Tuesday, February 27, 2024
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2023 Letter

(This piece is my year in review; here’s my letter from 2022)

I. Walking

The trunk of an elephant might feel cool to the touch. Not what one expects, perhaps, from 200 pounds of writhing muscle, strong enough to uproot a tree, which tapers down to two “fingers,” giving it enough delicacy to detect the ripest berry on a shrub, and pluck it. Feeling an elephant’s trunk draws you to her other great feature: melancholic eyes that are veiled by long and dusty lashes. This combination of might with the suggestion of serene contemplation is surely the reason that elephants seem to embody a special state of grace.

I encountered several of these big beasts on a trek through the mountains of northern Thailand in December. The occasion was a “walk and talk” organized by Kevin Kelly and Craig Mod, who launched a dozen people on a 100 kilometer walk over seven days from Mount Inthanon to the center of Chiang Mai.

Our journey took us through elephant grounds, banana plantations, and coffee shrubs, finishing within Chiang Mai’s old city walls. The landscape shifted marvelously as we descended from the mountain into the city. At higher altitude, Mount Inthanon is home to forests of relict pine, each tree looking like a skinny and very tall piece of broccoli, their foliage wreathed in fog every morning before the sun broke through. At middle attitude, we found teak trees. Deforestation over the past few decades has spurred villagers to protect some of the oldest teaks by wrapping their trunks in saffron monk robes, thus “ordaining” them. At lower altitudes we saw the vegetation typical of rainforest: bamboo groves, lychee orchards, and banana plants. I found the latter unexpectedly beautiful. Bananas grow in bunches on a rough stem, under enormous leaves that are tall enough to allow an elephant to rest in their shade.

Waterfalls dotted the trail, which allowed us sometimes to take a dip in the afternoon heat. It wasn’t just the natural landscape that was so stunning. Terraced farms, carved into hillsides, were attractive too. Local villagers have in recent years started cultivating strawberries, some of which are sold directly at roadside stands. These highland farmers understand cash crops. This region of northern Thailand, after all, was a major grower of the opium poppy until the 1980s. At that point, the Thai government (in a coordinated campaign with neighboring countries) eradicated nearly all opium production, enticing — or more often, compelling — farmers to plant other crops. That didn’t stop, however, one of the villagers from reminiscing about the days when the fields produced “Doctor O.”

One of the ideas of the walk-and-talk, as Craig puts it, is to put adults in situations they may not have experienced since they were kids: “new people, unknown environs, continuous socializing, intense conversations.” Our demographics leaned toward the middle-aged and self-employed: people who could afford to disconnect from family and work obligations for what was really a ten-day commitment in early December. Few of the twelve of us had previously met anyone else on this trip and a long walk is a fast way to get to know someone. Talking happened naturally, as the landscape continuously reconfigured us into knots of two or three. Our conversation weaved into a single strand over the nightly dinner, with Kevin moderating over one topic.

It didn’t take long for people to open up: to talk about how they decided to join the walk, and very quickly onwards to their lives, their work, and their struggles. The central conversation every night featured topics to which everyone can contribute, so our discussions had prompts like “home,” “fears,” and “failures.” These more general topics were extraordinarily effective in prompting people to be vulnerable, which helped to bind the group together. If I did another walk-and-talk, I might try leaning away from consensus. That is, to treat the dinners more like a workshop, in which everyone comes prepared with a 15-minute talk on something they’re working on, then open up for discussion. I concede, however, that not everyone would find it a thrilling idea to end a strenuous day with a lecture.

We carried small packs during the day and had a larger bag forwarded to our nightly accommodations. We stayed along waterfalls, in elephant sanctuaries, at a glamping site that looked as if transplanted from California, and terminating in a Chiang Mai hotel shaded by a 200-year-old tamarind tree. There was also the bizarre. One night, we were the only guests at a resort so creepy that we debated whether the whole thing was a front for tax fraud. Its bungalows looked like they were the 3-D printed output of an AI generator that received a detailed description of Antonio Gaudí’s Park Güell. That the hotel staff kept taking photographs of us, as if they were documenting that they had real guests, didn’t allay our unease that our presence could be abetting a fraudulent enterprise. 

