Sinocism's Bill Bishop on the Politics of the Coronavirus

Yesterday I published a podcast with Bill Bishop of Sinocism on the ChinaTalk channel (here for Apple Podcasts, here for Google Podcasts) to discuss the new coronavirus-driven low in US-China relations. It was so good I went ahead and made a transcript of it.

We start off on what China's response to coronavirus has taught us about the CCP and then go into the deeper forces behind why the Chinese government has started to blame America for creating the virus. We also touch on China-Taiwan relations, the role Sinocism plays in agenda-setting, and try to close on something positive with a discussion of bingeable Chinese tv.

Said Bill:

I think China is extremely worried that they get blamed for this. Because it's wreaking havoc across the world, both physically and economically. And so for them to see this doubt and disinformation that maybe the US did it, it's a way for them to, one, undercut the US position in certain countries, but two, create enough doubt and enough noise that maybe they avoid what I think will be inevitable calls for accountability.

I think you're going to start hearing more people say, "Well, are the Chinese actually also pushing back so hard because they're trying to hide something?" And I've heard that, not Americans. So I think it's blowing up, it's backfiring on China in many countries, I think, not just in the US. And again, it's just unfortunate, because the world doesn't need this right now. The world needs to figure out how to fight this virus.


Jordan:

What have the last three months taught us most about the CCP in China?

Bill Bishop:

Well, Jordan, first of all, thanks for having me, and congratulations on becoming published by Lawfare. I think it's a great site, great network. What have the last three months taught us about the CCP? I assume that's the entire podcast, right? Because it sounds like an easy question, actually there's a lot there. I think that we've seen the gamut from the predilection to secrecy to covering things up to bad news not flowing up through their system to, once the senior leadership decides they want to act, and in a quite remarkable and efficient, brutally efficient, I think you'd say, response, where they can really mobilize all of society to tackle what they see as, frankly, an existential threat on many levels. And that, certainly, I think, is what the COVID-19 has been to China and now obviously to the world.

China’s Initial Botched Response

Jordan Schneider:

So were any parts of this response surprising to you on the upside or downside, or did everything really line up with the general predilections of Xi or of China?

Bill Bishop:

I think what was surprising was how they screwed up the initial response to the virus. Because they had said, and I think it was the head of the CDC, I think it was Gao Fu who had said last year that SARS couldn't happen again because we've built systems to catch it, catch something like that early. And how whatever systems they believed they'd built had completely failed, and how they didn't learn any of the lessons from SARS, in terms of how you, you don't cover up, you don't lie about it. And so that, I think, was, on the one hand I guess we shouldn't be surprised, given the nature of the system. On the other hand, the one thing about the Communist Party is, it has shown an ability to learn and adapt. And in this case that, basically they seem to have unlearned or ignored those lessons from SARS at tremendous cost to China and to the rest of the world.

Jordan Schneider:

So it's fascinating because it's like we have these two contrasting themes about the essence of the CCP. Where, on the one hand it has been able to evolve dramatically over the past 50 years, but at the same time, what it ended up running into are the most central contradictions, like the local central relation, sharing of information. And even though there have been a number of really obvious, very big deal pandemics, which the US has the excuse of not having had to live through over the last 20 years, it still wasn't able to get the information flow in place. And you still end up seeing Li Wenliang getting censored for trying to spread the word.

Bill Bishop:

And the reality is, I guess in some ways it really shouldn't have been a surprise, too, because of what happened with the African swine fever, which turned out to be in many ways a man-made disaster in China that became that man-made disaster because of many policy mistakes and issues in the system, in terms of people ... There are all sorts of incentives to hide information and to continue raising diseased hogs or sell them to slaughterhouses. So I think the point really is that on the one hand, the party says things have evolved, but on the other hand, actually we shouldn't be really that surprised. It's just unfortunate. Though I think inside the system there were some surprises, again,

You had officials who seemed to really believe that they had figured out how to avoid the next SARS.

