USCNPM: Kaiser Kuo on Media and Misinformation in U.S.-China Relations

Interview by Michael B. Cerny and Dr. Yawei Liu.

Kaiser Kuo is the co-founder of the Sinica Podcast and editor-at-large of Having spent more than a decade in China, Kaiser brings a deep understanding of Chinese politics, society, and culture to discussions surrounding U.S.-China relations. Previously serving as the Director of International Communications at Baidu, Kaiser returned to the United States in 2016 and now resides in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The Carter Center China Program recently interviewed Kaiser about his background, the role of media and misinformation in U.S.-China relations, and American concerns about the trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship.

Now a premier and highly popular podcast on current affairs in China, could you start by telling our readers about how the Sinica podcast got started?

Sure! In 2010, Jeremy Goldkorn and I had both been in China for about 15 years, and had been friends for most of that time. One evening in March, we were talking about the podcasts we’d each been listening to, and one of us – I can’t remember who – asked about China-themed podcasts and whether we were aware of any good ones. Neither of us knew of any. So we decided there and then that we’d start one.

The format took shape almost right away: It would be a loosely-scripted conversation covering current affairs, with Jeremy and I as regulars on the program who would invite journalists and various subject-area experts to join us. We were friends with a guy named David Lancashire, a Canadian who, at the time, was a doctoral candidate who’d been postponing finishing his work at U.C. Berkeley to pursue some entrepreneurial projects. His main project was a podcast-based Chinese language instruction system called Popup Chinese. He had a studio, and a ready-made audience of people who, by dint of the fact that they were learning Chinese, were likely to be interested in a show on current affairs in China. Jeremy suggested we approach David about working together, so we could use his studio and perhaps get him to host the show on his servers. He immediately said yes. He figured – and I think he was probably correct – that we’d also bring people who were interested in current affairs into his field of vision, and many of them would be keen on learning Chinese through his service.

David’s “studio” was a room in his grungy apartment near Chaoyangmen, but he had good mics and a mixing board, and he even offered to edit the show. All we had to do was book the guests, whip up an outline – calling it a script would be too generous – and sit down to talk. Our first show was recorded on April 1, 2010, with Bill Bishop. We talked about Google’s pull-out from China, which had finally taken place a couple of months after their dramatic announcement of January 12 of that year. Immediately we knew that there might be interest. “China Twitter” was already in full swing by then, and people like Jeremy and Bill already had colossal followings. People all had smartphones and were discovering how easy it was to subscribe to podcasts.

Who is the target audience of the podcast? Where have you seen its greatest impact?

From the outset, we wanted to make sure the show was something that veteran China-watchers would value and want to make a part of their regular listening diet. So we didn’t want to pitch it at too broad of an audience. Mind you, it was for the first six years just a hobby. Jeremy and I both had day jobs: he was managing the website Danwei, which was acquired by the FT not long after we started, and I was working as director of international communications at Baidu. We had no intention of turning into something commercial, so we didn’t feel the need to make it completely accessible. But as the show got more popular – especially after the spring of 2012, when we were featured on an episode of This American Life, which at the time was the most popular podcast in America – we shifted gears a bit, focusing less on what was then in the news and more on topics that might have a longer shelf-life, that listeners might profitably listen to months or even years after they were first aired. We also got more conscientious about explaining names and terms that people not steeped in China arcana wouldn’t necessarily understand. We still wanted it to be aspirational – that is, we hoped it would still involve just a bit of a stretch for some of our listeners, and get them opening Wikipedia or Google a couple of times a show. Nowadays, though we don’t have perfect visibility on who’s listening, my sense is that there are still plenty of dedicated China-watchers, whether in academia, in the NGO sector, in thinktanks, in journalism, and in government, whether diplomacy, defense, commerce, or intelligence. We also have a lot of students, business people, and even plenty of people with nothing more than just an honest interest in what’s happening in China.

It’s tough to say what its biggest impact has been. I like to think that its main contribution is that it offers room for really unpacking complex issues, and for laying out all that vital context that, in other media like television or newspapers, too often just has to be cut. I like to think that Sinica has become a platform that people interested in China can look to reliably for in-depth conversations on the big China-related topics, and I hope that people view us as balanced, fair-minded, and independent. The fact that we’re criticized by “both sides” – by people who think we’re too “soft” on China, and by people who think we’re biased against China – suggests to me that maybe we’re doing something right.