I think it would be wonderful if the walk-and-talk could be a commonplace activity. I can imagine doing one every few years, alternating between walking with close friends and entrusting group selection to someone else. The challenge is that this format requires a gargantuan effort of planning. Some off-the-shelf walks are possible, for example along pilgrimage routes, but many will have to be bespoke. Our heroic guide on this trip is an American hotelier who has lived in Chiang Mai and China over the last 30 years, who took it upon himself to hike our route five times before leading the rest of us along. A well-organized walk demands planning not only the route, but also booking accommodations for around ten people, finding a quiet restaurant every night, and a dozen other things. (Craig’s comprehensive guide features all the items to consider.) A 100 kilometer walk is difficult to pull off anywhere in America: the suburban, car-centric reality of this country means that it’s hard to find a walkable route that has accommodations spaced in intervals of approximately 15 km.1

Then again, committing a chunk of time to go abroad may as well be a strength of the format. These walks are not a family weekend activity, a spontaneous trip with friends, or an offsite meant to produce workplace bonding. They’re much more serious than that. It takes special concentration, after all, to reproduce the magic of being a child. One of the things that this walk provoked me to do was to write this year’s letter on what I saw in Thailand.

I stayed for the whole month of December in Chiang Mai. In part, for food. Whole new culinary vistas open up once you’re ready to eat jungle. My favorite Northern Thai meals featured a papaya salad (or Burmese tea leaf salad), with some grilled meats — pork jowl, half a chicken, spare ribs — and a seafood soup in clear broth. For sides, one can order pork with lemongrass and ginger grilled in a banana leaf, crushed young jackfruit mixed with chilies, and sometimes a fried honeycomb. I’ve never eaten honeycomb before. It’s a strange thing to savor, the texture like biting into a pillowy piece of toast, expressing only a hint of honey. For dessert, I can imagine nothing more perfect than to have slices of a ripe mango on the side of sticky rice, the latter plump from being soaked in coconut milk, and coconut cream drizzled on top of the whole thing.

And I stayed, in part, to explore highland Southeast Asia. My 2022 letter was preoccupied with Yunnan, which is on the other side of mountain ranges from Chiang Mai. This is the same vast highland region populated by marginalized folks who have deliberately tried to put themselves beyond the reach of powerful states, the most domineering of which have been Burmese, Tibetan, and especially Han-Chinese. By moving into rugged terrain and practicing mountain agriculture, they’ve managed to maintain an arms-length relationship with valley kingdoms, taking as much “civilization” as they require. In Yunnan I was in land of the Bai and the Dai peoples; the hill tribes in Chiang Mai include the Karen, Akha, Shan, and Hmong.

These Thai highlands absorbed a wave of new people yearning for statelessness this year. In Chiang Mai, I encountered a great mass of young folks who no longer wish to live in China.

II. Running

The most important story of China in 2023 might be that the expected good news of economic recovery didn’t materialize, when the end of zero-Covid should have lifted consumer spirits; and that the unexpected bad news of political uncertainty kept cropping up, though the previous year’s party congress should have consolidated regime stability. China may have hit its GDP growth target of 5 percent this year, but its main stock index has fallen -17% since the start of 2023. More perplexing were the politics. 2023 was a year of disappearing ministers, disappearing generals, disappearing entrepreneurs, disappearing economic data, and disappearing business for the firms that have counted on blistering economic growth.

No wonder that so many Chinese are now talking about rùn. Chinese youths have in recent years appropriated this word in its English meaning to express a desire to flee. For a while, rùn was a way to avoid the work culture of the big cities or the family expectations that are especially hard for Chinese women. Over the three years of zero-Covid, after the state enforced protracted lockdowns, rùn evolved to mean emigrating from China altogether.2

One of the most incredible trends I’ve been watching this year is that rising numbers of Chinese nationals are being apprehended at the US-Mexico border. In January, US officers encountered around 1000 Chinese at the southwest border; the numbers kept rising, and by November they encountered nearly 5000.3 Many Chinese are flying to Ecuador, where they have visa-free access, so that they can take the perilous road through the Darién Gap. It’s hard to know much about this group, but journalists who have spoken to these people report that they come from a mix of backgrounds and motivations.4 I have not expected that so many Chinese people are willing to embark on what is a dangerous, monthslong journey to take a pass on the “China Dream” and the “great rejuvenation” that’s undertaken in their name.

