Welcome to Economics and Beyond. I’m Rob Johnson, president of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
I am with an extraordinary journalist and author today, whose book I find just what you might call different in a beautiful way. China Unbound: A New World Disorder by Joanna Chiu, who works as a journalist with The Toronto Star and has an awful lot of what you might call personal history related to China, residing in Canada, observing all over the world. I was really spellbound as I looked at this book, and given all of the [inaudible 00:01:13] in global political economy and geopolitics, I’ve tried to make, how do I say, an effort to illuminate this, but it’s sometimes hard to find a very bright light, but today I think we have one. Joanna, thanks for joining me.
Oh wow. Thank you so much, Rob. That introduction was so flattering, and it makes me feel, to get this invitation from you in itself made me feel a sense of relief. I was worried about how the book would go over with American audiences because it is very critical of the west. It’s critical of U.S. leadership on foreign policymaking and rhetoric around China. My book doesn’t provide very simple answers. It’s hard to sum up in talking points. So, really honored and glad that you enjoyed the book.
Well, what I would say is tough love is still love and sometimes cowardice is not love. So I think you’re bringing some very constructive things to the table, and before we really delve into the bits and pieces, let’s talk a little bit about your background within an eye towards what inspired you to write this book. What is your, what y’all call generative experiences in life that brought you to this beachhead where you felt compelled to create this offering?
Yeah, I felt growing up in Canada, I was born in Hong Kong, but my parents were one the large waves of people who left Hong Kong basically fled the city after the Tiananmen ‘89 massacre of pro-reform demonstrators in Beijing. That really spooked, obviously a lot of Hong Kongers who were set to return to Chinese sovereignty in ‘97. So I think it was kind of a case of reverse psychology, where my parents made the sacrifice of leaving their hometowns of Hong Kong and settling in Vancouver so that me and my brother would have kind of enjoy this kind of life in a free society. As soon as I was old enough to read about what was happening in China, Chinese society, I just felt this huge pull to learn more, to live in China, to understand what led to that point, this kind of Western fascination that’s always been there about China.
I wanted to be on the ground and see what extent things were accurate and true and to kind of also use my interest and passion in writing and reporting to bridge some of the understanding gaps between people in the west, people in China. So, I went to school in journalism in New York. I got my first job at South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, which was great because it is a Hong Kong based newspaper that’s in English. So I was able to start my career writing for a mix of both local Hong Konger, Chinese and international audiences, which is a space I’ve always wanted to be in. I think people who know China best are the people who live there, who are Chinese. It was great to start my career engaging with these people and in the sense writing for locals as well.
Then I ended up in Beijing from 2014 to late 2018 and returned to Canada. Like I said before, when we were chatting, thinking the China story was behind me because I had spent seven years reporting on the ground for major European American outlets, but as soon as I returned to Canada, I realized the China story was global. The stories I did, especially in the latter parts of my time that were very sobering to human rights. I met with so many human rights lawyers, advocates, professors, people who weren’t actually political at all, who ended up in jail, being seen as dissidents in Xi Jinping’s China becoming more and more authoritarian. That was part of the reason I think my mental health just couldn’t keep up with how tough it was. Sources I knew, so many just ending up in jail or silenced in some way.
Back in Canada, December 2018, the Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver Airport and weeks later, Beijing took really obviously as hostages two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat on leave and Michael Spavor, a businessman, hostage because they were so angry and wanted Canada to release Meng. So that really shattered my illusion that China’s story could be contained in China. It was definitely a global story, not just a global story involving clashes with the U.S. as a superpower, but involving tensions and confrontations increasingly with all sorts of countries.
So the book uses that on the ground floor, drawing from my reporting in China, to try to help people understand China’s political system and kind of growing authoritarianism from the inside, again, using those authentic Chinese voices and also reporting from several Western countries I use as case studies across Europe, North America and Australia, places like Turkey and Russia as well to give those cross-country underground experience and comparisons so people can get a understanding of where we are right now and how we got here, how we got to this point where it seems like people have woken up overnight to the realization that things with China could be headed in a pretty tense direction.
Ordinary people, like those two Canadians, the two men who were taken hostage because of these tensions could be affected. Before, when I was writing about China for everyday reporting on the biggest news in China, a lot of those stories wouldn’t be front page. I worked for major news wires like AFP, where any publication, New York Times, LA Times, could grab it and promote it and print it, but China stories often weren’t always front of the newspaper, front of the website, especially when it came to issues like how Chinese citizens were suffering.
In the last couple years, last few years, I got so many questions from just ordinary people who suddenly felt that the China story was relevant to them. Things like worried moms with sons teaching English in China saying, “Oh, should he be worried? Should my son leave China?” So I wanted to write this book for anyone who really wanted to get a grasp of how things got to the point of these tensions and to form their own informed opinions because the flip side is that I’ve seen a lot of dangerous misinformation coming from the west, coming from U.S. senior politicians, coming from Trump, that isn’t probably the most productive trend to emerge from this increased public interest in China.
