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ChinaTalk H1 2022 in Review (Best of, Open Source CCP, Growth Prospects, Personal Classifieds!)
I’m happy with the 30+ podcast episodes this year. Some of my personal highlights include the following episodes:
The weekend following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, I recorded seven shows in two days as a fundraiser. The one that most captures the mood of the moment and is worth revisiting is my conversation with Adam Tooze and Matt Klein.
I enjoyed my discussion with Jon Bateman spotlighting the analytical holes that underlay the basis for much of America's policy towards China and technology. It was great fun nerding out with Lizzi and Joseph Torigian about power transitions following Stalin and Mao's deaths.
I'm finding it harder and harder to find guests or episodes that leave me with anything positive or optimistic to reflect on about modern China. Perhaps the show I'm happiest with is my episode with artist Arnold Chang and MET curator Joseph Scheier-Dolberg discussing how Chinese landscape painting survived the 20th century. Getting an hour to geek out about the glories of the literati painting tradition and marvel at the fact that it was able to withstand an onslaught as heavy as the Mao era was a real treat.
Following up on resolutions made in 2021’s Year in Review, I cohosted a dozen episodes with young people to give them both an opportunity to interact with experts and perhaps some inspiration to create content themselves. I also aimed on making recording more series to allow the content to dig deeper into certain themes. While I still haven’t gotten to my Vietnam series, I did reel off strings of shows on the war in Ukraine, semiconductor policy, and analytical holes in America’s understanding of China. Going forward I’m looking forward to some shows I have in the pipeline on AI, biotech, Taiwan, and new think tank models.
I wrote 5000 words of wisdom for aspiring China analysts entitled China Policy: an Early Career Guide. Other strong writing of mine includes the piece I initially wrote for Foreign Policy entitled Only a Financial NATO Can Win the Economic War.
The most substantial piece of writing so far was my submission for Open Philanthropy’s Cause Exploration Prize entitled War Between the US and China: A case study for epistemic challenges around China-related catastrophic risk. I intend to repurpose sections of it in the newsletter in the coming weeks.
Favorite commissioned pieces include Tuvia Gering’s ongoing coverage of US-China relations, Christian Petersen-Clausen’s photo essay from his lockdown Shanghai apartment, and Joseph Torigian’s interview with historian Yu Ruxin on the Cultural Revolution.
I'm excited to announce that I've recently brought on another part-time employee, Irene Zhang, alongside my longtime editor Callan Quinn. With the extra bandwidth, I'm hoping to ensure every podcast episode gets its dedicated transcript and support more original reporting and annotated transcripts. I also hope to experiment this year with paywalled written content, perhaps initially by running FiveBooks-style interviews with China scholars and putting a few of the recommendations behind a paywall.
For both the newsletter and podcast, I've been disappointed with growth in 2022. Free newsletter subscribers have increased from 9000 to 12,000 in 2022 but revenue from paying Substack subscriptions is flat from December 2021. Podcast listenership has barely inched up from the 10k/episode I averaged towards the end of last year.
I don't think it's a coincidence that my twitter follower count (12k) matches directly with how many free newsletter subscriptions I have. Growth on the twitter follower count and newsletter side comes mainly from viral twitter threads, but I don’t particularly enjoy writing them and don’t really have the viral touch.
On the podcast side, I am very satisfied with the quality of the content and think many more people, if exposed to the show, would enjoy it, but am at a bit of a loss as to how to grow the download numbers. YouTube, as I discussed last review, is perhaps the most promising avenue, as unlike with podcast players it allows for virality. The potential audience exists: in recent months, pretty low quality (what I assume are) Falun Gong-supported channels have been racking up millions of views for China-related content.
In the past six months I've made small forays into posting full episodes up on the ChinaTalk channel, and now have 500 YouTube subscribers. However, there's definitely more to be done, including incorporating talking heads as opposed to just still images, posting excerpts as standalone videos ala Old Man and the Three, and adapting podcasts into simple video essays. Joining another podcast network alongside Lawfare may also help expose the show to a larger audience as the benefit I get from their network seems to be waning after two years.
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ChinaTalk Meetups + Follow Ups
Prior to holding an SF meetup in July, the only one I had ever done before was in DC in the fall of 2021. In Washington, most people’s professional lives had some China angle, so it wasn’t a particularly novel for that group to have a social situations where they could talk about shared interests. However, in SF that wasn’t the case. Most folks worked in tech and hadn’t had an excuse to talk in Chinese or about China for a long time. It was really touching for me to
Two ideas came out of this experience:
If you’re interested in hosting a ChinaTalk meetup in your area, I’d be happy to publicize the event and pay for the first round of appetizers.
And second, ChinaTalk is going to start running personal classifieds! If you’re single, would rather not be, and think your sweetheart might be in the ChinaTalk extended universe, get in touch! I’m hoping to use both the newsletter and podcast (via regionally targeted ads) to help ChinaTalk listeners find love.
Open Source CCP
Open Source CCP six months has shown its promise. I've gotten together over sixty eager China-watchers from around the world who have good enough language skills to engage with primary sources. We've had a handful of sessions featuring some great discussions around Qiushi and other contemporary Party documents.
That said, the group is in real need of a discussion leader to lay down a foundation of knowledge. Thanks to the response from my 2021 year in review email, I was able to secure some soft commitments for funding support, but getting academics to do things that aren't connected with their traditional tenure-track work has been a tougher lift than expected. A recent grant from Emergent Ventures is allowing me to sponsor some students to join Manoj's course, as well as pay for some masterclasses as trial runs for the creation of more coursework.
More broadly, the current think tank ecosystem isn’t coming close to filling the analytical needs world has to process what's coming out of China in order to help policymakers pursue optimal strategies.
The biggest potential marginal contributor of funding today resides in the EA community. However, it is still in the very early phases of working through how it will engage in the space. For instance, the FTX Future Fund only invested $2m in great power competition-related giving out of the $100m+ it has given so far in 2022. I hope that the war in Ukraine will serve as a wake up call that the risk of great power war deserves the same amount of attention as standbys like AGI, and aim to spend more time this year engaging with this community through attending conferences and writing targeted blogposts. On the topic, I wrote 10,000 words on why China Studies needs some love that I'll be reposting on the newsletter in the weeks to come.