The crucible of connectivity


Mark Leonard, founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, talks about how increasing connectedness has made the world more fractured and fractious.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Mark Leonard.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily, newly-designed China Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources. Or check out all the original writing on our website at

We’ve got reported stories, essays and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region to China’s travails as it wrestles with a surging wave of COVID-19.

It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor. I’m Kaiser Kuo coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I want to beg your indulgence for a longer than usual intro to today’s conversation, but I promise it’s really relevant. Way back in 2009, I started working on what proved to be an abortive book project.

My wife gave me a full year to write a proposal and some chapters to try to land a publisher, but I was distracted and disorganized and spent too much time on music stuff. After my year was just about up in the spring of 2010, I shelved the idea and ended up starting this podcast, which is a good thing. Taking a job at Baidu just a month or so later, which was also a good thing.

The topic that I was working on is one that I have continued to think about quite a bit. And it’s very much in line with what we’re going to be talking about today. So all through the 2000s, internet users in China were practically doubling every year. There were only a million or so of them in mid-1999, but by the time of the Beijing Olympics, there were over 200 million. Still, not a huge percentage of the Chinese population. Not like it is today, as the mobile internet wasn’t really a thing yet, but it was significant in many, many ways.

Social media had already arrived. Chinese internet users thought of themselves already as wangmin (网民 wǎng mín), as netizens. They were referred to in Western writing on China as netizens all the time, which was a perfectly good translation of the word Wangmin and captured this sense that so many of them had of themselves, as citizens of a new online polity. Importantly, prior to 2008, very little was actually blocked in China. You’d kind of be surprised.

Not the major international news sites or social media platforms or search engines. Just the usual suspect, as it were: pornography sites and Falun Gong stuff, pro-Tibet or pro-Taiwan independence stuff. Xinjiang hadn’t become the huge issue that it would later after 2009 and after the revelations of the internment camps. In the years leading up to the Olympics, a confluence of factors produced a phenomenon that none of us had really ever seen before.

Ordinary Chinese people were connecting with Americans and others from the West for the first time at-scale, without intermediation, totally unsupervised. This was possible first because of the surge, of course, in Chinese internet users throughout the aughts. But they happened also to really be the first generation — these are post-80s kids, mainly — who had taken compulsory English in school.

Perhaps most importantly of all, they were profoundly curious about what people outside China were saying about China. They were conscious of their own rising stature heading into the big coming-out party of the Olympics, and aware that there was a whole lot of attention suddenly being paid to China. They found themselves not only able to read what was being written about China by the outside world…Obviously, very curious about it, but also able to respond to it.

You know how this goes. Beginning especially with the troubles in Lhasa in March of 2008 – the uprising by some accounts, the riots in other accounts. We entered into a period of online vitriol that has continued to this day without much let-up. So maybe the people who were once called, fenqing (憤青 fènqīng), or angry youth are now called, xiaofenhong (小粉红 xiǎofěnhóng), or little pinks. Maybe the battlegrounds have changed from blogs and comment sections to Twitter, but we are witnessing pretty much the same thing.

The worsening online people-to-people relationship moreover seemed to parallel the worsening state-to-state relationship. The irony even back then was not lost on me. I mean, the whole internet thing. The promise of all this connectivity and the mutual understanding that it was supposed to usher in. Well, it never quite panned out now, did it? Not just between the U.S. and China, but between the right and left in the U.S. Between the left and right and that fun house mirror image of our politics that prevails in China, we’ve all become more tribal, more fractured, more zealous.

But for me, and I think for much of this audience, it’s the U.S.-China manifestation of this, that is of course, particularly relevant. We now live in a world where the differences between our cultures, our values, our norms, our institutions — those differences are shoved up in our face all the damn time. In confronting this difference, our reaction has been, well, to become more confrontational.

We live all jammed into this “common present.” I think it was Hannah Arendt that used that word first. We feel like our differences, and yeah some of them are pretty profound, they have to be the thing that we’re obliged to grapple with at every encounter. In the late aughts, as I was trying to write this book, we stood touching digital noses with China and did not see eye-to-eye. That by the way, is a reference to a lyric from a song in The Music Man. I’m trying to get tickets to see that on Broadway. If you have a hook-up, help a brother out.

Anyway, it’s this way, not just in our domestic politics and not just in our international relationships with other countries too. But it really feels especially pronounced when it comes to China. This is, you might say, a case of familiarity breeding contempt. And so, as we have gotten more intertwined with China, weirdly, our contempt as a society seems to have grown.

As our differences rise inevitably to the surface and become our obsessive focus, we all seem driven to just increasing stridency and ultimately to what my guest today calls, “unpeace.” “We live,” says Mark Leonard in his new book, The Age of Unpeace. And that unpeace has been brought on, as much as by anything else, by our connectivity. Not just digital connectivity, but trade, mobility, physical commingling.

The Age of Unpeace is a really thought-provoking book. Especially so, for me, because of the intellectual distance that the author seems to have traveled in coming to that conclusion, in locating the crux of the problem in connectivity itself. Mark Leonard is co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, the first pan-European think tank. He’s someone who has spent a great deal of time in China, and is the author of a book I really liked and which we interviewed him about ages ago, back in a bygone age in Beijing, called What Does China Think? We’ll talk a bit about that book in the coming hour. Meanwhile, Mark, it is so good to see you. Welcome back at last to Sinica. It’s been way too long.

Mark Leonard: It’s wonderful to be back with you again. It’s only a shame that we’re doing it virtually rather than in person.

Kaiser: Well, I will see you on the mountain in a week’s time, so it’ll be good. We’ll connect and get a drink.