I know I’ve seen, being in New York City, some acts of violence in and around the subways against Asian people, since these tensions have risen. There’s a great deal of, I guess, what I will call, you have people in America, the famous economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton talk about the diseases of despair. When Donald Trump came into town, ran for president, he kept talking about how the system was rigged and a whole lot of people, particularly people who work with their hands more than in mental activity, had been displaced. They, in essence, didn’t blame the American government for not making what I’ll call transformation assistance with globalization and automation. They demonize the Chinese as though they were the cause.
Donald Trump fed that quite actively, and I saw a great deal of hostility. It reminded me of books I had read about the times, say, during World War II, where Asian people were put essentially in what I’ll call country club prisons, and I don’t mean they had golf courses. I mean, they were just taken out of society for fear that they were spying. There’s a paranoia, there’s an anxiety. I mean, we experienced a lot of the distress related to racism in this country between black and white or black, white, Hispanic, but the Asian population really has come under pressure. I wonder if your being in Canada and so forth after these two people were apprehended, did you experience any hostility or episodes on the street? Anything yourself?
Yeah, so I was afraid both for myself and my older parents even taking public transit, walking down the street. Myself, I was such a hermit, partly both fear of catching COVID and being a victim of hate crimes is that I personally didn’t experience it in the last few years, bu. It’s been brewing, I’ve been harassed, really threatened on the street and online for years before COVID hit. It’s more that the tensions with the Chinese government plus the outbreak of the disease coming from Wuhan in China, kind of put some of these deep strands of racism and xenophobia all over to west to just like more obvious proportions. People felt more kind of empowered to say things, to even physically assault people. I did speak with people who were physically assaulted, who were punched in the face.
I reported on an elderly gentleman in Vancouver, 93 years old with dementia being pushed to the ground by someone who was huge, like a middle-aged man saying, “You’re to blame for COVID,” basically. A lot of this, I think it was heading in that direction already. I feel living in China and knowing the people I knew, including who are in positions of privilege, the people like lawyers, people like professors who were struggling to try to give even the mildest criticism to the government, feedback, working on things like trying to reduce corruption in the system. There’s a lot of complexity there. There’s people who want to improve things who see how the system is broken there, but a lot of the times when people think of China, it’s as if Chinese people are also in a way blamed for what their government is doing, even though that’s not very sensical because China is not a democracy. The leaders aren’t being elected.
In fact, people who do try to provide that feedback, try to work with the government to make some changes, people like feminists, who are trying to work on things that are not political, trying to distribute stickers against sexual harassment on public transport, they’re the kind of people who have been arrested, who have been targeted, who are kind of forced to flee the country, but in the public discourse around the world, people don’t know those stories. People just see kind of a blank, almost like this army of robots, automatons, people who support the Chinese government, people who work in factories producing cheap goods as if they’re too blame for China’s economic power. So a lot of lack of sympathy for the human condition of what it is like to be living in China, all the complexity and of course not even taking into consideration how the Chinese government is also not a monolith.
It’s very clear that a lot of people in the government that I know and have spoken with, feel worried about speaking out and kind of standing out because President Xi, since he came to power, has really taken so many political purges. It’s a environment of just a lot of so much self-censorship and fear in China right now, and that is made worse by the public around the world responding, not with sympathy and curiosity about what is happening, but lashing out, really simplifying and equating Chinese people with the Chinese government, the Chinese leadership. It’s not the average Joe and Jane, it’s people like officials, Trump encouraging this. I’ve kind of tracked how this plays out. It really kind of becomes more prominent during the election campaigns, both, and it hasn’t gotten in a way under Biden. Biden’s administration also came in trying to almost out-talk Trump on China.
Biden has continued this really simplistic rhetoric of how America’s fighting kind of this ideological battle as a leader of democratic nations against authoritarian nations, naming China. It’s this clash between democracy and autocracy, and as a result, it’s hard to make really nuanced policymaking in this environment. It kind of gets mixed up when this rhetoric is very popular, in many cases with the domestic public. I think a lot of the point of saying things like that is really not to engage with Chinese leaders, but to send a message of strength and kind of solidarity with domestic audiences.
Yeah, I think I recently had a conversation with a gentleman from Singapore Kishore Mahbubani, and he writes a column for The Straits Times. He just issued a book called 21st Century Asia. One of the chapters called Democracy or Plutocracy. Wat he was talking about was what’s the comparative model between the U.S. and China and what do other countries have the opportunity to be inspired by or emulate. He talked about the scale of prison incarceration as a percentage of total population in the United States and other things that essentially … and I think this was the last phrase. I read your book last weekend, but I think in your chapter on the United States, you finished with the phrase, “You got to practice what you preach.” I think that that’s an old Barry White song, but I do think you really hit the nail on the head that us polarizing, us being aggressive, us, which I call demonizing China, probably frightens people within China and makes them more susceptible to what you might call succumbing to authoritarian leadership.
