How a New Wave of Podcasts Is Shaking Up Chinese-Language Media9 min read
On June 21, a new podcast appeared on several Chinese and American podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts. Called In-Betweenness, it was recorded by four academics scattered around the world.
The podcast is in Mandarin, and the target audience is Chinese people, but the topic was race in America and across the world—specifically, what’s happening to race relations in the wake of the George Floyd protests. The hosts, based in the United States, Asia and Europe, didn’t shy away from difficult issues. They started the conversation with how Chinese people were characterized as “yellow” in a world order that still favors white Europeans, and ended it with a look at anti-Black racism in China.
Some listeners complained that the first episode was “too theoretical and abstract”—the discussion touched on the French philosopher Franz Fanon’s criticism of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic—but that didn’t prevent people from tuning in. Since it launched, the podcast has racked up 17,000 downloads in eight countries plus Taiwan and Hong Kong. That might seem a drop in the bucket relative to the 1 billion Mandarin speakers worldwide, but the podcast’s goal isn’t to go mainstream. Instead, it aims to open up space for progressive conversation and build community among a select group of Chinese-speaking people, highly educated and many of them young, who might go on to have influence over politics and policy. Over 60 percent of the audience is in China.
“I wasn’t surprised by the geographical distribution of our audience,” says Chenchen Zhang, a co-host of In-betweenness who teaches politics and international relations at Queen’s University in Belfast. “But I was a bit surprised by the number of downloads.”
In-Betweenness marks a new trend in the Chinese media landscape. All media in China, state and commercial, is closely monitored and heavily censored pre- and post-publishing. Under publishing laws and regulations, non-state digital media is not allowed to conduct original reporting and publishing. At best, they are aggregators. State censorship of social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo, now the primary news sources in China, has become increasingly sophisticated. The state has also cracked down on private software to circumvent the Great Firewall.
But a wave of independent Chinese-language media platforms, based mostly outside of China—podcasts like In-Betweenness, as well as blogs, newsletters and video series—has sprung up in recent years to cover America and the world for a Chinese-speaking audience. Most of the audience are educated millennials living in cities in China and abroad, and most of the platforms can be accessed anywhere in the world, including China. Even if some episodes are removed by government censors from podcast stores in China, people can still access it by subscribing to RSS feeds.
In the increasingly fraught relationship between China and the United States, these new projects amount to a kind of third information channel, one neither controlled by the Chinese state nor the America-centric Western media in English. It includes In-Betweenness, the podcasts Loud Murmurs, Stochastic Volatility and New York Culture Salon; News Lab, a newsletter run by Kecheng Fang, a journalism professor based in Hong Kong; and an independent blog run by Yan Wang, a conservative-turned-liberal popular blogger who has been writing about systemic racism on WeChat, the Chinese social-media app, for years.
The unrest following George Floyd’s killing has given these new outlets a new topic of huge interest to Chinese listeners: race in America. In part, the interest was fanned by Chinese state media, which tends to dramatize America’s domestic strife. As the protests grew in late spring and early summer, Chinese media portrayed a chaotic, hypocritical United States with vivid images of tumult and police violence. But these new outlets portrayed something different—a more balanced picture of race relations, a diagnosis of root causes that went beyond a two-tiered U.S. legal system and extended to global cultural and racial dynamics.
If their coverage of the George Floyd protests is a sign of what’s to come, these independent Chinese media outlets could play a crucial role in demystifying, or more fully explaining, U.S. politics and culture for a select Chinese audience. They might even set the tone for a clearer, more open cultural relationship between the two countries, even as foreign-policy tensions between them boil over.
To Americans who have never seen their own country covered overseas, it can be shocking to see the way some Chinese media portray it.
Take HBO’s removal of the movie “Gone with the Wind” as an example. After HBO briefly took down the film in early June because of its problematic portrayal of people of color, Chinese media—official and unofficial—blew the story up into such a hot-button national controversy that many in China think the United States is having its own Cultural Revolution, all triggered by one movie. (In reality, the network put it back online in a week.) One headline read “American Cultural Revolution: Ridiculous and Unfortunate, Gone with the Wind Got Pulled.” Another used a militant phrase popular during the Cultural Revolution, qingsuan, meaning eradicating crimes, to describe the removal of the Civil War drama.
To address this kind of inaccurate coverage of U.S. social dynamics, the newer independent media platforms have built their influence over the past few years among open-minded, liberal Chinese people home and abroad. Quite a few were already influencers on Chinese social media—Weibo and WeChat—before starting their own media products.
The creators are academics, journalists, lawyers and activists trained in Western universities, attracted to liberal democratic ideals, and critical of both China’s party state and Western exceptionalism. On the American political spectrum, they’d be considered progressive. And they offer a perspective—critical of both the U.S. and China—that’s rarely seen in the mainland discourse.
“What they do is very important because progressive values barely had any space on the Chinese internet before,” says Fang, a journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies Chinese media. In his view, their role isn’t to shift broader Chinese public attitudes, but “to cater to a highly educated crowd who already hold similar political values and then to influence a minority of others who are open-minded and willing to be challenged.” They want to challenge the isolationist worldview from both China and the United States, and signal with their content as well as their distribution that globalization is here to stay.