Mark: I look forward to it.

Kaiser: Mark, let’s talk about this process by which you came to this less sanguine view of things to the point that you decided to focus your book on the downside of connectivity, where you’d always been something of a champion of connection. Was there a mugged-by-reality moment for you? Or was it a slow accretion of disappointments leading up to some kind of dark epiphany?

Mark: There was a slow accretion of doubts, which started to emerge. And then, I was mugged by reality in 2016.

Kaiser: We all were.

Mark: My book in a way is part of a process of therapy after 2016. But as you say, my life – my personal life, my professional life, my intellectual life – has been built on a rising tide of internationalism and international connections. My generation is the first generation in Europe to have not had to face the dangers of war, enforced migration, even extermination. My mom’s family are German Jews. My dad was born in the 1930s. He was evacuated as a young boy during the Second World War. His father fought in the First World War and their lives were very much marked by wars, hot and cold, and by the divisions between different countries. My life, my coming of age started with the falling of the Berlin Wall and the possibility of the world coming together in ways that were unthinkable during the Cold War.

The same time that the Berlin Wall fell, the internet was being invented. The worldwide web. Digital connections have been a central part of my cultural intellectual development. And I lived in lots of different countries. I ran a pan-European think tank. We have offices in lots of different countries across Europe. And I have benefited enormously from the ability to learn ideas, languages, other kinds of things from all around the world and was very much part of the generation that hoped we were going to see global sense of destiny being built on the basis of our global economy, which has become more and more integrated over time.

And that challenges such as climate change and other things, which don’t seem to respect national borders, would lead us to find ways of working together and to replace the history of geopolitical competition and the balance of power with a different kind of international politics based on cooperation and legal integration. And what I have discovered, over the last 15 years or so, is that many of the hopes that people had were built on maybe less solid foundations than we thought they had.

And so, you had lots of things happening during the last couple of decades, which started to raise big questions about it. You had in the geopolitical space, after 9/11, the invasion of Iraq. There was a whole generation of people whose hope about democracy spreading around the world and of moving towards a period of a different kind of world order was somewhat disillusioned by the experience in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Then, you had the global financial crisis, which meant that the crisis of American foreign policy was then overlaid with the crisis of American capitalism. That brought to the surface a lot of debates, which had been less visible during the 90s and the early noughties, about the downside of globalization. It showed very clearly that there were losers as well as winners, and the divisions in our societies and between different countries became much more evident.

And then I think, after that, you had a security awakening and then an economic one. And then, the third wave, I suppose, was more of a political awakening in different places, which seemed to be powered by the internet. Where you saw people like Donald Trump and other political movements come to life, that were not classical political movements built on the sort of class and other divisions which had structured our society. It seemed to be based much more on identity and on grievances between different groups.

They were leading a counter revolution against internationalism, against connectivity, against globalization, by the people who thought of themselves as the majority who were scared that they were being threatened by migration, by trade, and was somehow being left behind. And for me, Trump was a massive shock. But a few months before Donald Trump was elected, we had the Brexit referendum in the U.K., which was a real shock to my worldview. Not just because I think it was a terrible idea for the U.K.. But an even bigger surprise was that a lot of people who lived in the U.K. had experienced exactly the same developments that I described, at the beginning of this long answer, in quite different ways for me. All the things that I thought of as giving me opportunities, making life more interesting and better and expanding my horizons, were seen as threatening them and making them less safe, shrinking their horizons, making them feel more vulnerable. That cognitive dissonance, and the extent to which it wasn’t just true of the U.K. but of many other countries, that led me on a really deep voyage of discovery, where I started looking again at a lot of the ideas that I had imbibed as a student, as a young professional, as a citizen over the last couple of decades and to question whether to what extent they were right and they were wrong.

And I’m still totally convinced that I’ve benefited enormously from connectivity and that knowledge or ideas or civilizations have all been advanced by it. But what has become much clearer is that it is a double-edged sword, and that there is a dark side. And that, in fact, it is the process of linking people together which is often creating these cleavages and conflict. That is something which we were not taught at school. It was the opposite of what was meant to happen.

Because the idea was that, by building interdependence between people, you would end up eroding differences and that would lead to a more harmonious world. In fact, the conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s actually often something which creates competition and creates enmity. As well as giving people a whole arsenal of weapons with which to inflict pain on one another, and to pursue a competitive agenda, which was maybe less obvious during the years after the end of the Cold War, but which had never really disappeared.

Kaiser: Just so that people are clear on this: This is not a screed against globalization. This is not a polemic against engagement or pro-decoupling or anything like that. This is just simply something that I hope is now obvious to a lot of people, which is that it’s not all upside. That globalization, connectivity, open borders, these things aren’t unalloyed good. It’s a fantastic book. Your book centers on this idea of three empires of connectivity. One of which, of course, is the one that we’ll be focusing on, which is China. The other two, of course, are the United States and the European Union. Can you talk briefly about the three of these? The U.S., China, and the UN, and the different ways in which they seek to leverage connectivity to advance their own interests?

Mark: I think before we look at how they used it to advance their own interests, you need to look at how they think about it. I think one of the most interesting features about our connected world is that we are totally bound up with one another. We have these extraordinarily dense supply chains, which link us together. We have the internet. We’ve got vast amounts of contact. And connectivity has become totally intrinsic, not just to our economies, but to our politics, to our sense of who we are, the way that we lead our lives.

Yet, the way that people think about it is fundamentally different from country to country. In the book, I show some of the ways that connectivity creates these conflicts that I talked about. I also show some of the ways that countries have used to exploit the asymmetries in this very networked world. Because some countries are more connected than others, and they can use that as a tool. We can talk more about that later.