Yeah. So that’s an interesting-
I just see what you might call an unhealthy dynamic on both sides escalating, and I will be very, how would I say? People will take sides or whatever who might watch or listen to this podcast. You were fiercely critical of both the government in China and in the United States. This isn’t like you’re involved in a team sport as a propogandist. You’re truly trying to illuminate a very unhealthy dynamic and all of its feedback loops.
I think that comes from being a Canadian and also being an immigrant to Canada, where I kind of occupy a space where honestly, I’m not really patriotic to any country. I kind of have a sense of where I’m kind of on the outside of wherever I’m living. When I lived in Hong Kong, even though I was born there, people kind of heard my kind of outsider accent when I tried to speak Cantonese. When I was in China, speaking Mandarin, again, an outsider, and Canada facing that racism and xenophobia because to Canadians the mainstream white Canadians, I look Chinese. I look like not a Canadian. So I think that kind of position is actually healthy. A lot of people are like myself where we are critical of all parties involved and try to provide constructive criticism.
Instead, I think of when, especially in the U.S. and increasingly in Canada and Australia, when there’s a talk of kind of an outside fret, which is a lot of times China these days, before the war in Ukraine started, a lot of these places, the main foe for them was a rising China. It’s complicated because you mentioned, does this push people in China away from engaging with the west, makes them more likely to support their government? It’s an interesting question, because along with that, when there are people, like I spoke with an intelligence officer, Amy Chang, for NSA, arguing that these problems haven’t gone away under Biden. She said that her security clearance took a while because they suspected the loyalties of her parents. She had to provide so much documentation, and once she was on the job, working as a U.S. intelligence officer, she fielded constant jokes that she was a communist, that she was a Chinese spy.
She’s one of the lucky ones because I spoke with many other people who weren’t able to work for the U.S. government or U.S. intelligence services because of their ethnicity or because their parents or their grandparents had immigrated originally from China. So the people who have this kind of insider/outsider perspective, who understand China deeply, who may have spent time there, who speak the language fluently. They’re not being able to really easily rise to positions of influence in the public in the west, in policy making. Instead, we have people like Newt Gingrich writing books, Steve Bannon talking about China, starting these organizations. So it’s just rid with misinformation about China. Some things are just made up. In Bannon’s case, I was very critical. He actually made a movie where he used a character based on myself and put in all sorts of falsehoods.
So I think it is so dysfunctional that in the west where we do have the freedom of press, we have freedom of information that we use these freedoms badly by not really elevating the people who understand China, instead shunning them, treating them with suspicion and elevating often to people who have just really compelling, but in many cases, false statements on China to elevating them in public discourse. It is dysfunctional because I have checked in with friends in China, and it’s not as if they’re so easily swayed like, “Okay, now I’m going to support the CCP where before I was trying to stay neutral, because the west hates us and blames us.” Instead, it’s more of a subtle kind of disillusionment and kind of feeling of sadness among many Chinese in China who want to do things like study abroad.
The U.S. has canceled many student visas out of suspicion, starting in the Trump administration, especially that all Chinese students were spies. Thousands of people, hundreds lost their access. Trump also canceled the Fulbright Scholarship where Chinese and American scholars and professionals would go back and forth and try to understand each other. I think what would be functional and healthy is to see anyone who is Chinese as an individual, not to kind of cast anyone with any sort of suspicion. I think I was less pessimistic once the book was out, but since then, there’s been conversations I’ve had, there’s been little things like the U.S. Justice Department basically canceling their China initiative, which over the last several years investigated scholars who were suspected of breaching national security, who may have aided China in economic espionage.
A lot of studies have shown, a lot of surveys and analysis has shown that there may be bias in these prosecutions from the Justice Department where over 90% of its targets were Chinese Americans, and a lot of these cases ended up being thrown out because they weren’t valid. So, the department did basically terminate this initiative. So I think we’re at a crossroads now where there is a chance to be a bit more thoughtful and careful about how we do talk about China and make policy in China to not just direct that at kind of a increasingly nationalistic, patriotic public, but with the aims of actually achieving aims, trying to make some sort of difference in what’s happening in China such as the crackdown on the Muslim in Xinjiang where about a million or more have been interned in camps, re-education camps. Having those human stories at the top of mind when we’re talking about these things, instead of kind of letting kind of hubris and arrogance be at the forefront where the primary slight that China’s posing is that it wants to depose U.S. as a world superpower.
