2023 in Review
A banner year for tech and China coverage
After six years of nights and weekends, 2023 was my first year on ChinaTalk full time. The quantity and quality of what we put out this year far exceeded my expectations, free subs increased from 20k to 30k, and the business side is nascent but trending positively.
Peter Harrell, former Biden NSC Senior Director, said it best on a recent podcast:
ChinaTalk over the last year has really broken through. You’ve been doing a great job elevating the discussion on China by giving experts from across a wide range of backgrounds a chance to really dig into complicated issues and explain them in a way that senior policymakers, senior folks in the media, senior folks around town can actually understand.
In an era when it’s so easy to just resort to talking points on China, you’ve created a forum for sustained and thoughtful debate about what the American approach to China should be.
Summing up 2022 in last year’s review, I wrote,
It was not an easy year to be a China analyst. It was painful to watch from afar the lockdowns and protests. The 20th Party Congress gave us the worst of all possible outcomes for China’s domestic governance trajectory. The buildup over Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and seeming normalization of discussions about war in both Washington and Beijing was troubling to say the least. I’m pessimistic US-China relations will hit an inflection point anytime soon. Covering these storylines on ChinaTalk, week after week after week, took a toll.
Thankfully, this year we did not live through the darkest timeline for US-China relations. The biggest flashpoints (remember the balloon and “Qin Gone”?) were more tragicomic than scary. The Biden administration (for good or ill) has, for now, “put a floor” under the relationship. It seems very unlikely that 2024 will bring new developments to inflect the trajectory away from increasing competition — but I’m also not too pessimistic that the rails will truly fall off next year.
While so much feels static about the direction of travel for Chinese governance and US-China relations, AI has proven to be a fascinating wild card to follow. It has real potential to mature into the sort of general-purpose technology that reshapes great-power relations — and I’m particularly excited to continue exploring how AI could reshape organizational design and improve governance.
Semiconductors also drove our coverage. Huawei’s 7nm chip shocked the system, indicating that SMIC was advancing faster than expected. BIS took their sweet time revising the October 2022 controls, but ultimately exceeded expectations this go-around. With the CHIPS Act investment team heads-down in negotiations, we focused on policy decisions like the NSTC and China guardrails.
ChinaTalk now occupies a leading place in the global policy discussion as the largest English-language podcast on US-China relations and the politics of emerging technologies.
On a shoestring budget, our output has been prodigious, consistently surfacing the best thinking on China and technology policy — and giving it space to breathe.
The China Project’s untimely passing underscores how difficult it is to keep a media organization running. As the field thins, ChinaTalk’s coverage is more important than ever.
I’m excited to build off this past year’s momentum and expand the scope and ambition of our work. Paid subs still don’t equal one FTE, but we’ve been scraping for now thanks to generous support from our advertisers and two forward-looking philanthropic outfits in the Andrew Marshall Foundation and Manifund. So…
1. Upgrading to a paid subscription
Committing to support ChinaTalk with an annual subscription this week will give you access to our paywalled content as well as our first-ever T-shirt.
2. Advertising on ChinaTalk
Do you work at a Fortune 500 company and or buy ads for clients on sites like Axios and Politico? Perhaps you’re in a VC firm investing in critical emerging technologies? Maybe you run a startup or consulting firm and are looking to raise your profile or get your issue on the agenda?
ChinaTalk has an influential audience that drives conversations in policy and media circles. Here’s a deck to start a conversation about how we can work together.
A Year in Content
This year we published over eighty episodes, including some of the best I’ve ever recorded. Some brief reflections:
RAND CEO Jason Matheny: As I was starting to wrap up at the top of our first hour, Jason cut me off. “Jordan, I actually blocked out two hours — it is really important to really get into these issues!” The best shows tend to be those with guests who not only are engaged in the world today but also share perspectives informed by deep study of the past. Jason ranged with me through organizational design, cultivating a strong culture of research, x-risk, and even how art can illustrate aspects of national security. This show was my favorite of the year.