But if you look at this hyper-connected world, what you see is that there are three powers that are able to influence the whole network, rather than just manipulate little bits of it. They are, as you say, the United States, China, and the European Union. They’ve got completely different ways of thinking about power and about connections. All of which are evolving, in some ways going in a similar direction at the moment. In the Chinese direction, actually, I think you could even argue.

But their starting points are fundamentally different. I think the way that they look at the world is very, very different. The way that they think about the units of analysis is quite different. The way that they think about power within that world is also quite different, so I spend quite a lot of time looking at the deep philosophical roots for how these three empires think about power.

I start with Washington, and I call it, “The gatekeeper power,” because it sees its role as building and standing guard around these extraordinary global networks, which have been built around America over the last century. Traditionally, you’ve had lots of different tribes in the American political military-industrial complex who thought about connectivity in different ways.

You have the libertarian founders of the internet. You’ve got the entrepreneurs who run big monopolies in Silicon Valley. You’ve got the watchful eyes of the intelligence community that Edward Snowden told us so much about, that are using these connections in other ways. You’ve got the U.S. Treasury, where you have warriors in gray suits, who try to use control of the dollar and the global financial system to advance American foreign policy objectives. You’ve got liberal internationalists in the State Department, who want to have an open world with open societies and open trade and open economies. And then, you have the securocrats in the Pentagon, who think about connectivity in more aggressive terms and worry about cyber attacks and things like that. By and large, they don’t agree on lots of things, but they do agree on some basic principles.

At the beginning, when America was the unipolar power, they basically thought that what you needed was a single liberal international order, which would become a multiplier for American power. If you connect the whole world, America’s so much more powerful culturally, economically, militarily. This would allow American ideas to spread throughout the network and gradually transform everyone else in the world.

That is also something which was attractive for the expansive vision of entrepreneurs, because if you’re running Microsoft or Facebook or Google, the idea of being able to take over the world and benefit from these network effects was very attractive. But also, if you were running the CIA, the idea that you could snoop on anybody anywhere else in the world was also quite attractive.

Basically, that has led them to push for an open global system where the power of American dollars and American companies is relatively untrammeled. They’ve been trying to get rid of a lot of the borders and the barriers to building these sorts of global networks. But even while they were talking a big game about liberal international order, what you’ve seen is that Washington has been rather systematically using its position at the heart of these networks to use two key tools to advance their power.

One is this idea of gatekeeping. If you can decide who’s in and out of the networks, then you can actually have quite a lot of power to punish countries that you want to punish. After 9/11, for example, people in the Treasury worked out ways of using the global financial system to go after terrorist financing. But then, that got expanded to kick Iran out of the global financial system, because they didn’t like the Iranian nuclear program, to kick North Korea out, and now Russia’s Central Bank is being sanctioned. The SWIFT network for the global financial information is being used to punish other banks there. So using its control of the dollar as a network allows it to decide who’s in and who’s out of the club.

And then, the other tool which they used a lot, which comes from the other extraordinarily powerful global network, is American control of data. Both the physical infrastructure of underwater cables which connects the whole of the world, but also the fact that so many American platforms have all of this data. So mining data, and Snowden showed the extent to which that was being done against friends and foe alike.

That’s the old idea: very expansive, being quite instrumental about what’s going on. When you look at the global network, the thing that you are most interested in are these choke points, where you have hubs in the system. Because not all connections in a global network are exactly the same. What you’re interested in is the hubs which can decide who’s in and who’s out of the system and can allow you to spy on different players.

Over time, I think the U.S. has become much more nervous that its control of the system is not complete anymore. They’re worried about other powers, particularly China, being able to influence America. That’s leading to a new debate, which is about decoupling and about somehow balkanizing the global economy and global data networks into like-minded players so that the U.S. can maintain a big international reach, but not open itself up as much to transformation by China or by other powers that are seen as more threatening. That’s the U.S. bit.

Kaiser: All right. Let’s go to the EU now.

Mark: The EU, I call, “The rule-making power.” Basically, the European Union is itself nothing other than a massive global network. It has 27 countries in it. They’re bound together by a rule book of 80,000 pages of laws, which they all have to sign up to in order to get into the European Union. The EU has not just been systematically removing barriers between its members, but it’s also been a big force for globalization on the world stage.

Kaiser: That’s right.

Mark: One of the things that it’s done very powerfully is to try and use its rule book to shape how other people do business. Not that many people have probably heard of Margrethe Vestager, the Danish commissioner in the EU. She’s somebody who comes from a very small country, but she became quite famous when she fined Apple 13 billion dollars for tax evasion. She did that after fining Google.

Kaiser: Google … That fine was enormous too. It went after Google for bundling the Chrome browser into Android. My God, that was like what? Nine billion dollars or something?

Mark: More than that, it was over eight billion euros.

Kaiser: Right.

Mark: It must’ve been about 10 billion dollars. It’s a huge amount of money. One of the things that she did was she pushed forward this idea of the General Directive on Privacy Regulation, which is a new digital rule book on privacy. Basically, when the EU looks at global networks, it is focused not so much on the hubs, like the U.S., but more on the individual nodes within it and what rules they follow.

The EU has tried in lots of different ways to work out what kind of world it wants to live in, how connections between different players should work. And then to tell people, “If they want to play with Europe, they have to follow the European rules.” And that is true of tax. It’s true of data privacy. But increasingly, it’s true about other areas. There’s a big debate now about a carbon border adjustment mechanism. If people don’t basically have as carbon-neutral a footprint as European countries do, they now have to pay a tariff in order to import things into the EU.

