Steve: All right. Corey, I’m really excited about our guest today. He’s someone whom I’ve been listening to I think since 2010 or so, which is when his podcast Sinica launched, and he’s quite a colorful character. I hope to spend some time on his biography, which I think is underexplored in his own podcast. He has millions of fans around the world and sort of tangentially we hear all kinds of things about his colorful background. But most of his podcast is focused on current affairs, what’s happening in China, US-China relations. He talks to a range of people — academics, people who have been in government service, entrepreneurs, business people — so I think we’ll transition more into those topics, but I actually want to start by asking Kaiser some questions about his background. Would that be okay?
Kaiser: Sure, oh absolutely.
Steve: Now, I think that you and I are both part of a KMT diaspora, is that true?
Kaiser: That’s right.
Steve: Okay, so your parents….
Kaiser: …which you can assume just from the spellings of our names.
Steve: Yes, exactly.
Corey: So Steve, of course so can you tell, for our listeners who aren’t in the know, what KMT is?
Steve: Yeah, I’m gonna explain it. So KMT is an acronym for the Kuomintang, which was the Nationalist Government of China before the Communist Revolution.
Corey: The people who lost.
Steve: The people who lost and fled largely to Taiwan. And the Chinese Taiwanese who were there before them refer to them a little bit as, sometimes, as ’49ers, because there’s a huge wave of them that came in ’49 after the Communist Revolution. My mother’s family were in the KMT military. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a general under Chiang Kai-shek — in fact, I’m related to Chiang Kai-shek. And they went to Taiwan and set up a new government in Taiwan. And I think from reading Kaiser’s biography perhaps his family had a similar history, so maybe you can tell us about that.
Kaiser: That’s right, it wasn’t military, it was actually academic and sort of political. My paternal grandfather was an historian: his name was Kuo Ting Yee, and he was actually the personal tutor to your relative Chiang Kai-shek’s son Chiang Ching-kuo, and also a close advisor to the secret police chief Dai Li. So, he… Although, you know, he himself would have been sort of classified as left Kuomintang, he was sort of in the left-leaning intellectual camp of the Kuomintang and had quite a bit of empathy for the Communists, but he threw his lot in with the KMT and like so many other people left, as you say, in 1949 — although he actually went over in ’48. A part of his mission was to secure the new university grounds for the National Taiwan, National Taiwan University.
Steve: Full of old Japanese buildings, actually.
Kaiser: That’s right, that’s exactly right. On my mom’s side, you said that was your… My mom’s side, also a similar situation. My maternal grandfather was a sort of internal diplomat to one of the powerful northern warlords, name is Feng Yuxiang, known as the Christian general for — it’s a possibly apocryphal story, but he supposedly baptized his troops with a fire hose before sending them into battle. Big tall guy, with a gigantic bald head. Anyway, my maternal grandfather had studied in Germany after Chiang Kai-shek defeated his boss in the Plains War of 1930. He went to Germany for a while, came back, met my grandmother, and she went on to become a senator from the province of Haulien in Taiwan, after the flights to Taiwan, right.
Steve: It’s amazing to think that your grandparents and my grandparents, at least on my mother’s side, probably knew each other.
Kaiser: Oh, they absolutely knew each other, there’s no question. Who was your grandfather general?
Steve: He was actually a… his last name, family name was Zong, and that family traces its history back to Shandong Province so they’re from the north originally.
Kaiser: Of course. I would have guessed Shandong, all the military who went to Taiwan were from Shandong.
Steve: Yeah, and he actually studied at a Japanese military academy, the same one where Chiang Kai-shek studied in Japan. And so he rose to the rank of general, and then, amazingly, he was actually an admiral — I guess they had a navy in Taiwan — so he was actually in charge of the navy in Taiwan for a brief while.
Steve: And the family story is that he was too upright — because that side of the family had converted to Christianity I think 150 or more years ago — and he was too upright and wouldn’t take bribes. My mom recounts a story of him chasing… someone had brought him a bribe with money hidden in a cake, and he chased the guy into the street and made him take the cake back. [Kaiser laughs] Of course, you know someone like that has no future in government or politics, so anyway, so he ended up immigrating to Los Angeles, which is where my mother and father met.
Corey: So Kaiser, we’ve heard about your grandparents. Where did your parents grow up, and can you lead us into your story?
Kaiser: Sure. My folks were both born in mainland China. Starting with my father’s side of the family, he was actually born in Henan province when my grandfather, the historian, sojourned for a little while in the provincial capital then of Henan province, the city of Kaifeng, and my father was born there — born, in fact, in a Jewish ghetto, interestingly enough, on a street called [Chinese], which meant “the alley where they pick the tendon out of the meat,” which was apparently some sort of dietary restriction that was observed by what was thought to be this odd sect of Muslims, which in fact were Jews. He didn’t live there long. He grew up mainly during the war in the city of Chongqing, what we used to know as Chungking. That was the wartime capital. And so he grew up running to air-raid shelters on almost a nightly basis, carrying my grandfather’s manuscript or whatever he was working on and his little brother on his back. He grew up there, went to Taiwan again, of course, with the rest of the family, stayed there until the mid-1950s, so he finished high school and his undergraduate degree there in Taiwan. Then he went to the US in 1956 after spending a year in military service (it was obligatory) — went to the US, where he did a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at The Ohio State University. There he met my mom. My mom had come over (she was six years younger), she’d come over to the US for her undergraduate degree, and they met in Ohio. My mom was at some little Catholic school called, you know, Our Lady of Intolerable Suffering or something like that. They got married in Berkeley. My dad went first to Stanford. His adviser was sort of a peacenik, didn’t like doing defense research, went to Berkeley with the other peaceniks. My father got his doctorate there in ’60, yeah ’61 I think, and got married, then took a job at IBM in upstate New York, where all the kids were born.
Corey: So I want to ask just one question about the Jewish ghetto. This is, these are Chinese Jews or these are… ?
Kaiser: That’s correct.
Corey: I didn’t, I wasn’t aware that there are significant numbers of them.
Kaiser: There are, there are several pockets of them. This is the oldest group. They came over apparently during the Song Dynasty. There were, there’s some legend that says there were earlier groups of Jews who came to China, but the Song Dynasty lasted from the 10th to the 13th century. They must have come in the earlier part of the Song Dynasty when Kaifeng itself was the capital. They weren’t really discovered and sort of outed as Jews until some Talmudic scriptures were discovered by Jesuits who had been in China during the 18th century. So it wasn’t until quite a bit later that they were sort of discovered.
Corey: Do they still exist as a community?
Kaiser: They still… well, it’s really hard to say. There are a lot of people who call themselves Jews. There was a guy for a while in the late ’90s who styled himself Moishe Zhong handing out business cards, you know, and sort of, you know, sort of the curls, the side curls, the whole “affect.” There was no evidence to suggest that he was actually Jewish but he knew how to make money from the tourists: he had a business card that he’d hand out that said Moishe Zhong, Jewish Diaspora; that’s all it said on it.
Corey: Wow, very entrepreneurial.
Kaiser: Yeah, very entrepreneurial.
Steve: So I think you grew up in Tucson Arizona, is that right?
Kaiser: I did, that’s correct, that’s correct. I was in upstate New York until I was 12, moved to Tucson Arizona at the age of 12, yeah.
Steve: So can you tell us a little bit about your family, your upbringing? Were you kind of a typical ABC family, did you did you speak Mandarin at home?
Kaiser: Well, my folks tried to, you know, teach us Mandarin. My father was pretty stubborn about it, my mom less so, and he would stand up at the white board next to the kitchen table and constantly say, you know, [Chinese], and then he would… “The Chinese have a saying that says…” and he would write some obscure idiom which we’d all, you know sort of, you know, marvel at for a while at the succinctness of it, how terse and pithy these things were, and then promptly forget them. We spoke what we call kitchen Chinese, which is, you know, probably what you had Steve, I mean just, you know, ordinary nouns and verbs, just a really simple syntax wrapped around an equally simple grammar.
