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Chinese whispers heard in London — Q&A with Cindy Yu

Chinese whispers heard in London — Q&A with Cindy Yu thumbnail

Born in Nanjing and educated at Oxford, Cindy Yu is one of the most refreshing new voices about China with her podcast, Chinese Whispers. She is also in charge of all of The Spectator magazine’s growing portfolio of audio and video shows, and writes for the magazine about China.

We spoke on October 11 by video call. This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Jeremy Goldkorn


The first episode of Chinese Whispers came out in July 2020. You go straight into the really big subject of what does Beijing want with Hong Kong. That’s a baptism by fire. Can you talk a little bit about why you decided the world needed another China podcast? And I think it’s a great podcast, by the way.

I was born in China and spent the first 10 years of my life there.

In Nanjing, right?

In Nanjing, yeah. So, moving to the U.Okay., there was a big culture shock, and I always felt very Chinese. The moment when I realized that I’d lived in the U.Okay. for longer than I’d lived in China was a very existential moment for me, because I’ve always considered myself very Chinese. And now I don’t really think I can say that anymore, so I had to come to grips with that.

Anyway, I fell into journalism through The Spectator. My editor is Scottish, never been to China in his life. Someone who has a passing interest in China but doesn’t know much about it. We started realizing that there were all these things that he never knew about it. Obviously China experts know [this stuff], and places like The China Project, you guys know, but in the non-China expertise world, there were still a lot of things that people didn’t know.

A lot of that comes from, oh, what would your mom think about this? Or what was it like growing up with your grandma? All this sort of stuff. So, there we are then talking about all this, and at The Spectator, I produce podcasts anyway. So, it seemed like a very natural thing for me to start doing a China podcast.

We actually had the idea a few years before I started, and the only thing that held us back was not being able to find a name, which I know is something that you guys have struggled with as well! But it’s very, very difficult to not go down the incredibly clichéd or stereotypical routes. At the same time, you don’t want to be too overly descriptive. You want to have some kind of fun in there.

Then the pandemic gave us a chance to come and just sit down and think, regroup. Chinese Whispers in the U.S., I’ve been told, is not a thing, but in the U.Okay. is the game that you call Telephone.

I didn’t actually know that Americans didn’t call it that! I grew up in South Africa, where we speak something like English English.

Chinese Whispers is a great name!

Yeah. So, Americans keep coming up to me and say, “Why’d you call it that?”

In the U.Okay., the name has an extra resonance because a lot of China reporting that we see today is not incredibly accurate. It’s very hard. I don’t blame the journalists at all. But there is some level of passing of rumors back and forth, rather than journalists being on the ground, and of course, China makes that hard too.

One of the things I really like about it is that it’s a great combination of weighty topics like Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 or the politics of Hong Kong, and then you’ll do an episode on drinking culture. Was that something that you planned from the beginning?

Yeah. The drinking culture one was funny, because in the U.Okay., our company has a bit of a drinking culture. We like to go to the pub after work. And it was just one of those things when I was looking at these Brits standing, literally, on pavements, in December, shivering in their coats and holding on to a pint of beer, and I was thinking, “This would never happen in China.”

So, what would the drinking culture be like in China?

Of course, you can’t do China podcasts without the really important issues, the serious ones. But it’s that culture clash where there are so many fun and interesting things about China that I love from the perspective of someone who’s lived there and here that I really want to just share with the world.

You are in the same difficulty, I think — a lot of us who try to talk about China in ways that are sympathetic to, at least the Chinese people, if not the government, but always try to maintain a critical distance from the government. I’ve seen just recently, you were attacked on Twitter for a piece you wrote that, if I can paraphrase it, it was silly to needlessly antagonize the Chinese government by disinviting people to the Queen’s funeral.

How do you deal with that?

It’s really difficult. And I don’t think I have a good answer to it. I just take things as they come because I’m quite new in the field. The podcast is only two years old. So, I just kind of take things as they come, by which I mean, I try to be very responsible with my reporting to make sure that I’m not fanning sensationalism on either side, pro- or anti-China.

