This week: a conversation with Kaiser Kuo and Jing Tsu about the culture of US-China tensions. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.
Last week, we considered the regime-level tensions between the US and China; this week, we think about the culture, the people, the unofficial dynamics of this troubled relationship. Kaiser Kuo—rockstar in China in the 1980s, now a leading podcaster on the subject of China—describes to us this week the view of the US in China:
Do we look like a really good advertisement for democracy right now? I mean, Chinese friends of mine are utterly baffled by the level of partisan division in the United States. They cannot understand why we can think that this is a good thing.
They say to me things like, “If you add up all the time that you Americans spend squabbling among yourselves over policy and the amount of emotional intensity that you poured into this internecine rancor—God, could you imagine if you redirected that into fixing your freaking infrastructure? Can you imagine if you redirected that into actual technological innovation, into solving your massive health care problem? I don’t think that we’re aware of what we look like from the outside.
Jing Tsu, professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale, notes possibilities for more creative US-China interactions:
I would say in the cultural realm, there’s actually quite a bit that we can collaborate with. There’s actually quite a bit—the unopened channels that we can open, as political relations chill and just about every other formula channels of communication are kind of frozen. I would say that, you know, if you look inside China, there’s actually incredible creative energy.
But Kuo describes a cultural, aesthetic division—a stubborn kind of impediment:
I think the problem here, it’s deeper than just the politics. There’s an aesthetic divergence happening right now, where most Chinese films that do well in the domestic box office would baffle American audiences. They wouldn’t understand the humor. There’s just a massive divergence. This has only been exacerbated by the effect of isolation that’s been imposed by COVID-19. I don’t have a lot of optimism about Chinese cultural products — at a deeper level, China bangs on about soft power an awful lot, but it possesses very little of it. You look at a country like Korea that punches so far above its weight, and China just does absolutely terrible.
Prepare to Wear the Hat
We’ve just gotten through another season of commencement addresses, which variously disappoint, uplift, confuse, encourage, and annoy, sometimes all at once. And in The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published novel, you’ll find echoes of his famous Kenyon commencement, but with ironic distance—which makes more room for those multiple effects, and for the harmonies between them.
A substitute accounting instructor delivers to a class a—stirring? absurd?—closing lecture on the vocation of accounting. Students either leave mid-speech; become confused but sit there anyway; or find themselves transformed into believers, into accountants. The substitute says:
In today’s world, boundaries are fixed, and most significant facts have been generated. Gentlemen, the heroic frontier now lies in the ordering and deployment of those facts. Classification, organization, presentation. To put it another way, the pie has been made—the contest is now in the slicing. Gentlemen, you aspire to hold the knife. Wield it.
It gets weirder:
‘A baker wears a hat,’ he said, ‘but it is not our hat. Gentlemen, prepare to wear the hat. You have wondered, perhaps, why all real accountants wear hats? They are today’s cowboys. As will you be. Riding the American range. Riding herd on the unending torrent of financial data. The eddies, cataracts, arranged variations, fractious minutiae. You order the data, shepherd it, direct its flow, lead it where it’s needed, in the codified form in which it’s apposite. You deal in facts, gentlemen, for which there has been a market since man first crept from the primeval slurry. It is you—tell them that. Who ride, man the walls, define the pie, serve.’
Listen: Tang Dynasty
Listen to Tang Dynasty, the major Chinese rock band founded by Kaiser Kuo in 1989.
Read: At the Quincy Institute
This week’s show is the latest installment of In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. At their site, read Michael Swaine on “Threat Inflation and the Chinese Military.”