economic power, and none of the softer “persuasive” or “attractive” abilities that Nye saw as key features of the global domination of the United States.

Today, we live in a different world, and though China is achieving remarkable military might and economic dominance, Nye would argue that China has only made stumbling progress in becoming a more attractive brand to most other nations.

What are the continuing roadblocks to China’s progress in building soft power? How is Donald Trump affecting the balance of such power between the U.S. and China? Are both countries headed toward an inevitable great power conflict — also known as the Thucydides Trap — in which an established power’s fear of a rising power escalates toward war? And has the meaning of the term soft power changed in the last 25 years, between 1990 and 2015, when Nye published his most recent book, Is the American Century Over?

Jeremy and Kaiser spoke with Nye, a University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard University, at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he was formerly the dean.


Jeremy: “Imagining Re-Engineered Muslims in Northwest China,” a largely visual article by Darren Byler on Chinese propaganda about Muslims in Xinjiang Province.

Joe: Is the American Century Over?, his most recent book, which contains a chapter that specifically compares the U.S. and China in soft power. Plus, an upcoming (planned for a mid-September 2017 release) Ken Burns film on the Vietnam War, which should be of interest to anyone interested in Asia, the U.S., or history in general.

Kaiser: The collection of Renaissance oil paintings at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University.

May 11, 2017

Charlene Barshefsky was a name you couldn’t avoid if you were in Beijing in the late 1990s. As the United States trade representative from 1997 to 2001, she led the American team that negotiated China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). On December 11, 2001, Ambassador Barshefsky’s efforts paid off, and, as a new member of the body that sets global rules for trade, China began the deep integration into the world economy that we take for granted today.

Kaiser and Jeremy recorded this interview with Ambassador Barshefsky at her offices at the law firm WilmerHale in Washington, D.C., where she is the chair of international trade. She recounted stories about the WTO negotiations, and about her relationship with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, who was her Chinese counterpart in negotiations (see SupChina’s video on Zhu). We asked her how the hopes and expectations behind China’s WTO accession look in retrospect, and how she sees China’s role in global trade in the second decade of the 21st century. We think you’ll agree that her answers provide a fascinating glimpse into one of the most significant global economic deals in recent history.


Jeremy: A series on the history, politics, and culture of cities in China, edited by Geremie R. Barmé: Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Hangzhou and West Lake.

Charlene: The classic tale of Moby Dick, by Herman Melville.

Kaiser: Learning (or relearning) Spanish, especially via the YouTube channel Aprender Idiomas y Cultura General con Rodrigo.

May 4, 2017

China-watching isn’t what it used to be. Not too long ago, the field of international China studies was dominated by a few male Westerners with an encyclopedic knowledge of China, but with surprisingly little experience living in the country and speaking Chinese. Today, China-watching is different: The old “China hands” are still around and remain authoritative, but an increased number of younger travelers in a much more open China, people with specialized academic backgrounds and advanced language skills, and women — see last week’s Sinica Podcast on female China expertise — are changing the face of this field.

Bill Bishop is among the most recognizable China-watchers in the business. His long-running Sinocism newsletter is an essential resource for serious followers of China policy, and he is regularly quoted in a variety of major news outlets reporting on China.

Kaiser and Bill sat down at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., on April 6 to record this podcast and discuss how China-watching has changed over the years. And in a reflection of Bill’s point that the media’s conventional wisdom on China is usually wrong, the summit between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago (occurring during the recording of this podcast) was exactly as Bill predicted: “Bland.”


Bill: In the Name of the People (人民的名义 rénmín de míngyì), the big-budget anti-corruption propaganda thriller. And The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, by Ian Johnson.

Kaiser: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, a provocative and original book by Yuval Noah Harari.


Apr 27, 2017

From business to literature to politics, there is a huge pool of female expertise on China. But you wouldn’t know it if you examined the names of people who are quoted in the media and invited to China-themed panel discussions: They are mostly men. This is a problem that two Beijing-based journalists aim to solve.

Joanna Chiu of AFP and Lucy Hornby of the Financial Times created and maintain an open, user-contributed list called “Female Experts on Hong Kong, Macau, Mainland China and Taiwan.” They began by providing their own contacts, then promoted the document to various email groups and to Twitter. The list “blew up” early this year and now contains nearly 200 names and contact details of female China experts on every major subject area, based all around the world. With such a roster willing to be called up, the list eliminates many common excuses for the underrepresentation of women in the field.

In this episode, Joanna and Lucy speak with Jeremy and Kaiser about the realities and biases in the field, the excuses and corresponding solutions for gender underrepresentation, and how the “women’s list” came about.