Steve: Yeah, I’m very curious about this whole thing, because in my generation almost everybody failed to learn Chinese and maybe often picked it up later on in college, if they did. My wife and I are working really hard to keep my kids bilingual and it’s much easier now, because there’s lots more media for them to consume in Mandarin…
Kaiser: That’s right.
Steve: …and also other kids that speak Mandarin, or you can fly to Asia for the summer and immerse them with their relatives or something. You have a kind of Beijing accent, I think, so did you sort of pick that up later in life, your fluency?
Kaiser: I did. I guess… well, you know, you talk about the media and the influence that it has, the media that I was surrounded with outside of my proper Chinese school, which was taught by, you know, mostly people like you, ’49ers, people who left the mainland in ’49 — the other material that I had was brought back from the mainland, from Beijing, by my father who took his first trip there in 1975. So he had these, you know, records that were literally printed on red colored vinyl, had all these propaganda films and… I loved the Beijing accent, I thought that it just sounded, my idea of what proper Chinese should sound like, so that’s what I sort of “aped” as I learned Chinese. I think it’s kind of funny, because it would be sort of like somebody, an Italian guy learning a Brooklyn accent as his preferred accent, or a Boston accent. But yeah, that’s what I’m saddled with now and I’m, you know, kind of stubbornly proud of it.
Steve: Now you actually were on the academic track for some time, is that right? So you were an undergrad at Berkeley…
Kaiser: That’s right.
Steve: … and then graduate school at University of Arizona, was it in East Asian studies?
Kaiser: That’s right, it was in East Asian studies. I dropped out.
Steve: Yeah, so tell us a little bit about that, because you’re, this is already another really unusual part of your background. So you went from, I think, graduate student in a very, kind of very academic area to I think, heavy metal rock band leads here…
Kaiser: Yeah, there was a little bit of heavy metal rock band before graduate school, and that’s sort of what explains my recidivism and dropping out of graduate school. I finished at UC Berkeley, I was pretty intent on pursuing an academic career at that point, but I was also intent on pursuing the possibility of playing rock in China. I just sort of knew that would be fun, it would be a story I could dine out on for years afterward, no matter what happened, I mean no matter how farcical the whole thing was, and it was pretty farcical. When I was in college I played in a great band, and we were invited to go to China to play, and it actually fell through — on our end, it was our fault that it fell through. We couldn’t scrape up the money that we needed just for the airplane tickets and to move our gear over there. They were gonna take care of us once we landed. That was in 1987 we were supposed to go, so that would have been the summer between my junior and senior year of college. So senior year the band broke up, you know, we couldn’t survive because I was so embittered because really, it was one guy’s fault who couldn’t meet his end of our obligation. And so I just had this idea, I’m gonna do that, I’m gonna go to China and I’m gonna play rock and roll. So that’s exactly what I did as soon as I graduated. But you know, I brought my GRE prep materials with me and I was thinking I’ll spend a year, maybe a couple of years in China. Toward the end of my first year, of course, the Tiananmen incident happened, resulting in the massacre of June 4th, and so I kind of went tumbling out of China not yet having taken the GREs, not yet having, you know, done my grad school applications. And so all I could do is go home to where my parents lived, I didn’t have a place in Berkeley anymore.
Corey: I mean, Tiananmen Square was a huge event for, you know, me and my friends in small-town New England, actually…
Corey: … and so I’m really curious as to what were you doing around that time, what did you see?
Kaiser: Yeah, well I was in the square a lot of it. So two things were happening, it was a really strange parallel existence. One was that we were — this was my best friend from college and I — we were starting Tang Dynasty, this band that went on to become quite well known, with the two, you know, legendary names in Chinese rock now. This guy was my best Chinese friend, Ding Wu, and another friend of ours, Zhang Ju, who was the bass player. So the four of us were holed up in this little hotel on the far north side of Beijing, where we had run of this disco during the day. We could just, sort of, we set up our gear there every morning and just played all day, writing material, working on material, and then we’d make our way back into the city and go down to the square and see what was happening. Some days we’d take a day off and just spend it basically talking to people in the square, just seeing what was happening. In the evenings we would, as we called it, go to the west side and wait for the tanks, we just sort of knew inevitably this was gonna get crushed. And it went on for so damn long with, in a complete state of stalemate. We left Beijing to go on tour with this band on the morning of June 3rd, about sixteen hours before the gunfire erupted, and I didn’t know until the morning of the 7th that there had been a massacre. And I was just completely just shocked by it — I mean, I had left Beijing still in a complete state of stalemate. It was a real, obviously, it was a huge turning point in my life, and it was for, I mean, one reason in particular, and that is this: that while watching what was unfolding, even though I could understand Chinese, I could speak rudimentary Chinese, and I sort of knew the broad outlines of what was happening, but it was very clear to me that there was this whole other story unfolding that I was not privy to, that it was happening in this deeply culturally conditioned semantics that were unfamiliar to me. There was, like, these sort of symbolic idioms that were being bandied about by everybody, that I was clueless to. I’ve likened it in the past to watching Peking Opera and not knowing that that guy on stage with all the flags on his back is supposed to represent a general standing in front of an army, or that the guy carrying this little stick with red tassels on it was supposed to be riding a horse, just not understanding the symbology. And so all the, you know, the semiotics were mysterious, and I knew there was something happening. So that’s really, Steve, what launched me on my academic career was just, I am going to figure out what the hell it was that I was just witness to.
Corey: So Kaiser, when you talk about these idioms, you mean phrases people were saying…
Kaiser: Oh no.
Corey: … or acts people were performing?
Kaiser: Were performing.
Corey: Okay, can you give an example of…?
Kaiser: Yeah. So for example, you know, we saw a lot of people wearing these white headbands on their heads and they had, you know, characters written on them, you know, that would say, you know, things like dare to die for this or whatever. There was all this sort of death cultish stuff. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand the Buddhist, for example, symbology of the circumambulations around the Monument to the People’s Martyrs. I didn’t understand the whole, you know, many of the tableaus that I was able to see of people, you know, holding up petitions over their head while kneeling on the steps of the Great Hall of the People, for instance. I didn’t understand why certain pronouncements from the government so deeply incensed people, and why it seemed to shift so quickly from what seemed to be a very reasonable movement that still very much cloaked itself in the language of patriotism, of a loyal opposition, to one that was so quite overtly oppositional. And that’s what I set out to figure out.
Steve: I’m curious whether, so after going back and, you know, trying to understand what you had seen from the perspective of, I guess, Tucson, the University of Arizona, did it work? Like, were you actually able to kind of decipher a lot of these things from that vantage point?
Kaiser: Well I think I was, and thankfully there were a lot of other people on the case, and I was reading them, and I found many of their interpretations and analyses very, very persuasive. I think there were a lot of people sort of on that same mission that I was on. I ended up latching on to one specific element of it, but not before, for my master’s thesis, I had sort of come up with a grand interpretation. I am somebody who — I’ve talked about this many times on the show — I really sort of believe that to understand politics in China, the keys to understand the relationship between the pen and the sword, between the intelligentsia and those who actually wield, you know, who have a monopoly on political violence, on the leadership, and I posited that there are sort of these four modes of that relationship: that one is largely fictional and ideal, it’s a mode of identity where the pen is a sword, it’s this idea of this, you know, the sage king, right, the philosopher king, where the literati, the intelligentsia, has one of their own, somebody who’s entirely sympathetic to their beliefs, to their moral system, on the throne. The second, I think, is the most interesting. It’s this mode I hinted at, you know, of loyal opposition, wherein these intellectuals have kind of tacit access to channels of consultation with political authority, where they’re able, within quite circumscribed but still quite real space, they’re able to remonstrate, they’re able to make known their moral objections to some of the policies, they’re able to make their criticisms heard, and those criticisms are supposed to be taken on board respectfully and actually acted on. Now this maybe describes most of Chinese history or as maybe the most typical mode. I don’t think it’s unique to China, but I think that its particular expression in China is very distinct. A third mode is one where they decide, they throw down the script and they go into opposition, into sort of direct opposition with political authority, and they compete for the loyalties of the other segments of society — the military, for example, or the peasantry or what-have-you, the ordinary working-class folks. And finally there’s a mode that you might call eremitism, where they say screw it, we’re gonna go frolic in the bamboo grove, naked, and drink, you know, hot wine and then write poetry and play our zithers. I’ve seen that, actually, I think we might kind of be in, there’s such a thing happening right now, to jump ahead a bit. But it’s interesting. I think that I came up with this as like, what, a 24- or 25- year-old, and I still kind of think that it describes pretty well the modalities of Chinese politics or of the relationship between intellectuals and the state.