In terms of the other bit, how things played out, I think when it really started getting ugly in mid, late January and basically they had to lock down Wuhan, they had that unprecedented Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year's Day they had the standing committee meeting, which then they actually broadcast video from inside the meeting, which I don't, and I can't find anyone who ever remembers seeing actual video on CCTV from inside a Politburo standing committee meeting. And so that was Xi, he put out a directive a few days before that, but on January 25th with that standing committee meeting, that was the, "Okay, this is obviously a crisis, this is people's war, we are turning the entire system to fight this."

And there was a lot of commentary, Chernobyl moment, this is going to weaken Xi, blah, blah, blah. Xi had disappeared for a few days, and so there was various speculation about, 'is Xi in trouble? Was there pressure, was there a coup?' All sorts of wacky stuff that happens whenever there appear to be problems in China, and Xi, you don't see him. But Xi in many ways was able to leverage this into more of the, ‘he's the commander of the people's war against the virus.’ And so certainly China, we got the news today that Wuhan was going to relax a lot of the lockdown measures over the next couple weeks. You're starting to see schools reopen across the country. You're starting to see the sense that things are sort of coming back to something approximating or approaching normalcy.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is going to hell in a handbasket. And going to hell in a handbasket has two sides of it. On the one hand, from the Communist Party's perspective, "Hey, look, we figured it out, we took it seriously, we got through this." Look at Italy, look at Spain, look at New York, look at the US, on and on and on. The other hand, though, is the problem for the Communist Party and the Chinese economy, which is that they need the global economy to be functioning to actually have an economic recovery of any meaningful nature.

Share ChinaTalk

And so they can't spend too much time hoping that the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket and there's a nice juxtaposition or contrast to how China has done so well dealing with the virus. Because they need those markets, they need that investment.

And so right now, I think a month ago or three weeks ago it looked like China was coming out of it really well. Now, though, I think there's another layer of risk around the economic side because of what's going on in the rest of the world.

Jordan Schneider:

Yeah. Staying with the leadership dynamics, before we turn to the economics, it's just been fascinating watching the Trump psychology flipping from the, "I'm leading a people's war" to, "No, the economic turnout is too scary, so now we're going to just start the country again in two weeks." Just for the record, we're recording this on March 24. I don't know if you have a US policy response versus China policy response and what that tells us about the two systems or whatnot riff?

Bill Bishop:

I think it goes back to how I think China really mishandled the initial response and allowed it to become a much bigger problem than it should have been. But once they decided that it was a serious issue, they really did take it quite seriously and responded much better than the US has so far when it comes to things like the testing.

And we may get there in places like New York fairly quickly, where they realized in Wuhan, for example, that they needed to take everybody who was sick or tested positive, even if they weren't really sick, they needed to put them in these central quarantined facilities. Because keeping people at home in their small apartments, one person gets sick, the whole family gets sick, it turned out to lead to a lot of deaths.

But I do also think the PRC system does seem to have more of a belief in science than certain parts of the US system, or certain parts of the US political system, I should say. Not necessarily the government. They also have a much larger arsenal of brutal and efficient methods they can bring to bear to get people to comply when they decide they need to shut down a city or they decide that people can't leave their homes. And so that ...

Jordan Schneider:

There were no videos I saw of the equivalent of Miami spring breakers just trying to live their best lives on Chinese social media.

This guy does not exist in Beihai.

Bill Bishop:

I certainly don't want to get into the, "China did it better." We'll see, because we're still getting started here. But I think that the PRC system, the CCP system, it just has a toolkit that most countries, and certainly the Western democracies, don't have or really aren't willing to use unless it's an absolute, even a much larger disaster. I think the issue on the leadership dynamics too is really where we come out in terms of, like on Xi, the question, and you see, I think, inside China, is how does the party and how does Xi push the blame onto the provincial Hubei officials and the local Wuhan officials in ways that don't blowback against Xi personally? But at the same time, if they push too hard that it was, the local guys really screwed up and therefore it became much worse, then that conflicts with the narrative that they're pushing globally about how China did everything they could and bought the world time, and the world should basically thank China. Because in some was the domestic propaganda and the international propaganda, they're trying to have it both ways.

