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Kaiser Kuo on How China Threatens the U.S. Self-Conception

In this wide-ranging interview, Kaiser Kuo of SupChina discusses China and the US, or is it the US and China. He touches on race, politics, technology, and economics, with a nod to his past as a rock musician in China. It would be great if more people in the US would adopt such a nuanced and knowledgeable understanding of our two countries. In it is the blueprint for a more constructive, positive, and peaceful future.

On race and politics: "I also think we need to recognize that our [US] worries are more about us than they are about China."

On US relations with China over the past four decades: "What people [those engaged with China] really thought was much more realistic and much more sophisticated. It was that China would be entangled in a network of relationships, that it would be compelled by those relationships to behave more and more in accordance with international norms, that it would see benefits economically and that those would slowly but inexorably open up many personal freedoms for people in China. By that measure, the goals and hopes that were actually set out by the architects of the policy, it was a real success, even in terms of the suffusion of more democratic values into China."

--Andrew Singer

Kaiser Kuo is the host of the Sinica podcast, a weekly show on Chinese current affairs, and an editor-at-large of SupChina, a China-focused media platform. From 2010 to 2016, Kuo worked as the director of International Communications for Baidu, the Chinese internet giant. Prior to that, he worked as the technology correspondent for Red Herring and as the director of digital strategy in China for Ogilvy & Mather. Kuo, who was born in the United States, started out his career as a rock musician in China, including as a member of the heavy metal bands Tang Dynasty and Spring and Autumn. He is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and holds an M.A. from the University of Arizona. In this lightly edited interview, we discussed the U.S.-China tech competition, the evolution of the Chinese tech scene, the world of podcasting, and Kuo’s long-gone rock star days.

Kaiser Kuo Illustration by Lauren Crow

Originally published by Katrina Northrop on the Wire China.

Q: You recently wrote a fascinating piece about the connection between white privilege and American policy towards China. Could you explain that connection?

A: Sure. I started thinking about this because two things were happening at the same time all summer. One was that every day, some new deliberate provocation toward China would come out of the Trump White House or from a government bureau like the Commerce Department, the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense. And the other thing that was happening was massive nationwide protests for social justice mainly under the banner of Black Lives Matter. And I started recognizing that there were certain parallels, and I came increasingly to believe that America’s behavior internationally, as it’s watching American hegemony diminish and the privileges of hegemony evaporate, has a lot in common with the way that white America has been behaving as it watches its own privilege being threatened. That is, in both cases, we’ve seen this inchoate lashing out. And I came to recognize further that there is a racial dimension, not only the obvious one in the case of white America domestically, but also in this international situation. 

A couple of years ago, the Director of Policy planning for the State Department, Kiron Skinner, was in an interview where she was talking about China’s rise and Americans’ reaction to it. And she said something that she caught a lot of flack for, which was that China is the first non-white challenger to American primacy. It took me a while to realize that what she said, even if not factually correct, had a really important grain of truth in it. That there is a racial dimension to it. We see this so obviously in the way that people responded to Covid-19 here in this country, when President Trump talks about a “China virus” or a “Kung flu,” and we see an immediate uptick in violence against Asian Americans. Even the less malign racism tends to see Chinese and other East Asians as these hard working, but kind of mechanistic automatons. And it plays into this same sense of threat. This is projected onto the Chinese state, and reinforces our worries about Chinese technological supremacy. This is very worrisome to me. 

I think we need to recognize that there really is a component of race in all of this. A lot of people recognize very easily the domestic manifestation — that is, this paroxysm of white nationalism that we’ve seen in recent years is very much a reaction to the long overdue assertion of black Americans for the justice they deserved. It’s harder to make the connection to how we are behaving as a nation now that the mono-polar moment that we’ve enjoyed since the end of the Cold War is coming to an end. That’s why I asked our artist [who illustrated the piece] to make a picture that shows the McCloskeys, the couple who famously brandished firearms at protesters in Missouri, standing next to a Chinese colossus and brandishing their firearms worriedly at that. It’s a similar reaction. I’m even more convinced of it than I was at the beginning of this when I sat down to write.