Steve: Do you think it was a transition into mode three that caused the Tiananmen crackdown?
Kaiser: I think it was mode two up until the end of April, and there was quite a sudden sort of lurch into mode three, yeah. That’s what I ended up sort of writing about specifically.
Steve: I want to say that, you know, having traveled to China in the early ’90s — I don’t think I was there in the late ’80s — but it was really rough then, okay, in terms of the standard of living or even having sidewalks or having toilets that worked, and probably you remember all this stuff. One of the most kepa things that I experienced was when I visited Hong Kong…
Kaiser: Frightening things.
Steve: …yeah, frightening things, overwhelming things, was I visited Hong Kong, which was, you know, obviously a developed modern city, but I wanted to see the special economic zone which now has become Shenzhen but at that time was very, very rough. And I didn’t want to go to Guilin and see these ancient beautiful Chinese things. I really wanted to see what is capitalism, and, you know, [what] development in China looked like. So I got on a tour bus and went in across the border into that special economic zone. And I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, because there were skyscrapers that had gone up with no sidewalks, and there were dirt roads where there was snarled traffic for two hours at a time. It was just unbelievable what was happening there.
Kaiser: Yeah, very uneven development.
Steve: Yeah, uneven development and rapid development. And I think you lived through all this. I mean, you were in China through most of that time and looking at it as a kind of academically trained Westerner who spoke Chinese. So I think it’s a very unique perspective that you have.
Kaiser: Yeah, I’m incredibly grateful for having had a front-row seat to that. And it’s hard, it’s really hard to get it across to anyone. I think, you know, we all rely on some numbers. We look at, like, let’s look at per capita GDP. Forty years ago it was 175 bucks a person, I mean $175. And today it’s what, it’s edging up on $99,200 right? It’s just, I think that’s like a hundred and fifty times or something like that, it’s a nutty difference. It’s just, it’s hard to appreciate.
Corey: Where were you living in China when you… Were you in Beijing all the time or were you moving around the country during your years there?
Kaiser: I was in Beijing. We toured. I mean, usually when I traveled it was, you know, either a weekend trip with a girlfriend somewhere, or it was with the band on tour in some city. There were, later in life, you know, there were occasional business or reporting trips, but for the most part I only saw China from some very strange vantage points. Now, I saw places that most people have never heard of, which was a lot of fun; but I have to say, I mean, I do regret having sort of been planted for too much of my time in China in the city of Beijing, which is by no means representative of the country.
Steve: But I’m sure when you were touring you saw some pretty backwater places.
Kaiser: I did, I did, but again, you know, you don’t get a whole ton of time, you know, get to sit down and really pick people’s brains and, you know, be anthropological about it at all. You’re seeing it just sort of from stage, you’re given VIP treatment, you’re put up in the nicest place they have in town to offer, they’re feeding you, you know, their local delicacies and so, yeah, it’s a very different experience.
Steve: My poor man’s way of doing anthropology in China is that when I travel there I always make it a point to talk to the cab drivers and the maids who are…
Kaiser: You and Tom Friedman, yeah.
Steve: Well okay, so okay, there you go… [laughter] But I actually speak enough Mandarin that I can probably get a little bit more out of them than Tom Friedman.
Kaiser: Right, yeah.
Steve: But you get a sense of what people are thinking, I think, in those moments.
Kaiser: Yeah. The cab drivers especially, I mean, the ones in Beijing are, I think, they’re a national treasure. Those guys, I mean, they can really talk a real blue streak of how the mighty screw the meek, they’re very good, I’ve found that.
Steve: The most insulting thing that I’ve had said to me is, you know, I’m speaking Chinese to them but they’re trying to figure me out, they can’t quite figure out. And they’ll usually guess that I’m Korean or Japanese before they’ll guess that I’m a Chinese-American. They’ll say what are you? You know, your accent is so bizarre, are you a Japanese, are you a Japanese businessman or something else? [laughter] So anyway I’ve been insulted, you can’t insult me any more than those guys have insulted me.
Kaiser: [laughs] Bet I could. No, I know exactly what you mean, and a lot of people of our heritage endure that. There are worse things in the world, I mean, to be… I found other people who, you know, really hate being mistaken for local, and others who want nothing more than to be mistaken for local. I sort of fall into that latter category. I’m always hoping that I’ll be able to fool the cab driver. I think that I can speak well enough so that if I’m not in his rearview mirror and he can’t see my weird range of facial expressions and my body language, if I just keep it purely verbal, I can convince him that I am a Beijinger and maybe I spent a few years abroad and lost some of the authenticity of my accent but that’s about it, I’m basically a Beijinger.
Steve: You know, I’ll mention a psychological experience which I think all Asian Americans experience, and this happened to me even not just when I was in China or the Sinosphere but when I was in, say, Korea or Japan. I could get on a subway and, you know, unless I was dressed very strangely compared to the locals, no one would look at me twice. I could just feel a solidarity or oneness with all the other people in the train car even though they were Japanese and or Korean and I wasn’t. But in America, if I get on a train car you, know, I might be the odd one — maybe not in New York City or something — but I might be the odd one out, and it’s just a different feeling, which I experienced for the first time when I first travelled to those countries.
Kaiser: Yeah, I can’t say I’ve actually felt it. I mean every, I mean my whole time there has been spent looking very odd compared to the ordinary people, so…
Steve: I can pass for a Salaryman.
Kaiser: Right, I can’t quite. [laughs]
Corey: I had almost this, almost identical experience being in Cameroon a couple of decades ago. I was walking around with this Italian friend of mine, and realized as we were walking to the market, and it was the first time I was with somebody, and one of us was being stared at and it wasn’t me. And it was this…
Corey: …it was this singular feeling, right, of just being totally invisible and watching, you know, my friend just get…
Steve: You know, even though you’d maybe didn’t speak the local language, you’re like, man, I can just chill and nobody’s gonna… as long as I don’t do anything…
Steve: …that gives it away, no one’s gonna look twice at me.
Corey: But what was shocking, it was fascinating watching both people look at him…
Corey: …and watching his reaction being looked at. You know, he’s a pretty chill guy, and I hope we’ll have him on the podcast soon. But yeah, just this sense of people looking at a foreigner, kind of seeing it as almost from a third-person perspective…
Kaiser: [laughs] Yeah.
Corey: …it’s really, it’s saying… I wish everyone could have that experience, actually, of… A lot of white Americans have the experience of being someplace…
Corey: …and being a little bit out of place.
Kaiser: What I get all the time here traveling around the US is, I’m mistaken for a Native American, before, especially before I had facial hair at all. This is my Trump resistance facial hair. But when I, before that, yeah, constantly being mistaken for Native American, I mean, either by well-intentioned people, you know — “I don’t mean, not that it matters, but what tribe is you?” — that kind of thing, or I’d get like some redneck just going, you know — “Hey chief, fill ‘er up? What can I get you, chief?” — and saying chief, is that like, you know, hey jefe or hey, you know, [unintelligible] or whatever? No, it was definitely “chief” as in, like, Indian chief.
Corey: So here’s my favorite bit of political, my favorite political question that I ask people after the Trump election: Which ethnic group voted most for Donald Trump?
Kaiser: You mean as a proportion of the ethnic group?
Corey: A portion of that…
Steve: Was it Chinese Americans?
Corey: No, it was Native Americans.
Steve: Oh, Native Americans, okay.
Kaiser: Really, wow.