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I still have family there, and I think it’s really important to tell their stories correctly. At the same time, I’m really mindful of my blind spots. That, as someone from a relatively privileged middle-class background, a Han background, very well-educated, that I might not see a lot of the flaws that certain experts do see.

On the podcast, I always try to make sure that whoever’s coming on knows what they’re talking about rather than thinking of a particular standpoint I’d like to hear. I’m always coming from the guest’s perspective first. Can they be considered a reliable, responsible voice on this?

When I write, it can be a bit difficult. I don’t want to be getting into a situation of preemptively self-censoring because I’m worried about the Twitter backlash. People talk about self-censoring in the sense of the Chinese government [intimidating you into] self-censoring. And of course, I’m worried about that. As I say, I’ve got family in China, and I would like to be able to come in and out of China without much difficulty, which is getting increasingly difficult for China.

In some ways, the pandemic has been helpful because that hasn’t been an issue. I haven’t been able to go back anyway. At the moment, more challenging me is the voices who are really, really anti-China who think I’m not anti-China enough.

Yeah.

But I have a group of close friends who work in the China world in the U.Okay., and I use them to kind of triangulate because they don’t come from the same perspective I come from. So, is it that I’m not being critical enough, or is it that certain people are being critical in the wrong way? So, I have that sounding board.

And then when it comes to the actual Twitter thing, I mean, I just had to close it. It was the first big one that I got into, and I always knew was coming. I can’t claim to be a victim or anything because I put myself out there. I’m a journalist. I’ve got a public persona. It’s not like I’m a random person who someone just tore into. I know it comes with the territory and I know it’s going to come at some point. It was the biggest one that I’d had so far. It was quite annoying and it was quite difficult at times, but I just then switched my phone off and did other things with my weekend.

I think that’s probably the only thing you can do at some point with Twitter.

Can you talk about the change in the U.Okay.’s attitude to China? I was in China for 20 years, and then moved to the United States in 2015. And at that point, I was already personally quite very worried about the direction China was going in. I’d already basically made up my mind about Xi Jinping, and I didn’t like what I saw. And the U.S. had been sort of getting a little bit more hostile to China in the previous few years, which really intensified almost immediately after I arrived, particularly in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump.

But 2015 was the year in which David Cameron hosted Xi Jinping at a pub and talked about the “golden era” of Sino-British relations, which, as soon as I heard it, I just burst out laughing. I was like, get prepared for a golden shower. There’s no golden era coming.

Things have changed quite dramatically in the U.Okay., too, since then. Yesterday, there was a speech by the chief spy in the U.Okay. warning about the dangers of China. In fact, in the leadership contest for the Conservative Party, you had this very American-style competition of China bashing between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.

Is this just blind following of where America’s going or not? How deep is the genuine worry about China? How much of it is just politicking?

I think there’s definitely a part of it which is influenced by America. We see that in British culture quite a lot where, because you can see the same news, you consume almost the same politics. The midterms in the U.S. are really closely followed here. Whoever’s the American president is really closely followed here. We can see the same soft power in terms of TV shows, the vocab that comes from America all the time. So, I think almost imperceptibly, we start to see the world as America sees the world because we consume the way that America interprets the world.

But I don’t think that’s all of it at all. One example is in the last few years with COVID, there is this increasing concern: What does this mean for being Chinese in the U.Okay.? And every single person that I know who looks Chinese has had some kind of weird minimum-maximum racist interaction.

Every person you know, huh?

Every person, yeah. Every single person has some kind of weird interaction, and I’m not going to call all them racist, but it’s because you look Chinese.

Something funny, something a bit off, if not racist?

Yes. YeI think Chinese people are more wary in the U.Okay. now. The diaspora in the U.Okay. is more wary, and during the “golden era,” at least they allowed them to feel like things were going in the right direction.