The Chinese who rùn to the American border are still a tiny set of the people who leave. Most emigrés are departing through legal means. People who can find a way to go to Europe or an Anglophone country would do so, but most are going, as best as I can tell, to three Asian countries. Those who have ambition and entrepreneurial energy are going to Singapore. Those who have money and means are going to Japan. And those who have none of these things — the slackers, the free spirits, kids who want to chill — are hanging out in Thailand.

I spent time with these young Chinese in Chiang Mai. Around a quarter of the people I chatted with have been living in Thailand for the last year or two, while the rest were just visiting, sometimes with the intention to figure out a way to stay. Why Thailand? Mostly out of ease. Chinese can go to Thailand without having to apply for a visa, and they can take advantage of an education visa to stay longer. That category is generous, encompassing everything from language training to Muay Thai boxing lessons. Many Chinese sign up for the visa and then blow off class.

Some people had remote jobs. Many of the rest were practicing the intense spirituality possible in Thailand. That comes in part from all the golden-roofed temples and monasteries that make Chiang Mai such a splendid city. One can find a meditation retreat at these temples in the city or in more secluded areas in the mountains. Here, one is supposed to meditate for up to 14 hours a day, speaking only to the head monk every morning to tell him the previous day’s breathing exercises and hear the next set of instructions. After meditating in silence for 20 days, one person told me that he found himself slipping in and out of hallucinogenic experiences from breath exercises alone. 

The other wellspring of spiritual practice comes from the massive use of actual psychedelics, which are so easy to find in Chiang Mai. Thailand was the first country in Asia to decriminalize marijuana, and weed shops are now as common as cafés. It seems like everyone has a story about using mushrooms, ayahuasca, or even stronger magic. The best mushrooms are supposed to grow in the dung of elephants, leading to a story of a legendary group of backpackers who have been hopping from one dung heap to another, going on one long, unbroken trip.

Most of the young Chinese I chatted with are in their early 20s. Visitors to Thailand are trying to catch up on the fun they lost under three years of zero-Covid. Those who have made Chiang Mai their new home have complex reasons for staying. They told me that they’ve felt a quiet shattering of their worldview over the past few years. These are youths who grew up in bigger cities and attended good universities, endowing them with certain expectations: that they could pursue meaningful careers, that society would gain greater political freedoms, and that China would become more integrated with the rest of the world. These hopes have curdled. Their jobs are either too stressful or too menial, political restrictions on free expression have ramped up over the last decade, and China’s popularity has plunged in developed countries.

So they’ve rùn. One trigger for departure were the white-paper protests, the multi-city demonstrations at the end of 2022 in which young people not only demanded an end to zero-Covid, but also political reform. Several of the Chiang Mai residents participated in the protests in Shanghai or Beijing or they have friends who had been arrested. Nearly everyone feels alienated by the pressures of modern China. A few lost their jobs in Beijing’s crackdown on online tutoring. Several have worked in domestic Chinese media, seriously disgruntled that the censors make it difficult to publish ambitious stories. People complain of being treated like chess pieces by top leader Xi Jinping, who is exhorting the men to work for national greatness and for the women to bear their children.

Many people still feel ambivalence about moving to Thailand. Not everyone has mustered the courage to tell their Chinese parents where they really are. Mom and dad are under the impression that they’re studying abroad in Europe or something. That sometimes leads to elaborate games to maintain the subterfuge, like drawing curtains to darken the room when they video chat with family, since they’re supposed to be in a totally different time zone; or keeping up with weather conditions in the city they’re supposed to be so that they’re not surprised when parents ask about rain or snow.

There still are some corners in China that are relatively permissive. One of these is Yunnan’s Dali, a city on the northern tip of highland Southeast Asia, where I spent much of 2022. There, one can find the remnants of a drug culture as well as a party scene for an occasional rave. But even Dali is becoming less tenable these days since the central government has cottoned on that the city is a hub for free spirits. The tightening restrictions emanating from Beijing are spreading to every corner of the country. “China feels like a space in which the ceiling keeps getting lower,” one person told me. “To stay means that we have to walk around with our heads lowered and our backs hunched.”