Corey: They voted because of the America first policy. They didn’t want immigration. They kind of saw…
Steve: Well they know, they know.
Corey: …the effect of immigration. So it really is ironic, right? given that, you know, how, you know, they’re being viewed by many Trump supporters. But they sort of saw immigration as something that didn’t help them out.
Corey: So Kaiser, I sort of want to push a little bit on the sort of rock star moving around China during China’s development. It’s a very strange perspective to have, so who are you talking to at the time? Are you talking to officials? Are you talking to other rockers?
Steve: Fans, groupies?
Corey: Who’s your peer group at the time? Who are you getting information from? What do you see?
Kaiser: Yeah, it was a strange… So there was sort of a real clear dividing line. I think, prior to ’99, most of my friends were Chinese people and most of them were, yeah, people either in the rock community — I mean, there were some people who I had known, sort of, from my brief sojourn in school there — I was officially enrolled in a university, so I had some ex-patriot friends, but most of them were Chinese guys, Chinese women. And the art scene was pretty unified back then. You’d know a lot of people from the film academy, from the drama academy; you’d know a lot of visual artists; and then rock musicians, jazz musicians in all the performing arts, and I guess that was mostly the people that I knew. So these are not people who were really deeply representative of ordinary folks. But what was great was you’d go home to their families, and their families were entirely ordinary. You’d go eat dinner and you’d meet their, you know, their brother or their sister or, you know, any number of cousins and they’re in, you know, those are people who I think are kind of more useful interlocutors for understanding what was going on.
Corey: Did you find that people in the arts community had different perspectives than…?
Kaiser: Yeah, very much so. Yeah, I mean, I think that they are… Look, especially when deciding to sort of opt out of mainstream society and to be part of that community required such an act of personal courage. I mean, on the one hand the ’80s were extraordinarily liberal so it was possible to do a lot of these things, but on the other hand there was a lot of inertia you had to overcome. There was a lot of social inertia, sort of cultural inertia you had to overcome, to decide I am not going to opt for that ordinary path of, you know, going to school, taking the college exam, going to a vocational training school and then working the job that I’m assigned. Instead to say no I’m going to learn to play the drums, I’m gonna learn to play guitar, I’m gonna learn to sing like a banshee, and I’m going to, you know, to be a rocker. It was a completely different set of people, so I don’t pretend that I had any kind of an ordinary sort of ground level view. But what I do think I did come into contact with there were a lot of people who were ordinary educated people, who were ordinary intellectuals. I did have some friends who are sort of among the more prominent dissident intellectuals who we know a lot more about in the States. But I did have a lot of friends who were allowed, considered to be sort of ordinary intellectuals, and those are people whose perspectives I think we really need to understand.
Steve: So at some point in your time there — and you were sort of continuously… after you left graduate school you were in, sort of continuously in Beijing for a long time, is that right?
Kaiser: Yeah, twenty years.
Steve: Twenty years. And at some point in that time you made a transition from rocker to, for example, guy who works at Baidu.
Steve: Can you talk a little bit about that?
Kaiser: It’s not as strange as it sounds. There’s a really kind of… There’s one weird leap, which was in ’99, when I quit the band. I quit the band in the sense that, you know, I broke up with you before you could break up with me because, you know, it was clear that I wasn’t welcome. So let’s make that clear. When I quit I basically went home that night and did this mental kind of catalog: Okay, so what am I gonna do after this? I can go back and pick up where I left off on my dissertation; I can, you know, try to reinvent myself, like I can start a new band; and then I just sort of decided that look, you know, one thing that I can do, I can speak and read Chinese and I’m a good writer, I’ve had some academic training, I went to a good school, I can become an editor for one of these new “websites” — it was still kind of a fairly new word in ’99. The internet was on fire in China, there were all these people wanting to start companies, and I knew I would be able to get a job doing something like that and that it would interest me. I had been tasked with, you know, building a primitive website for the band, so I knew a little HTML. And, you know, my dad was in IBM where I was around technology all my life, nothing intimidated me. So I went for it, and I closed my computer that night thinking I’m going to, tomorrow morning I’m going to apply to a bunch of web, you know, these internet companies. But before I could even, you know, finish my scrambled eggs in the morning the phone rang, and it was basically a job offer out of nowhere from a guy who’s, you know, a very, very well-known media figure who had invested in an internet company and was looking for an editor-in-chief for their English side, and for some reason thought of me. And I took that. It was marvelous, it was a company called ChinaNow.com and, you know, it died in 2002, but for those three years it was just marvelous, marvelous fun. So from there it was really easy to transition, since I was in a quote/unquote technology company, was always doing editorial, it was very easy to then become a reporter writing about the burgeoning tech industry in China. So that was like, sort of a real seamless transition. I started freelancing a bunch, and then eventually got a gig writing for a pretty well-known Silicon Valley publication as bureau chief for China that’s called Red Herring. Do you guys remember Red Herring?
Steve: Sure, of course. I ran a start-up during that first bubble, and of course Red Herring, during that peak of the bubble it was a thick magazine because of all the advertising, and then as the bubble burst that became a very thin magazine and then no magazine at all.
Kaiser: That’s right. That was during the, sort of, the thin-to-no transition period and it was terrible, I mean, it was a great brand that was run into the ground by just incompetent management by one, by the publisher, he was just absolutely terrible. We all hated him. In fact, I just ran into, in New York last week, and we were reminiscing, as we always do, about how much we hated that bastard.
You know, all these great things are often very fragile, you know, they can survive under certain circumstances and then that’s it.
Kaiser: So once you’re an established tech writer, then suddenly all the internet companies want to hire you as their communications director, ‘cuz they figured, hey you know how to, you’re buddies with all the other tech writers, so therefore you’ll help, you know, sort of soften the coverage of us. And so finally I succumbed to that temptation, and I first went to Youku and then to Baidu.
Steve: So during that time I, you know, so from listening to your podcasts — and I think I’ve probably listened to hundreds of your podcasts, if you’ve made hundreds…
Kaiser: I have, yeah, four or five hundred.
Steve: …yeah, so, you know, I get a sense of you as actually an intellectual with pretty deep interests; and so was your internal monologue during that time “yeah, I’m working for the man, I have a family now” but, you know, I could tell you never lost your inner curiosity about things.
Kaiser: Yeah, and they didn’t want me to. I mean, I think that my whole pitch to them was that look, you know, you can hire some guy who’s worked for a PR agency and just sort of knows, you know, by the book PR; or you can hire me who, somebody who journalists might actually enjoy having lunch with for an hour a week. You know, you can hire me who, somebody who, you know, might be able to sort of think more creatively about some of the communications challenges that we have. I think they made, I think they bought it, they bought it.
Steve: And were you always in the English facing role or was your Chinese actually good enough to actually have the Chinese media facing role as well?
Kaiser: Oh no no no, it was definitely… It would, I think it would have been okay enough to do that. It’s just different animals completely. I kind of don’t even want to know what the Chinese facing side of PR for any of these companies has to do, because it’s, you’re really in the mud with the other, you know, sort of mud-dwelling animals.
Steve: [laughs] Yes, you might have to spend a lot of time at a — well maybe not anymore since they cleaned it up — but for a while you probably did spend a lot of time at a KTV or something with the…
Kaiser: It would have been that, yeah, that sort of thing. I mean, my liver and my conscience, probably neither could have really taken it.
Steve: You know what KTV is?
Corey: I don’t, no.
Steve: It’s funny, because it sort of can mean karaoke, but in the early rough days in China it could literally mean a brothel, like you’re going to a brothel where a bunch of business guys…
Kaiser: The same thing. So, you know, you would have these hostess girls come in and they’d have numbers and you’d pick which ones… You’d bring them into the room with you and then they’d all, sort of, everyone would get drunk, and then some clothing would come off, and this would… and it was just, yuck, not my thing, no.
Corey: So this is sort of the picture I think many Americans have of after-hours Japanese business world.
Kaiser: Yeah, it’s learned from that.
Corey: Okay. Does it still exist or has it changed much?