Thinking about the people, thinking about people in Hong Kong now who, if I had stayed there, I’d be living in basically another Chinese city after the imposition of the national security law, which makes so many things criminal, that any sort of vague criticism of the Chinese government is criminalized. So my book contains … I don’t really try to … doing a podcast is just kind of my words, but the book really is this kind of collection of many people’s stories. A lot of people who have direct experience of being targeted by the Chinese state, also being shunned and harassed overseas. So, I really want to tell their stories. I use the techniques from narrative journalism where I try to make their stories come alive, their characters come alive so people can have greater empathy for the complexity of all of these people’s experiences, because it is ordinary people, I think, who suffer in both cases when governments are getting more strident and paranoid and insecure.
Well, I will tell you that without being a master craftsman of the type of techniques, you did touch this heart. So congratulations. As a matter of fact, I ran a panel a few months ago with Orville Schell and Patrick Lawrence and [inaudible 00:26:31] from University of Michigan and some others. Orville brought up a publication called China Heritage, and a gentleman, I think his name was like Jeremy [Barma 00:26:52], and there was a tribute that Orville directed me to at the time, and when I was reading your book, I actually went back and read it. It was various different things and quoting old Leonard Cohen songs. You’re up in Canada, Leonard’s from Montreal, but various things. There was a piece that he said at the outset, which I pulled up as I was reading your book, it was called the Invisible Republic of the Spirit.
It was a quote from a man named Stefan Zweig who was writing a biography of a man named Romain Rolland, who was talking about turmoil in Europe, but he was applying it and saying, essentially we have to become members of the Invisible Republic of the Spirit, and this is what Zweig wrote. The Invisible Republic of the Spirit, the universal fatherhood has been established among the races and among the nations,” and you and I might change the gender words, but this is something written years ago. Motherhood and fatherhood, brotherhood and sisterhood.
“It’s frontiers are open to all who wish to dwell therein. It’s only law is that of brotherhood. It’s only enemies are hatred and arrogance between nations. Whoever makes his home within this invisible realm becomes a citizen of the world. He’s the heir, not of one people, but of all people. Hence forth, he is an in-dweller in all tongues and in all countries in the universal past and the universal future.” When I read your book, I would’ve nominated you for being his vice chairman of the Invisible Republic of the Spirit. I think that it just fit exactly with the tone and the spirit that I was gleaning from those pages, because what I noticed was from every vantage point, you were very critical of evil as it harmed humans and you were very much an advocate for humans, whatever their nationality, whatever their birth origins or what have you.
I think there’s something, how would I say? There’s been a lot of ways in which people criticize globalization because they act like everybody can, with electronics and fast money or whatever nanoseconds, escape the state and then the state doesn’t have the sources to protect people. But there may be a unity from breaking down nations that the invisible Republic of the Spirit can be a prelude to. I do think we’re seeing some team activity. This is where I wanted move toward here. Your discussion of Russia and China, where they have what looks like a surface formal collaboration between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, but underneath historically from philosophical, what you might call underpinnings in history and some conflict, it’s not quite so obvious that there is a deep cultural affiliation between the two countries.
Yeah. Before we move on the Russia and China discussion, I just want to kind of riff off what you said about thinking about a world without borders. I think there’s a positive part of that, but then there’s also the negative parts when it comes to what the Chinese state is doing because we are basically. Whether we support that ideal or not living in a place where borders matter less, a lot of the research I found where people are critics of China who are being targeted by Chinese police, Chinese security agents, they live all over the world and they’re people who are citizens. They have passports of all sorts of countries where their rights of free speech should be protected. They’re Australian citizens, Canadian Americans, and actually they’ve told me that members of Chinese Embassy, Chinese police have either called them or in some cases even shown up on their doorsteps around the world because they’re unhappy with really small things like speaking out in solidarity with pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, back in 2019.
I think that ties into what we were talking about earlier about this really like one dimensional boogieman kind of narratives on China. It’s so distracting from what’s actually happening because the stakes seem so high when you’re talking about these really grand ideological battles, it obscures actual workings of Chinese state power, where I try to explain in the book why they are so concerned and worried about the opinions of ordinary low level people where students are getting harassed by Chinese police incessantly when they have two Twitter followers and they said something mildly critical or lower level politicians, people on the city council level all over the world.
There are case studies where when carrots don’t work, when things like paid trips to China, kind of being treated like a VIP doesn’t work to kind of build that influence of low level politicians, there’s more kind of backhand ways where there’s intimidation or photos of politicians who are unaware of these dynamics and risk are kind of twisted into propaganda, serving the Chinese state or they’re threatened. So by really looking at what’s actually happening and acknowledging that borders don’t really exist in some ways, we actually could actually understand what’s actually happening with what Beijing is trying to do around the world and is doing and how it is trying to harass and intimidate its critics around the world. I’ve spoken to many people who try to report what happened to them, to local police in Canada and the U.S., and there’s no structure around the world for how to deal with this because people don’t expect that targets could be so lowly, could be students, could be people who aren’t in major positions of power. So we’re unprepared.