I lingered with a group of Dali folks who moved to Chiang Mai over the past year. These are people in China’s crypto community who’ve found it increasingly more difficult to hang on after Beijing banned miners and exchanges. In 2022, police disrupted a festival they held called Wamotopia, which became a gathering point for crypto people and digital nomads. The idea was to burn a big wooden cat in a field in Dali at the conclusion of the festival, but Chinese police dispersed the event shortly after it began.5 So this year they moved to Thailand. 

Wamotopia consisted of Chinese mostly in their 20s who were exuberant and full of optimism, though their moods were sometimes modulated by a sense of despair. The latter comes from feeling like they can’t return to China, due either to their participation in the 2022 protests, because their crypto interests are no longer safe to pursue, or because they feel alienated from Chinese society. Many are unsure of whether they will stay permanently in Thailand, which means that they are sometimes plagued by existential questions of what home means to them. 

The festival attracted both Chinese residents in Chiang Mai and also visitors who flew here for the occasion. People said it’s becoming increasingly difficult to meet like-minded people in bigger gatherings in China anymore, given that the authorities are leery about large groups congregating to discuss ideas they don’t understand. For them, the festival was first and foremost a way to make new friends. Wamotopia billed itself a self-organized event, with anyone able to propose hosting sessions at a few locations scattered around town, which included a hotel resort, co-working spaces, and a few private homes. Attendees proposed a smorgasbord of events, not just on crypto and digital nomadism, but also dumpling-making sessions and visits to temples. 

None of the headline events were explicitly political. There are enough people who will still return to China that the organizers felt that they didn’t need to invite official scrutiny. But a current of politics electrified side conversations. People bemoaned both how difficult life is in China and how difficult it is to emigrate. A lot of folks wanted to define themselves as “citizens of the world,” as people belonging to “Earth” rather than any nation. But that runs up against the hard fact that they hold Chinese passports, which is more difficult to travel with than many other passports.

I attended one event in a private home billed as a talk on the Chinese diaspora. Around 30 people sat in a living room, listening to the history of Chinese in Southeast Asia. They would spend much of the time talking about themselves as “Jews of the East.” It has apparently become a meme in the Chinese crypto community to use Semitic tropes to describe how they’ve become a beleaguered people driven out of their homeland, trying to make it overseas by plying their talent of being astute middlemen. I find this comparison overdramatic.6 It’s hardly the case that trading crypto constitutes an inalienable identity and has suffered real persecution. But such is the discontent they feel.

I’ve never felt great enthusiasm for crypto. After chatting with these young Chinese, I became more tolerant of their appeal. Digital currencies are solutions looking for problems most everywhere in the Western world, but they have real value for people who suffer from state controls. The crypto community in China has attracted grifters, as it has everywhere else. But it is also creating a community of people trying to envision different paths for the future.

That spirit pervades the young people in Chiang Mai. A bookseller told me that there’s a hunger for new ideas. After the slowdown in economic growth and the tightening of censorship over the past decade, people are looking for new ways to understand the world. One of the things this bookshop did is to translate a compilation of the Whole Earth Catalog, with a big quote of “the map is not the territory” in Chinese characters on the cover. That made me wonder: have we seen this movie before? These kids have embraced the California counterculture of the ‘90s. They’re doing drugs, they’re trying new technologies, and they’re sounding naively idealistic as they do so. I’m not expecting them to found any billion-dollar companies. But give it enough time, and I think they will build something more interesting than coins.

Might this community persist for that long? I don’t worry that Thailand will fail to be welcoming. It has had centuries of experience absorbing Chinese migrants. Every spasm of violence in southern China since the fall of the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century has disgorged vast numbers of people from Guangdong and Fujian into Southeast Asia, with big waves coming after southerners resisted the Manchu conquest of China, during the Taiping Rebellion, and when the Qing drove Hui Muslims out of Yunnan. After a surge of Chinese migration in the early 20th century, up to half of Bangkok’s population was Chinese, which helped to build Thailand’s trading economy and create its bourgeois society. Around 10 to 15 percent of Thailand’s population is of Chinese heritage today. That has produced its share of frictions in Thai history, but it has also been peaceable relative to other Southeast Asian countries.7