Kaiser: It’s changed a lot, you know, I mean it’s… Xi Jingping’s anti-corruption campaign has taken a lot of that out. Yeah, that’s just the… In the provinces, yeah, I think there’s still a lot of drinking, you know, and probably those, you know, visits to the sauna or the what-have-you, the sort of boys’ bonding stuff. There’s considerably less of it than there was back then.
Steve: Really changed, I think, over a period of maybe five years from… really unbelievable, like, you check into a business hotel and they would be running like the equivalent of like a brothel on the top floor or something, to… it just doesn’t exist anymore. So…
Steve: …for that maybe Xi gets some credit, I don’t know.
Kaiser: [laughs] Right.
Corey: It’s interesting because as a — you know, I’m very much a non-expert with regard to China, I’ve been to Hong Kong twice — but I’ve heard different things about Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. I’ve heard, some people claim it’s score settling, some people claim it’s fully legitimate. It sounds like it’s clearly a little bit of both.
Steve: Kaiser’s the expert, but…
Kaiser: Yeah, well I’m not the expert, but there is an expert and his name is Peter Lorentzen at the University of San Francisco, and he’s just published an excellent paper which looks at exactly this question. Well, first of all, I mean, more than six hundred and thirty thousand people have been disciplined. Now, that includes something like a hundred and twenty thousand who have been expelled from the party or actually jailed, usually both happened together. Nobody has six hundred and thirty thousand scores to settle — that’s just, I don’t care how big, you know, how many friends you have on Facebook or whatever, you know, there’s just nobody… so it’s obviously not possible. At the same time, as Peter’s study has shown, Xi’s inner circle — these people who were, you know, around him, people who he’s close to — have not been touched, so there’s clearly some personal touch going on in there. I mean, his own personal people have been left alone, while around him, you know, literally hundreds of thousands have gone down. It’s one of those things where it’s pretty hard to imagine having been a ranking bureaucrat in China during the ’90s and the 2000s without getting some stink on you. Almost everyone’s got a little bit. It’s like being a Hollywood producer and not having some MeToos, something in the closet.
Steve: Or a New York real estate developer.
Kaiser: Exactly, exactly.
Steve: So okay, I guess we’ve transitioned a little bit away from Kaiser’s life story and more into China proper…
Kaiser: Great, thank God.
Steve: …which… I want to advertise your podcast again, because I think it’s one of the best places where you can hear people who really know what they’re talking about discussing these issues in in depth, I would say.
Corey: Tell us a little bit about your idea behind the podcast. What’s your, what’s been your goal with it, and what do you think, how long has it been going on for?
Kaiser: Yeah Corey, that’s a great question. It’s been going on now for… We started in April of 2010, so we’re close to our ninth anniversary. The podcast was really the brainchild of Jeremy Goldkorn and me. We were two guys kicking around Beijing, both of us with a lot of interest in media, a lot of interest in current affairs in China. Both of us had sort of large networks within the journalist community, large networks within the NGO community, within the business communities. And we thought we would just convene a little conversation that would be like a dinner conversation that was a little more structure than that, where we’d have a couple of topics we’d go through — like we’re doing right now, just sort of rapping about interesting stuff. I kind of by default fell into the host position, and we just said hey, let’s just try this and see what happens. It happened that we had this friend who was running podcasts for a Chinese language learning business that he had started, so he had mics and digital recorders and was, he’d volunteered to edit for us, to produce the thing, to put it out, and all we had to do was come up with guests and come sit for an hour and yammer. So we did that.
Steve: Corey doesn’t realize, but we’re inspired by your podcast, and he’s Jeremy Goldkorn and I’m Kaiser Kuo. [laughter] So, you’ll have to look up who Jeremy Goldkorn is.
Corey: Yeah, I could go find who I am, actually.
Kaiser: So Jeremy is a real character. He’s a guy who was born in South Africa, from Johannesburg — you know, his surname is Goldkorn, so you can sort of guess the ethnic derivation of that — but grew up as an English, not Afrikaans-speaking white South African, left right around the time of apartheid’s collapse, and spent a year — but it was so long, you know, he was, Christ, he was kicking around for a while, he biked all over the place. And he ended up in China beginning in ’94 or ’95, I think, and was there for twenty years. And so we knew each other really well. He’s unlike me, we’re very very different, he’s kind of anti-academic. He hates even words like “discourse” or “problematic” or especially, if it’s used as a noun, “the problematic.”
Corey: Oh I…
Steve: I told you, you’re Jeremy Goldkorn.
Corey: …those words should be banished from the lexicon…
Corey: …so pretentious.
Kaiser: I agree with that. But, you know, he takes it to, kind of, often very amusing extremes. We, the dynamic of the show has always been… so he’s usually way more, “Oh just, let’s cut these bollocks, Kaiser, get to the meat of the question here,” and I’m usually the one who’s a little more indulgent and wants to, you know, do more context, and splash on more nuance, and he often likes to, sort of, you know, “We need moral clarity here. This is just bollocks, don’t do it.” So it works, it works pretty well. And I think the secret to the show has been that, you know, people want a little bit of an adversarial dynamic somewhere, and since we never do it with a guest — we always bring on guests that we’re gonna be polite to and not ask softball questions to, but we’re not gonna antagonize them — and Jeremy and I antagonize one another instead.
He’s one of my very best friends in the world, so it’s all in good fun, but both of us, I think, have drifted toward the center more and maybe we need to reinvigorate the argumentative dynamic a bit on the show.
Steve: Perhaps coincidentally, you both ended up now living in the American South, is that right? You’ve both come back…
Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. I don’t think it’s entirely accidental. I think that, you know, he was, he sang its virtues enough that it started to sink in, and I started talking to other people who were living in the South, and I’m very, very pleased that I decided to live in North Carolina for just a whole bunch of different reasons.
Steve: How much does this have to do with the difficulty of raising children in Beijing?
Kaiser: It wasn’t the difficulty. I think in many ways raising children in Beijing is easier. For one thing, you have, you know, really affordable and excellent, you know, nannies who, if you want them — my wife was very anti-nanny, she thought it all, it would teach them sort of, you know, inegalitarian habits of mind, which was, I think she’s right — but in many ways it is easier. People talk about the pollution, of course, and that was bad but getting better already by the time we left, and it was clearly on a trajectory toward good. It wasn’t the politics, it wasn’t anything… For us, it was just simply, we have this kind of belief about pedagogy that says, you know, let children be children before they start school. When they’re in elementary school, ride them pretty hard, make them disciplined, teach them until they’re sponges then, just teach them a whole bunch of stuff that requires rote memorization. I don’t believe that the American allergy to rote memorization is helping. But after junior high, Chinese schools start teaching toward the college entrance exam, the gaokao, and it is a very, very narrow, you know, to me a pedagogically objectionable approach. So we’d always planned on getting the kids out when they started junior high. So that was always in the plan. That was the entire reason, because I had a really good life there, there was no other reason for me to leave.
Steve: Got it. So back to the situation in China. So I want to tell you about, tell you an anecdote and then maybe have your reaction to it. So back in about 2007 I was with a team of academics. The leader of this team was actually a Fields Medalist, a mathematician from Harvard who’s Chinese, and you can figure out instantly who it is. [laughter] We were brought to China by Alibaba to consult — actually I guess this was 2009, because Alibaba had correctly predicted the financial crisis by looking at its own data and seeing all kinds of crazy stuff happening, and they warned the Central Party that something was happening, and because Jack Ma is pretty well connected the Chinese were able to actually prepare a little bit, or they had they had better warning of it than the American government. And so Alibaba realized that the data that they had access to was really valuable, and they wanted to set up an institute with academics, math people, computer science people, to look at this data. So we traveled all around and did various things. One of the dinners that we had was with the dean of the Cheung Kong Business School, who I think was a Party member, very super connected. We were being escorted around by the, I think the CTO of Alibaba at the time. And I remember a dinner conversation where we talked about whether anything like Mao or the Cultural Revolution could happen again. And everyone with very high conviction said no, people still remember the Cultural Revolution. The rules for succession now are very clear and they will be followed. Now, I guess we now know that that’s not true, and someone like Xi can appoint himself, you know, premier for life. So the people who you might have expected to have the most understanding of the inner workings of the system were, as far as I can tell, completely wrong.