A core focus of the China Program at The Carter Center is to break down misperception in the U.S.-China relationship, and we think the great sourcing of your guests is one way to provide audiences with a qualified and authoritative perspective on issues related to China. What do you think are some of the key perception gaps that characterize U.S.-China relations?

Well, first of all, thank you for those kind words! There are of course major perception gaps on both sides. My primary interest has always been in addressing the perception gaps that Americans or other English-speaking people have toward China, and right now I’ll only speak about those, though I think it’s important that perception gaps going the other way also be addressed.

Part of the U.S. perception gap has to do with media coverage of China. Most Americans know what they think they know about contemporary China through watching, reading, and listening to news reports. And while I happen to think that, especially given the conditions for reporting in China, our media on balance does an excellent job of reporting, there are nonetheless structural realities about the way that news is created and consumed that end up contributing to misperceptions.

When I read the New York Times or watch an hour of network or cable news, even though there are many, many stories on any given day that might make me think the country is going down in flames – more chaos in the White House, the president’s latest inchoate Twitter rantings, another unarmed black man gunned down by police, another prominent man exposed for sexual misconduct –  there are also the rest of the stories in the paper about really banal and quotidian things, as well as plenty of feel-good news: trend stories, food stories, scientific breakthroughs, your basic human interest fare. And more importantly, I also have the lived experience of the U.S., and I know that despite all the negative pieces I’ve just read in the paper, I don’t expect that when I open my window I’ll hear the din of street battles and smell burning tires.

Unfortunately, when I read that same newspaper or take in that newscast, the few stories I’m likely to encounter about China will focus on the unusual – and often, that means they’ll focus on the negative. This isn’t because there’s some plot among media elites to make China look bad. It’s fundamentally structural to the news business. Reporters write about the planes that crash, not the ones that land safely. They write about the bridges that collapse, and not about the ones that don’t. And so it’s only natural that they’d write about the repression of ethnic minorities, or elite conflict, or official malfeasance, or environmental catastrophe, or mass protest. The problem is that for an American reading these, without those other banal or even pleasant stories to offer a fuller picture, and without that lived experience of China, many readers – I daresay most – will come away with a picture of China that is disproportionately negative.

Reporting by American media outlets is, to the very best of my knowledge, quite accurate. There really is an atrocity underway in Xinjiang, where efforts to assimilate Uyghurs include extralegal detentions with no due process, where fundamental features of the Uyghur culture itself are under assault, and where sophisticated technologies are being used to monitor and track people in ways that clearly violate any reasonable norms of privacy. There really is horrific environmental degradation in many parts of China. There really is extensive censorship of all media, including the internet. The reporting on all of this – and much more – has been accurate. But accurate isn’t the same thing as realistic. It’s not, one might argue, the media’s responsibility to paint this more complete realistic picture. So I’m afraid this just isn’t something that can easily be fixed. All any of us can hope to do is to try and present more of the complete picture.

There’s another set of issues that contribute significantly to gaps in perceptions of China when viewed from the U.S., and these have mostly to do with the relationship Americans today have with history. We tend to see history as basically teleological – that it has a goal or an endpoint, that it moves in a particular direction. It’s really baked into our language, and it’s hard to transcend. We don’t recognize how contingent history actually is. This has been especially pronounced, I think, since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Soviet Communism. Having seen off two great ideological enemies, fascism and communism, we were more convinced than ever of being on the right side of history – and less apt to interrogate the assumptions undergirding our teleological view of history, less apt to recognize the contingency of it all. So we now stand on one side of what is a fundamentally historical chasm, looking across at China, and wondering why it can’t just cross over to where we are. We don’t bother to look down into that chasm and reflect on the tortuous path that got us to this side: all the narrow escapes, lucky throws of the dice, and all the blood and bodies along that path.

Our lack of historical perspective also tends to make us impatient. It’s easy to see how someone without a knowledge of history can look at China and see a very modern and developed state. Superficially, it could look that way. But lacking an appreciation for history, we don’t recognize how the impressive advances in China’s hardware – the gleaming infrastructure, the megacities, the high technology, all built in the span of this one generation – isn’t yet matched by the software. Those changes take time. In that regard, I think in all fairness China has already come a long way, but it’s the disconnect between the very modern facade and an interior political culture that, at least by our standards, isn’t commensurately modern that throws people.

As the editor-at-large of and with an extensive social media presence, what role do you think misinformation and disinformation have played in U.S.-China relations?