Jordan Schneider:

Yeah. Which I feel like you can sort of get away with.

Bill Bishop:

It depends. I think there's a chance they can get away with it, but I think it's harder now because there are enough people who are able to understand and see the story that's being spun domestically and compare and contrast that with the story that's being spun globally. And so it's harder than it used to be.

International Influence Operations: Why the CCP Spreads Conspiracy Theories on Twitter

Jordan Schneider:

Let's talk about Chinese overseas PR. Not in my short Chinese watching career have I seen CCP leaders start spreading conspiracy theories about America to the extent that we've seen with Zhao Lijian. So what's the motivation for having a major foreign ministry spokesman start talking about how America seeded the virus in China? And how do you think the dynamics have played out since he started speaking the way he did over the past two weeks?

Bill Bishop:

So I think he's certainly got a large audience inside China for what he's doing, the wolf warrior, the famous movie, the wolf warrior diplomat approach, where he's very aggressively defending China and pushing back against the evil foreigners. And I think that when you look at what he's spinning up, it's not just him. He's been the most aggressive on Twitter and overseas propaganda battle space, but in terms of inside China, there's an article last night from, I think it's China Radio International, or from the China Media Group, which has CCP China Radio International, which basically it's three questions for the US. And question number two is all about getting to whether or not this virus was actually created in a US Army lab.

Jordan Schneider:

My Shenyang housewife Chinese tutor, god bless her soul, is convinced that America created it. This is not just folks who are on Twitter.

Bill Bishop:

So again, I think this goes back to the domestic and the international dimensions of a propaganda message, which is, so domestically this is also, it's the, "Okay, the local guys screwed up and they made it worse. It wasn't the center. Oh, and it was the Americans who made it, and so it was the Americans. And the Americans are the most to blame, and then it's the local government, and then we in the center, Xi Jinping, we did whatever we could to fix it." And so there's that messaging, that I think again helps to shift the potential blame or reparations away from Xi, party center, to the Americans. And then globally, I think China is extremely worried that they get blamed for this. Because it's wreaking havoc across the world, both physically and economically.

Bill Bishop:

And so for them to seed this doubt and disinformation that maybe the US did it, it's a way for them to, one, undercut the US position in certain countries, but two, create enough doubt and enough noise that maybe they avoid what I think will be inevitable calls for accountability. And you saw, for example ...

Jordan Schneider:

Can you imagine a lawsuit?

Bill Bishop:

Well, you saw, for example, the leader of Iran today, or last night or today, basically said, he's been trading barbs with Secretary Pompeo, and he said it's suggested that the virus was created by the US. So it says, Khamenei said, "The United States could not be trusted to help because it 'may have created the coronavirus now sweeping the world.'" He's just spouting CCP propaganda.

Jordan Schneider:

Yeah.

Bill Bishop:

What a surprise, right? But that's part of, you've got to remember, the Chinese Communist Party sees itself in a global information struggle with the US especially. And I think this is the most aggressive it's become because the stakes are so high and everyone is under so much pressure.

Jordan Schneider:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). How do you think the soft power, commercial diplomacy impact of these Wuhan battle-scarred doctors being sent all around the world and Jack Ma filling up cargo planes with masks will play out?

Bill Bishop:

So I think that's really positive, and I think that should be applauded. And I think that there are cases, it sounds like, where what's been said is aid is actually being charged for, which is unfortunate. But I think that the world needs masks, China produces most of the world's masks. China, it is through the worst, or at least through the worst of the first wave. And so it can do a lot to help the world, and people should welcome Chinese giving masks, giving other personal protective equipment, sharing experiences. The problem, and what's unfortunate, and I think back to this virus rumor, really is, what's unfortunate is this could have been a moment where the US and China could have actually worked together and could be more ... Have a more positive approach to how to deal with this crisis globally.