Kaiser: I mean, I think there’s… You’re conflating a couple of things here. First of all, I mean, the succession issue has nothing to do with the Cultural Revolution. Sure, I think there are a lot of people who rightfully, you know, rightly object to Xi’s having eliminated one of these, you know, few institutional constraints on the power at the very top, this whole thing, but this does not mean it’s the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution, if anything, it was an anti-Party move by one man. Xi has done something very different: he has strengthened the control and the, sort of the institutional vigor of the Party. Mao cut its legs out from under it. Mao destroyed the Party.
Steve: I maybe didn’t explain the logic correctly. So what I think was being said was that because people remembered what it was — could still remember, it was within living memory — what it was like to have an all-powerful ruler like Mao, the Party would follow rules which limited the power of the chief executive. And that turned out to be seemingly easily swept aside, although maybe Xi had to do a lot of maneuvering to really get that through. But in any case, they would have predicted that the state that we’re in now was very, very improbable, let me put it that way.
Corey: Is it true that people expect Xi to actually stay in power forever? People I’ve talked to think that this is partly PR, that the guy will probably step down within ten years.
Kaiser: I don’t think he’s gonna be a doddering ninety-year-old and he’ll still be… No, I don’t think that’s gonna happen.
Steve: The issue was that at the time, and even now there… so at the time, there were discussions about is there a China model of governance, not just China model for industrialization or economic development but for governance, in which you could have a kind of authoritarian system but they would follow their own rules. And people kind of believed that that could be the case. But now it seems — at least the narrative that’s told in the United States — is that no, now it’s kind of, once again, the instability toward having a strong emperor has happened, and those people would not have predicted that this was possible so soon.
Corey: So that’s what — I mean, the few people I’ve been talking to question, right? Where China would’ve said, well, they think that the US narrative is actually not correct, and this picture of him sweeping away the constraints isn’t actually, not fully correct.
Kaiser: Yeah, I would tend to actually agree with Corey. I think that it’s been exaggerated, the extent to which he has truly swept away any, you know, any checks on his power. He certainly has arrogated to himself a lot more power — well, certainly than his immediate predecessor. I mean, we are comparing it right now to Hu Jintao and Wien Jiabao where, it was during the 2003 to 2012 period, there was quite deliberately a collective leadership. It was, they were at best prime ministers to Paris. There were very, very powerful other figures, not just within the Politburo Standing Committee but just, you know, beginning with the Politburo Standing Committee, and that became quite obvious by 2012, when he was actually challenged, as we now know, very, very seriously by other power centers within the upper echelons of the party. What we’re seeing now is in large part a reaction to that anomalous situation. We’re seeing a correction to that. That, they think in their internal analysis, was a near-death experience. They think that, you know, that cannot be allowed to happen again. That happened because, you know, they would, in their analysis, there was, you know, too much faith placed in this idea that a collective leadership could keep, you know, keep the ship running smoothly. They don’t, they no longer really — a lot of people do not have faith in the idea, because you look at what happened during that time: this was the period where corruption really, really, really took off. You had interest groups that were quite powerful, that were based in major industrial areas, like — not geographies, but in the petroleum industry, for example — that produced this guy Zhou Yongkang, who was one of the major members of this cabal that really sought to unseat Xi. So I kind of get why they felt it was necessary to do this. And they look around in the international environment and believe that shaky leadership transitions right now would be really, really unwise, because — I mean, look around you — they believe that China is in an almost unprecedentedly hostile environment. I don’t agree with a lot of their assessment, but we have to be able to think ourselves into their heads and see the world as they do. I mean, that’s a core tenet of my belief. That’s how you watch China is, you learn to see how the Chinese leadership sees the world.
Steve: Yeah, I don’t think it’s crazy for them to be worried about external threats.
Kaiser: Or internal ones.
Steve: Yeah, or internal ones. How do you view the current situation between the US and China? To me, it seemed like, sort of toward the end of Obama, there was finally a realization that this is a true strategic competitor and we need to start actually thinking seriously about it. And now, of course, Trump has brought people like Navarro in, who are, you know, rabidly anti-China.
Kaiser: Sure, Pillsbury, like Heizer, Navarro, all… yeah, I mean, Matt Pottinger, all these, yeah…
Steve: We feel it at the university. So of course they want, there’s pressure to shut down all the Confucius Centers. There’s pressure to tightly monitor Chinese researchers when they come on campus, and so there’s no telling where it could really head. Curious what you think.
Kaiser: Yeah this is, you know, the big issue, of course, of our time. I don’t think that we’re — we should be careful about deploying words like “cold war” — but you know, we’re in a perilous, perilous situation right now when it comes to our relationship with China, at a time when bilateral cooperation is more necessary than ever to address any number of really important global issues that we face — first and foremost, of course, climate change — but this is, it’s a tragedy right now. You know, China has really managed to throw some serious cognitive dissonance at the United States a couple of times now, I mean, really three times that I can think of. One of course was, you know, it was almost axiomatic for us that we are not supposed to be able to be a flourishing free-market economy under an authoritarian political, you know, rule. But China was exactly that, so that threw us for a loop. Then you weren’t supposed to be able to innovate, of course, if you didn’t have total freedom of free-flowing information in China with its notorious internet censorship — which is very real, with all its constraints on academic research, which are very real — wasn’t supposed to be innovative, and somehow that narrative has flipped completely and we now think of China as, you know, threatening to eat our lunch in terms of innovation, that, you know, it’s gonna beat us to deploying quantum computing, it’s beating us in the railgun, it’s beating us in CRISPR-Cas9, it’s beating us in self-driving cars or in — which is, you know just, I mean, I don’t, I think most of that’s nonsense. So it just keeps doing this to us, and that one in particular, that’s one of those sort of sturdier bastions of American exceptionalism.
Steve: You know, that last transition from saying oh, the various limitations they have — whether it’s lack of political freedom or lack of Internet freedom — will keep them from innovating, I think that just went down in the last few years, so…
Kaiser: Yeah absolutely, yeah, it’s like three years, yeah, it’s crazy. Joe Biden and Carly Fiorina were, it was a big talking point for them on their campaign. Biden was giving, you know, speeches saying how, you know, China will never innovate because it’s not free. Carly Fiorina was saying hey, show me one thing that the Chinese have ever innovated.
Steve: Yeah, and I think it’s amazing that that was still a pretty widely held belief just a few years ago. And now, you know — obviously, you know, pendulums tend to swing, over correct and swing too far — but now it’s pretty clear that there are many things that they’re innovating on. So I think it’s amazing how fast that storyline faded away. And I think, actually, you would have to be crazy to think that they’re not gonna be a strategic competitor going forward. Recently I was in Silicon Valley talking to some AI researchers and — Chinese AI researchers — and one of the things that came up was, there’s a consistent or persistent discussion in these sort of Chinese tech communities as to whether it is basically too late for the United States now. So the economy in China is big enough, enough of the key technologies they have mastered — you have to count very carefully the ones that they’re still struggling to master —and so therefore, even if Trump threw everything at them, it would be a rough decade, but they feel pretty confident they would actually win out in the end. And that’s an interesting mindset.