Longtime listeners will remember Lucy from a previous Sinica episode discussing her story on China’s last surviving “comfort women,” enslaved by the Japanese military in World War II. You can follow Lucy on Twitter at @hornbylucy, and find Joanna on Twitter at @joannachiu.


Jeremy: Witness to Revolution, a film by Lucy Ostrander about author and labor activist Anna Louise Strong (1885–1970), who spent decades in China and the Soviet Union, getting to know Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Joseph Stalin, and writing about their pursuit of communism.

Lucy: All the President’s Men, the first-person account of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they reported on the Nixon administration’s Watergate scandal.

Joanna: The Supreme People’s Court Monitor, a project of Susan Finder, for those who follow Chinese law, and the work of Jessica Valenti, a feminist book author and columnist for the Guardian.

Kaiser: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a story about a sleeper agent from Vietnam who moves to the U.S.

Apr 20, 2017

As a career U.S. foreign service officer and the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the U.S. State Department, Susan Thornton has had a hand in the China policy of three successive American administrations. She was stationed in China for the years 2000-2007, and since then has held leadership positions in Washington connected to U.S.-China relations. Before 2000, she specialized in and was stationed in post-Soviet states, including Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

She is an excellent interpreter of how U.S.-China relations have developed in the 21st century, and a key player in current U.S.-China policy.

In this podcast: What really happened at Mar-a-Lago? Was the Trump team prepared? Was the timing of the Syria strike intentional? How does the U.S. administration plan to press China on North Korea, and will it continue to criticize China on human rights?

This podcast was recorded live on April 12 at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., with the help of that university’s chapter of Global China Connection.


Jeremy: “Logical Thinking” (逻辑思维 luóji sīwéi), a popular channel on WeChat that broadcasts a one-minute recording on an issue of society in mainland China every day. Search for “逻辑思维” on WeChat.

Susan: The Immobile Empire, by Alain Peyrefitte, a book on Lord George Macartney’s famous trip to visit the Qianlong Emperor in 1793 and cross-cultural perceptions between the British and Chinese empires.

Kaiser: Chinese History: A New Manual, by Endymion Wilkinson. The invaluable tome covering China from many different angles is often described as “magisterial.”

Apr 13, 2017

Virginia A. Kamsky, also known as Ginny, is one of the leading foreign businesspeople in China and a legend of the U.S.-China commercial relationship.

She first went to China in 1978 with what was then the Chase Manhattan Bank, before the country began “reform and opening up” and when very few foreigners visited. Ginny founded Kamsky Associates, Inc., in 1980, one of the first U.S. companies to be granted a business license in China. As a strategic advisory firm, Kamsky works with a wide array of clients ranging from automobile, chemical, finance, media, and more.

Unlike some foreign business people but like many of the most successful business leaders in China, she has a background in Chinese language and culture, having learned it since she was ten years old. On the podcast, she shares some of her experiences getting to know some of the more notable politicians, executives, and entrepreneurs working in China, and the opportunities and pitfalls of doing business there as a woman and as a foreigner.

Ginny will also be featured next month — on May 18, 2017 — as a speaker on the CEO / Leaders panel of the SupChina Women and China Conference in New York.


Jeremy: 5 Calls, a smartphone app designed for the American “resistance” to Donald Trump, which gives you the numbers of five elected representatives or government offices in the U.S. to contact every day based on your location.

Ginny: A video of Chinese ballroom dancing from 1929, plus the new book of Brookings scholar Cheng Li, Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era: Reassessing Collective Leadership.

Kaiser: Crazy Aaron Thinking Putty, a fun toy his son discovered and that Kaiser has found quite useful as a sort of stress ball.

Apr 6, 2017

Is nationalism really rising in China? How does it differ from patriotism? What is “Eurasianism” and how does Russia use that concept? How much of China’s nationalism is rooted in the “century of humiliation” that the country suffered at the hands of Western countries and Japan between 1839 and 1949? Jeremy and Kaiser spoke with two eminent scholars of nationalism in Russia and China to find out.

Charles Clover is a correspondent with the Financial Times based in Beijing, and author of Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia's New Nationalism.

Jude Blanchette is a scholar currently writing a book on neo-Maoists in China, who, he explains, have their own interpretation of Chinese nationalism. Jude was a guest on a previous episode of the Sinica Podcast dedicated to the subject of neo-Maoists.


Jeremy: “The Age of Total Lies,” a translation of an essay written by Vesna Pešić, a Serbian opposition politician and human rights activist.

Jude: The Political Logic of Economic Reform in China, published in 1993 by Susan Shirk.