There’s no doubt that China – that is, Chinese Party-state entities to include media outlets, beyond just individuals – has engaged in deliberate misinformation or disinformation. Twitter, for instance, identified many bot accounts that appear to be Chinese. And while I find it troubling how people tend to dismiss any online opinion that appears to conform to the CCP’s narrative or defend the Chinese state from criticism as being from a “Fifty-cent Party,” I’m certainly aware that the Party-state does mobilize online opinion by paid posts.

However, I don’t think any fair assessment of China’s mis- or disinformation efforts will find these operations remotely comparable in scale to what the Russians have mounted either in Europe or the U.S. in recent years. There’s been no effort by China that I’m aware of to pit Americans against one another by exacerbating hot-button issues, as the Russians appear to have done on topics of race, transgender people, and abortion; there’s been no political advertising on anything close to the scale we saw out of Russia on platforms like Facebook.

Nor are Chinese news media operating in the U.S. nearly as pernicious as their Russian counterparts. CGTN and the like do not engage in the deliberate spread of conspiracy theories and don’t wade into American politics the way that RT and its ilk have done. This is not to say that Chinese media outlets should be left alone and unsupervised. But we have to recognize that its approach has been substantially different from Russia’s: far less aggressive, much more earnest, and not intended to destroy the very epistemological foundations of American thinking in the manner the Russians appear to have sought to do.

Moreover, as far as I can tell, China’s moves – whether in social media or in any of its other influence efforts, licit or illicit – have been defensive. The goal has been to dilute or deflect criticism of China. This doesn’t make it acceptable, mind you: insofar as it impinges on speech, or does not meet norms of transparency, it’s not acceptable. That said, defense and offense are qualitatively different. China’s efforts have also been rather clumsy, ham-fisted, and visible from a mile away. So while we should always be vigilant, right now we stand to do more damage to the civic fabric by overreacting than China can actually do.

As someone who has lived in China and has deeper understanding of China’s political and social developments, is the current American fear and concern regarding China overblown?

Yes, I believe the fear is indeed overblown – but it’s not surprising, and it’s not without some kernels of truth and legitimate causes for concern. There’s no question, for instance, that some sectors of American society have been adversely affected by globalization in the last decades. We can argue over who is ultimately to blame: whether the U.S. government should have been more attuned to the disruptions that globalization, especially given China’s massive labor force, migrating by the millions into the factory towns of the Pearl River Delta and Lower Yangzi. But the fact is, the fruits of globalization were not evenly distributed, and it’s not a coincidence that the geographies hardest hit by globalization-related job losses tend to be the same areas now suffering from opioid addiction, and the same areas vulnerable to the seductions of demagogues.

The U.S. finds itself today in a difficult psychological moment where it faces, for the first time since the end of the Second World War, what many believe is a multidimensional peer. The Soviet Union and Japan only offered challenges along single dimensions. China is different. To some, not only does China look to be on a trajectory where it might surpass the U.S. economically, but perhaps even militarily – and may hold out an alternative developmental path other countries might wish to emulate.

While objectively China still lags the U.S. by a long way both economically and militarily, its surge seized the American imagination at an inopportune time. To many who hadn’t been otherwise paying attention, the spectacle of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 was something of a wake-up call. What had been regarded still as a developing country still trying to climb out of Mao’s shadow and out of desperate poverty suddenly looked like a powerful, modern, and fully-mobilized society. The fact that the Beijing Olympics ended just three weeks before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which ushered in the Great Recession, served to heighten anxieties about China. Declinism, whether conscious or otherwise, tended to make us susceptible to exaggerating the challenges that China posed.

It hasn’t helped that China has a habit of challenging deeply-held American beliefs about the way the world works. For a long time, we were convinced that you couldn’t have a free-market economy without political democracy and freedom – that without a functioning marketplace of ideas, you couldn’t have functioning capital markets or labor markets either. By the end of the last century, we’d more or less accepted that China had overturned that belief.

In this era where technology has become so central to our thinking about national power, politics, and economics, it’s not surprising that tech has also become the focus of our anxieties about China. Once again, China is challenging long-standing narratives, and turning them on their head – this time, about the relationship between technology and authoritarian politics. Two of these narratives, so far, have come in for that inversion.