That’s one of the dimensions where really lofty dramatic rhetoric can actually obscure research and actions taken to understand what China’s … their United Front Work Department, which I explain in the book, is trying to do. Nuance is not just because it’s good, but it’s because it’s necessary because we want you to know what’s actually happening and not what sounds the most kind of like sexy and scary and exciting. So talking about Russia and China now, I found that really interesting. The book is actually in many ways, collaboration between myself and local on the ground journalists, especially in the case of the Russia chapter, I wasn’t able to go to Russia as planned because of the pandemic.
I worked with two really excellent Russian journalists who went all over, in the middle of winter last year, talking to Russian stakeholders on the ground like Russian businessmen, Russians who live in these places where there’s a lot of economic partnerships and huge growth in tourism between Russian and China, such as in Siberia where there’s been things like protests against Chinese water bottling companies on the ground, unbeknownst to many people who worry about that friendship between Putin and Xi Jinping. They say that they’re almost like brothers, they share ice cream cones together. They’re, before the current tensions, were seated side by side, eating sandwiches, things like that. Almost wholesome like both of their states depiction of their relationship.
It kind of belies the actual tensions, the historical tensions you mentioned, like the Sino-Soviet split, where because of diversions and how they wanted to apply the ideas of socialism, they were basically estranged, both countries, Russia kind of seeing itself as they should be the big brother in the relationship and China not taking that. The dynamics are very complicated to this day. China’s growing ambition on a world stage as a world leader. China’s making kind of incursions into what Russia would consider its traditional sphere of influence in central Asia, where China is promoting its belt and road project, investment project with many countries in Central Asia, kind of stopping short of military partnerships, which would rankle Russia.
Speaking with Russian experts and people who understand what’s happening there, there is a growing distrust, both on the local on the ground level, people not happy with how partnership agreements with China are going in Russia as well as on top levels where they worry that an increasingly powerful China who is interested in the resources in Central Asia will end up not being an ally. There’s never been any serious developments of Russia a China, military alliance. That doesn’t exist. Some people argue that actually the most consistent force putting both countries together is what they have in common, which is their increasing tensions and conflict with Western powers, kind of pushing them together into this position where they should rely on each other economically, politically because of their increasing dysfunctional relations with other major powers. Obviously, the war has only cemented this, especially on Russia’s side where China is its only viable major trade partner, but it’s kind of on shaky grounds because both countries are so different the way they have historically applied socialism so different and their goals right now are different.
Russia wants to … it’s definitely more expansionist, as we’ve seen China, I analyzed state documents, speeches and its vision for different world order isn’t exactly a dramatic change. China wants to adapt existing international institutions to its benefit. Xi Jinping has talked many times about how adding United Nations countries with different governance styles, he uses euphemisms, should be treated as equal. So regardless of your regime type, whether you have democracy or not, he wants these countries, of course China being not a democracy, to have equal weight and equal respect and that if they basically crack down on the civil rights of their citizens, that shouldn’t be a reason why they have less respect on the world stage. China has actually been making a lot of efforts. It has a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council right now making these kind of behind the scenes, not behind the scenes, but kind of not really showy efforts to have more influence at the UN, WHO.
They want these institutions to continue to exist. They just want them to be more sympathetic and supportive of China’s political system. Whereas, Russia, it’s like such a disruptor, a lot more brazen in many ways than Beijing. So looking at how China’s reaction to the war has been very muted, definitely not supporting the invasion, kind of isn’t surprising to me because I kind of understand how that’s not exactly the way Beijing would like to operate to get more influence. It kind of wants to work within institutions as well as to use as economic clout to get that power. So their visions are quite different, and in a way, perhaps China does have the upper hand because its economic strength is that much higher, whereas militarily, they’re not very strong. So it’s more subtle what Beijing is doing.
Yeah. Since there’s what you might call, what makes them perhaps kindred spirits in some respect is you have what they call the century of humiliation from the opium wars to the Japanese invasion and the loss of dignity at the level of Chinese leadership. The collapse of the Soviet Union was quite a profound, psychological scar. So what you might call rebalancing, regaining their strength and their dignity in a system, if it meets with too much what you might call conformity imposed by the United States, it threatens that sense of renewed dignity.
I don’t think they are kindred spirits across the spectrum. I think they have a similarity in one respect and a lot of differences, and as you mentioned, just the differences in the strategy of building the economy, perhaps with regard to the role of fossil fuels, they would be very different in this next phase with Russia being one of the largest owners of carbon producing energy and China working very hard on renewables and understanding the scope and scale of what’s required for humankind to live. Let me ask you in that context of climate change, U.S. collaboration with China seems like a necessary condition for that to succeed.