Bill Bishop:

And yet the way that China's been pushing this US created the virus rumor has certainly, I think, made a lot of people in DC be extremely angry. Even people who weren't convinced that necessarily China was an adversary. It's really pushed things. Because again, people here are under so much pressure, it's made it very, very difficult for anyone to have any positive view of how the US and China can work together. And the question, too ...

Jordan Schneider:

Yeah, I'm just not entirely sold on that, Bill. I think that being able to pass the buck to China is such an easy rhetorical move that, maybe there could have been better cooperation at the staff level or something than there is now. But it seems hard for me to see this president not going the China virus route.

Bill Bishop:

Yeah, that's a fair point. And it is, I think, at this point, we're beyond any hopes of really cooperating. And so now, again, every leader has their domestic imperatives. And certainly for President Trump, blaming China for the virus is a ... I think his political team sees that as a useful tool or useful pathway to the November election. Because again, it's China's fault, China did it. This economic disaster, it's not our fault, people dying, it's not our fault. Blah, blah, blah, and so just blame China. And it may work. But I guess the broader point is, I think you are going to see the Chinese government, maybe directly or through, say, Jack Ma or the Jack Ma Foundation, I think you're going to start seeing more donations to states and cities.

Bill Bishop:

I don't think you're going to see them donating to the US government. But the other point I was going to make about China, and I think the Zhao Lijian, the US created the virus campaign, has hurt China. Because this could be a moment where China gets a lot of soft power points. Not just with its traditional smaller power, friendly countries, but even in Europe, with other, bigger powers. And I think, though, that the way they've gone about prosecuting this disinformation campaign has actually pissed off a lot of people in other capitals as well.

Bill Bishop:

Part of the reason, obviously, Zhao Lijian picked up and pushed on this US Army created it, was the claims coming out of DC from Senator Cotton and I think some other folks, who were saying that ... Or hinted or raised questions that perhaps this was not a natural virus, and perhaps it was created or escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. And the problem is, we're in a cycle where the fact that China is now, and people like Zhao Lijian and other official media are pushing so hard on this idea that maybe the US created it, it's creating a dynamic where even people who were originally skeptical about, is this virus not natural, I think you're going to start hearing more people say, "Well, are the Chinese also actually pushing back so hard because they're trying to hide something?"

Image result for wuhan military games mascot

The 2019 Wuhan Military Games’ mascots were horrifying.

Bill Bishop:

And I've heard that from not Americans. So I think it's blowing up, it's backfiring on China in many countries, I think, not just in the US. And again, it's just unfortunate, because the world doesn't need this right now. The world needs to figure out how to fight this virus.

Jordan Schneider:

But say you start the clock at February 5th or something. What the PRC was able to do to fight the virus is probably the most impressive accomplishment they have to brag about over the past 20 years, aside from just high growth. So for them to throw this away to win brownie points in a tit-for-tat, stupid Twitter war with America is a real missed opportunity, I totally agree.

Bill Bishop:

Yeah, but again, we see it as a missed opportunity, I don't know, maybe they see this as, "Look, America's weak, America's vulnerable, this is the time to kick America when it's down and gain some ground."

Jordan Schneider:

Yeah. Do you think Twitter, Facebook, YouTube should have played a bigger role in counteracting this propaganda push?

Bill Bishop:

They talk about fighting coronavirus disinformation, but I guess, what was it, a Daily Beast reporter got ahold of a Twitter spokesman yesterday, and Twitter just pointed to their terms of service and said because Zhao Lijian's a public official, that he can say what he wants. Twitter and Facebook, not just around China stuff, but around a lot of things, they're major platforms in a global information war, and they're run by children.

Jordan Schneider:

So I'm writing a piece now about, you know who Cardi B is, Bill?

Bill Bishop:

Yeah.