Mike Gallagher and Kurt Campbell: Interviewing sitting officials was new for me in 2023. It took a few reps before I felt at ease, but in these two shows I stopped cosplaying as a beat reporter. Instead, I fell into a groove of reading deeply into their scholarship and pushing them to reflect on the systems in which they operate. (It also helps when the guests are longtime listeners!)
Steven Kotkin on China: This show was a tour de force from the dean of American Soviet studies, sharing his perspective on everything from Leninist institutions to the rising policymakers and scholars trying to make sense of Xi’s China.
Dylan Patel and Doug O’Laughlin on Huawei’s 7nm breakthrough: Being my own assignment editor lets me read deep for shows like Kotkin’s and drop everything to contextualize breaking news. When I cover the US-China emergency stuff, it’s hard to distinguish ChinaTalk coverage too much from the mainstream media. If you follow the news, I imagine you already broadly understand the dynamics around events like Blinken’s visit to Beijing or Xi in San Francisco. When tech news breaks that has implications for US-China relations, however, I can often bring on subject-matter experts and help translate what they’re saying more richly than the mainstream media can. Chatting with Dylan and Doug about Huawei’s 7nm chip followed that model to the tee, taking the cake for this year’s best emergency pod.
Jeff Ding on GPTs and the rise and fall of great powers: Jeff is one of the only folks out there who both follows the day-to-day of China and AI and can bring a historical perspective to technology’s impact on great-power competition. His research on diffusion helped me reframe what really matters for the US when it comes to AI, in turn driving much of my research and writing for the rest of the year.
Lastly, I wanted to highlight a show I released in the wake of the October 7 attacks with two young American rabbis, entitled, “How to Process Violence” (Apple, Spotify). It was a difficult conversation — which we almost abandoned halfway through — but the result hopefully ended up providing some comfort and solace.
For those of you on the newsletter who don’t regularly listen to the podcast, here’s a Spotify playlist with my best episodes of 2023 to get you started:
This year we published a cool 145 editions.
My most substantial pieces of writing were essays on the importance of AI diffusion to strategic competition, the strategic implications of Huawei’s 7nm breakthrough, and creative ways to enhance compute export controls.
I’m immensely proud of the editorial team we’ve assembled. Nicholas Welch shouldered most of this year’s editing load, touching up over sixty pieces with grace. The highest degree of difficulty was probably shaping a longtime lithography professional’s insights on the trajectory of US export control policy. He also moonlit as the host of the Republic of ChinaTalk, recording excellent shows on the ailing Taiwanese military and upcoming presidential election.
Irene Zhang had a banner year covering tech and culture. Reporting highlights “How ERNIE Cracks Under Pressure,” Xi’s AGI hot take, and how to buy banned Nvidia chips in China. She also contributed some fantastic culture coverage, reviewing TV dramas about EUV machines and CCP sex scandals. She even co-hosted her first show on mechanical keyboards. My favorite piece of hers was a personal essay called “The Average Chinese City,” a reflection on a summer spent in Baoji 宝鸡.
Ryan Hauser is ChinaTalk’s unsung hero, editing audio and cleaning transcripts, all the while consistently coming up with some of the most entertaining subtitles and best visuals in the business. And lastly, Diego has been hard at work getting our growing YouTube channel into fine working condition.
I also want to shout out some of our regular contributors who all year have been publishing excellent work:
Arrian Ebrahimi blew my mind with the depth and scale of his semiconductor policy coverage. Favorites included his CHIPS Act China Guardrails piece and a holistic look at the tradeoffs involved in the design for the NSTC.
L-Squared, the latest edition to the roster, has been driving our coverage of AI in China. Starting this fall, L has been consistently putting out world-class coverage on regulations and open source. L’s latest piece with Irene on Chinese model performance relative to GPT-4 is hopefully just the start of a sustained research effort.