Kaiser: Right.

Mark: That’s the second big network. And then, the third one is obviously China, which is in many ways the most interesting one. Because China has been both one of the huge beneficiaries, probably the biggest beneficiary of our open global economy over the last couple of decades.

Kaiser: Inarguably.

Mark: It’s bound into the world now more than any other country, if you look at the number of countries whose number one trade partner is China. It long ago overtook the U.S. and Germany and other players. Throughout the time that it’s been binding itself into these global networks and building connections with everyone else, it’s been utterly terrified of the downside of connectivity.

Kaiser: That’s right.

Mark: The way that they’ve tried to get the benefits out of a connected world whilst protecting themselves from what they saw as the threats. I think it’s a really interesting exercise. It’s almost like a Sisyphean task, which different Chinese leaders have been pursuing ever since Deng’s (邓小平 Dèng Xiǎopíng) Southern Tour. In fact, some people would say for the century before that as well, going back to all the debates around May the 4, et cetera.

But I think that what is also very interesting is that the Chinese, in many ways, have thought about connections in quite a fundamental way for longer than any other civilization. The term I use to describe Beijing is, “the relational power.” And I took that term from a lot of the discussions which Chinese academics have been having in recent times, when they try and think about, “What does a Chinese idea of international relations look like?”

There’s a really interesting book written by Qín Yàqīng 秦亚青, who is the president of the Foreign Affairs University, where he tries to counterpose this relational thinking that you have within China with the Western ideas of international relations. He argues that if you go back through Confucian thought, to Taoism, to all sorts of other influences on Chinese thinking, there’s been a fascination with the idea of relations.

The Chinese tend not to look at the nodes and at the individual links in the system, but to think about the relationships between them. That’s why this idea of relationism is seen as a very helpful way of trying to conceptualize the way that Chinese think, not just about international relations, but also about domestic policy. I spent a lot of time while I was working on this book talking to different academics. Qín Yàqīng’s 秦亚青 book, I think, is the most systematic attempt to come up with a Chinese theory of international relations around relationism.

But lots of other people have been on similar journeys and are going back and uncovering some of the old concepts that come out of Confucianism, come out of Taoism, out of other intellectual currents and to draw a direct intellectual lineage from them to the Belt and Road Initiative and to a lot of the elements of contemporary Chinese foreign policy.

I think the core idea in it is that whereas the Western idea of the nation state is as a legal society, which is very much about individuals, China is much more of a relationship society. I had a very interesting exchange with Zhèng Yǒngnián 郑永年, who’s a political scientist who’s based … Have you ever had him on the podcast? I don’t think so.

Kaiser: No, I’ve not had him on yet. I’d love to though. He would be great.

Mark: He basically says that the idea of the relationship society starts the family structure and it radiates out from then. He had this wonderful way of explaining Chinese politics in relational terms by looking at the architecture of the Beijing ring roads.

Kaiser: Right. Right. I remember that.

Mark: You’ve got the Chinese Communist Party Headquarters on the first ring. Then, on the second ring, you have the National People’s Congress … You have the government on the second ring. National People’s Congress on the third ring. People’s Consultative Committee on the fourth ring and so on. This very hierarchical idea of different relationships going out from that. The centerpiece of thinking about these relationships being much more to do with hierarchy, with respect, rather than about legal relations. And then, they use a lot of those ideas to explain the way that China relates to other countries, which is much more centered around looking at the number of links you have with other players, the quality of those links, and to have relationships which are not determined by some abstract legal idea, but much more to do with the political closeness and the loyalty that you get from different players. That sort of Confucian system was central to the tributary system in the Ming Era. You can see it carrying on in rather direct terms into some of the ways that the Belt and Road Initiative is being developed, which a lot of people see as a modern practical reinvention of the old tributary system.

Kaiser: That’s a point we could debate. But so, Mark, when you suggest that the other empires of connectivity seem to be imitating China, is this what you’re talking about? That they’re more focused on these networks of relationships? When you talked about, for example, the Biden administration wanting to hold close like-minded countries. Is that what you were referring to? Because I had something else in mind, but …

Mark: I think that’s one element of it, but I think the other elements of it are seeing it as a double-edged sword. Since China basically has encountered modernity, it’s tried to take advantage of Western technologies and of ideas, without putting itself in a position where it could be transformed and changed or undermined by that contact. That has led to a very …

Kaiser: Ambivalent relationship with connectivity.

Mark: Ambivalent relationship to the rest of the world and to contact with the rest of the world. That’s now being replicated in other players. If you look at a lot of what the U.S. has been doing in the technological realm in recent years, it looks like the mirror image of what China’s been doing. Before, you had a very open idea, where the U.S. was happy to let Chinese companies buy up American companies to invest in the U.S. and to have open networks. Now, decoupling is the order of the day.

Kaiser: They’ve embraced the Chinese idea of internet sovereignty now. That’s really interesting. That’s where I was going with this. Like you say, really since the first encounters, the brutal encounters with the West in the mid-19th century, there has been this ambivalence. You made reference to the Self-Strengthening Movement. This idea they could use Western technology, but hold it at bay without allowing it to infect the Chinese essence. All the way up into the reform and opening and this idea of, “We are going to have flies and mosquitoes that’ll come in. We need a screen door of some kind.” The internet was great and three cheers for informatization, except for its potential to destabilize society. We don’t want that part of it.