Technological supremacy, as you said, is very much at the center of U.S.-China tensions. Why do you think it has become such a focal point of the relationship?

I think it is very much and will continue to be at the center of U.S.-China tensions. And the reasons for that are very much worth exploring in some depth. For some time, China has challenged a lot of the axiomatic beliefs that the United States has had about itself — about the way that politics and the economy interact. Most famously, China succeeded in running a market economy without any significant political liberalization. That was already a blow to beliefs that Americans had cherished for a very long time. When it comes to technology, China has upended two additional important beliefs that the United States had and which are specifically related to how, as Americans, we’ve believed that technology and authoritarian politics relate to one another. 

The first of these we might call the ‘emancipatory narrative.’ And that was this idea that technology, especially with the advent of social media, would pose an existential threat and eventually spell the doom of authoritarian regimes all over the world. And we believed that for a very long time — really from the inception of the internet. You can see that narrative in things like Bill Clinton’s famous pronouncement that [trying to censor the internet is like trying to] nail Jell-O to the wall. But it really came out during the color revolutions of the 2000s and was very pronounced in the Arab Spring uprisings. In 2009, before the Arab Spring, we saw Moldova get labeled as the Twitter revolution. When people took to the streets after the re-election of Ahmadinejad in Iran, we called that the YouTube revolution. We called Tahrir Square during the actual Arab Spring the Facebook revolution. And it went on. But the failure of these Arab Spring uprisings, plus the Snowden revelations, plus our discovery of Russian meddling in the American election of 2016 — and the subsequent revelations about Cambridge Analytica acquiring user data for nefarious purposes — really subverted this idea. And now we’ve inverted it completely: we’ve swung around to believing that technology is the handmaiden of authoritarianism. China fits into that narrative switch really nicely. Not without reason, we now worry a lot about China’s techno-authoritarianism. And it naturally has us very concerned about how China will use its technology to threaten American national security.

Now, related to that, but separate from it, is another narrative, which has been about innovation. We believed for a very long time that innovation was only really possible under conditions of political freedom and that authoritarianism would stymie innovation. And I remember, having been involved in the internet from its very early days in China, how the joke was “C to C,” which ordinarily means consumer to consumer, but in the Chinese context meant “Copy to China,” because the Chinese internet business models were just lifted straight from American models. There was a lot of open contempt for China’s inability to innovate, and most people found the reason for that to be in China’s political system and features of Chinese society that supposedly bolstered their political system, such as its pedagogical traditions. If you looked at China back then, sure, there wasn’t a lot of conspicuous innovation, but there was no reason for there to be. It made sense for Chinese companies to be focusing on established, proven business models. But I think we exaggerated back then China’s inability to innovate. And today, we’ve seen that narrative completely flip to becoming one where China is 10 feet tall and eating our lunch — beating us in AI and quantum computing, in bio technologies. We’ve completely exaggerated in the other direction. A nice corrective would have been welcome, where we recognized that China was in fact capable of innovation and where we interrogated this narrative that we had about innovation only happening in free countries. Because that was never true. But now, suddenly, we’re in a situation where a top-down, government-led innovation system that is driven by industrial policy is looking like a possibility for the United States. It’s bizarre. 

Given that first narrative switch you described — the now-accepted idea that technology has not led to a more open political system in China — many people talk about the splintering of the global internet. Do you think a splintering is inevitable?

To some extent, we have to recognize that there has already been a splintering when it comes to a lot of popular services on the internet. A lot of that owes to China’s very severe regime of internet censorship. But I worry about the United States accepting this as a norm and simply going along with it and imposing these same types of objectionable ideas that run so counter to our core values. I think the impact of it is not so much economic as it is moral, and it would be a betrayal of our values to embrace this. I think we should all be working to have a more open internet rather than acquiescing, and proactively helping it toward this other outcome — a splintered, fragmented, and decoupled internet.

I also think we need to recognize that our worries are more about us than they are about China. We have in this country a real problem with surveillance capitalism, as it’s been called. Our concerns over Chinese tech have been amplified in large measures by our worries about how American tech companies are treating our data, and following our every click online and targeting us with greater and greater precision.