Charles: Easternization: Asia's Rise and America's Decline From Obama to Trump and Beyond, by Gideon Rachman.

Kaiser: Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra, and the 1987 film Repentance, a view into life under Stalinism by Georgian filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze.


Mar 30, 2017

16+1, a new Chinese initiative, takes its name from 16 countries of Central and Eastern Europe plus China. It held a summit in November 2016 attended by Premier Li Keqiang and prime ministers or deputy prime ministers from the other member states. Earlier, President Xi Jinping had visited three countries in the region — Serbia, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

What’s it all for? How have China’s overtures been received by the governments of Central and Eastern Europe? Many of them — like those of Poland and the Czech Republic — had, until recently, real difficulties in their relations with China. And how have the two powers flanking Central and Eastern Europe — Russia to the east and the EU to the west — reacted to China’s creation of 16+1?

For answers to these questions and many more, Kaiser and Jeremy talked to Martin Hála, a China scholar who heads a project called AcaMedia, which is based in his native Prague.


Jeremy: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera.

Martin: Black Wind, White Snow, by Charles Clover, Eurasian integration: Caught between Russia and China, by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Kaiser: The “relative calculator” app on WeChat, which calculates the correct Chinese term for family relations. Search for 亲戚计算器 (qīnqi jìsuànqì) on WeChat.


Mar 23, 2017

Earlier this month, Kaiser recorded a discussion in front of a live audience at the 1990 Institute in San Francisco with three luminaries of the China-watching scene: Yasheng Huang, MIT Sloan Professor of Chinese Economy and Business, John Pomfret, author of The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, and Andy Rothman, investment strategist at Matthews Asia.

They got together to talk about how the presidency of Donald Trump will affect trade, politics, the international order, currency policies, and several other sides of the American relationship with China.

Mar 16, 2017

Chris Buckley is a highly regarded and very resourceful correspondent for The New York Times, who is based in Beijing. He has worked as a researcher and journalist in China since 1998, including a stint at Reuters, and is one of the few working China correspondents with a Ph.D. in China studies. Chris’s coverage has included politics, foreign policy, rural issues, human rights, the environment, and climate change. He also has an informative and sometimes very amusing Twitter account.

In this podcast, recorded with a live audience in Beijing, Kaiser and Jeremy ask Chris about his tradecraft and sourcing of stories about elite Chinese politics, his views on Xi Jinping and the anti-corruption campaign, and what we can expect from the 19th Party Congress this fall. Chris also talks about the joys of journalism in a country that makes it very difficult to do.


Jeremy: Interactive infographic about the Party’s “Leading Small Groups” produced by the Mercator Institute for China Studies, Great Wall Fresh - restaurant and wild Great Wall hiking.

Chris: Intentions: Examining my peers in the Republic 心路-透视共和国同龄人 by Mi Hedu 米鹤都 (on Chinese Amazon store), All Sages Bookstore (in Chinese)万圣书屋 in Beijing

Kaiser: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Mar 9, 2017

By day, Andrew Dougherty is a macroeconomist who manages a China research team for Capital Group, one of the world’s largest actively managed mutual funds. By night, he is Big Daddy Dough, creator of an album of parody hip-hop songs that explain various facets of the contemporary Chinese political and economic situation, from fixed-asset investment to leadership succession. On a recent trip to Beijing, Kaiser and Jeremy sat down with Big Daddy Dough to listen to some of his songs and talk about the serious issues he describes in a lighthearted way in his music.

You can listen to Big Daddy Dough’s album and watch his music videos on his website: The Red Print Album.


Jeremy: China Heritage website.

Andrew: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance.

Kaiser: The Devil Made Me Do It, a hip-hop album by Paris. 


Mar 2, 2017

Jane Perlez has been a reporter at The New York Times since 1981. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for coverage of the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She has reported on wars, diplomacy, and foreign policy from Somalia to Poland to Indonesia. Since moving to Beijing in 2012, she’s written about everything from China’s space program to the Dixie Mission — the group of Americans sent to Mao Zedong’s revolutionary base at Yan’an who hoped to establish good relations between the U.S. and the soon-to-be-victorious Chinese communists. Last year, she took over from Edward Wong (listen to his exit interview on Sinica here) to become the Times’s Beijing bureau chief.

Much of Jane’s reporting has focused on China’s foreign policy, particularly its relations with the United States and its Asian neighbors. So she is the ideal interpreter for us as we try to understand Chinese foreign relations in a new age of uncertainty. Jeremy interviewed Jane in front of a live audience at the Beijing Bookworm for this podcast.

