2020 Year in Review
Xinjiang History, Youtube's Gems, Chinese Podcasts, Favorite Dramas and Reality TV Shows
How awkward is it to finally finish a 2020 Year in Review post six months late? Well, I’m leaning into it!
Newsletter + Book of the Year
In 2020, I took deep dives into China’s Twitter influence operations, US policy toward TikTok and WeChat, immigration policy and how the US should conceptualize trade policy and support its allies in light of Australia-China tensions (I’ll rest easy that I never got a call from PPO when Biden starts pushing for a ‘NATO for trade’ and ‘Strategic Shiraz Reserve’). I also wrote a long piece on how the US should take on Xinjiang as well as Congressional dynamics on China human rights issues.
This brings me to my book of the year: CUNY professor Yan Sun’s From Empire to Nation State: Ethnic Politics in China. Yan uses “a long term causal chain of factors from a historical-political perspective” to explain tensions in Xinjiang and Tibet. Her scholarship is the product of ten years’ research and over eight hundred interviews, supplemented by the fact that many of her ethnic Han family moved to southern Xinjiang decades ago and were able to provide her unique access to the region.
Yan takes the narrative back to the late Qing Dynasty, through the Mao years and up to the present, exploring how her two themes of political centralization and ethnicization interact. In brief, changing nation-building imperatives from Beijing in recent decades encouraged a rise in ethnic consciousness while at the same time demanding more Han/CCP political control.
This is one of the books you can’t skim because every page teaches you something new about the regions and Chinese governance more broadly. Issues such as education policy receive equal treatment to bureaucratic and economic policy. The book also doesn’t overstay its welcome, clocking in at only 300 pages.
Aside from my commentary, ChinaTalk also features translations and analysis of Chinese-language articles that catch my eye. I’m most proud of the ones I published earlier in the year on Li Wenliang, the drivers Wuhan counts on, and disappeared tycoon Ren Zhiqiang. One fun one that went viral was 'Thanks to Coronavirus, I Realized My Spouse's Brain is Broken'. Other popular editions include How the CCP Does Job Promotions, Huawei’s Banned, So Let’s Invade Taiwan to Take TSMC, and Chairman Rabbit on COVID.
ChinaTalk Podcast Highlights
In between a sudden, unplanned move from China to the US and a bout with COVID, I somehow found the time to put out sixty episodes this past year. My top 5 episodes of 2020:
Yuen Yuen Ang, author of the China’s Gilded Age, gave a master class in how corruption works in China today.
Emily de la Bruyère of Horizon Advisory talked about how the US misunderstands China’s true tech ambitions and why America shouldn’t overlook investments in applied research.
I gossiped with WSJ’s Bob Davis and Ling Ling Wei about Chinese and US government officials involved in the trade war.
The range award goes to Adam Tooze, historian and author of Crashed and The Deluge. We went from Gulag/Xinjiang comparisons and Nazi legal theory’s resonance in modern China to what we can learn from 1920s diplomacy and his favorite bureaucracies to work in.
The most fun I had was with HR McMaster, the former NSA who listens obsessively to ChinaTalk and has a better grasp on the podcast’s catalog than I do.
I interviewed a fair number of podcasters who have taken jobs in the Biden administration, making the past year’s catalog an interesting preview of America’s China policy. Those shows include ones with Jake Sullivan, Peter Harrell and Julian Gewirtz (NSC), Elizabeth Rosenberg (Treasury), and Mira Rapp-Hooper (State). Other highlights include a series of ‘Coronastories’, where interviewing friends from countries as far afield as Nepal, Morocco, Russia and Taiwan about their countries’ experiences with the virus. I also tried to expand my range a bit, doing shows with the youtube channel Chinese Cooking Demystified and one on the best of 2020 Chinese hip hop.
I started this newsletter as a translation exercise to force myself to keep reading difficult Chinese, sending out my first edition two years ago to a hundred friends. The podcast was born out of my frustration with PKU professors’ boring reading assignments, leading me to read off-syllabus and find an excuse to email authors I admired.
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Best Website: YouTube
It’s ridiculous to think that more ink was spilled in 2020 on Substack than YouTube. For all the radicalization its done, the algorithm also has brought me to some truly wonderful creators. Whenever I want to learn anything (not China-related) my first stop is usually to YouTube. The channels I most enjoy are experts willing to go deep into niche topics where video is a superior learning vector than books or articles.
For instance, watching Adam Ondra, the greatest rock climber in the world, analyze a route and scale a sheer cliff up to a Czech castle is something that would never make it onto ESPN, particularly with the color he included on what climbing was like behind the Iron Curtain.
I learned how to cook from Kenji Lopez Alt, Binging with Babish, Chinese Cooking Demystified, Ethan Chlebowski, Made with Lau, and Cooking with Andong far faster than I would have just through cookbooks (links are to some of my favorite recipes).
Youtube channels from former pro players and coaches were a wonderful discovery (see: A Davante Adams route-running breakdown, Why Larry Bird is a GOAT Candidate, How does F1 let innovation thrive without stifling the rest of the sport?, Albert Ok on climbing styles, a random game breakdown from BBALLBREAKDOWN that can teach you more in ten minutes than ten hours watching highlights).
The last organized basketball team I played on was a Sunday JCC league for 4th graders, but thanks to youtube workout videos like those from Any Means Basketball, I learned how to take D-grade stepbacks and developed a real appreciation for the level of difficultly involved at the pro level. Speaking of basketball, Nate Duncan’s Dunk’d On Basketball Podcast was a fantastic find. Their live commentaries of games (now on the hotmic app) unlike Shaq and Kenny actually teach you something. And the podcasts’ insanely detailed deep dives into third string players’ salary negotiations and minor injuries have also proven to be great sleep aids.