Let me put it this way: the Trump administration and its moves against companies like Tencent’s WeChat and Bytedance’s TikTok were clearly never about national security. They were never about data privacy. We’ve seen that now. It’s clear, at least to me, that they were about this broader project of suppressing China’s technology prowess, and were very much of a piece with what we’ve done with Huawei. There are important differences between them, of course. And I think from a national security point of view, you could certainly make a stronger case for Huawei being of concern. But when you look at WeChat, which has users only in the single digit millions in the United States, almost all of them are either Americans with strong connections to China or are Chinese nationals or ethnic Chinese. That national security case is very weak. With TikTok, it’s almost laughable. 

The WeChat and TikTok ban is a good example of how many American lawmakers view the U.S.-China tech competition as a zero-sum game. Are there areas where you could imagine productive cooperation in technology between the two countries?

I think if you look back over the last 30 years, cooperation in technology has been fantastically fruitful. Let’s start with immigration policy. The Trump administration is going after H-1B visas and trying to restrict the ability of ethnically Chinese scientists, researchers or technologists to participate in research in the United States. All these things are shooting ourselves in the foot and surrendering, or deliberately blowing up, what is probably the single greatest advantage that this country has had in technology. You only have to look at the great companies of Silicon Valley, Seattle, or Boston, and look at a list of the surnames to realize what kind of contribution is being made by people who the Trump administration’s Department of Justice is targeting through its China initiative, that Homeland Security is trying to prevent from entering this country, and that the Trump administration is attempting to demonize. Part of productive technology cooperation would be stopping this utterly feckless policy and reversing it. We can do that and still protect American national security interests if we put a little more trust into the natural immune system of an open society. 

The cross pollination between China, the United States and technology has been enormously fruitful. Think about this: the early Chinese internet companies were mostly founded by either returnees or people who were steeped in and highly admiring of American culture, American norms and American values. They were funded mostly by American venture capital, and when they went to public markets, they all wanted to do so in the United States. This was happening despite the fact that you had a government in China that ordinarily wants to dominate the commanding heights of any strategically important sector. This was great. It was great for the United States, and for American investors. It was great for the Chinese people. Nothing did more toward advancing universal values in China than American participation in the Chinese internet boom. At the same time, because these companies wanted to list in the United States, they all had to make massive improvements to their corporate governance. They had to be Sarbanes Oxley compliant, which was a set of corporate requirements that required really extensive reporting and really transparent financials. In other words, they had to massively improve their corporate governance, their accounting practices, and improve the transparency to be eligible to list on American exchanges. That improvement had tremendously good effects throughout the Chinese business world. Now, fast forward to 2020, and what looks to be history’s largest IPO, Ant financial, and it is going to take place in mainland China and Hong Kong. That’s a pity.

You worked at Baidu as the director of International Communications starting in 2010 — very much during the internet boom in China you just described. How was that era of Chinese tech different from today? 

That era was a whole lot more open and trusting. Look, as a guileless American, there were only a couple of industries that it would have been possible for somebody like me to be working in without being just eaten alive. Chinese work environments are not gentle places, for the most part. But the internet, like I said, had imported so many of the values and norms of American enterprises, and especially Silicon Valley, that working for an internet company in China felt very much like working for an internet company in the United States. There was a real encouragement of free thinking, a very flat enterprise culture and a refreshing absence of office politics. It was a wonderful experience. I think what a lot of people don’t understand about companies like Baidu is how aligned the leadership with those companies were with values we would recognize as being liberal American values. None of them were cheerleaders for censorship. All them chafed against it. They all wanted, honestly, to maximize the amount of information that was available to their customers. Not all of that was out of pure, altruistic motives. They recognized that was what their customers wanted. I would not have been able to work there for as long as I did if this weren’t the case, if I didn’t find people who really shared my values there. 

Would you take that job today?

In that company? Yes. In other companies, probably not. 

What makes Baidu different?