Yeah. So it’s interesting because one of the anecdotes in the book, one of the chapters talked about how China hosted a meeting of the G20 in Hangzhou and Xi Jinping really tried to take the stance where he was … I was watching him addressing these world leaders, standing up kind of almost smacking the podium, saying, “We can’t just be a talk shop. We need to take action on climate change.” I think it’s kind of a mix of strategy where climate is one of these issues where China can legitimately position and vie for leadership, and it’s something that the world logically would want to encourage because China is where a lot of world manufacturing happens. China’s commitment to fighting climate change can make a big difference. China and U.S. being a top carbon emitters, the U.S. kind of sometimes tries to say, “Oh, there’s more in China,” but that’s not very upfront about how a lot of that manufacturing in China is for American international companies.
So, people say there’s all these things going on where you see this wolf warrior diplomacy going on from China’s foreign ministry, where the diplomats who used to act diplomatic are now using platforms like Twitter to utter all sorts of kind of threats and really just kind of almost mirroring some of that really almost juvenile nationalism against that they see in the States. So, what makes people worried, up until this point, Chinese diplomats, officials have showed up to all sorts of international summits, particularly seeming to take a general role in wanting to talk about how countries can work together to climate change. There was a point last year in November, when she did not show up to the COP26 climate conference, instead of attending in person, giving a prerecorded video address.
So there was discussion there, even for climate have tensions reach a point where China’s not showing up. That is one of the reasons why the idea that the U.S. and others could kind of fight China by isolating it is just not really realistic. For something so existential, like trying to prevent the worsening of the climate crisis, there has to be cooperation internationally with China. There’s kind of no way around it, so she not showing up to climate summit, it was kind of lambasted by Biden and others. She has not made any major climate change pledges. So that’s something to continue to monitor, whether the growing tensions around China and other countries will continue to end up possibly affecting its pretty, relatively friendly discussion so far on some issues like climate.
One of the themes of my book is that I’ve noticed that a lot of countries felt that they could have kind of more kind of tricky relations if China won some tracks such as discussions of human rights, foreign interference, but then continue to have kind of friendly relations on other tracks, like on economics, on trade, on climate. Canada found that at the height of anger about what happened with Huawei and Meng Wanzhou’s arrest, that stalled. China put tariffs on Canadian goods like pork and canola, that kind of separate tracks thinking kind of ended up cracking. So that was a shock to many people. So we’ll have to see what do you think as the economist, can economic relations and conversations on things that aren’t political like climate change on the most part, be shielded from these increasing political tensions?
I guess I would say if the political tensions weren’t there, it would be easier, but I think perhaps knowing that the end game could be the extermination of humankind creates a compelling force in the other direction. Let’s take an area that’s not considered, what you might call fatal, the development of Africa. We can see China putting a lot of energy into building roads and engaging, Americans being quite concerned, technological platforms. Well, I guess to start with the African continent by the projections of the International Office of Migration will house five billion people by 2075 with climate change and being an equatorial region, subsistence farming will not be as available. You have five billion people. The world, as I’m sure you are sensitive to has been quite difficult about what you might call digesting large scale migration. East Asian development model, manufacturing, learning by doing, a little bit of tariffs and then export is harder to do with global supply chains and automation.
So people are very concerned about an African development strategy that coheres, but the Chinese appear to be what you might call reaching out to build platforms and build structures, ports, highways, various facilities that contribute to that. It reminds me a little bit of your chapter on Greece, where with the resources they come and you’ll collaborate, because they’re contributing to a better life. INET did a conference in 2018 at Beijing University with Justin Lin and many African leading economists and thinkers from Ethiopia, from many, many different places attended enthusiastically. They were very curious. So I guess I’m asking because people from India, people from the United States and some people from Europe seem very skeptical, how do you see what’s happening with China and Africa? What some would say cynically is just an attempt to grab natural resources.
Yeah. So the belt and road is a major focus in my book because like I mentioned, China has a lot of tools at its disposal to increase its international influence that aren’t militaristic. They have their relatively strong economy. They have the funds to invest all over the world, and I think what’s missed is that a lot of this funding for investment and trade infrastructure isn’t just kind of like a play for influence. It’s not, “We will help build roads and ports, and in exchange we get support at the UN,” we get people like Greece after China’s state-owned company did take over its major port in Athens, Greece did use its votes in the UN to stand with Beijing 2016 and 2017, vetoing high profile criticisms of human rights in China. It’s not the story that China’s doing this primarily and completely just for this kind of political support and influence.