Jordan Schneider:

Your kids are the right age, okay. So she put out this video I guess a week ago now, talking about how China's really got its shit together and America don't want no smoke with China, because they're fast and they're quick and they're powerful. And basically, it was clear in the video that she'd watched this CGTN documentary about how China was really handling the Wuhan virus well. So hats off to CGTN for getting Cardi B on their side in this global information struggle. It's a real, I think, testament to the fact that the quality of this international propaganda has really stepped up its game over the past few years.

Image result for cardi b coronavirus

(A Cardi B Instagram live rant was remixed into a fire coronavirus song)

Bill Bishop:

In certain areas, and then you have people like Zhao Lijian, who I think really hasn't. There have been people who have tried to push Twitter to at least label an account from, say, Zhao Lijian or another PRC diplomat or Hu Xijin through Global Times, basically say this account is for an employee of a government that blocks Twitter in their country, or something like that. Even something simple, and they won't even do that. It's very strange. They're abdicating a lot of responsibility.

Jordan Schneider:

And the most ridiculous thing is, Apple you can sort of understand from a business rationale. They would take a huge hit if the PRC started to mess with them, but okay, Twitter would lose some advertising dollars for some Chinese manufacturer that's trying to sell stuff in the US? It's a cheap stand to take.

Bill Bishop:

No, no, it's just a fundamental management issue. But they've had a lot of management issues, not just related to China. Mark Zuckerberg, at one point he called it a clown car that drove into a gold mine. Anyway, this isn't a Twitter podcast, right? But Twitter has succeeded in spite of its management, let's put it that way.

Mainland-Taiwan Relations

Jordan Schneider:

Sure. Mainland-Taiwan relations. What has this crisis exemplified or taught you about those dynamics?

Bill Bishop:

So that is very interesting, because Taiwan, back to, China did a great job and it's, the Chinese system did, Taiwan's done a really good job. And Taiwan also, I think one of the things we're learning as more information comes out, is Taiwan very quickly understood the risks of what was going on in Wuhan and the risks of the CCP system hiding information. So they moved very quickly to start screening and then start blocking. And so they ended up, and they are a functioning democracy. They didn't need to resort to these draconian, brutal measures. And yet they've had a very small number of cases. They're obviously dealing now with a potential second wave from people returning to Taiwan, but ... And now you're learning too, one of the real tragedies out of this, I think we're realizing, is just how the WHO, because it wouldn't deal with Taiwan because of Beijing's policies, it increasingly sounds like the WHO missed opportunities to get more information.

Bill Bishop:

The Financial Times yesterday had that piece, or on Sunday had that piece about how Taiwan in early January tried to tell the WHO that there was human-to-human transmission before the Chinese would admit it and before the WHO would say there was. And if that information ... And obviously the Taiwanese were correct. And if that information had been out there earlier, again, this is one of those missteps inside China. If that information had been out there earlier and people had behaved differently, or Wuhan, they hadn't had many million people leave right before the Chinese New Year, again, this probably would have been a much smaller outbreak. We won't know. But clearly that dynamic was very detrimental to the global fight against the virus.

Jordan Schneider:

Bill, does this dynamic get better with Xi still in power?

Bill Bishop:

No, I don't think so. I think that one of the things, when you asked about, what does this tell us about the CCP, Taiwan understands the CCP better than any of us. And when they look at the last few years, especially under Xi, they look at what's been happening in Hong Kong, I think best, best, best case is status quo. But it's very hard to find anybody who's in favor of any alleged one country/two systems or reunification. And so if anything, the last few years, for sure the last few years have pushed Taiwan further away from Beijing's pull, not closer. And I don't know how that dynamic changes while Xi is Xi and running the country the way he's running it.

Bill Bishop:

I had four different subscribers over the weekend ping me to ask if I thought the rumors were true that China was going to invade Taiwan, because now was the moment.