We also commissioned some excellent one-off pieces, including:
The following is an excerpt of a show I just put out where editor Ryan Hauser grilled me for forty-five minutes on what we’ve done this year and what the show is all about.
Ryan: How you see ChinaTalk — or even just yourself personally — fitting into the broader landscape of existential risk research?
Jordan: The way I plug into that universe is probably best exemplified by this essay I wrote for an Open Philanthropy. I basically said, WWIII would really suck, and US-China WWIII is one of the more likely ones — so it probably behooves us to have the best understanding we can about the interaction between these two countries. Try to interrogate what could potentially lead us to war is the driving ethos for a lot of what I do here. And then I try to keep myself sane by doing shows on Chinese TV and painting.
Ryan: Do you see the work you’re doing on ChinaTalk as actively lowering P(doom) vis-à-vis some other conflict with China?
Jordan: I try to do a pale Ezra Klein impression of finding the best guests I can and slowly forming tentative views over time. But I don’t want ChinaTalk to be about my takes — I want it to be about this broader process of identifying and asking the right questions.
We’re all driving in the dark here, to come back to Richard Danzig. The one thing we know is that a full-blown conflict between the US and China would be horrific. So trying to help paint in the analytical picture of what it is that’s driving relative national power, economic competitiveness, technological advancement, and helping people think through these issues in a more structured and less breathless way is really what I’m going for with this whole endeavor.
Ryan: Folks are interested in the Jordan Schneider production function, how the sausage gets made, and what future plans are for ChinaTalk. This is your first year doing it full time. What has changed the most for you personally and professionally in making that switch?
Jordan: So let me start with how I plan the content for ChinaTalk, which is basically me completely leaning into what I think is interesting and important. I am incredibly grateful that you all have stuck with me as I’ve changed topic areas from econ to Chinese politics and now more tech and even US S&T policy.
Going from having a day job to doing this full time, the weight and responsibility and degrees of freedom all ended up increasing. There was nothing defined to occupy me for fifty hours a week. The process of finding out what’s online, what old books I want to dive into, and then seeing how to turn what I am able to learn from them into content that hopefully can inform you all just allowed me to range wider, read deeper, and be more ambitious.
I am incredibly grateful that you all listen, engage, and support this content, allowing me to fill this role of now having what is the last-standing, interview-focused, independent generalist China podcast. I take this really seriously, and hopefully I end up putting out stuff which you all find interesting and useful.
I’m curious to hear back from the audience on whether the right move in 2024 is to dial the volume back a little bit. I’m not sure the sort of balance between Dwarkesh/Tyler Cowen-style shows, where I read five books for an hour and a half of content, as opposed to the Emergency Pods.
Speaking of having these empty days to fill up: I probably, just out of my ADHD and sitting at home all day, did more of those rapid-reaction shows than I needed to. I’d be curious to hear from you all to what extent you enjoy the emergency pods versus deep-read shows.
Ryan: One reader writes in, “Writing a long-form Substack runs against the trend of Internet attention spans getting shorter.” What would a forty-second video version of China talk look like?
let me advise anyone who will listen: don’t write long form, lol. It’s just not worth it. If you really want to successfully grow a Substack, release something quick and formulaic at least once a week. Channel your inner Heather Cox Richardson!
Only write long essays like me if you are a masochist with a dying need to hammer out your scattered thoughts on paper, enjoy long stretches of watching your subscriber count dwindle away, and are probably just slightly mad.
I empathize with that! What am I doing all day reading these books about the 1920s on how radar impacted warfare … I do it because I feel compelled to!
There are things that I think are really interesting and important for policymakers to think about, grapple with, and add to their bank of analogies or perspectives as they’re thinking about how to deal with strategic competition broadly defined.
I should be doing another job if I wanted to maximize earnings.
Ryan: This is not an earn-to-give operation.
Jordan: If only, if only. Huawei, TikTok, come on — we’re still waiting for that call to run your lobbying campaign.
Ryan: Gotta get in on the ground floor here…