I guess, in the last 18 months or so, we’ve seen this spate of regulatory actions taken against Chinese internet companies…technology companies, not just internet companies. But mostly, various sectors of the internet. While these have often been really heavy-handed, I think a lot of folks would say, “excessively heavy-handed,” there are others who would point out that they’re trying to address exactly the same sorts of pathologies that we face in the U.S. and in Europe too. To tame these big tech companies that have built these almost unassailable monopolies based on the network effect and whatnot. To prevent the abuse of personal data. To stop the spread of misinformation or disinformation. Most of it, sure. By my lights, it goes way too far. But couldn’t you at least say that Beijing is maybe laudable for having at least mustered the political will to try to break this lock? Is this also part of what you were talking about in terms of Beijing’s approach to this being imitated?

Mark: One of the central ideas I explore in the book is this relationship between the U.S. and China and how connectivity plays into that, and into both side’s sense of themselves, but also into the relationship that they have with one another. When I first started looking at U.S.-China questions in a lot of detail, I spent a lot of time in China talking to Chinese people about it, but also I spent several years going around all of the different communities in the U.S. talking to people who were thinking about the China relationship.

There was a sense that a lot of the tensions between China and the U.S. came from the fact that they were such different countries that stood for fundamentally different ideas. The world’s biggest democracy…well, the most powerful democracy. Dictatorship. Communist. Capitalist. East. West. Et cetera, et cetera. What I found through that process of research was that, in a strange way, China and America got on much better when they were really different from each other. When China was a communist country, when it was a developing country, there was a very symbiotic relationship when Deng was running the show. You had Chinese manufacturing, U.S. consumption. Chinese savings, U.S. borrowing. High-tech ideas being developed in the U.S., et cetera, et cetera. You had this kind of quite symbiotic relationship, which was so symbiotic that people even talked about, “Chimerica,” as this single economy, which had developed around it.

Kaiser: Right. Right.

Mark: I think that a lot of the tensions that have come in have come from the fact that actually China and America have become much more similar to each other, and are therefore often mirroring each other and competing with each other. What you are describing in the tech world is quite interesting because in some ways … I’m not trying to draw any moral equivalence between everything that the Chinese government’s doing and the Chinese system and the U.S. system. But what is interesting is, on the one hand, you are getting much more competition about controlling the heights of technology in different areas. Whether it’s AI or a lot of the cutting edge areas, which are central to Made in China 2025 or which are central to America thinking about its economic future. These are areas where there is a duel going on between China and America, between these big companies and platforms on both sides, but also the government and the way that they’re thinking about governing the technological space. They’re both going through big changes, and they are mirroring each other more and more. There are worries about using regulation, using export controls, using controls on data. A lot of which started in China, because of the ambivalence that you were describing earlier. That ambivalence got a lot more pronounced after the Arab uprisings, when the Chinese were very scared about the effect of the internet domestically.

Kaiser: Absolutely.

Mark: I remember when I first met you, actually. You were working in the Chinese tech sector, and we were talking about some of the ways that big Chinese platforms had to reconcile the needs of consumers with worries about content. Actually, it was quite interesting. A lot of the debates which Facebook and which Google are now having about … Some of the mechanisms they’re using are not that different from what China’s doing. There are armies of censors being recruited by Facebook, by Google, and by other players to look at the content on the internet. To remove things which are seen as dangerous or exploitative, et cetera. And so, I think there has been a convergence on that level.

And then, as you say, you had on the one hand these debates about surveillance capitalism in the U.S. and the surveillance state in China. They feel quite different, but there are more and more similarities in the way that politics and big data and these enormous platforms are running up against each other. As more and more of our lives go online and are run by platforms which are privately owned, there are more and more questions about responsibility, about the role of the state, and about ethics. And that’s before you get to these geopolitical worries, which are obviously a very important part of it as well.

I think that the rule book is being rewritten on both sides. You’re getting a lot of decoupling, but you’re also getting a much greater entangling of national security, national interest, national political priorities with the way that these big companies are operating, and it’s quite confusing. I think there’s been a process of convergence going on even as people are becoming more and more strident about the open internet, on the one hand, and the surveillance state and digital dictatorship on the other.

Kaiser: No, I think it’s really interesting, this point that you raised. I’d said in my little intro about how, “Familiarity seems to breed contempt,” as the old saying goes. But similarity also seems to breed contempt. It’s interesting that the more alike they are, the less they seem to be able to get along. I do think that’s a great insight.

Also, I’m glad I confirmed that was, I suppose, an anonymous cameo. I’m quoted in there anonymously, but you just confirmed for me. I suspected that was probably me in there, back when you were writing that book.

Let’s take a little detour from China and come back to China. But I want to talk to you because I mean obviously you published your book at the end of 2021, a few months before Vladimir Putin sent his armies into Ukraine on February 24. That’s been a topic that I’ve talked about an awful lot, but I wanted to see how you treated that. With a new paperback coming out this summer, you had the opportunity to write a new preface for the book. You were kind enough to share that with me, and I thought it was really great that you were able to do that. Maybe we can talk a little bit about how the war in Ukraine fits into the book. Was this conflict also a story of connectivity gone wrong? Was it also a manifestation of the dark side of connectivity?

Mark: I think it really was actually. I spent a lot of time in Ukraine over the last couple of decades and have watched how Ukraine has found itself. The crossroads between its past in the Soviet Union and the close links that it’s had with Russia and its European aspirations, which were shared by a large number of people within the country and have driven an increasing attempt to connect Ukraine to the European Union in trading relationships through energy and other kinds of links. I think that what is fascinating about the place that we are at the moment is that some of the roots of the war that we are going through lie in a connectivity struggle, or a connectivity conflict that went wrong.