China’s state-owned industries are struggling because they’re so huge and so inefficient. They need more markets, they need more projects for them to work on, and China needs to have robust trade routes. It wants to open up trade all around the world, especially with tensions with major Western powers. It wants to increase and improve the trade infrastructure of smaller, more economically weaker countries because then they could trade with China or China’s shipping companies have that security of having those trade routes open, like in the Mediterranean. So it’s not just they’re doing this just purely for political power. This is actually their investments in Africa have predated this idea of the belt and road project, which is so important it’s been written into China’s constitution.
Some say what happened in Africa should kind of tell the future of how these newer investments in different places will pan out. In some parts of Africa, there’s people who have been angry about how some of these projects worked out, where there were promises of or expectations that African labor would be utilized, but in fact, many of these Chinese state companies brought in Chinese workers. So a lot of the benefits that criticism didn’t really apply to local African economies. More criticisms is that in exchange for improving an airport or a highway that will disintegrate and need repairs, and in the future, China getting in exchange access to natural resources, things like rare minerals, farmland, those are finite resources in Africa that they’re giving up, but it is really complicated because I wouldn’t characterize it, and I do reject the idea that this is colonialism because there’s a lot of proactiveness on different sides of all of these different partnerships under China’s kind of international investment umbrella.
It’s more, I think in many cases, including with the idea of foreign interference where China’s police forces are intimidating local people, are trying to co-op local politicians around the world. A lot of the missing puzzle piece is what you can do to be smarter about this is to have that understanding of other countries experiences, what China’s motivations are, how it benefits from different deals so that you’re going into these negotiations with more information, rather than, in my research places that are in a position where they’re more desperate, where they may have been burned by some of the austerity measures that the EU, World Bank might impose in exchange for loans like in Greece’s case where they turn to China and local media and politicians kind of put China on the platform where they’re almost a savior in Italy.
I kind of trace Xi Jinping’s 2019 tour of the country, where in the wake of his tour, Italian media would just point to random projects like this factory that’s going under and this port all over Italy, all of these ports, they could be taken over by Chinese investment. That was a positive thing because Italy’s debt was soaring. I spoke to the mayor of Palermo. He said, there’s nothing about … they’ve actually had no conversations with China about turning over its port. It was a lot of hot air. So I think it’s important to point out when there’s a reverse, when China’s not kind of this boogeyman, but China’s almost this very, very positive savior of struggling economies. I mean, that’s not unhealthy either.
I guess, as we’re coming down the home stretch here, you’re seeing a lot of things. You’ve called out a lot of untruths. I want to start with inside China. A lot of people show you statistics of significant improvement. You would think the need for authoritarian control would be diminished because people would be celebrating the success of economic development. I saw a movie recently by a woman named Jessica Kingdom called Ascension. It was nominated as a documentary in the Oscars this year.
It characterized a slightly different sense that there is, if you will, a plutocracy forming inside China and a large part of the population is employed in servitude. I didn’t know if this was, how would I say? Anecdotally she can produce some elements of that, but whether that’s a vivid portrait of a hierarchical society that’s very controlled vertically or whether it’s an exception where the broader base prosperity is much, much greater. What do you think … people are worried about real estate overhangs and so forth. What do you see as the next few years inside China, and is the wellbeing, material wellbeing, psychological wellbeing on a constructive course, or is it in jeopardy?
I think China partly to explain how insecure it behaves on the political world stage. A lot of it can be explained by the pressures it faces internally. Things that are really basic, like its population crisis where it’s had its one child policy and then a two child policy to try to control births. As a result, they have a rapidly aging population and few birth. Even after Chinese lawmakers relax the one child policy, people didn’t want to have more than one child because life was so hard for parents even just raising one child. It’s really ironic because if you’ve visited, lived in a place like Beijing or Shanghai or Hong Kong, you wouldn’t guess it’s a socialist country. It seems like its capitalism on steroids, just all of this pursuit of wealth and just real estate just going through the roofs with seemingly very little con troll.
When I lived in Beijing, I had to move almost every year, sometimes less than every year because just my rent kept getting hiked very little. It’s not like in Canada where you can only raise the rent by 2%. It would go up by a lot and very expensive. It’s hard for someone to have more than one child because it’s such a competitive society. There’s only so many universities, trying to just provide for that child to possibly succeed and get that university spot, it’s just parents have to go just back breaking days in whatever fields they were doing to try to do that.
So China’s really facing increasing difficulties because it’s become a place that’s so unequal, where there are shrinking opportunities for people to feel like they can climb up the ladder, improve their family situations. So, the idea, like you referred to, was that in exchange for economic prosperity and stability, the Chinese people generally support the status quo, where there’s still, throughout the year dozens of labor protests all over China, factory workers, disgruntled workers, people looking for their pensions that happen that don’t really get a lot of media coverage.
