Sinica Podcast

Kaiser Kuo

A weekly discussion of current affairs in China with journalists, writers, academics, policymakers, business people and anyone with something compelling to say about the country that's reshaping the world. Hosted by Kaiser Kuo.

  • 56 minutes 37 seconds
    Sinica Unscripted: Wang Zichen of CCG with a Third Plenum Preview and more

    I'm trying something different: totally unscripted and very, very lightly edited recordings grabbed on the go where I happen to be. For the inaugural episode, I've got Wang Zichen, the author of the amazing Pekingnology newsletter on Substack, as well as the man behind the Center for China and Globalization's newsletter "The East is Read." Hear Zichen's origin story, his approach to publishing Pekingnology, the skinny on his new Got China show with Liu Yang and Jiang Jiang, as well as his take on what we can expect from the Third Plenum.

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    12 July 2024, 2:00 am
  • 1 hour 20 minutes
    Improbable Diplomats: Historian Pete Millwood on how Scientific and Cultural Exchange Remade U.S.-China Relations

    This week on Sinica, I chat with University of Melbourne transnational historian Pete Millwood about his outstanding book Improbable Diplomats: How Ping-Pong Players, Musicians, and Scientists Remade U.S.-China Relations. The road to normalization is told too often with a focus only on the Nixon-Kissinger opening and official diplomatic efforts culminating in the final recognition of the PRC in January 1979, but there's much more to the story than that, and Millwood tells it deftly, drawing on extensive archival research as well as interviews with many of those directly involved.

    3:33 — Transnational history 

    4:44 — The early, “pioneering” trips to China in the 1950s and ‘60s and China’s shift in invitations 

    11:14 — The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR) in the 1960s  

    16:27 — The role of the Committee of Concerned Asia Scholars (CCAS)

    20:43 — Why Nixon’s opening to China was seen as so surprising, and the impact of the UN’s shift in recognition from the ROC to the PRC on American thinking 

    24:57 — The Glenn Cowan and Zhuang Zedong ping-pong diplomacy story 

    31:21 — Edgar Snow’s meeting with Mao

    33:43 — The return leg of ping-pong diplomacy and the National Committee’s “baptism by fire”

    36:33 — The significance of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s tour of China with Eugene Ormandy  

    42:23 — Jiang Qing and the controversy around the cancelled performing arts tour in the U.S. in 1975 

    46:03 — Kissinger’s thinking in the early 1970s after the first communiqué 

    48:48 — The U.S.-China People’s Friendship Association 

    50:42 — How scientific cooperation smoothed the process toward normalization under the Carter administration, the state of play in ’77, and how Frank Press CSCPRC argued for greater reciprocity 

    1:02:25 — The politics in China in regards to the grander bargain and the decentralization of exchanges 

    1:05:43 — The disbandment of the CSCPRC and the reinvention of the NCUSCR 

    1:08:58 — Pete’s suggestion for continuing academic and cultural exchange 

    1:12:51 — How Pete got interested in such an American and China-centric topic 

    1:18:02 — Pete’s current projects 


    Pete: Island X: Taiwanese Student Migrants, Campus Spies, and Cold War Activism by Wendy Cheng; Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong by Louisa Lim (also available as an audiobook read by the author) 

    Kaiser: We Met in Beijing, a book of poems by Anthony Tao 

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    11 July 2024, 2:00 pm
  • 1 hour 5 minutes
    Adam Tooze on the U.S., China, the Energy Transition — and Saying the Unsayable

    This week on Sinica, in a show recorded on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting of the New Champions, historian Adam Tooze joins to chat about what the U.S. wants from China, China's vaulting green energy ambitions, and much more. Don't miss this episode: Tooze gets pretty darn spicy!