Feb 23, 2017

John Grobler is a Namibian investigative reporter who has devoted more than two years of his life to examining the complex webs of organized crime funneling rhino horn from Africa to east Asia. Shi Yi 石毅, a Chinese environmental reporter, worked with him and went undercover posing as a businessperson to meet and report on the young Chinese men who engage in this nefarious activity abroad. Jeremy chatted with both of them when he attended the Africa-China Journalists Forum in Johannesburg, South Africa in November 2016 (listen to his other conversations with African journalists on last week’s Sinica Podcast).

Separately, Kaiser interviewed Nicole Elizabeth Barnes of Duke University, an expert on Chinese medicine. Nicole, John, and Shi Yi all discussed China’s role in the illegal rhino horn trade, debunking myths about its use as an aphrodisiac and explaining how upper class and status-conscious Chinese and Vietnamese are fueling demand for this and other rare natural products.

All three recommended listeners to support WildAid, one of the foremost organizations campaigning against the poaching of elephants and black rhinos. John also recommends supporting Oxpeckers, an African environmental investigative reporting unit that supports his work in Namibia. Nicole further recommended supporting the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and marking World Rhino Day, September 22nd, on your calendar to raise awareness of the work CITIES and TRAFFIC do to monitor and crack down on illegal wildlife trade.

Feb 16, 2017

In November 2016, Sinica co-host Jeremy Goldkorn attended a conference in his native South Africa called the Africa-China Journalists Forum. The forum was convened to discuss the often-polarized media coverage of China’s involvement in Africa, and to consider how to accentuate the African perspective — rather than the Chinese or Western ones — on how China is changing lives in Africa. In addition to moderating the forum, Jeremy interviewed two organizers of the forum who are longtime observers of China in Africa: Barry Van Wyk and Bob Wekesa. Both are highly knowledgeable of journalism in Africa, and work for the Africa-China Reporting Project at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, where the forum was held.

In this short episode, Barry and Bob explain the differences between Chinese, African, and Western journalists, the state of reporting on China-in-Africa issues, and the work that the Africa-China Reporting Project is doing to build a “human grassroots approach” to reporting such a large and controversial story. They also recommended several of their favorite stories that have come out of the project in its work to sponsor aspiring African and Chinese journalists:

  • Nfor Kingsley Monde on China’s role driving deforestation in Cameroon, and on the flipside, Manyanye Paul Ikome on how China has contributed greatly to improving public health in that same country.
  • Other stories on health care, such as this one by Fousseni Saibou.
  • A few highlights from Chinese journalists: Chen Xiaochen on a sisal farm in Tanzania, and Yang Meng on the gold mines of Ghana.
  • Fredrick Mugira on Uganda’s copper mines.
  • Stories on the Standard Gauge Railway being built in Kenya and east Africa, such as this one by Allan Olingo.


Feb 9, 2017

A top diplomat during the Clinton administration, author of the influential book China: Fragile Superpower: How China’s Internal Politics Could Derail Its Peaceful Rise, research professor and chair of the 21st Century China Center at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego, and co-author of a new high-level task force report on U.S.-China policy, Susan Shirk is one of the most sought-after voices on Chinese politics and U.S.-China relations.

Today’s Sinica Podcast features an interview with Susan recorded live on January 30 during the Chinese New Year celebrations at the Long US-China Institute at UC Irvine. Susan talks about how China and its role in the world have dramatically changed in the last decade; how the country’s leaders have grown increasingly fragile and fearful of disloyalty even as their power has grown; and how those leaders likely share her trepidation that the Trump administration may recklessly “trash the entire relationship” between the two countries.


Jeremy: His new hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, a wonderful place to visit, contrary to the misconceptions that many coastal Americans have about the South. Also Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where Kaiser lives.

Susan: The School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego, which has a special focus on Asia and a strong group of China scholars. The China Focus blog, written by students at UC San Diego. The China 21 Podcast, produced by the 21st Century China Center.

Kaiser: The Sellout, a satire novel by Paul Beatty, the first American author to win the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

Feb 2, 2017

In the last three years, John Zhu has embarked on a mission to build a bridge between Chinese and Western cultures by retelling one of China’s great classics in accessible audio episodes. He has released over 100 chapters of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms Podcast.

Three Kingdoms, as it is sometimes called, is one of China’s four great novels, along with Water Margin, Journey to the West, and Dream of the Red Chamber. Together, they have exerted an influence in China similar to the extraordinary impact on language and culture of the King James Bible and Shakespeare in the Anglophone world. Three Kingdoms is reminiscent of a fantastical epic like Lord of the Rings, with its tales massive medieval military forces competing for dominance, and introduces hundreds of iconic characters representing the gamut of the human experience.