No, I think people are very concerned that this is a, the rest of the world's distracted, the Chinese economy is not doing well, it's not going to do very well the rest of the year, and so you need a distraction. A, you need a distraction, B, there's no time like the present. Because who's going to intervene? I don't think that's going to happen, but I think that there's certainly going around parts of Taiwan that people are starting to worry about that.

Jordan Schneider:

Yeah. Well, that's horrifying.

Bill Bishop:

It's completely, completely horrifying, and I hope it's crazy wrong.

Chinese Expulsion of American Journalists

Jordan Schneider:

Let's talk about journalists in China. So what's stuck out to you about the whole series of events that led to the PRC's expulsion of some of the most beloved members of the press corps in China, international press corps in China?

Bill Bishop:

I was talking to someone from the New York Times today, and it's just devastated their operations there. It's so personally devastating, personally tragic for all these people, but also just for ... It's unfortunate, on the one hand the way that ... The Chinese talk about reciprocity, but we've got to understand it's fundamentally not reciprocal and hasn't been for years. Because CGTN, CCTV are not only doing news gathering here, they're broadcasting to US audiences. You have China Daily, which is publishing in the US. And ironically paying some of the papers whose correspondents were just kicked out to run their weekly insert.

Jordan Schneider:

Is this going to stop finally?

Bill Bishop:

I'm still trying to figure out exactly how much papers get paid, but you would think that after this, maybe they'd say, "You know what, we don't want that." But then again, the ad market sucks right now, so they'll probably take whatever money they can get. But then also, and so People's Daily overseas edition is publishing here in Chinese. And so fundamentally, last I checked, there aren't any US media organizations publishing or broadcasting in China to a Chinese audience. So this argument that the US is being unfair and it's totally unbalanced, as I think you heard from the foreign ministry spokesman more than once, that's just sophistry, to be honest. And so that said, in terms of reciprocity, I really don't think ... The US could kick out another 50 Chinese journalists and I don't think China actually cares.

And there are certainly folks, just like you see a Zhao Lijian, the thing about Zhao Lijian and this wolf warrior diplomacy is, he looks like it's the mainstream, he's not the aberration. And I think again, there's certainly folks in China, and maybe including Xi, who'd be more than happy to basically shut down most of those bureaus and kick all the US journalists out. And so I think that what's next ... And it's tragic, and the Chinese were very smart in a very bad way, in that they not only went after these really good reporters, they also went after the really good Chinese reporters. The "news assistants," the one who can't technically be reporters under Chinese law, but actually do a lot of reporting and really help shape and break a lot of news for these, all the news organizations in China.

And taking out some of them ... Unfortunately, some of those people to resign, and removing the foreign correspondents, it effectively blinds some of these organizations in the near term. And maybe they can rebuild. It's going to take time to bring in new correspondents, we know it takes a while for the pieces to be approved. And so we're going to see, I think, a significant degradation in US coverage of China from those effective media outlets for a while. And you know what, again, clearly there are some people in Beijing who think that's a good idea. I think it's unfortunate. I think, though, on the US side, I don't think we're going to engage in this sort of a tit for tat, where we're going to kick out another 50 journalists. But I do think that the US government is going to be looking at other ways, maybe asymmetric to kicking out reporters, to respond to the latest round.

Jordan Schneider:

So what's the most clever thing that Treasury or the State Department could do that is asymmetric and out of the box?

Bill Bishop:

So most clever, so I think that my understanding of what the Communist Party cares about, again, it's not the reporters, it's about ... It goes back to the earlier discussions about this global information struggle and how the Chinese government is very focused on, they talk about the international discourse power. And they see it unbalanced globally that the West has far too long dominated global discourse. And China's a big country, China, we deserve more of that discourse power. And so a big part of that strategy is, the CGTN, China Daily, People's Daily overseas. People see the overseas a little bit less, that's more targeted to the diaspora because it's in Chinese. So measures that would target their ability to disseminate that information, say, inside the US, would be much more meaningful and much more disliked inside China than kicking out more reporters.