Because I first went to Ukraine just after the Orange Revolution, which was a moment where the country had a very divisive election. There was a Russian-leaning candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, who was running against a coalition of parties that were more Western-leaning and wanted to join the West. When the election was disputed and many people felt that Yanukovych had stolen the election, they took to the streets, and that display of people power became known as the Orange Revolution and led to Viktor Yushchenko becoming president of Ukraine and trying to bring the country closer to Europe. It was a very complicated process and it was nonlinear. Yanukovych ended up coming back to power.

But then, you had round two in 2013, when the Russians were so worried about Ukraine being drawn into the European sphere of influence that they created a whole new economic union called the Eurasian Economic Union. That was modeled on the European Union and got Russian graduates of the College of Europe at Bruges, which is the place which creates European technocrats, who designed the bureaucracy in Brussels, to come out with a rival system that looked exactly the same. There was this big choice, which Ukraine faced, about signing an association agreement with the European Union or joining the Eurasian Economic Union. Yanukovych umm-ed and ahh-ed about it, and in the end decided to go with the Russians. Thousands of Ukrainians took the streets again in the so-called Euromaidan Protests. He then decided to shoot at them initially, but then realized that it wasn’t going to work and ran away, went into exile in Russia. Putin was so scared of losing Ukraine totally in that moment of political chaos that he annexed Crimea and started the war in the Donbas, which has been going on for the last eight years.

Kaiser: Right.

Mark: For Europeans, the thought was that by creating a set of political relationships through its association agreements, it would be spreading harmony. Because in fact, what they were doing was creating a lot of fear and anxiety in Russia, and the clash between these two integration projects ended up starting a literal war. I’m not trying to let Putin off the hook, because there was nothing inevitable about it. It was a choice to do this.

Kaiser: No. Absolutely.

Mark: But it shows how connectivity can go wrong. And then, even more interesting, my core argument in the book is essentially that we don’t live in an age where you can have blocks that are sealed off from each other. We are all in each other’s faces. We have lots of different contact. Because countries are terrified of nuclear war, they’re often trying to find different ways of fighting with each other. The main way that they do it nowadays is through manipulating and even weaponizing the ties that bind us together. It’s definitely true that war hasn’t disappeared. There are thousands of people who’ve been killed since the 24 of February on both Russian and Ukrainian sides in ways that look very familiar to people who’ve been through the Second World War or other kinds of historical conflicts. But at the same time, that’s just one of the many battlegrounds which is being used. Alongside the fighting war, you have Russia manipulating its energy supplies and using that as a weapon against the West. You have …

Kaiser: And using the internet as well. We’ve talked about these three empires of connectivity and we’ve talked a little bit about the Ukraine conflict. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as you said, has not shied away at all from using connectivity as a disruptive force. As you say, our dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, especially European dependence on Russian gas and oil. And then, as I was just saying, his use of the internet to sow disinformation and to disrupt.

One of the things that I’ve always found the most frightening about the Kremlin style of information warfare is that he seeks to de-center truth entirely. To spread an epistemological skepticism, a nihilism. This idea that there is not, there cannot, there never has been a shared truth. We’ve seen how he’s manipulated historical truth with Ukraine and things like that. If you don’t know all about that, read Tim Snyder. One could perhaps argue though, as I think Ivan Krastev and Steven Holmes do in their great book, which I loved, called The Light That Failed.

When it comes to Russia, we were maybe too cavalier in the way that we pursued integration with them in the post-Soviet world. It was all, “Be like us.” It was this injunction to imitate us. It provoked, Krastev argued, a lot of resentment. As I read your book, I kept thinking, “Was connectivity the problem with Russia?” Or was it the particular way that the developed world, Europe and the United States, insisted on connecting on our terms? Not respecting difference, not taking sufficient account of historical or cultural inertia and all that. It was just too much of this sort of end of history thinking, and too much, “Hey, be like us.” I almost feel like we are in danger of doing the same thing when it comes to China. It’s that we’ve maybe failed to connect Russia enough, so that it has these shallow connections that it can weaponize easily and doesn’t have the more deep institutional and deeper economic connections. It’s a one-trick pony of an economy. What do you think of that?

Mark: I think you’re absolutely right. Part of the foundations of Putinism and of where we’re at at the moment is a deep resentment at the lack of respect that we showed to other countries earlier on in their sense. This idea of the end of history and the one-way flow, and that people were going to become like us. That led to a lot of happy thinking on our side. There were big parallels with the way that people are thinking about China as well for the last couple of decades.

Kaiser: Again, this isn’t about letting him off the hook though. I just want to make sure. This isn’t, “Okay so, that’s okay. Go ahead and invade.” Of course not.

Mark: I think you’re absolutely right. The West has ended up actually creating a lot of blowback to itself because of the end of history thinking, where we thought that other people just wanted to become like us. We weren’t really very interested or curious about the rest of the world. We assumed that there was only one way of developing and it was our way or the highway.

There’s definitely a lot of parallels between the mistakes we made towards Russia and some of the magical thinking about China’s development over the last couple of decades, which have led to bad policy. But I’m not sure that totally explains the problems that we are having with Russia at the moment. I think that might both explain, on the one hand, some of the resentment which the Russians have towards Europeans, and it also explains the fact that we’ve ended up putting ourselves in a position where we were easily blackmailed. Because rather than seeing connectivity as a relationship of power, where it mattered who was more dependent on whom, we saw interdependence of something which would create harmony. A lot of European countries have ended up accidentally putting themselves in a position where they are so dependent on Russian gas and hydrocarbons that they can be bullied by the Russians. That is a lesson which many people are learning in other areas as well.