On the political side, it was obviously misjudged. As you say, by 2015, it was already clear that Xi Jinping was not another Hú Jǐntāo 胡锦涛 or Jiāng Zémín 江泽民. It was already clear that Xi was very much into the personality cult stuff. Civil society was starting to get choked out. For David Cameron and George Osborne to think that they could get a country like that on side and to liberalize, in 2015, was just so…I think what it says about the U.Okay. is something that the U.Okay. still has now, which is just a lack of knowledge about China.

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So, whether [British people] think that China’s more nice than, it is or more evil than it is…In general, a lot of the behavior that I’m shocked about comes from a position of ignorance.

Of course, David Cameron was the guy who thought the referendum on Brexit would go a certain way, so maybe it’s not just China there’s a lack of awareness about!

Yeah. Then, of course, Brexit happens, and the U.Okay. is so engrossed in Brexit, China doesn’t really come up as a topic in discussion much during those years.

Boris Johnson comes in, and I think he’s a very interesting prime minister because he appeals to the Brexiters, but the Brexiters also tend to be the people who are more suspicious about China, about Russia. They’re generally more defense aware, more hawkish in international relations. But Boris Johnson was always very quiet about his opinions on China. And actually, that’s because he’s really dovish on China. He believed in continuing trade with China, he believed you can’t change what it is that China does internally. So, we might as well work with them.

On the Huawei issue, when we were about to introduce Huawei into the British 5G network, Boris Johnson really dragged his feet. He was getting a lot of back-bench pressure from his MPs about scrapping Huawei, and basically getting Huawei to pull out at the cost of billions of pounds. And Boris Johnson really, really stuck out against that, until finally the American sanctions forced his hand. At that point he said, “Okay, we’re not going to use Huawei anymore.” But it really took a long time. And so, it was quite interesting that we had this prime minister who appealed to a lot of the foreign policy hawks on Brexit, but not on China. The way he got around it was basically to not talk about it.

Very British.

But at the same time, you had all these backbenchers who were saying, “Brexit’s done, what’s the next thing for us?”

One of the campaign groups that were really, really Eurosceptic during the Brexit campaign was called the European Research Group, the ERG. Now, when their task was done, when Brexit had happened, something called a CRG evolved.

China Research Group?

Yeah. So, the CRG was almost a conscious emulation of the campaigning style and perspective of the ERG. But instead of the EU that would be the target, it would be China.

Then you got something called Interparliamentary Alliance on China, which is an international group of MPs who campaign on China. And both of these groups are relatively hawkish, they campaign on various issues. And they’re really good about bringing attention to certain causes. I think the reason that what’s happening in Xinjiang has got so much more attention in the U.Okay. in the last few years is because of these MP groups.

Liz Truss then comes and she is very much aligned with that perspective. So, we are now in the moment of seeing a radical change in our policy on China. Because three months ago, we had Boris Johnson, and now we have Liz Truss.

Obviously, she’s very busy at the moment with a lot of economic concerns. But when she turns her eyes to the foreign policy, I think we’re going to see a much more aggressive policy on China, much more in line with the American side, and sometimes possibly even going beyond that.

Last year, we had the Integrated Review, which is the government’s strategic foreign policy document. And in there, it said that China was a systemic competitor and that Russia was a threat. What Liz Truss has suggested, although she hasn’t formally said this, is that she wants to change that wording so that China is also a threat. But as far as I can see, the current wording is actually very much aligned with the Biden administration’s wording on China of being a challenge or a systemic competitor rather than a threat.

So, there’s a real question about whether or not Liz Truss actually wants to go further than the Biden administration. We actually know that they don’t get on very well because of the Northern Ireland issue coming from Brexit, all of this stuff. So, could she be trying to kind of lead the West as it were, in its us and them battle against China? I think the jury’s still out

If I may, Jeremy, just add one more thing, which is just…

Yeah, please.