Rather, I suspect that Chinese authorities will not forever continue to suffer its citizens to organize so close to home. Thailand already has an extradition treaty with China, but there’s a fear here that Beijing wants more. A recent Chinese blockbuster made Thailand appear to be a dangerous place to visit, and state media has occasionally amplified that sentiment. To Chinese and other foreigners living in Thailand, it’s absurd to think that crime and danger lurk around every corner because it’s a pretty safe place. They fear that state media is trying to create a pretext to justify a presence for Chinese police in Thailand, rather like how they are sometimes reaching into Mongolia.8

III. Drifting

I don’t want to romanticize rùn to excess. I recognize that emigration is a consideration for a miniscule percentage of China’s population. Few people can contemplate abandoning nearly everything they’ve built to start anew in a foreign country. And I recognize that life is not so bad for the overwhelming majority of Chinese. I’ve written that for someone in the middle class, there has never been a better year to live in China, a comment I repeated when I went on the Ezra Klein Show in March.

This middle class, however, is feeling less sure these days, as the economy keeps getting whacked. The trouble with Xi Jinping is that he is 60 percent correct on all the problems he sees, while his government’s brute force solutions reliably worsen things. Are housing developers taking on too much debt? Yes, but driving many of them to default and triggering a collapse in the confidence of homebuyers hasn’t improved matters. Does big tech have too much power? Fine, but taking the scalps of entrepreneurs and stomping out their businesses isn’t boosting sentiment. Does the government need to rein in official corruption? Definitely, but terrorizing the bureaucracy has also made the policymaking apparatus more paralyzed and risk averse. It’s starting to feel like the only thing scarier than China’s problems are Beijing’s solutions.

As economic growth trends downwards, I’m not expecting most of the Chinese population to rùn or revolt. More likely, I feel, is a deflation of hopes that comes from a passive acceptance that tough times are ahead. Spontaneous protests can happen, as they did in Henan, Shanghai, and Beijing in 2022 over zero-Covid. But it took simultaneous lockdowns across the country before people dared to go on the streets. I expect that China’s aging society isn’t so combustible, given that older people tend not to protest. The biggest trigger for people to go out on the streets are price spikes of essential goods. If anything, China is experiencing deflation as it slows, so I don’t expect that low growth will trigger broad unrest.

In spite of China’s stumbles, I think we are forgetting that it still has a lot of strengths. No, I don’t feel particular optimism about its growth trajectory, and I don’t doubt that it’s facing one of the most startling demographic declines that the world has ever seen. But things aren’t falling quickly enough to unravel China’s still-enormous stock of capabilities. It is still the world’s second-largest economy. Its per capita GDP is only one-sixth the level of America’s, which represents plenty of latent potential for catch-up growth. The glacial pace of demographic decline will not quickly erode Beijing’s ambitions. For all of China’s demographic woes, all projections show that it will still have over 1 billion people by 2050.

While 50 percent of China’s economy might be dysfunctional, the 5 percent that’s going spectacularly well is pretty dangerous to American interests.9 I’m thinking mostly about manufacturing. As I wrote earlier this year, China is going from strength to strength in industrial sectors: clean technologies (especially solar photovoltaics and electric vehicle batteries), electronic components, and automotives. In 2023, it overtook Japan as the world’s largest auto exporter, a barely imaginable achievement even five years ago. And the state retains big ambitions. In May, China’s space agency announced that it will land astronauts on the moon by 2030, making it the second country with that capability. It’s rare for Beijing to lay out formal timelines unless it’s quite confident that it has the task in hand.

The foundations of China’s success in EVs were built a decade ago, when the state decided to bet on batteries, and then bought up a lot of the mines for these metals. Though the present-day economic trajectory is much uncertain, we’re still going to see technology achievements that result from decisions made years ago. The state continues to throw reams of scientists and engineers to work out its strategic deficiencies. Though companies are relocating production to India and Vietnam, China is going to remain the world’s largest manufacturer for many more years to come. That means its manufacturing ecosystems will still produce a technological momentum of their own.