The Cinema Cartography taught me to appreciate cinematography. Stuff Made Here somehow made me regret not majoring in mechanical engineering. All Gas No Brakes is what Vice should have been. Summoning Salt’s dives into speedrunners almost tricks you into thinking they’re doing something noble. Joseph Anderson’s epic hours-long deep dives into the Witcher series helped me appreciate what goes into telling a good story. AthleanX almost fixed my posture until I got too lazy to do the exercises. Two Minute Papers made following AI developments more entertaining than it has any right to be. I’m not sure anything made me laugh harder than Not The Expert’s 0 Speed team vs 0 speed team, SsethTzeentach’s deranged video game reviews, and the Tier Zoo channel which rates animals’ evolutionary fitness as if they were in a fighting game like Tekken, . Lastly, its music recommendations is better than Spotify’s, bringing me to, for instance, obscure 1970s Japanese Jazz.
Best New App: Xiaoyuzhou 小宇宙
In March of 2020, Xiaoyuzhou, a podcast catcher launched focusing on the growing Chinese market. Unlike the overwhelmingly busy Ximalaya and completely unlocalized Apple Podcasts, Xiaoyuzhou provides a nice on-ramp for new podcast listeners with three human-curated shows per day, a time-stamped comment section for each podcast, and the ability to add friends and check out what they're listening to. You can also see listen counts for each podcast episode, giving you a sense of any given feed's standouts. Lillian Li wrote up a more detailed product teardown.
The ChinaTalk podcast burned fast and bright on Xiaoyuzhou. It got a few hundred subscribers and a handful of comments. At first, my episode on 'What To Do About Xinjiang' disappeared from the feed, and then a few days later you couldn't find the podcast.
Even with the sort of censorship you'd expect from a mainland content platform, the content is still consistently solid. The ecosystem is still in its infancy, as China doesn't really have BBC or NPR equivalent of audio-first reporters. Aside from 故事FM, a thrice weekly 'Moth' + 'This American Life' hybrid featuring slice of life stories that feature impressive social class and geographic range, nearly every show I've encountered is interview-based. The listenership, as well as leading hosts, skew first tier city, highly (often foreign) educated and female.
My favorite discoveries of this year include:
随机波动, the most prominent Mainland female-led talk show (start with #25 on lower tier Chinese universities)
The 时差 podcast, featuring a rotating cast of Chinese academics speaking openly on a wide range of issues (subscribe on a western app as some episodes are censored)
忽左忽右, part of the JustPod network (host Yang Yi is on twitter) with a focus on history. They have a recent spy series I've been enjoying. He also hosts the 去现场 show discussing Chinese and western media.
翻转体育, a sports show (start with ep 22 talking about a new documentary about China and baseball. Host Hualun appeared in the past on ChinaTalk talking about China and the NBA)
无聊斋, a talk show hosted by comedians from Beijing's leading stand up group, 单立人.
My account on the app is Jordan司马乔丹 if you want to give me an add!
Best Scripted Chinese TV Shows: The Bad Kids and The Long Night
Even in the face of an increasingly tightening environment particularly for scripted content, IQIYI put out two twelve-episode adaptations of novels by Chen Zi Jin that raised the ceiling for modern Chinese drama. The Bad Kids, 隐秘的角落 (eng subs on Youtube) focuses on lower-class life in a way Chinese tv almost never does. It is shot and scored beautifully and features some of the best child acting I have ever seen. Only "The Longest Day in Chang'an" rivals it in terms of domestic cinematography.
The second highlight of 2020, 沉默的真相, The Long Night, was also excellent. It tells a multigenerational story of police corruption (see this video for an explanation of how they toned down the original source material to get around censors).
Best Chinese Variety Shows: 头口秀大会 S3 and 令人心动的offer S2
Comedy show 头口秀大会 Season 3 was the breakthrough mainstream moment for Chinese stand-up comedy, a scene which has been bubbling up for the past decade or so but struggled to find a broader audience until recently. See here for an excerpt of my favorite comedian. For intermediate Chinese speakers, do note that this is really difficult to follow, both because the performers are often referencing stuff you’ve never heard of and since you get no visual cues of what they’re talking about which help boost comprehension when watching a drama. That said, it’s really satisfying when you get a joke!
令人心动的offer S2 is the most awkward thing I’ve watched in years. This reality show takes eight recent grads and throws them in the office of a law firm where they compete for two full-time offers. The most painful kid rocked his Stanford mug and lanyard from his LLM and kept throwing in references to “well in America they do XYZ.” At first, the partners were impressed by him, but ultimately he realized that he’s actually not special just because he got to study abroad. The cringe was so good.
Best Podcast: The New Books in East Asia Studies Podcast
For a non-academic, I read an absurd amount of academic press books about China to find good guests for ChinaTalk. But even I miss stuff! The New Books in East Asia Studies Podcast features academics interviewing other academics about their new books.
I may not want to devote eight hours to read a book on Tibetan Buddhism among Han Chinese, the KMT Officer Corps, or Japanese forestry practices during the Korean occupation, but I’ll certainly give these topics half an hour! There are so many rich bodies of literature of topics you never knew existed that this podcast allows you to dip a toe into. As on one level, I feel like I’m narrowing my subject focus spending more and more time professionally thinking about US-China tech issues. This podcast has done more than anything else to help me feel like I’m still broadening my horizons.