Baidu is still a company that’s very focused on technology itself. They’re almost clumsy and inept when it comes to marketing, consumer orientation, or product focus. They’re really a company with engineers at their center. And that’s the kind of culture that I find much more amenable. I loved working with the AI people at Baidu especially. They were just so smart. And doing such interesting work. And it was really fun to talk to them about it. It would still be today. They’re continuing to do amazing things in the AI space, like an advanced, autonomous driving program called Apollo, lots of work in natural language processing, computational linguistics, computer vision, and robotics. 

You’ve made a compelling case for the fruits of past cooperation. But are there places where you can imagine future cooperation?

There are places where I dread the absence of cooperation. The most notable area is, of course, in public health. We’re now staring in the face of a horrifyingly catastrophic pandemic that would have been and still could be significantly abated by robust cooperation between China and the U.S., like we saw during the Ebola outbreak, during the Obama administration, when China in the United States partnered very effectively. 

The other, of course, is global warming. If we don’t get that right, the whole world is doomed. And there’s such obvious synergies between China and the United States. Right now, because of China’s ability to produce solar panels and wind turbines at scale, 75 percent of people in the world live in a country where the cost of renewable energy is less than the cost of energy produced by fossil fuel. We need to be working with China to solve this. I don’t know how meaningful it is, but China just pledged to be carbon neutral.

You’ve argued that engagement with China hasn’t failed. Why do you think that is? 

We have to admit at this point that the word ‘engagement’ itself won’t be revived as the explicit goal or as the explicit approach of the next administration. And, unfortunately, that word has fallen into disfavor. But I think that itself is unjust. The opponents of engagement have, for the most part, been tilting at a straw man. They have cherry picked quotes from people like Bill Clinton, who said an awful lot more on the subject than what he’s often quoted as having said. And they’ve painted this caricature that said, China would, under the magical power of economic engagement with the U.S., miraculously transform overnight into a liberal, free market democracy. Of course, that was nonsense. And if anyone really did say that, I would have told them that it was nonsense. But that’s not what people really thought. What people really thought was much more realistic and much more sophisticated. It was that China would be entangled in a network of relationships, that it would be compelled by those relationships to behave more and more in accordance with international norms, that it would see benefits economically and that those would slowly but inexorably open up many personal freedoms for people in China. 

By that measure, engagement has been a success. In other words, by the goals and hopes that were actually set out by the architects of the policy, it was a real success, even in terms of the suffusion of more democratic values into China. It’s obvious to me that in places where, geographically, there’s been more engagement, in the major Chinese cities of the eastern seaboard, among populations that had more contact with people from outside of China, social science research shows us that values have shifted in the direction that we hoped they would. And that this is less so in regions of China without that kind of contact.

Are there steps that the next administration could take to make engagement work better?

Absolutely. Right now, the most important thing we can do is simply lower the temperature. We have convinced ourselves, or we’ve been convinced, that China only responds to force. The Chinese expression is “chī yìng bù chī ruǎn,” which literally means “eats hard does not eat soft.” And I think that’s simply incorrect. We’ve done nothing but “yìng” [“hard”] for the last four years, and what has that gotten us? It has produced absolutely nothing. We can see that the kinds of changes most Americans actually want — that is more tolerance, advancement of civil society, a more vibrant public sphere —  all these things happen when China does not feel that it is in the American crosshairs. We can do a lot more, in other words, by doing a lot less. Lowering the temperature right now would yield an awful lot and cost us almost nothing. 

Lastly, I can’t not ask about your career as a rock musician touring around China in the 1980s and ’90s. Do you miss your time as a rock star?

Well, I was in the right place at the right time. It was like landing on a low gravity planet in the 1980s, where my very modest skills, which never improved all that much over the next 20 years, were enough to qualify me to play in some of the leading bands of the day. But I knew that would never endure. I was just simply not good enough. But it was a whole lot of fun. I’ve dined out on stories from those days for decades, and I will continue to have a real fondness for music. I’m just very glad that I recognized early on and tried to cultivate other skills where I had a better chance of actually making something of myself.

Katrina Northrop is a journalist based in New York. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Providence Journal and SupChina.@NorthropKatrina

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