Today, this transnational treatment of the news means translating the Black Lives Matter movement for a group of people who may be curious about the movement’s aims in the US, and also willing to acknowledge that anti-Black racism is far from a uniquely American problem.
People in China following the story exclusively through state media may lack all that context. Analysts say it’s not uncommon for Chinese readers to regard the whole uprising with shock and disapproval; some make racist comments of their on social media and in comments sections of news stories online. “When social movements, such as Black Lives Matter, erupt, because of their oversimplified view of racism, they tend to misunderstand what the protestors want,” Yao Lin, an In-Betweenness cohost, says, “and some of them tend to stand with white supremacists and the status quo.”
Many of these new independent media platforms offer a different way to see the protests in the United States. These new media outlets have explained to their audiences what racism in the United States is, and why the Chinese should pay attention to anti-Black racism. And they have also done what would be unthinkable for institutional Chinese media: They have turned a critical lens back on China itself, pointing to the rising racism against Africans in Guangzhou during the COVID-19 outbreak, when many were evicted from their apartments from landlords or turned away from hotels. “Racial discrimination can be relevant even to those in China because they can draw a parallel between systematic racism and discriminations against women, sexual minorities and migrant workers, which are more common in China,” says Zhicheng Zhao, founder of New York Culture Salon.
Loud Murmurs, a Mandarin podcast focused on American pop culture, is planning a three-episode series in light of the Black Lives Movement unfolding in the United States, where the show’s hosts live. For their upcoming episode, they invited two Black men, one of whom is an African immigrant who’s been educated in the West and in China, the other an African-American who works in China, to discuss how Hollywood portrays Blackness, how those portrayals are received in China and their personal experience with racism in China.
To address the misunderstanding that the United States is having its own Cultural Revolution, for instance, Loud Murmurs had their two Black guests talk about political correctness and how classic American movies portrayed slavery through rose-tinted glasses. “We understand that conversation. We are plugged in to it,” says Isabelle Niu, a co-host of Loud Murmurs. “And so we can offer our own insight and analysis on how this should be interpreted.”
Some of the new outlets are also focusing on these conversations to tackle popular conservative Chinese arguments on Black Lives Matter and claim space in an information environment filled with increasingly nationalistic voices, which is engineered by pervasive censorship, propaganda and misinformation.
Yan Wang, the WeChat blogger, appeals to his audience by recounting his experience of confronting and overcoming his own racism over the years, alongside his analysis of racial segregation. The San Francisco-based software engineer has been active in debating online with older, more conservative Chinese immigrants about stereotypes they commonly hold about Black people.
Based on his experience so far, he doesn’t foresee swaying many people’s opinions. “I have been trying to communicate with conservatives, and it’s been largely an attempt in vain,” Wang says. “Because what I say makes most of them extremely comfortable, and they don’t always make rational arguments.”
His goal, Wang says, is to educate those who are already interested in social justice and politics, who can, hopefully, in the future influence other Chinese-Americans, who have a reputation for being less politically engaged than other minority groups in the United States.
These media platforms aren’t just liberal enclaves providing reporting and analysis for their audiences; they have also been trying to have conversations with people in real life. New York Culture Salon, a nonprofit organization that holds weekly seminars and releases them in podcast or video form, wanted to respond to how the social unrest in the United States has divided generations of Chinese immigrants and social media chat groups in China. The nonprofit has organized a six-week panel series devoted to the Black Lives Matter movement.
They invited young Chinese scholars who study law, activism and immigration in the U.S. to participate in broadcast panel discussions. The speakers tackled topics that might be perceived as elementary by American intellectuals, such as the historical role of violence in pushing for progress, why Chinese people should support Black Lives Matter and how systemic racism is embedded in U.S. institutions. More than 3,000 people from in and outside of China attended the first two webinars.
Such platforms often have a tenuous relationship with Chinese censors. They are not high-profile enough to be erased from the Chinese internet completely. But once their content has gained steam on Chinese social media, especially on what are deemed sensitive political issues, they draw the attention of government censors.
Loud Murmurs and New York Culture Salon have both had their content, social media posts and platforms censored for touching domestic political topics, such as China’s controversial one-child-per-family policy. Their core audiences followed them as they moved their content to platforms untouched by Chinese censors, usually domains registered abroad. And for some of the podcasts in this new wave, talking about politics in foreign countries only—for instance, about the Black Lives Matter movement—shields them from censorship.
“With pervasive censorship, we can only relieve political depression by focusing on the events unfolding across the Pacific,” says China-based Shiye Fu, a co-host of Stochastic Volatility, who has a degree in anthropology from Columbia University.
None of the people I talked to for the story expect their content to attract a mainstream audience. But they hope the small audience they have connected with will connect with other Chinese speakers and go on to create something much larger than podcasts.
“We got a lot of comments like, ‘Wow. I’ve never heard four women talk about politics in a way that’s so uninhibited,” Niu says. “I think just the idea that you can express yourself without fear, even that is very encouraging to people.”