Cindy Yu, the podcaster explaining Chinese society to the West

Cindy Yu, the podcaster explaining Chinese society to the West
Image: Illustration by Ricardo Santos & Daniel Lee
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Cindy Yu is The Spectator’s broadcast editor based in London, and host of the bi-monthly podcast Chinese Whispers. She was born in China and grew up in the UK, where she read philosophy, politics, and economics at the University of Oxford, and later obtained a masters in contemporary Chinese studies. 

Yu’s podcast features experts on China to explore topics such as women’s place in Chinese society and the status of Taiwan. Her goal is to be a one-stop-shop for those who don’t know much about China but want to catch up. As a Chinese-British woman, she brings a unique perspective to the UK’s China debate.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: What’s the origin story of Chinese Whispers?

Yu: It would have probably started from me talking to my editor about my experiences growing up in China. I love dropping anecdotes because I think that most people in the West have never even been to China, they don’t really understand what China is like, and even if they do go it’s for a week or two on holiday, so not really talking to any Chinese people. I felt like I could explain a little bit more, so I would do that in editorial conferences and just in conversations with him.

What I want to do with my podcast is, if you don’t know anything about China, that’s the episode you go to. When we talk about Huawei 1 or Hong Kong 2 or the Uyghurs 3, people don’t really know what the background is, and they feel like they’re late in catching up because everyone else seems to know what it’s all about already. So I’m trying to explain that background and explain how Chinese people see it. That’s reflected in the topics: I’ll do anything from education to women’s rights, but also, the more important political stuff like Taiwan and what the Chinese Communist Party thinks. But it’s really the social and cultural aspects that I like writing about and finding more out about.

What is it like to be a bridge builder between China and the UK?

Yu: It really makes you practice your diplomatic skills, let me put it that way. I have had so many conversations with Chinese people who think that I am really pro-Western, almost brainwashed, and possibly even traitorous about China because I criticize it. I have also had conversations with people in the West who think I’m so pro-China or am not critical enough. I feel quite British and Chinese so for either side to tell me that I’m not British or Chinese enough, that’s quite difficult.

On the other hand, it is really valuable to know what both sides think and to try to reconcile that. I’m constantly questioning my assumptions. It’s such a cliche, but one story really does have two sides, and talking to both sides means I can see that.

Do you think that there is a lack of nuance in the UK’s China debate?

Yu: Yes, and a lot of it comes from a lack of information.

For example, we talk about Hong Kong because of the UK’s colonial past with Hong Kong. What is very little said and considered in the discussion here is why China cares so much about Hong Kong. In China, the handover of Hong Kong is known as wui gwai, which is “return.” It’s not just a handover from one party to the other, it’s like the prodigal son coming home. That’s really important because it contextualizes what the CCP and your average Chinese mainlander think of what’s going on. Chinese people are very uncomfortable about having the West comment on a former colony that was forcibly taken from their country.

That then comes through in the reporting. We love to report on freedom fighters all over the world, whether it’s Belarus or Hong Kong or anywhere else. But the pro-democracy camp [in Hong Kong] has done a lot of bad things in the last few years of campaigning. There has been a lot of violence from their side that is very little talked about in the West. We should be able to criticize police brutality as well as protest the doxxing of policemen or politicians who are not on the pro-democracy side.

What do you think are the biggest blind spots that the UK media or public has on China?

Yu: One is China’s colonial past and the century of humiliation narrative that the party has made so much of. And to a large extent, it’s true. China has had a pretty bad few centuries from the demise of the Qing dynasty, at the end years of which it was carved up by the Japanese. To the rest of it, it’s this political party really bigging up historical humiliation in order to unite the people against foreigners.

There is also this concept in Chinese called bāguó liánjūn, the “eight-nation alliance,” 4 which is never heard of in historical lessons in the West but it really matters to Chinese people. Whenever the West criticizes China there is this feeling in China that the bāguó liánjūn is coming for them again. That’s why China talks so much about not criticizing our internal affairs or our sovereignty, because it both buys into and emphasizes this vulnerable past.

The second thing is just how much China has changed in the last 50 years. You talk to anyone who went to China in the 1970s and it’s a completely different country now, whereas I think that Americans and Brits don’t have that radical social change. In some ways, millennials [in the West] have worse outcomes than the baby boomers, which is not the case in China. Chinese millennials’ lives are better. Your family members are not dying. You can go out and make your fortunes. You can travel the world. And the fact that that happened under the Chinese Communist Party makes it hard for a lot of Chinese people to criticize the government. A lot of people think, ‘How can you support the CCP if the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward happened?’ And then people will say, ‘Well, actually, it’s a different party, and our lives are much better. Why should we rock the boat?’

I’m talking in very broad strokes, generalizing, as it were—obviously not all Chinese people feel this way. But I do think that a vast majority of middle class Chinese people, 300 million of them, who have seen their lives getting better, would say that. And we need to keep that into context when we think, ‘Why don’t Chinese students, when they come out here, throw off their yokes and criticize the government left, right, and center?’

You started this podcast at a time where the UK-China relationship has changed arguably more in a handful of months than it had in the five previous years. What has that been like?