    3:13 How Adam launched Chartbook in Chinese 

    5:37 How Dalian and Beijing have changed since Adam’s last visit in 2019

    9:01 What the West wants from China, the Thucydides Trap,

    15:11 The trajectory of China’s economic development and why it’s hard for the West to reconcile with]

    25:11 “Overcapacity” and the politics of renewable energy

    31:00 Russo-Chinese relations and the war in Ukraine

    37:12 The Global South and China since February 24th and October 7th and the importance of Africa with regards to global development 

    41:39 Green energy as a driver of high-quality development in China 

    47:49 The “Red New Deal” and the combination punch metaphor 

    51:57 Adam’s cognitive style (an interrelated thinker averse to analogizing), climate as a touchstone topic, and China’s importance in global climate politics 


    Adam: The work of Lauri Myllyvirta, including his analysis on Carbon Brief

    Kaiser: Rewatching The Wire TV series (2002-2008)

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    4 July 2024, 2:00 pm
  • 1 hour 15 minutes
    An Ecological History of Modern China, with Stevan Harrell — Part 2

    This week on Sinica, Part 2 of the interview with anthropologist Stevan Harrell, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, about his magnum opus, An Ecological History of China. Be sure to listen to Part 1 first, as many important framing concepts are discussed in that episode!

    1:44 “– The Four Horsemen of Ecopocalypse” and ecological disasters during the Mao period, and the story of the double-wheel, double-bladed plow

    11:00 – The effect of the introduction of water systems and fertilizers on agricultural production 

    21:03 – “The replumbing of China:” The South-North Water Transfer Project and the National Water Network

    27:32 – Areas of progress: Air pollution and the energy mix 

    32:48 – Areas lacking appreciable improvement: Soil contamination, water pollution, and flood vulnerability 

    36:04 – Ecological civilization and breaking the binary between development and environmental protection

    47:00 – Steve’s cognitive style: A fox of the two cultures

    53:23 – nSteve’s views on authoritarian environmentalism 

    58:46 – The Environmental Kuznets curve 

    1:05:54 – A preview of Steve’s current book project about the Yangjuan Primary School in Liangshan 


    Steve: Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories; Hampton Sides’ The Wide Wide Sea: Imperial Ambition, First Contact and the Fateful Final Voyage of Captain James Cook; and the 2023 film The Taste of Things, starring Juliette Binoche 

    KaiserThe Cold War: A World History by Odd Arne Westad 

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    27 June 2024, 2:00 pm
  • 1 hour 14 minutes
    An Ecological History of Modern China, with Stevan Harrell — Part 1

    This week on Sinica, Part 1 of a two-part podcast with Stevan Harrell, Professor Emeritus in Anthropology at the University of Washington. Steve's groundbreaking book An Ecological History of Modern China represents the culmination of a professional lifetime of work in disparate fields. It synthesizes ideas from geography, earth science, biology, anthropology, sociology, political science, and more. It's a book that will make you change the way you think not just about China, but about history more broadly, and about resilience in natural and social systems. In this first part, we focus on some of the core framing concepts of the book and how Steve demarcates China in both space and time. Part 2 is next week!

    5:01 How Steve thinks about ecological history and resilience theory/ecology in relation to Chinese history 

    17:09 Social-ecological systems and the systems approach

    24:46 The importance of etic and emic scale 

    30:15 How diversity contributes to resilience 

    36:18 The Malthus-Boserup Ratchet 

    42:43 The importance of buffers 

    51:24 The adaptive cycle 

    55:41 Ecological buffers and the threats they face] in the major regions of China: China Proper, Zomia, and Chinese Central Asia 

    1:06:28 Steve’s periodization of modern Chinese history from the perspective of ecological history 

    Recommendations at the end of Part 2 next week!

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    20 June 2024, 2:00 pm
  • 1 hour 26 minutes
    Peter Hessler on his new book, "Other Rivers: A Chinese Education"

    This week on Sinica, the highly-regarded writer Peter Hessler joins to talk about his new book, out July 9: Other Rivers: A Chinese Education. Over 20 years after teaching with the Peace Corps in Fuling (the subject of his first book, Rivertown, Pete returns to China to teach at Sichuan University in Chengdu. He writes about the two cohorts of students, with whom he has maintained extensive contacts, to offer fascinating insights into how China has changed across this momentous period with touching, deeply human stories.