Bill Bishop:

The thing is, and this goes back to my comments about Twitter and Facebook, more about Twitter but also Facebook, YouTube, is the key platforms in that globally are Twitter, Facebook, and Google. And I don't think the US government can or has the ability to force Twitter, Facebook, YouTube to de-platform them, but that is something where, if the government were to pressure around those, the CCP media's using these American platforms that are global, but they are American companies, to wage their struggle to increase their share of global discourse power, that would have, I think, a much more meaningful impact in Beijing than tossing a bunch of reporters.

Jordan Schneider:

Sure. How scared should the average freelance American journalist in China be right now?

Bill Bishop:

I think every American in China should be a little bit nervous, just because of the way things are headed politically. It's been a rough couple of years because of the trade war and stuff with Huawei, ZTE, and other things. It looked like with the phase one deal ... You think about it, the phase one deal was, what, two months and change ago? And it felt like, the idea was, it's not a great deal, but it puts a floor to the relationship, we're arresting, at least in the short term we're arresting the downward trajectory relationship. And yes, we have all these other issues around security and technology, but this adds back some ballast to the relationship and maybe it will slow the decoupling momentum, maybe it will slow the mutual invective and vitriol.

Bill Bishop:

And then here we are. And again, the trade deal may continue, and Trump and Xi, they may be doing something to at least ... I think President Trump particularly cares about the trade deal still happening. But the pandemic now has unleashed a lot more forces on both sides that I think have not only restarted but accelerated the trajectory towards decoupling on multiple levels. And as part of that decoupling, if that's really where we're headed, that makes it increasingly, I think, difficult to be an American in China over the immediate to long term. I really hope I'm wrong.

Jordan Schneider:

I'm just really jealous of everyone who got to live through better times because it's really scary and it's not fun.

Bill Bishop:

Are you going back?

Jordan Schneider:

I don't know.

Bill Bishop:

I had a great 10 years. The last time I was there was '05 to 2015, and it was crazy. It was a fascinating time. And one of the reasons I left in 2015 was I didn't like the trajectory both in terms of the US-China relationship, but also in terms of what was going on in domestic political situations, specifically Xi Jinping. We were a little early, but I still don't see anything, if anything, the trajectory's worsened significantly. But it is unfortunate, because all of us who go spend time in China or go live there or go study there, we do it for good reason. We actually want to like the country, we have Chinese friends, we actually want to have a positive US-China relationship. And it's just so, so difficult to figure out how to do that right now.

How Bill Thinks About Sinocism’s Role

Jordan Schneider:

As Sinocism has grown, you really have become this agenda-setter within DC for sure, as well as other capitals around the world. I'm curious how you deal with that sense of responsibility, if you feel it or not, and what you think yourself as well as other journalists covering China should be thinking about as we get into this really scary time.

Bill Bishop:

No, it's bigger than I ever expected it to be. And it certainly has a readership that, I don't think it's accurate to say agenda-setting. But I think it's a data point or an information contribution to how people look at China. But it's still small, but I do have a lot of readers, but I don't want to take credit or say I'm setting a lot of agendas. But I think that I do feel more responsibility now, and that's why last week I think it was, I maybe sounded alarmist, but just looking at, for example, obviously I care a lot about the US-China relationship. It's extremely distressing right now to do the newsletter every day. Not only because everyone's stressed because we're all basically locked down and what's going on around us, but then also layering on top of that looking at US-China relations, and Zhao Lijian and all this stuff.

Bill Bishop:

And hair on fire every day, because you just say, we've got to figure out how to get this relationship right, but it's really hard. And especially really hard because, look, there's a lot of stuff going on in DC, but it's not fair to say the Trump guys screwed it up. There's a lot of reasons that the US policy is what it is, because of what's coming out under Xi and from the Communist Party. And so it's just a very difficult time in the relationship, and so I think it's important to try and provide as accurate information as possible. And also, one of the things I struggle with is how to avoid DC bubble.