It’s definitely something which came to light during COVID, when it came to the relationship that many countries had with China. Because of the shock of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, the fear that people had of being overly dependent on China for PPE, for medical components, and real reconsideration of how supply chains should be organized in the future.

Kaiser: Absolutely. Let’s bring this back to China, now that you’ve done so with talking about the COVID outbreak and stuff.

Way back in 2008 when you published, What Does China Think? I love that book. I thought you had made a real effort to expose readers to a different set of voices from Chinese intellectuals than the ones that they’d been used to hearing. It’s been a pet peeve of mine, and I talked about it years and years ago on this show. I felt like…This is still pretty much the case. I don’t think it’s changed that much, books like yours notwithstanding. In media, or in books for lay people, what we’re always exposed to are these Chinese dissidents or critical intellectuals, rather than just more establishment intellectuals. Yes, they have a whole lot more sexy or inspiring views. Ones that are a lot more flattering to our own worldview.

But when establishment views are presented at all, they just come in the form of these really turgid and comically dogmatic party ideologues. We usually don’t hear from the more mainstream ones. Unless you’re reading Tim Cheek’s academic work, which is really great and I highly recommend or reading the great website by David Ownby, Reading The Chinese Dream, which is something I think a lot of our listeners are already doing. You’re not likely to know much about what these establishment intellectuals really think. This generates a disconnect that leaves people puzzled as to why any reasonable person might support the party. Why aren’t they just storming the barricades and rising up? It’s that, “Why don’t you hate your government as much as I think you should,” thinking. Jude Blanchette though, he said it really well. He said that we needed to hear from the David Brooks of China. Sorry, David, if you’re listening. Really, an almost bland mainstream establishment intellectual, who represents the quotidian views.

Anyway, I thought your book was a really good corrective to that. It strikes me though that the Chinese voices that you emphasize this time are decidedly more hawkish. There’s no doubt in my mind that those more hawkish voices are more in the ascent than they were back in 2008, when you published What Does China Think? I don’t think you’re wrong to do that. They probably do capture the zeitgeist a little better. But do you worry that you’ll leave readers with maybe too strong of an impression of China, having now embraced this confrontational posture? I don’t feel like that’s entirely settled yet.

Mark: I think one of the big stories of the last 15 years since I published What Does China Think? has been one where a lot of the tendencies which I started to show in that book have been strengthened and accentuated. At that time already, my book was partly challenging the idea that many people in the West had. That China was becoming more like us and that Western ideas were going to structure how the Chinese economy developed, how Chinese politics developed, the role that China played on the world stage. At that time, there was still a lot of hope that China would become a quote, unquote, responsible international stakeholder.

I was arguing that the big story of that time was one of intellectual emancipation. China was trying to develop its own models. It was happily taking lessons from all over the world. Taking all sorts of things it thought worked from different places. But the goal was not to imitate us.

Kaiser: Right.

Mark: It was to come up with something with Chinese characteristics, which melded Western thinking with thinking from the socialist period, with ancient Chinese wisdom and to develop something new. Already then, you had in the economy a move towards thinking about a much bigger role for the state. A sense that the laissez-faire, neoliberal policies which Jiāng Zémín 江泽民 and others had been pushing had created a huge amount of inequality in China and had a lot of negative side effects.

Kaiser: Right.

Mark: There was a new debate about politics and really interesting questions about what role the internet and deliberation could play in strengthening the party state and the role of the party rather than weakening it. In foreign policy, at that time, there was already a lot of talk about building China’s comprehensive national power and thinking about different ways of re-casting its relationships with its neighbors and with other countries.

I think what’s happened is that those tendencies have all been strengthened and Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 has launched a completely different official discourse about where China’s going and how China is going. Not completely different in that a lot of the roots were there before he came to power, but I think he’s pushed the country firmly down that direction. I think a lot of intellectual life in the debates that I was describing in that book, and in a subsequent book I did a few years later called China 3.0, a lot of those debates are not as possible anymore.

Kaiser: Right. Right.

Mark: The public’s fear is much more controlled than it was back in earlier times.

Kaiser: No question about that.

Mark: But it’s obviously true that it’s a vast country. One in five people in the world is Chinese. There’s an enormous diversity of views. You can find, I’m sure, Chinese people who hold every view under the sun.

But in the book, I suppose what I’m trying to do is to show how this idea of competition with the U.S. and of taking control of China’s affairs and rethinking what the global economy looks like is not just something which is in Xi Jinping’s head, but has become an important part of structuring a lot of the different developments, whether they’re technological developments, economic developments and in other places. I try and show some of the thinking behind it in dispassionate terms. I’m not passing judgment on any of it. It’s definitely true that the voices, which seem to be the loudest, which seem to be most in-tune with public policy at the moment are ones which are…

Kaiser: More hawkish.

Mark: They’re more hawkish, but they’re also leading towards a different kind of world order. I think that’s one of the really interesting things that’s going on at the moment. And I look at some of the parallels between the new Chinese debates about dual circulation and rethinking the idea of the global economy and the Chinese economy. Some of the parallels between that and the American debates about Building Back Better and decoupling, and the European debates about European sovereignty. We are all going in a similar direction away from the dream of one world and of integration towards a much more ambivalent attitude towards connectivity. Much more thinking about it as a zero-sum sphere. Much more thinking about geopolitics and power than we were beforehand. The parallels and the differences between the way that Europeans, Americans, and Chinese are doing that are very interesting.

Kaiser: Well, these are all ideas that you explore really well in this book, which I highly recommend that people read. I’m not going to let you completely off the hook. There’s a whole bunch of questions that I wanted to ask you about things like Richard Nisbett and the role of culture in our thinking about China. But we’ll talk to you another time about that.