    3:47 – Why Pete couldn’t teach in Fuling again

    6:56 – How Pete stayed in touch with his Fuling cohort 

    9:46 – Pete’s SCUPI [(Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute)] cohort 

    13:51 – Pete’s Fuling cohort 

    19:35 – Chinese rural values: pragmatism and modesty

    23:08 – The physical and psychological differences between the Fuling and Chengdu cohorts 

    29:32 – “Educated acquiescence” in the Chinese education system 

    35:07 – The Hessler family’s experience with Chengdu Experimental Primary School

    43:04 – The impending lack of “Country feel,” and Pete’s sense of humor 

    47:02 – Facing criticism over his reporting during the pandemic  

    52:13 – Pete’s experience being jǔbào’ed and teaching Orwell’s Animal Farm 

    59:01 – Pete’s take on the COVID origins debate

    1:02:10 – Competition and authoritarianism in China, and the phenomenon of Chinese and Chinese American Trump supporters 

    1:06:57 – Serena’s investigation for Chángshì and why Pete’s contract was not renewed 

    1:15:28 What’s next for Pete 


    Pete: Burma Sahib by Paul Theroux, a forthcoming novel about George Orwell’s time in Burma as a policeman; Burmese Days by George Orwell 

    Kaiser: the Meta Quest VR headset 

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    13 June 2024, 2:00 pm
  • 1 hour 19 minutes
    Taiwan, Ukraine, and the Sino-American Rivalry

    This week on Sinica, a conversation that I moderated on May 30th called “Assessing the Impact of US-China Rivalry on Ukraine and Taiwan,” put on by the Ukrainian Platform for Contemporary China. The main organizer was my friend Vita Golod, who is the chair of the Ukrainian Association of Sinologists.

    The panelists are:

    • Dmytro Burtsev, a Junior Fellow at A. Krymskyi Institute of Oriental Studies, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.
    • Da Wei, Director of the Center for International Security and Strategy and Professor at the School of Social Sciences at Tsinghua University.
    • Emilian Kavalski, Professor at the Centre for International Studies and Development at Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
    • I Yuan, Adjunct Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University, Taiwan.

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    6 June 2024, 3:52 pm
  • 1 hour 9 seconds
    Jonathan Chatwin on Deng Xiaoping's 1992 Southern Tour

    This week on Sinica, Kaiser is joined by Jonathan Chatwin, author of a new book about Deng Xiaoping's "Southern Tour" of early 1992 — a pivotal event that renewed a commitment to economic reforms after they'd stalled following 1989, and seized the initiative from conservatives in the Chinese leadership. The book is called The Southern Tour: Deng Xiaoping and the Fight for China's Future.

    2:10 – Why Jonathan focused on the Southern Tour, and the narratives surrounding it in China

    7:19 – How the events of ’89 influenced Deng’s thinking 

    11:08 – How the political fates of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang affected Deng’s planning 

    14:31 – The reformers’ path to victory from the second half of ’89 to January of ’92

    20:32 – Deng’s vision of opportunity in the face of communism’s apparent global retreat

    24:53 – How Deng’s personal experiences shaped his policy decisions 

    27:07 – The strategic signaling and risky timing of the Southern Tour 

    34:07 – The influence of the Chinese horoscope, and “The Story of Spring”

    37:33 – Shenzhen speed 

    40:57 – What Jonathan learned about Deng Xiaoping 

    45:00 – Jonathan’s recommendations for learning more about Deng Xiaoping and the post-Mao era 

    46:18 – Xi Jinping, the “end” [not sure how to phrase] of Deng’s reform and opening era, and the [parallels with the?] Chinese economic situation today 


    Jonathan: China’s Hidden Century, edited by Jessica Harrison-Hall and Julia Lovell, produced to accompany the British Museum’s exhibition by that name; and the app Voice Dream, a text-to-speech reader 

    Kaiser: Andrea Wulf’s Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self, a book about the group of German Romantics gathered in Jena, Germany 

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    30 May 2024, 2:00 pm
  • 1 hour 6 minutes
    Ed Lanfranco: from Hoarder to Historian

    This week on the Sinica Podcast, Kaiser is joined by old friend Ed Lanfranco, who lived in Beijing from 1988 to 2009. An inveterate packrat, Ed managed to accumulate an incredible trove of documents, maps, photos, and ephemera from his years there and from the decades and even centuries before his arrival. Ed talks about his collection, and invites scholars interested in his material to get in touch!

