Chinese Whispers

The Spectator

A fortnightly podcast from the Spectator on the latest in Chinese politics, society, and more. From Huawei to Hong Kong, Cindy Yu talks to experts, journalists, and long time China-watchers on what you need to know about China.

  • 34 minutes
    Shock To The System (II): How China's electric cars dominated the world
    The EU and US are turning up the pressure on Chinese made electric cars, as I discussed with my guest Finbarr Bermingham on the last episode

    On this episode, I want to take a closer look at how China has come to dominate the global electric car market. Chinese EVs make up 60 per cent of worldwide sales, and a third of global exports. Its leading brand, BYD, now regularly gives Tesla a run for its money in terms of number of cars sold. 

    How much of a role do subsidies play, versus other factors like its control of rare earths or lower labour costs? Is there really an overcapacity issue that suggests a flooding of Chinese cars globally?

    On this episode, I'm joined by Zeyi Yang, China tech reporter at MIT Technology Review, who is an expert on the genealogy of China’s EV industry.
    8 July 2024, 12:00 pm
  • 29 minutes 56 seconds
    Shock To The System (I): Can the EU fend off the threat of Chinese electric cars?
    The EU and China are in the foothills of a trade war. After a seven month investigation, the European Commission has announced tariffs of up to 38 per cent on electric cars from China, citing that they’ve found ‘subsidies in every part of the supply chain’. In retaliation, China has ramped up its own investigations into imports from the EU.

    This, of course, comes after the US has announced its own 100 per cent tariff on Chinese electric cars.

    Listeners will know that Chinese electric cars are becoming ever more competitive. In just three years, the value of the EU’s imports of Chinese EVs have surged tenfold – from $1.6 billion in 2020 to $11.5 billion last year. The Commission has warned that Chinese electric cars could make up 15 per cent of the EU market by next year. 

    What are the ramifications of these new tariffs? Is there anything that will reverse this new tide of protectionism? On this episode, I’m talking to Finbarr Bermingham, Europe correspondent at the South China Morning Post, who patches in from Brussels.
    24 June 2024, 5:12 pm
  • 33 minutes 56 seconds
    How would Britain's Labour party change UK-China relations?
    In less than a month’s time, Britain may well have a new prime minister – and a different ruling party. Under 14 years of the Conservative party, the UK’s approach to China has swung from the sycophancy of the golden era to fear and loathing under Liz Truss, stabilising in the last couple of years to a compete but engage approach, all while public opinion on China has hardened following the Hong Kong protests and the pandemic.

    What will a new government bring? Will the managerialism of Keir Starmer change UK-China relations much from the managerialism of Rishi Sunak? This is not a hypothetical question as Labour looks set to win the election and the question, now, is how big the Conservative losses will be.

    I’m joined in this episode by someone who has spent years looking at this issue. Sam Hogg is a political analyst who has covered China as seen by Westminster for years, under the newsletter he founded, Beijing to Britain. He last came on the podcast to discuss Liz Truss’s views on China – a lot has changed then.

    Produced by Cindy Yu and Joe Bedell-Brill.
    10 June 2024, 2:59 pm
  • 39 minutes 23 seconds
    Life in a changing China
    Since 1978, China has changed beyond recognition thanks to its economic boom. 800 million people have been lifted out of poverty as GDP per capita has grown eighty times. Some 60 per cent of the country now live in cities and towns, compared to just 18 per cent before.

    But you know all this. What’s less talked about is what that does to the people and families who live through these changes. What is it like to have such a different life to your parents before you, and your grandparents before then? How have people made the most of the boom, and what about those who’ve been left behind?

    A fascinating new book, Private Revolutions, tells the personal stories of four millennial women who were born as these changes took place. Its author, Yuan Yang, is a former Financial Times journalist and now a Labour party candidate, standing in the next election. She joins this episode.

    Further listening: Life on the margins: how China’s rural deprivation curbs its success, with Professor Scott Rozelle.

    Produced by Cindy Yu and Joe Bedell-Brill.
    27 May 2024, 12:00 pm
  • 46 minutes 22 seconds
    China's vendetta against Nato
    Last week, President Xi Jinping visited Serbia. An unexpected destination, you might think, but in fact the links between Beijing and Belgrade go back decades. One event, in particular, has linked the two countries – and became a seminal moment in how the Chinese remember their history.

    In 1999, the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed by US-led Nato forces. Three Chinese nationals died. An accident, the Americans insisted, but few Chinese believed it then, and few do today. The event is still remembered in China, but now, little talked about in the West.

    Xi’s visit was timed to the 25th anniversary of the bombing itself. ‘The China-Serbia friendship, forged with the blood of our compatriots, will stay in the shared memory of the Chinese and Serbian peoples’, Xi wrote for a Serbian paper ahead of the visit.

    So what exactly happened that night in May, and what does the event – and its aftermath – tell us about Chinese nationalism today?

    Cindy Yu is joined by Peter Gries, Professor of Chinese Politics at Manchester University and author of numerous books on China, including China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics and Diplomacy.
    13 May 2024, 3:42 pm
  • 32 minutes 16 seconds
    How China is quietly cutting out American tech
    Last week, President Joe Biden finally signed into law a bill that would take TikTok off app stores in the US, eventually rendering the app obsolete there. This is not the end of the saga, as TikTok has vowed to take legal action. In the US, the drive to decouple from Chinese tech continues to rumble on.

    In this episode, we’ll be taking a look at the reverse trend – the Chinese decoupling from American tech. It’s a story that tends to go under the radar in light of bans and divestments from the US, but you might be surprised at how much China is cutting out American tech too – and doing it much more quietly.

    I'm joined by the journalist Liza Lin, who has been following this story in her detailed coverage for the Wall Street Journal. She is also a co-author of Surveillance State: Inside China's Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control.