Until not so long ago, conventional wisdom had it that digital technology was somehow inherently emancipatory: that, especially with the advent of social media, the days of authoritarian rulers were numbered, and that the people, informed and networked, would usher in a new wave of democratic revolutions. Now, in the aftermath of the failures of the Arab Spring, the disillusionment of the Snowden revelations, and the shock of Cambridge Analytica and Russian election meddling, we’re convinced that the inverse is true: technology is actually the handmaiden of authoritarianism, and China is the proof. In a few short years, we’ve become deeply concerned with the extent of Chinese techno-authoritarianism. Some of it is genuinely worrisome: The extensive use of sophisticated surveillance technologies like AI-powered facial recognition cameras, as well as the collection of DNA and numerous biometrics. The lesson here ought not to be that technology is inherently repressive, but rather that it has no will as such, and imputing any will to it is an abdication of agency and responsibility for using it wisely.

The second narrative that’s been flipped completely over has to do with the relationship between tech innovation and authoritarianism. Twenty years ago, when I first started getting involved with technology in China, there was already a tendency to speak dismissively of China’s ability to innovate, and the culprit has always been China’s closed political system. I have no doubt that censorship and lack of certain personal freedoms will, over time, prove to be a drag on a society’s ability to innovate. But this dismissiveness was excessive, and I couldn’t help but hear echoes of the same things that used to be said of Japan. This belief hardened to the point that freedom was seen in some quarters as not just a necessary condition for technological innovation, but a sufficient condition. Joe Biden was delivering graduation addresses in 2014 talking about how because the U.S. is free, it will always have an innovative edge on China.

But then, just in the last three years or so, we saw a complete reversal of that. Conventional wisdom suddenly had it that China was out-innovating us, and was going to eat our lunch – in artificial intelligence, in 5G, in certain military technologies like hypersonic weapons and railguns – and that this was happening because of top-down R&D efforts and industrial policy. It’s too much to go into specifics, but suffice to say that I believe we were as wrong then, when we were contemptuous of China’s innovative capabilities, as we are now, when we routinely overestimate them.

You are working with a group of young American China watchers to develop a new approach for the U.S. to compete with China. What are some of the key elements in preventing the U.S.-China rivalry from sliding into a global confrontation and conflict?

Not all of us are so young, actually! Quite a number of the people in this informal group are well into their fifties or even their sixties. All of us are U.S. citizens, and the group is bipartisan and strictly independent: we will neither seek nor accept funding from the PRC or from any other government.

The group is called the Next40, referring to our goal of helping to lay a policy foundation for the next 40 years of the U.S.-China relationship. We’re still at the beginning of this process, and we’re tackling an ambitious range of issue-areas that we believe to be vitally important in the U.S.-China relationship: defense and national security, trade and American competitiveness, technology, human rights, climate and environment, and society and values.

As a group, we’re not ready to take the wraps off our specific policy recommendations. But what unites us is that we all have extensive personal experience working in China, and have skin in the game and an appreciation for what’s at stake. We share a common belief that the relationship needs a lot less heat and a lot more light. We recognize that the current push for “decoupling” will incur unacceptable costs for the U.S., hamper our ability to work with China on vital global issues requiring our joint efforts, and significantly increase the odds of the unthinkable. We aim to produce concrete, consistent policy positions that actually identify the right policy actors who can implement those policies.

We’re all clear-eyed. None of us believe that just holding hands and singing Kumba-ya, or wishing fervently that things would just go back to the way they were, will solve anything at all. That said, none of us take a dark view of the era of engagement. We’re not interested in re-litigating the case for engagement, but none of us believed then – nor do we believe now – that engaging with China was some panacea that would bring about the overnight transformation of the PRC into a liberal democratic society, and we do believe that engagement yielded many tangible benefits that its critics have not been willing to acknowledge.

We accept that competition will increase in the foreseeable future, but we want to put guardrails on that competition to ensure that it doesn’t careen into dangerous territory. We’re in general agreement that competition should be more about us running faster, rather than tripping up other competitors. And even as we compete, we seek to facilitate collaboration and be creative about ways we can work together with Beijing on projects of mutual interest that will help rebuild trust and bring the heat down in both capitals. We believe that under such conditions the U.S. will be much better positioned to address many of the thorny issues that we face in the relationship, including important issues of human rights like Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Speaking just for myself and not on behalf of the group, it strikes me that the domestic situation in China tends to be better in those periods when Beijing’s security anxieties are allayed. During significant stretches of the 1980s, and again during much of the first decade of this century,  a relatively secure external environment coincided with a less repressive, more tolerant, more deliberative politics; conversely, when Beijing’s hackles are up and it feels insecurity – like the present period – that tends to be reflected in a less open and more ideologically strident politics.