    2:46 – Ed’s time in China and saving ephemera 

    11:47 – Ed’s favorite old Chinese brands 

    14:41 – Ed’s map collection 

    19:34 – The Tiananmen incident of 1976, Ed’s collection of unpublished photographs from the Panjiayuan Antique Market, and a leaflet from April 7th, 1976 

    30:40 – Ed’s patriotic music record collection 

    33:28 – Ed’s U.S.-China collection 

    38:00 – The story behind Ed’s U.S.-China panda button from 2002 

    43:18 – Ed’s Tiananmen ’89 story and collection of leaflets and files 

    50:56 – The Underground City of Beijing tour 

    53:50 – Ed’s SARS 2003 epidemic experience and artifacts


    Ed: Roger Garside’s Coming Alive: China After Mao; Lin Yutang’s works, especially My Country and My People and The Importance of Living

    Kaiser: The Rochester-based progressive metal trio Haishen’s new album, Awaken the Endless Deep 

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    23 May 2024, 2:00 pm
  • 1 hour 9 minutes
    Jay Kuo on Beijing's Gay 90s

    This week on Sinica, I'm delighted to welcome — my brother! Jay Kuo is a Broadway writer & producer, and the man behind the terrific U.S. politics-focused Substack newsletter The Status Kuo. In a previous life, from 1996 to 2000, he was also really active in Beijing's gay community, just at the time when homosexuality was being decriminalized and was stepping out of the shadows. We talk about how it all took off. Jay also puts on his other hat to talk about how China figures into American politics with the election less than five months away, and about the legal standing of the TikTok divest-or-ban law.

    4:54 – The gay community in Beijing in the ‘90s, and the Half-and-Half bar in Sanlitun 

    16:06 – How the gay community in Beijing changed after two major rulings 

    27:33 – The end of the “golden era” for the gay community in China

    36:26 – Progress and its drivers and obstacles

    42:28 – Jay’s “China priors”

    50:41 – The issue of China in the upcoming U.S. presidential election 

     57:08 – The TikTok ban bill 


    Jay: The TV series Manhunt (2024), available on Apple TV

    Kaiser: The TV series The Sympathizer (2024), available on HBO; the audiobook of The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, narrated by François Chau 

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    16 May 2024, 2:00 pm
  • 1 hour 46 minutes
    The Struggle for Taiwan: Sulmaan Wasif Khan of Tufts University on his new book

    This week on Sinica, I chat with Sulmaan Wasif Khan, professor of history and international relations at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, about his book The Struggle for Taiwan: A History of America, China, and the Island Caught Between, which comes on May 14.

    4:28 — The Cairo Agreement

    6:59 — General George Marshall, George Kennan, and the change in the idea of American trusteeship of Taiwan?

    17:08 — The debate over the offshore islands of Kinmen and Matsu

    23:55 — Mao’s evolving interest in Taiwan

    27:49 — The averted crisis of 1962

    32:06 — Peng Ming-min and the Taiwan independence movement

    37:14 — What changed in 1971?

    42:51 — The legacy of Chiang Ching-kuo

    45:14 — The story of Lee Teng-hui

    52:37 — The change within the Kuomintang

    1:00:11 — Why Taiwan has become “sacred” for China

    1:10:26 — Sulmaan’s own narrative shift

    1:13:26 — Chen Shui-bian and the threat of independence referendums

    1:17:53 — The Sunflower Movement

    1:25:21 — The causal direction of Taiwan’s importance in the U.S.-China relationship

    1:28:32 — Why the status quo shifted

    1:30:51 — Drawing parallels between Taiwan and Ukraine

    1:33:26 — Sulmaan’s sources for his book

    1:35:38 — Agency versus structure

    1:39:29 — Feedback (so far) on the new book and what’s next for Sulmaan


    Sulmaan: Emily Wilson’s translation of The Iliad 

    Kaiser: The “My China Priors” series (and other essays), available on the Sinica Substack; Angus Stewart’s essay, “Alien Bless You: A Review of Netflix’s 3 Body Problem” 

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    9 May 2024, 2:00 pm
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