    You can also join Cindy Yu at The Spectator's Chinese wine lunch on June 14th. To find out more and buy tickets, visit .
    29 April 2024, 1:22 pm
  • 24 minutes 55 seconds
    Was Marco Polo a 'sexpat'?
    When I recently came across a book review asking the question ‘was Marco Polo a "sexpat"?’, I knew I had to get its author on to, well, discuss this important question some more. The 13th century Venetian merchant Marco Polo’s account of China was one of the earliest and most popular travelogues written on the country. Polo spent years at the court of Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis, and whose family founded the Yuan dynasty in China.

    My guest today, and the author of that book review, is the historian Jeremiah Jenne. Jeremiah has lived in China for over two decades, and he is also the co-host of the fascinating podcast Barbarians at the Gate, all about Chinese history. He has been doing a series of historical book reviews for the relatively newly established website China Books Review, and in re-reading The Travels of Marco Polo, he noticed that there was a lot of sex.

    We talk about all of this, of course, but there’s a serious point here too. How much do Europeans observe when they go to China and how reliable are their accounts, understood and told through the perspective of the outsider? How much has Marco Polo’s portrayal of China moulded the western mindset on the country in the centuries since, and even today? And what does it say about the China of the 13th century that a trio of Venetian merchants could make it to the heart of the Mongol empire?
    15 April 2024, 4:17 pm
  • 26 minutes 30 seconds
    What Chinese hackers want
    Over the last week the UK has been rocked by allegations that China was responsible for two cyber attacks in recent years – one on the Electoral Commission, where hackers successfully accessed the open register, which has the details of 40 million voters; and a set of attempts to access the emails of a number of China critics within parliament. 

    So what do we know about China’s cyber capabilities? What are its goals? And now that the UK knows about these attacks, what should we be doing?

    Joining me on the podcast today is Nigel Inkster, senior advisor for cyber security and China at the think tank IISS, formerly director of operations and intelligence at MI6, and author of China’s Cyber Power, a 2016 book on precisely this question.

    You can also join Cindy Yu at The Spectator's Chinese wine lunch on June 14th. To find out more and buy tickets, visit .
    28 March 2024, 5:49 pm
  • 22 minutes 30 seconds
    Life on the margins pt II: Li Ziqi and the phenomenon of the rural influencer
    In the last episode, I discussed Chinese rural lives with Professor Scott Rozelle. One point he made which particularly stuck with me was the dying out of farming as an occuption – he'd said that most rural people under the age of 35 have never farmed a day in their lives.

    So that got me thinking, what do they do instead? In this episode I’ll be looking at one, very high profile, alternative – vlogging. I’ve noticed through my hours of scrolling through Chinese social media that there is a huge genre of rural, pastoral content. 

    This is an interesting phenomenon both for what it says about the rural population today, as well as what it reveals about the – often – urban viewers on the other end. So today I’m joined by Yi-Ling Liu, a writer on Chinese society who has had bylines in the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine and WIRED. She’s looked in detail at the phenomenon of the rural influencer.

    On the episode, we talk about a few of our favourite rural influencers. You can watch Li Ziqi's videos on YouTube here and 王大姐来了 (the middle aged rappers I mention) here.
    18 March 2024, 5:30 pm
  • 41 minutes 13 seconds
    Life on the margins: how China's rural deprivation curbs its success
    Too often our stories about China are dictated by the urban experience, probably because journalists inside and outside of China are often based in the big cities; Beijing specifically. Those who live in the cities also tend to be more educated, more privileged, and so able to dominate the global attention more. 

    That’s why I’m particularly keen to hear about the lives of those who still live in the countryside, or at least are still considered ‘rural residents’ by the Chinese government. They make up a sizeable proportion of the population, and you’ll hear that in my first question to my guest today, we discuss just how big this group is.

    How do the poorest in China live today, considering the government has announced that there is no more extreme poverty? Just how wide are their gaps in living standards, education, health, compared to their compatriots who live in the cities? 

    Professor Scott Rozelle joins me on this episode. He is the co-director of the Stanford Center on China’s Economy and Institutions, a developmental economist who has been conducting research in China for over three decades. He is also the co-author of Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise.

    Further listening from the archive:
    Second class citizens: the lives of China’s internal migrants: https://www.spectator.co.uk/podcast/second-class-citizens-the-lives-of-chinas-internal-migrants/
    Is China turning away from the world?: https://www.spectator.co.uk/podcast/is-china-turning-away-from-the-world/

    Produced by Cindy Yu and Joe Bedell-Brill.
    4 March 2024, 12:00 pm
  • 39 minutes 56 seconds
    What the Messi row reveals about Chinese football
    The Argentinian football star Lionel Messi has been trending on Weibo – and unfortunately, not for a good reason. It all started when Messi sat out a match in Hong Kong earlier this month. His reason – that he was injured – wasn’t good enough for some fans, and keyboard nationalists quickly took offence when Messi played in Japan, a few days later. The furore has dominated Chinese social media over the last few weeks, and even led to the cancellation of some upcoming Chinese matches with the Argentinian national team, as authorities demanded an apology from Messi.

    What a mess. But beyond its seeming triviality, this episode tells us something about the nature of Chinese online nationalism, I think, and it might also shed light on how football works within China. After all, why is it that China, which is so good at so many things, has still failed to turn out a competitive national team? That is the multi-billion yuan question that puzzles football fans within and outside of China.

    Joining me on the episode this week is Cameron Wilson, an expert on Chinese football and founder of the Wild East Football blog, who has lived in China for almost two decades.

    Produced by Cindy Yu and Max Mitchell.
    19 February 2024, 2:58 pm
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