Because I do have a show planned where we will explore that whole topic of the weight of history and tradition of cultural psychology. Historical reflexes and all the mental furnishings that can be tied to things like social structures and parenting even. Anyway, we’ll do all that at some point, but for the time being, thank you so much for taking the time to join me. A pleasure as always to speak to you. Before I let you go though, let’s get to recommendations.

Before we do that, let me quickly remind everyone that The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina. If you like the work that we’re doing with Sinica and with the other shows in the Sinica Network, like the wonderful China in Africa Podcast, China Stories, The Caixin-Sinica Business Brief, You Can Learn Chinese which I just love, Strangers in China, The China Sports Insider, China Corner Office, all of our shows, the best thing that you can do is help us out by subscribing to the China Access newsletter. You know the drill. Go to if you are interested in Access and some of our other premium products. And if you want to just see the complete list of newsletters, just go to You can see some of our really great free ones, like the Vibe Newsletter that my colleague Jaiyun puts together every week. It’s just a fantastic read.

All right, let’s go to recommendations. What’s a good book or movie or TV show you’ve watched recently that you could recommend to our listeners, Mark?

Mark: There’ve been lots of really great things, which I’ve been reading recently, looking at Ukraine and thinking about Chinese foreign policy and how that’s developing. There’s a great article by Yán Xuétōng 阎学通 in Foreign Affairs at the moment looking at some of the dilemmas, which I think is very interesting.

Kaiser: I read that. That’s good.

Mark: There’s one book which I found really helpful. In terms of my understanding of Chinese grand strategy. It’s by a friend of mine, who’s a young academic. He is the Executive Dean of the Institute of Public Policy in Guangzhou in China. He’s called Zhang Feng. His book is called Chinese Hegemony: Grand Strategy and International Institutions in East Asian History.

What Feng does in the book is he looks at some of the deep historical roots of Chinese foreign policy thinking now and fleshes out some of these ideas of China as a relational power, which we were talking about earlier, but he does it in a really interesting way. He’s not culturally essentializing the country. He’s somebody who has studied international relations over a long period of time. He’s got a very subtle sense of how the world works. I think it’s a really great piece of scholarship, which casts a lot of interesting light on the Belt and Road Initiative. On the way that the Chinese are thinking about some of the big dynamics they’re facing at the moment. And if you really want to understand what lies behind the particular tactical decisions, which are made on Ukraine and on other issues, you can do a lot worse than spend time with Feng’s explanations about Chinese thinking on IR. I recommend that very warmly.

Kaiser: Thanks, Mark. That sounds terrific. I’ll see if I get my hands on a copy of that. It sounds like something I really need to read. I’ve got two recommendations this week. One is the latest New Yorker piece by Pete Hessler, which details how he ran into certain difficulties with nationalist types while teaching at Sichuan University and how eventually his teaching contract was not renewed. He ended up having to leave China prematurely. Pete told some of this story when Jeremy and I spoke to him in November at our NEXTChina conference in New York. If you haven’t heard that, you should definitely check out that podcast. It was really fun. This contains, though, this piece in The New Yorker, a whole ton of detail. Of course, it’s delivered in Pete’s impeccably clean and stripped down prose with all the humanity and the empathy and the wonderful nuance that you’ve all come to expect from Peter Hessler’s work. This one certainly does not disappoint on that count.

The other recommendation that I have is for a show on Apple TV called Tehran, which is a spy thriller which is set in that eponymous city, about an Iranian-born Israeli Mossad agent named Tamar, who happens to be a masterful hacker. She gets into Tehran in a pretty clever way intending to cripple power to some missile defense systems or stuff like that, so that the Israeli defense forces can strike a nuclear facility in Iran. But things go wrong and she ends up having to make her way on her own in a hostile environment. And so, it’s really good. This is like the third Israeli series of this sort that I have watched. I’m only a few episodes into it, but it’s really good. It reminds me of some of the other ones like Fauda, especially, which is on Netflix. Fauda was great. You’ll dig this one too, if you liked Fauda.

Mark: Tehran was fantastic as well.

Kaiser: Oh. You’ve seen it?

Mark: I loved both of them.

Kaiser: Okay. I feel like Americans could learn an awful lot from these screenwriters, from the direction. One of the things they do so well, and I like this in Fauda too, is they create these antagonists that have a compelling reason to do what they’re doing. They’re not just driven by evil. Their motives make sense, and there’s an internal logic. The so-called bad guys, the Palestinians in Fauda and this guy who’s like an intelligence chief for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. He’s an interesting guy. He tells jokes. He loves his wife. He’s a cool character. I’m digging that. I liked it.

Mark: He’s very, very cool. There’s another series actually, if you’re on that genre, which you may have watched as well. In English, it’s called The Bureau. Le Bureau des Légendes, which is an amazing French spy series also set in the Middle East.

Kaiser: I’ll definitely check that out. I will want to see that. Thank you. The Bureau. I can’t remember which streaming service it’s on, but I’ll definitely look at that. Because I can’t get enough of this type of show.

Mark: I think it’s on Amazon.

Kaiser: Okay.

Mark: Excellent.

Kaiser: Thanks, man. That was really fun. And I really look forward to seeing you next week.

Mark: Cool.

Kaiser: Anyway, thanks, Mark. We’ll talk soon.

Mark: All right. Thanks. Bye-bye.

Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We’d be delighted if you would drop us an email at or just give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts, as this really does help people discover the show.

Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @supchinanews and be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week. Take care!