Kaiser: It’d be hard to identify ones in which they’re hopelessly behind. Look, the whole ZTE episode did lay bare what some of those gaps still are, there are some gaps. But yeah, I actually think that the advantages that China has right now… because look, I mean, I do basically buy the idea that in artificial intelligence right now with, especially with deep learning, we’re not in the age of innovation right now, we’re in the age of implementation, and the data that Chinese tech companies have amassed is going to be a significant competitive advantage. You know, we were talking about Shenzhen: you visited in the early ’90s when it was still just dirt roads, but you go there now and there are whole buildings devoted to components for specific products, like, for drones, whole building where you can buy rotors, you can buy, you know, sort of, you can buy all the different things that you would need to build drones; and just down the street are, you know, ODMs and OEMs that will make your drone for you. There are design shops, there… if I lived in Shenzhen I’d be sitting on top of the supply chain for most of the consumer electronics in the world right now. That is a huge advantage for China. It cannot be underestimated. We don’t have that in the United States anymore. When people talk about recreating a supply chain, you know, or… I, on my show I had a gentleman named Paul Triolo and a woman named Samm Sacks, who are just brilliant; and Paul — who worked for the government, for one of the three-letter bureaus for a very, very long time, he’s a very, very smart guy — he now works with the Eurasia Group, and his group warns about innovation winter. This concept, you’re gonna hear it a lot. If we try to decouple from China and to go our own way with supply chains — it doesn’t matter where we want to try to build them — it will take not only a lot of time but enormous resources in manpower, and that comes from somewhere, that comes at the, it crowds out, inevitably it’s gonna crowd out R&D spending, it’s gonna crowd out innovation. We are going to suffer for it. Meanwhile, China will close whatever gaps remain and plow forward. I think the best competitive strategy for the United States right now is to continue to engage with China on things like that, recognize that it is a strategic competitor, and with that in mind let’s compete smart, let’s not compete stupid. Right now we have to recognize that we are dependent on Chinese supply chains, and when I say supply chains I’m not just talking about these factories with their robotics, not just the labor force. I’m talking about very sophisticated, you know, logistics networks that span the whole region of Southeast Asia.
Steve: Absolutely, there’s nothing like those whole eco systems which go from design all the way to production at scale, you know, very rapidly in southern China.
Kaiser: Nowhere else in the world.
Steve: Yeah. I think the one thing that the real China hawks like Navarro or Gordon Chang, I’m sure you know who that is…
Kaiser: I sure do.
Steve: …what they really rely on is, that I think they have to rely on now, is some idea of fragility. So yes, these guys are formidable, there’s no taking them lightly; but maybe because of the intrinsic nature of their politics or the structure of the society that there’s some fragility, and if we just put pressure on them the whole thing can just fall like a house of cards. I’m curious how you feel, how plausible you find that.
Kaiser: I wonder if there’s any evidence for that at all. I’ve often heard that argument advanced, that it’s brittle, it’s ultimately brittle, that all authoritarian systems are; but what I continue to see — and I would, you know, I am no fan, I would love to see China become a much more deliberative and participatory and, you know, plural system — but I think the evidence before my eyes suggests not brittleness but pretty admirable resilience, that they are the masters of muddling through, that they are very, very good at it. It’s an enormous, enormous organization and — you know, you guys are scientists — organisms, when we look at their competitive advantages evolutionarily against one another, we look at how they utilize energy, right? And for any Martian looking at the politics of the United States and China, one thing that’s got to be pretty obvious is how much of our conscious energy Americans are now putting into internecine strife that doesn’t advance us; and that where they look at, they look across the Pacific at China, at this other sort of comparably sized —geographically and economically — country, and they don’t see that happening there.
Steve: Yeah, I think the two instabilities would be here, maybe where — I don’t know how close we actually are, but you could imagine we could have a kind of civil war, because the society seems to be divided 50/50 almost, which we…
Kaiser: Yeah, I don’t believe that either but… We’re not so brittle either.
Corey: That’s overhyped. You look at the Midwest, I see very little strife.
Steve: No, I’m not saying that’s plausible, but I’m saying if you wanted to tell a story about the weakness of the US political system, maybe what kind of…
Kaiser: You maybe could construct one. But that’s the other thing that I’m really, you know, constantly railing against is this whole declinist narrative about the United States. I just think it’s maybe useful, I suppose, but it’s just not true.
Steve: Yeah, I don’t know that we’re declining so much as we have a very energetic competitor, and…
Kaiser: That’s right.
Steve: …the Soviet Union was energetic in producing weapons, but economically it was clear they were never in our league.
Kaiser: That’s right. What did we ever buy, what did the world want besides, you know, yeah, I mean, we like the Bolshoi and Baryshnikov, we like Stolichnaya and beluga caviar.
Corey: You know, Obama made the same thing about modern Russia. They don’t make anything.
Steve: Still true.
Kaiser: Yeah, they make petroleum.
Corey: Weapons, we have weapons and pumping oil.
Kaiser: Right, yeah, and that’s nothing. Yeah, I mean, we’ve not had a peer competitor before. I mean, that’s what we’re really going through right now.
Kaiser: And we can be sensible about it, or we can be morons about it.
Steve: Another point I would make is that if we want to have a protracted cold war with China, you have to remember that their people are used to a much lower standard of living. So unless they are, it’s the 6% or 7% growth rate that they’re addicted to, and so if you were to shut that off then there’d be some political unrest. Unless that’s your thesis, grinding it out against them is not a great thing to do, because their people are used to dealing with a lot, you know, more hardship than people here.
Kaiser: Sure, yeah absolutely.
Corey: They’re much less likely to punish their leaders for, and much less able to do it.
Kaiser: Less able to, yeah, is more to the point.
Steve: If their growth rate drops systematically below 6 or 7% a year, that’s bad, because they’re used to that now. But if they can point to Trump and say oh, it’s actually the Americans’ fault that our GDP growth rate dropped, then politically it doesn’t look like it’s necessarily a losing game for their leadership. They may just, you know, people may just double down and say hey, we gotta stick together, these Westerners are trying to take us down again.
Kaiser: Yeah, I mean, ten years ago they were very easily able to do that, to point to how the West had bungled its stewardship of the global financial order, they just absolutely bungled it. And, you know, China put a trillion dollars of stimulus into its economy and rode this thing out. I mean they’re, you know, it’s kicking the can down the road a bit now, the debt problem that’s resulted from it, but it looks quite survivable right now. Another, you know, bad round… Although, I mean, I guess I’m pretty optimistic right now. Trump is talking about meeting Xi at Mar-a-Lago in March, and it looks like he’s sort of in the mood to make a deal. I think that I’ve read a couple of things, you know, now that he’s walked out of talks with Kim Jong-un, that this was sort of meant as a warning for Beijing, that he’s able to do the same with them. But that’s not what I’m sensing.
Steve: You know, it’s interesting because the main China hawk people in the Trump administration, like Navarro and people like this, they don’t have any constituency in Washington; whereas lobbyists for US companies — people that, you know, the market itself, like you see what the market does every time it looks like there really is gonna be a full-blown trade war — there are many, many forces pushing Trump to be moderate in these negotiations with China, and only a few forces, actually, that are pushing him to be really tough. So for them to actually slap this 25% tariff on 200 billion dollars’ worth of trade, the market would tank immediately — and, you know, who would give solace to Trump, Peter Navarro? I mean, it’s just the political economy that looks very strange to me.
Kaiser: I really hope you’re right Steve, I really hope you’re right.
Corey: Kaiser, if you could make — I mean, I just want to hear your perspective — you could make some recommendations to the Trump administration, what do you suggest they do in relationship to China?
Steve: Let me reformulate slightly. So imagine that you’re the leader of the United States and you have, you feel like you have to take at least some slight risk-averse attitude toward China, because if they do get way ahead of us…
Kaiser: Oh I do believe that, yeah.
Steve: …yeah, say their GDP gets to be twice ours or 1.5 times ours and they’re not nice, okay. If you have to guard against that tail risk, what would you do?
Kaiser: So I think one thing that I would do is, I would really start doubling down on my existing diplomatic relations, my alliances. I would… Look, one of the effects that we’ve seen of Trump’s hostility toward China — not just China but other trade partners — is, we’ve driven Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping back into one another’s arms. People have… It’s been reported on but only very little, but it’s something that the Japanese press is talking about all the time. There is this, like, full-blown rapprochement happening right now between China and Japan.
Steve: And what’s driving that?