…How society has changed as well. I already talked a little bit about this with COVID, but I think public opinion has hardened against China as well.

Obviously, there was always a large constituent of Western public opinion, which was suspicious of China, or had certain stereotypes about it. Once upon a time, that was like “cheap, inferior manufactured goods,” then it became “they’re stealing our jobs.” Now it is: “Oh, they let COVID out.” I think voters now in the U.Okay. are very, very skeptical of China.

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And more and more people, ordinary people who don’t have an ax to grind or anything like that, are concerned.

I just hope that with this increasing attention on China, we also have increasing knowledge about China. Rana Mitter from Oxford University has a really good quote about this. He says that, “In the U.Okay. we’ve gone from complacency about China to panic about China without the intervening stage of knowledge.” I worry that that’s what we’ve done.

That’s the last 10 years since the “golden era,” and this is where we are now, but do we have more knowledge so that we don’t end up making a mistake on the other side of the spectrum? I don’t know.

Since you did your very first podcast on Hong Kong, a lot has happened and there’s been a wave of new immigrants to the U.Okay. from Hong Kong. How has that shifted the thinking on China in the U.Okay.?

I should have mentioned that in my previous answer, because of course, the U.Okay. has such a close link to Hong Kong. It is in people’s minds, Hong Kong is something that [British people] are familiar with. You might not be familiar with the rest of China, but you know what Hong Kong is. So, you saw, even under Boris Johnson, you saw the government being very, very generous about immigration and allowing refugees from Hong Kong to come.

Anyone who holds a British National Overseas passport from the handover time, or their dependents, can come over here. I’m not sure, off the top of my head, how many people have taken that up, because I think Hong Kongers, I understand, in general, prefer to go to Taiwan or go to Japan or somewhere in the region, rather than all the way across the world.

But we have seen more Hong Kongers here, and I’ve met some of them who had these brilliant grassroots groups of earlier waves of Hong Kong migrants, helping them just settle in and find schools and all this sort of stuff.

That’s been a really interesting shift.

At the moment in the British parliament, you see a lot of ethnic minority faces of Indian background, or African background. You don’t see very many of East Asian background. I do wonder if the Hong Kong influx would mean that, at least Asians or East Asians would be participating more in politics because you’ve got all these people growing up here now.

And I always joke that it’s good for me because it means there’s more Chinese food around and more things like bubble tea and dim sum!

Can you situate The Spectator for an American readership? I don’t think there’s a neat equivalent for it in the United States.

I don’t think there is either, because obviously The Spectator is right of center, but as far as I understand, your right and left in America is much more divided and much more extreme on both sides maybe. I’m not sure if that’s right. But I would like to think that we’re a soft right of center.

The Spectator’s a really old magazine, so…A caveat…Some Spectator contributors will disagree with everything I’m about to say.

The Spectator was founded in 1828. It is a part of the British establishment. It is a part of how British politics and politicians think about themselves. We have a lot of prestige in that sense. It means that people want to hear what we have to say.

Being a weekly magazine, you can be a bit more discursive, be a bit more out of the box with how you report on things. Maybe a bit like the New Yorker, I’m not sure if that’s a fair comparison, but just basically creative, original ways of looking at things. In a media environment where, in the U.Okay., there is also a soft left tendency as well. So, I think that’s an important position for The Spectator to hold. And obviously we’re very close to the Conservative Party, and I’ve only ever worked here since there’s been a Conservative government. So, I don’t know what it will be like if in two years’ time we have a Labor government, if it will change how the magazine works. I’m quite intrigued to find that out because it does look like it’s a Labor government in two years’ time.

On China, I think you see the same in the U.S., where left and right are probably the same. There’s no left-right divide on China.

I think it’s probably the only issue in the U.S. at the moment where left and right don’t really make a difference. The hawkiest China hawks are from both the left and from the right.

Yeah. I mean, President Xi is uniting a divided country. There we go.

He’s a great uniter. Just maybe not of the Chinese people!

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