Bill Bishop:

And it's easy to fall into a bubble here. A lot of it is just trying to spend as much time with Chinese sources as possible. And it's harder and harder. The one thing that Xi's done, and it's not just for foreigners, the Xi era, you've seen a significant constriction of the information environment inside China. The previous era, living in Beijing, I was in Beijing for three years of the Xi era and seven years of the Hu era. And there were actually people in Beijing who knew stuff, real stuff. And you could talk to them and you could actually, people had an idea of what was going on.

Bill Bishop:

Most Chinese people have no idea what's going on in terms of politics, in terms of policies. Forget the foreigners. There's just such a different environment and a different climate about how information is controlled and information is wielded under Xi. And it's even harder for foreigners, it's even harder no longer living in Beijing. And so it's back to ... Last podcast you did with Ryan, you were talking about documents, and Ryan, he's masterful at reading documents, it does matter. That's one of the things that was part of my academic training, was looking at Party documents. Not at his level, but there are still ways to get some sense of what's going on. But the trick is not to just focus on the ... There's a lot of echo chamber in ... There's echo chambers everywhere, but trying to ... And part of it is, I'm somewhat reclusive these days. And so maybe I am not on the circuit in DC, and maybe that helps a little bit.

The Part Where We Try to Be Positive

Jordan Schneider:

All right, so let's do a little bit of happy stuff. Any China-related, Mandarin content worth binging on, reading, to distract ourselves from the terrible situation that the world is currently in?

Bill Bishop:

The last thing I watched was 24 Hours in Chang An, which was basically about a guy trying to, had 24 hours to prevent a big attack in Xi’an. It was interesting, but I don't know.

Jordan

I thought it was beautiful.

Image result for longest hour in chang an

Bill:

It was beautiful, but it was ... It was, yeah, I got to like the 20th episode. I really liked the Yanxi Palace. That's the last one I fully binged on. I actually really liked it.

Jordan:

I did, I did. Again, I sort of dip in and out, because my girlfriend, she watches it all in like four days, this is how she does these Chinese dramas. So I'll see episode four and episode nine, and then I'll read some summaries in between.

Bill:

Right, right. And then the other one, I don't know if she watched it, but I watched it with my mother-in-law, it was actually pretty good. It was Da Jiang Da He. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's an interesting story of the reform and opening era. Obviously it's very, a lot of the edges are removed. But it's an interesting story that shows, in many ways, the progress and the changes, and many of them very positive.

Jordan Schneider:

Yeah. I agree, I actually really enjoyed that one too. When they try to make me cry, I just start laughing. But aside from that, it was like, they spoke really slowly, it was clear, it wasn't too complicated. And it was actually dealing with contemporary issues in a way that other modern shows don't. I've been watching Xiao Huan Xi, which is this Beijing rich family's kids are going through gaokao, and one of the kids just wants to be a race car driver, so he's not studying hard, and the other plays too many video games on his phone. And it's just so light and silly and ridiculous, which is, I guess, sort of fun escapism. But at least in Da Jiang Da He, you can think about it in the context of, "Okay, this is propaganda, so how is the Party trying to frame itself, and what does that tell you about both the history as well as historical memory and whatnot?" Which is a more fun lens to look at things than really just seeing, this is just straight opiate for the masses. There's nothing behind it.

Thanks for making it this far!

Please consider donating to my show's Patreon.

TV shows discussed:

Da Jiang Da He: ENG SUB | Like A Flowing River - EP 01 [Wang Kai, Yang Shuo,Dong Zi Jian]

The Longest Day in Chang An: 【ENG SUB】《长安十二时辰》第1集(易烊千玺 / 雷佳音 / 周一围)| 加入Caravan中文剧场会员,抢先独享全季内容!

Xiao Huan Xi: 小歡喜 01 | A Little Reunion 01(黃磊、海清、陶虹等主演)

Story of Yanxi Palace 延禧攻略 01 | Story of Yanxi Palace 01(秦岚、聂远、佘诗曼、吴谨言等主演)

Share

Loading more posts…