So there’s these tensions kind of shaking Chinese society, and I think things like basic mental health have gotten a lot worse under the COVID zero policies of China where basically their borders have been closed pretty strictly. That of course has impacted businesses that rely on kind of international exchanges. A lot of world multinational companies have left China or their employees have left. So, it’s kind of in a place where I think COVID has only exacerbated some of the internal tensions and pressures and made people all the more, starting to be more and more critical of how their government has been handling things. So unfortunately, anytime there’s kind of push back, Xi Jinping, China’s current leadership, instead of kind of having that space for more public feedback and government response, there’s been more crackdowns, there’s been new laws. More people are arrested, more journalists arrested.
I have friends, like Sophia Wong, a journalist in Southern China who was on her way to study in the UK, someone who was, I guess her crime was to be quite supportive of women who suffered from sexual harassment. She’s been arrested since September. So I think it’s not a very kind of positive trajectory where there’s more and more reason for some internal dissatisfaction. Again, there’s increasing kind of crackdowns as a result. Definitely COVID has added to those tensions. On the most part, I think it is a place where a lot of people aren’t really daring to speak up. So it’s hard to get a sense of how far they might be willing to go to kind of express their dissatisfaction. I think for the most part, people who are pragmatic, even people who have been outspoken in the past as activists or intellectuals, they’re kind of staying quiet, they’re electing to stay quiet, but it’s unsure if there could be some sort of breaking point where some of these kind of voices have fallen silent, might be more active again.
I think the near term future, I find there’s just a lot of nervousness. There’s nervousness from within China, but what will happen also China’s relation with other countries, whether it will be increasingly aggressive towards its claims on Taiwan and South Chinese Sea. Right now it’s like a time of tensions and uncertainty and worry that some sort of sparking incident will make things worse, might lead to war, might lead to some sort of tragedy that people don’t want to see. To end on a more positive note, all of the younger people I’ve met in China, they’re, on the most part, so not ideologically driven. They don’t have those kind of historical traumas that I think the current crop of Chinese leaders have experienced such as during the culture revolution, anger at the west for the century of humiliation by colonial powers. Young people today, they don’t have that kind of trauma, I think.
I try to provide historical snapshots of what China was like in the 60s and 70s, because I think it does inform just overreactions that we see from the Chinese states, but young people, they haven’t had those direct experiences of feeling so aggrieved and so worried about any kind of turmoil or disagreement in their own society. So I think eventually they will be China’s next leaders. So I feel optimistic and perhaps like the 20 year mark into the future, but people worry about what might happen until then.
Last thought for today. If I called you tomorrow and we had an invitation to visit the White House, what five things would you tell President Biden he should do to make the world a better place in light of your writing and the tensions that we see in the world now?
I think I have had the opportunity to provide feedback to different government bodies since the book was out, and something I say is that just make use of your intellectual capital, your knowledge capital that you already have to address these gaps in your understanding. American experts of Chinese descent should be seen as Americans and not stereotyped according to their ethnic background and pushed out of these policymaking circles. There should be an infusion of federal funding to support Chinese language and China studies programs in your universities so you foster this kind of knowledge gathering of the future policymakers.
You should bring back the Fulbright program of educational exchanges between American and Chinese students, professionals and researchers and reinstate visas so that you can make use of the Chinese expertise, and treating them as individuals and not as some sort of just counterpart of the Chinese state is important because the more inclusive American and other institutions become where we are addressing our kind of deep seated racism and xenophobia, that’s where we can get people with their life experiences and expertise in China into the rooms to make better policies, to actually explain what is happening instead of having these very, almost cartoonishly hawkish views dominate, more people will be empowered to challenge with nuance and with their real understanding.
Well, Joanna, you’re an extraordinary beacon. I want to emphasize to my young scholars that not only do you have imagination and insight, ability to express things, but you have an extraordinary endowment of courage. To live as an Asian woman between the U.S. and China reporting on all these things so vividly, so courageously is extraordinary. I look forward to staying tuned to your work, not only in the present, but in the future. I want to thank you for the contribution you’re making to that invisible Republic of the Spirit.
Wow. Thank you so much for your support. Again, it means so much, and any time I feel kind of discouraged, I might replay this part of our interview, because, yeah, it’s really-
Either that or call me up and we’ll make another chapter.
Any rate, thanks for now, and we’ll see you again soon. Everybody, this is a wonderful book. I would recommend it to everyone. I guess there’s an electronic book as well as a physical book available.
Yeah, and also an audiobook, if you like to listen to your books.
Is that on Audible or one of those big sites?
Yeah, on Audible.
On audible. Great. Well, you can walk your dog or go to the beach and ingest this wonderful insight in this wisdom from a young person, and I hardly recommend it.
It’s not narrated by me. It’s narrated by a professional.
Ah, okay. Well, bye-bye for now. Check out more from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Ineteconomics.org.