Listen to Jeremy and Kaiser’s interview with John Zhu to get a taste of Three Kingdoms and how John’s global listeners are responding to a Chinese classic. To learn more about China’s four great novels, see this piece by the editors of SupChina.


Jeremy: “Trump on China,” ChinaFile’s tracker of every Trump administration statement relating to China, plus quotes from Trump going back five years.

John: For readers of Chinese, (连环画 liánhuánhuà), a website where you can find scanned and catalogued pictures from hundreds of classic Chinese graphic novels and children’s books. For non-readers of Chinese, the Chinese Sayings podcast, new from Laszlo Montgomery (noted for his long-running China History Podcast). A few of the Chinese Sayings episodes have already sought to explain phrases originating from Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Kaiser: Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI, a turn-based strategy video game where you can role-play, control cities, develop land, run economies, build and train armies, and strategize wars, all in the historical setting of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.


Jan 26, 2017

Sidney Rittenberg is a labor activist from Charleston, South Carolina, who went to China as a translator for the U.S. Army in 1945 and stayed until 1980.

In this episode, Sidney talks about the conditions he endured during his two periods of solitary confinement, Sino-American relations, the behavior of Russian advisers sent to China by the Soviet Union, and much more. Part one of our interview is here.

You can read a Q&A with Sidney on SupChina here. You can buy Sidney’s books: an autobiography, The Man Who Stayed Behind, and Manage Your Mind: Set Yourself Free, on lessons he learned while in solitary confinement. The Revolutionary is a documentary film about his life (also available on Amazon).

Jan 19, 2017

Sidney Rittenberg was a labor activist in the American South before going to China as a translator for the U.S. Army in 1945. He stayed there until 1980, joining the Communist Party and going to the revolutionary base at Yan’an, where he got to know Mao Zedong and other senior members of the Party who went on to govern China. He also spent 16 years in solitary confinement.

In this first episode of a two-part interview, Kaiser and Jeremy talk to Sidney about his fascinating life story.

You can read a Q&A with Sidney on SupChina here. You can buy Sidney’s books: an autobiography, The Man Who Stayed Behind, and Manage Your Mind: Set Yourself Free, on lessons he learned while in solitary confinement. The Revolutionary is a documentary film about his life.


Jan 12, 2017

Ken Liu is a science-fiction writer, translator, computer programmer, and lawyer. He has written two novels and more than 100 short stories. His short story “The Paper Menagerie” is the first work of fiction, of any length, to win all three of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. Among his translations are two of the three parts of the Chinese science-fiction hit The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin.

In this episode of the Sinica Podcast, Ken talks to Kaiser and Jeremy about his own work, the significance of The Three-Body Problem in the Chinese literary world, and the current state of Chinese science fiction.


Jeremy: Understanding China Through Comics series, by Liu Jing: Foundations of Chinese Civilization: The Yellow Emperor to the Han Dynasty, Division to Unification in Imperial China: The Three Kingdoms to the Tang Dynasty, and Barbarians and the Birth of Chinese Identity: The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms to the Yuan Dynasty.

Ken: Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, by Bee Wilson.

Kaiser: Deadwood TV series.


The Three-Body trilogy, by Liu Cixin: The Three-Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu, The Dark Forest, translated by Joel Martinsen, and Death’s End, translated by Ken Liu.

Invisible Planets: An anthology of contemporary Chinese science fiction, translated by Ken Liu.

Fiction by Ken Liu: The Grace of Kings, The Wall of Storms (read an excerpt on SupChina here), and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories.


Jan 5, 2017

Alec Ash is a young British writer who lives in Beijing, who has covered “left behind” children in Chinese villages, the “toughest high school exam in the world” and internet live streaming among many other subjects. He is the author of Wish Lanterns, which the Financial Times called a “closely observed study of China’s millennials.” The book tells the stories of six Chinese people born between 1985 and 1990. The characters have very different backgrounds and aspirations, including a rock musician named Lucifer, an internet addict named Snail, and a patriotic Party official’s daughter.  

In this episode of the Sinica Podcast, Alec discusses his book with Kaiser, Jeremy, and David Moser. He talks about contemporary youth culture in China, the concerns of Chinese millennials, how he met the six characters in the book and what we can understand about China’s changing culture from their stories.


Jeremy: Unreliable Sources: How the Twentieth Century Was Reported, by John Simpson.

David: The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, edited by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom.

Alec: The Barbarians at the Gate podcast.

Kaiser: Battle Cry of Freedom, by James M. McPherson — ”the best single-volume history of the American Civil War that I know of” — and Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping, by Stephen R. Platt.