Kaiser: The trade hostility that both of them are feeling toward vis-à-vis the United States. Both of them, you know, they’re large trade partners with the United States, right? So they’re moving into one another’s arms. We run the same risk with South Korea. We don’t seem to be handling our close alliances very well at all. Look at what happened recently — I mean, I don’t agree with what Trump is trying to do with Huawei, but we’ve seen two key defections within our closest NATO allies right now, with the UK and Germany both now saying they will allow Huawei to build critical components in their networks.
Steve: Yeah, this whole Huawei 5G story is kind of nuts.
Kaiser: It’s remarkable, right?
Kaiser: I like an idea — I mean, because so much of it does boil down to technology and there are other issues that we can talk about — but when it comes to the tech cold war, an idea that I’m enamored with is “small yard, high fence.” We need to just make a more realistic assessment of what belongs inside the fence, and what we cannot hope to include inside the fence. And the things that we cannot hope to include are all these things that we’re currently calling dual-use technologies. Look, some of these things are out of the bag already and there’s no — out of the bottle — no way we’re gonna put that put them back in. In fact, I’m not even really sure, beyond a few weapon systems, what should really go in the small yard with a very, very high fence right now. I think that basically if I could just slap sense into Trump, it would just be to stop thinking about simplistic idiotic metrics like our trade deficit with China as a means of gauging the health of this economy versus the health of theirs. No serious economist would view that as a reasonable metric to look at, it just, it wouldn’t happen. The other is that I… Just stop seeing everything as zero-sum, it’s just moronic. It is not… You know, competition, it is competition, but it is not a zero-sum competition. Stop embarrassing yourself. Look, get back on the TPP, that’s another thing they just like…
Steve: Yeah, I think if Trump hadn’t scrapped TPP, that would have been one of the most formidable…
Kaiser: That’s right.
Steve: …weapons to use against China actually, so…
Kaiser: That’s absolutely right. I don’t like to think in terms of weapons against China. Part of what I don’t like about TPP was how it was so, you know, arrayed against China, how it included — let’s be really honest here — standards that were intended to exclude China that many other TPP members were simply not held to, whether their labor or environmental standards. Many other TPP members are in flagrant violation of those standards, but they’re not being held to account because the design of that agreement was intended mainly to exclude China.
Corey: That’s a narrative that actually I hadn’t heard before, I think.
Kaiser: Oh yeah, check it out, you heard it here first. So what I’m doing right now is, I’ve convened a group of my friends and I have, we’re getting a group together that we’re calling “The Next Forty.” The idea of “The Next Forty” is to try to, you know, build a new foundation for the next 40 years of the US-China relationship. And so the people that we’ve roped into this include a lot of people who well, frankly, have been on the show before, but include some very high-ranking diplomats, including the former Assistant Secretary of State — the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton; Dave Rank, who was the chargé d’affaires of the Chinese, of the US Embassy in China, until he quit because of Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Accord; we have, you know, serious, like very, very respected environmentalists; very respected people who study national defense and security; people who work on human rights; a lot of technologists… People who are interested in bringing more light and less heat to conversations, who have, you know, no a priori assumptions about whether it’s dovish or hawkish policies that are the best to advance our interests, but have American interests in mind first, not America first, but who do not believe that advancing American interests necessarily means thwarting China, that it’s possible to advance together. So this new organization, it’s very, very new, we will be putting out a pretty substantial policy paper toward the end of this year that will be intended to get into the hands of presidential campaign staffs, of course, into the hands of, you know, key Senate and House committee members and their staffs, and into the broader China-watching and academic and the media communities. We really wanted to jumpstart a new, smarter conversation on China that transcends all this nonsense about dragon slayers and panda huggers, and it just brings in sensible people who are true experts in their fields to have serious, thoughtful conversations about policies, to enumerate actual policies, to identify the correct policy actors to implement those policies. That’s what we’re trying to do, so… I mean, it’s my life’s work, really, it’s what I’m now embarked on.
Steve: I think it’s a great idea and it’s sorely needed. You know, I think if you, even if you go to places like Brookings or, you know, large think tanks, the concentration of people who really know what they’re talking about — because this is such a complicated issue — isn’t really high enough, I think, for them to really get where they need to go. And so pulling together people who actually really are, have a deep level of familiarity with both countries, I think, is really valuable.
Kaiser: Yeah, it’s actually one of the criteria as everyone in our group has lived in China, and we need that. We need people with skin in the game and an appreciation for what’s actually at stake. I don’t want, you know, keyboard warriors who just sort of, you know, toss off these, you know, these missives into the ether and play at, you know, hard-ass, right, you know, who, I don’t know, people who are cavalier when they’re talking about literally millions of lives. No, none of that. We want people with a real sense of the stakes. You know, if anyone wants to get in touch, you can always find me at Kaiser.Kuo@ gmail.com. We’re very, very excited about this initiative. We have gathered what I think is a dream team. We’re going to do an off-site or something outside of DC where we’ll be, you know, really hammering out over the course of a working weekend exactly what goes into this, and that will happen probably in October.
Kaiser: So a lot of preparation before that.
Steve: Well keep me posted, I would be interested in helping.
Kaiser: I sure will Stephen, thank you.
Kaiser: Corey, yeah, thank you.
Corey: Yeah, I’d love to hear more, absolutely. One last question: Are there any of the presidential candidates, the Democrats, the ones who’ve announced so far, who seem like they have, from your point of view, got their heads screwed on right as regards to China?
Kaiser: So I know there are a couple of who have their heads screwed on wrong so far, but I’m not going to name names. The one person who I have a lot of confidence in is somebody who I actually met while she was in China and seemed extremely sensible. She was at that time, I believe she was not yet Attorney General — no she wasn’t, she was District Attorney — is Kamala Harris of course, who as a Californian — I spent a lot of time in California myself — I think that people in the state government of California really know what’s going on. Jerry Brown, for example, the ex-governor, was one of the smartest people when it came to understanding how at a sub-national level, at a state level, the relationship with China could continue, despite the chill that we’ve seen in the air. He’s done a tremendous job. So I really like Kamala Harris so far.
Corey: You know, it’s really interesting. I spent about ten years on the West Coast, and I have to say that it made me really aware of the heterogeneity in the US, because in many ways… I spent about four years in Seattle. Seattle was as much connected to the Pacific Rim, maybe more so…
Kaiser: That’s right.
Corey: …than it actually felt connected to Washington DC. They had a lot of news out of the Pacific Rim, a lot of news about China and Japan, and there was a sense that Washington DC was just this place very, very far away. I mean, people couldn’t quite figure out how that place had so much to say over our lives, you know?
Steve: Distant capital.
Kaiser: I wonder the same thing all the time.
Corey: Yeah, I mean it really gave me an awareness of a lot of the sort of, kind of survivalist types out of Washington state, because there just seemed to be this feeling that there’s this distant capital dictating to us, and our interests were probably someplace else. It was fascinating, it kind of got me, helped me see the world through a sort of different perspective when I saw how people thought about these things. I’m from the East Coast and I just, you know, for the East Coast back then Seattle was some podunk out there, you know.
Things have totally changed since then, but I totally understand what you were saying about people on the West Coast, politicians having much better sense.
Kaiser: Yeah absolutely, absolutely, that’s really been my experience. I mean, people like Rick Larsen from state of Washington, I mean, you know, the ex-governor…
Steve: Gary Locke.
Kaiser: …yeah, Gary Locke, who is of course ethnically Chinese himself, and he is, yeah, he was ambassador, of course, to China for a while.
Steve: All right we are, I’m being told we’re running out of time.
Kaiser: This is a terrifically fun conversation.
Corey: Yeah, thanks Kaiser, it’s been really, really wonderful.
Steve: Yeah, we’d love to have you back any time. I think you and I are both at South by Southwest in…
Kaiser: Oh yeah? Well I will… let’s make sure to have a beer while we’re there.
Steve: Yeah absolutely, I’m buying.
Kaiser: Okay. All right, Steve.
Steve: All right. Well, thanks a lot Kaiser and…
Kaiser: Thank you both.
Steve: …wish you best of luck, and hope to talk to you again soon.
Kaiser: Okay. Take care.
Steve: Okay, bye.