Yu: It really has been very fast, hasn’t it? Covid is the thing that’s changed everything. To some extent that’s fair because politically speaking, you can blame at least the origins of the pandemic on the CCP not doing its job properly. There was clearly a cover up. There were clearly slow reactions or even denials from local officials. We don’t know how far up it goes; potentially quite high. So if you’re criticizing China for its political structure and its public health recklessness, then, yes, I think you can make that criticism.

But what it has rolled into is much wider China hawkishness. If you were already skeptical of China, that they let this [virus] loose, and they have sorted it out for themselves, not to mention [that] out of all major economies it’s the only one that has grown in 2020—that rubs it in, and snowballs into something more, which is China can’t do anything right on other issues either.

You’ve also got China experts and politicians who have always been skeptical of China, and some of that comes from China’s rising power. I do believe in the security dilemma problem. China’s rise would always have meant soul-searching and panic and then retaliation from the status quo, which is us in the West and mainly America.

Cynically, you might also say that Brexit being done gives up-and-coming MPs a new cause. The China Research Group sounds quite similar to the European Research Group 5 and is that really a coincidence? Clearly, the ERG’s campaigning style worked and so you’ve got other MPs trying to make China the issue that is the next battleground. And I think that’s been successful: China is the next battleground now. But the government doesn’t seem to be fully bought into that. The government at the moment is much more dovish on China than some of its MPs would like it to be. If we have a different government, I don’t know what that will be like.

What other flash points stand out to you?

Yu: If you are concerned about Western global power or if you are concerned about IP theft or if you are concerned about the South China Sea territorial encroachment, those are all geopolitical issues that don’t have much cut through. Covid has cut through, but also the Uyghur issue has cut through, because it just seems so utterly morally abhorrent what’s happening [in Xinjiang]. The Uyghur issue changes everything because opposition to China is no longer a party political thing, it is a moral issue.

The Chinese haven’t quite clocked that yet. I talked about how the West doesn’t understand China but I don’t know if China really understands the West either. It definitely understands the West better than we understand China, but even there, there are still significant knowledge and assumption gaps.

Do you ever feel caught in the middle of China and of the UK?

Yu: When great powers go to war, the people in between, and especially the diaspora, get caught [in the middle]. I am apprehensive about how this country will see Chinese people in the future, including myself, my family, and my friends.

I’m not on the forefront of this. But also I’m mindful that one day I might be, and one day I might attract the wrong attention. I don’t quite know what I will do if that does happen. But for now, the holding position is I write and report things that I think are responsible to both sides, as in accurate, not sensationalist, and as well-sourced as I possibly can make it. A lot of the times I don’t talk about things, not because I’m afraid of censorship, but because I’m aware of how big [China] is and how complicated things are.

There are politicians in the UK who have never been to Xinjiang but who feel qualified to talk about it. 

Yu: The ideal reporter is someone who sheds light on these issues and then people can make up their own conclusions. But as a politician, you’ve got your country’s interests at heart, and I think that’s fair enough. So if you are someone who thinks that China’s rise will be existentially dangerous to the West, then I can understand being critical of China through all of the ways that you possibly can muster. And if it is the Uyghur issue that cuts through in a moral way, in the way that previous criticisms of China haven’t cut through, then I can understand that that is a really powerful tool.

How did you react to the news that China sanctioned five MPs for their human rights advocacy?

Yu: My first thought was, what a shame, because now they will never see China. Not because it might change their opinions, but because it would help form their opinions in either direction. You really, really, really, really need to go experience China. It will confound some of your expectations. It will confirm some of your assumptions.

Let’s say you’re talking to a reader who’s never been to China and who might never get a chance to go. What is it like?

Yu: I’ll start off by saying that I love China. I’m not saying that I love the government, but I love China as a country and I am proud to be Chinese.

What China has done in the last few decades really is incredible. I’m not going to kowtow to the government and say thank you or anything like that, because I also think a lot of the poverty that came before it was in no small part thanks to the communists. But if you go to China, you see the skyscrapers, you see how fast it’s changing.

When I went to China throughout my school years [in intervals of a year or two], the conversation with a cab driver would always be, this road never used to be here. New roads are being built, cities are expanding, and that’s incredible. But also, you see people craving a more rural, easier, slower lifestyle as well. And that contradiction, the sort of individualism that Chinese people have, the humor that they have, the interests and popular culture that they have, is something that very rarely comes out of the country or at least out of [China’s] sphere of influence in Asia, not least because of the language barrier. We can’t consume the same soft power things that Chinese people consume, we can’t consume the same popular culture. That’s understandable. But it really is an incredibly vibrant modern culture right now.

Speaking of pop culture, I’ve been getting into Chinese films recently. Chinese films after reform and opening in the 1980s were just incredibly experimental, like Farewell My Concubine, which explored trans identity and homosexuality throughout this backdrop of 20th century Chinese history. To think that Chinese people can make that would shock a lot of people in the West because of the stereotype that Chinese people are not creative. I would encourage everyone to watch that film.

The final thing is that I love the little things in life about China. I love the helpful cleaners on the streets who give you directions. I love the cab drivers who are really friendly and tell you all about their lives. The food is much better. But I just love these human-to-human interactions that get lost in the big geopolitical debates about climate change and Huawei. A lot of the time, Chinese people are very similar [to people in the West], with the same sort of lodestars in their lives, families and better lives for their children.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the transliteration of “eight nation alliance,” bāguó liánjūn, as balgo wlah.