BROOKE GLADSTONE: Of course, China is intimately connected with the goings-on in its neighbor, North Korea. We checked in with Jeremy Goldkorn, editor-in-chief of SupChina.com and co-host of its Sinica Podcast, to see if the reporting in China reflects a worsening situation.
JEREMY GOLDKORN: I would say that it is a little bit worse. The number of incidents, missile tests, statements coming from Donald Trump, statements coming from the North Korean propaganda organizations – you know, there was a military parade last weekend in Pyongyang.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s always a military parade and there's always ominous rumblings coming from the US and there are always tests happening in North Korea, so what is it that puts this in a slightly different category?
JEREMY GOLDKORN: Donald Trump, himself, who is very unpredictable and the Chinese government, I think, has been [LAUGHS] scratching its collective head about how to deal with him when it comes to all issues, you know, ranging from trade to North Korea.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Two wildcards, instead of one?
JEREMY GOLDKORN: Yeah, and you do see that comparison certainly made in Chinese social media of Kim Jong-un, they call in China – the slang name for him is “Little Fatty III” –
- Jin San Pang because he’s the third Kim in charge of North Korea. You see unflattering comparisons made between the two of them. You know, they’re both brats who are unpredictable. But, in fact, China has the most to lose if something goes wrong in North Korea. The big fear is instability will lead to a wave of refugees. The other fear is that war in the Korean peninsula could lead to a unified Korea, which would mean that the United States has military bases bordering China in the Korean peninsula.
Obviously, if there's some kind of nuclear confrontation, China has a lot more to lose than the United States, but there does seem to be less worry in China about it than you find in the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hmm, interesting.
JEREMY GOLDKORN: I, I grew up in South Africa, I lived in China for 20 years, then I moved to the United States at a time when people were complaining about how bad the economy was. And I'm shocked by how nice life is for most people in the United States. So they have a lot of luxury to worry about things, whereas for most Chinese people, I mean, you know, people born in the ‘70s or earlier remember being hungry as children. People who now are, are middle class, who take vacations to Los Angeles and Tokyo, remember being hungry as kids.
Certainly, for the people who make a fuss in the media and on the Internet about North Korea, most of them are very well fed and have been their whole lives. And I think when the whole country has really just emerged from its own national trauma, not only poverty and hunger but, you know, the Cultural Revolution and the various disasters that China has lived through throughout most of the 20th century, it takes a little bit more than the possible fear of a possible war between two other countries to really make people jittery.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even if it's right next door?
JEREMY GOLDKORN: Even if it's right next door. I mean, that's not to say people aren't worried, but you don't have the same levels of, dare I say, hysteria that you sometimes find in the US media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm, because hysteria sells!
JEREMY GOLDKORN: It does sell. I mean, the Chinese media and Internet is highly controlled and censored, and one of the few times when I find myself thinking that maybe censorship isn't so bad, after all, is, for example, after terrorist incidents in China the media coverage is really, really muted. And I can't help but think that it’s not necessarily a bad thing because you're not glamorizing the violence, you’re not glamorizing the perpetrators and you're not making the populous fearful, whereas when you have a free media and a for-profit media terrorizing the population, making them fearful, glamorizing the perpetrators and their acts, that gets you viewers and readers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: China has long had a friendly relationship with North Korea, if complex. They’re not eager to criticize North Korea or its leadership. What about America's current political leadership?
JEREMY GOLDKORN: I would say the state media has been very, very restrained in its commentary on Trump. There are occasional editorial pieces, particularly in non-central state media, newspapers like the Global Times, which are state-owned but have a longer leash, so you do see opinion pieces sometimes very critical of Trump, sometimes in praise of Trump. But, generally speaking, the tone has been very restrained. Particularly when he has tweeted inflammatory things about China, the response has been very, very muted.
I think when it comes to the central state media, there have been very clear instructions from above to put a lid on the commentary because the belief is that no good can come out of offending Trump, whereas it’s quite clear that saying nice things about him can get you results.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me some examples of how Trump is typically criticized and how he is typically praised?
JEREMY GOLDKORN: He is criticized for being inexperienced in politics and diplomacy, for not understanding the world, for nepotism and corruption. China Central TV a couple of weeks ago did a little segment commenting on discussion of nepotism because of Jared Kushner's role in the White House.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But isn’t there a kind of “Ivanka fever” there? Yi Wan Ka wai, I think it’s called?
JEREMY GOLDKORN: Yeah, Iwanka re. There is an Ivanka fever and there’s a Trump fever, for sure. And people who praise him for being a successful, bold businessman, people who think his daughter is, you know, a blonde goddess and also good at business.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In Foreign Policy magazine, there was an article that discussed this love of Yvanka, and the magazine suggested that it was a symptom of, and I'm quoting here, “the convergence of the kleptocratic nepotistic trends in Chinese elite circles with the same tendencies” here.
JEREMY GOLDKORN: I think, definitely, what the Trumps have brought into the Chinese consciousness is a very real realization that America is not that different from China.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why is being a businessman such a plus in China?
JEREMY GOLDKORN: Well, it’s kind of like America, really, isn’t it? You know, I moved to China in 1995 and at that time many of my Chinese friends considered their idol to be Bill Gates. You have a lot of people who really admire Warren Buffet, Elon Musk and, of course, all the Chinese business successes Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, Robin Li, the founder of Baidu. These people are heroes to a lot of Chinese people, and so is Trump.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You were saying that Chinese officials are scratching their heads a bit about Trump. On the one hand, he's incredibly unpredictable, on the other hand, it seems like only a 10-minute conversation can clarify matters for the American president to the extent that he limits his pressure on China after having campaigned on it.
JEREMY GOLDKORN: I think part of the Chinese government's calculus is that one of the benefits of having Trump as president of the United States is that they won't get such a hard time about human rights and that they will be able to deal with him in a transactional way much more than they have been able to with previous administrations. And people in China have seen some evidence that this is going to be the case because of the fact that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not personally really involve himself in the report on global human rights that was issued by the State Department earlier this year, whereas previous secretaries of state have announced them and discussed them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So I'm going to assume that the Chinese liked Trump more after the election than they did before.
JEREMY GOLDKORN: I don't think it's that simple. Before the election, a lot of Chinese, including people in the government, thought that because he is a businessman, we will be able to find a way to deal with him. And I think you've seen them try to find ways of dealing with him, such as the interesting and slightly mysterious speedy approvals of various trademarks for him and his family. And, you know, as someone who’s tried to register trademarks in China before, you know, the idea that this was a completely normal procedure is absolutely absurd. You know, decisions were made to greenlight trademark approvals. And I think that's a sign of the idea in the Chinese government that if we treat him nicely in a business way, we’ll be able to talk to him and we’ll be able to get good results.
After the election, I don't think that idea has gone away at all but I think perhaps ordinary people, people on social media, people in the government have realized that what seemed to be unpredictable is, in fact, quite unpredictable, and even if he has a transactional personality, it doesn't mean that you know how to do a transaction with him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeremy Goldkorn is editor-in-chief of SupChina.com and co-host of its Sinica, S-I-N-I-C-A, Podcast.