This year, I came across a lot of stories on the state of America’s defense industrial base. Most are linked to Ukraine, which blew through several years’ worth of America’s artillery stockpiles in a matter of weeks.10 I keep reading about ships. China built half of the world’s ships (by gross tonnage) in 2022, while the US had 0.2 percent of capacity: in practice, this meant that while China builds hundreds of new ships a year, the US builds three to five. “Quantity has a quality all its own” is a quip attributed either to Joseph Stalin or the US Navy, when it massively outproduced Japan. I hope that America’s industrial base is better than the preening state of the Imperial Japanese Navy, seeking comfort in the ornateness of ships rather than their number.11

Can America’s headstart in AI make up for its manufacturing deficiencies? Perhaps. I worry however that one of America’s superpowers is to spin up yarns to reduce the urgency for action. The United States can relax either because China will be pulled out to sea by the receding tide of demographic decline, or Silicon Valley will produce superintelligence — and it will be on America’s side. I’m trying to tell a story that preserves American agency. It is that China will not fade away, meaning that America must reform itself for a protracted contest with a peer competitor. It also has to contend with China’s strengths because it’s a lazy exercise to look only at a country’s weaknesses. If we obsessed only over America’s problems, it would be a pretty ugly picture as well.

The main thing in America’s favor is that Xi has been busy eroding China’s strengths. First, China’s political institutions. Though China’s political system may have demonstrated a greater track record for reform over the last 40 years, things appear pretty stuck under Xi. The US, however, doesn’t look too good either. One of the things I hear among American political and business elites is that the country needs to become much more friendly for high-skilled immigrants, but they see no political scope for doing that work. So it feels to me that the US is treating its deficiencies — an inability to build stuff or create a functional system for admitting high-skilled migrants — as mysteries to be endured rather than problems to be solved.

Second, economic growth. Much of China’s present strength rests on manufacturing leadership. If China can’t achieve reasonably high levels of growth, then the manufacturing advantage will dissipate faster, along with many of its other capabilities. And Xi Jinping has formally de-prioritized economic growth as China’s top task.12 Since he did so in 2017, he has introduced profound confusion into China’s political system, which has for four decades organized itself around spurring growth. Xi may be correct to say that China’s intensive focus on growth is unsustainable — recall that he’s 60 percent correct on everything. The problem is that the vague slogans he prizes like “common prosperity,” “the China Dream,” and “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people” are not a satisfying replacement for the expectation of continued enrichment. 

Xi is talking about national greatness without backing it up with economic growth. The trouble is that when people suffer — as they do through a property collapse, high unemployment, and months-long lockdowns — they start to doubt. When they’re given a cold, hard smack in the face by something that certainly doesn’t feel like national greatness, they start feeling adrift. This sense of alienation has been a big part of rùn.

In other words, Xi is not telling a good national story to help people make sense of economic slowdown. Storytelling really isn’t the party’s strong suit. I’m puzzled that Xi keeps feeling the need to tighten political restrictions around society. Controls on free expression are stronger than they have been in decades. As I’ve written in each of my previous letters, the party’s strangling of free expression has rendered China into a pitiful underperformer relative to Japan and South Korea in the creation of cultural products. What are the great Chinese creations of the last 20 years, aside from a science fiction trilogy published before Xi took office, a short-video app that doesn’t display Chinese content overseas, and a video game that looks as if it’s thoroughly Japanese? Even most of the movies released these days are either nationalist blockbusters, sappy romances, or supernatural action flicks.

I wonder why the regime can’t have greater trust in its citizens for free expression. It’s as if the party has so little self confidence that people will be pleased with the goods it has delivered.13 China today is a country where the governance is increasingly more rigid while the people feel deflated. While Xi is intent on hardening society for geopolitical competition, people are questioning whether they want to be pieces of clay that await molding by the party.

It’s easy to be gloomy about China today, given the obvious challenges with economic growth and authoritarian tightening. But I found myself more optimistic about the future while I was in Thailand. Some people are drifting away from China, and many of those who stay are dreaming of better futures. These are creative acts.

In Chiang Mai, I was reminded of the superb creativity of young Chinese. These kids can meme with the best of them. My favorite thing about the Chinese internet is the velocity of new words: rùn (to flee) and tangping (to lie flat) have attained mainstream prominence, but there are many others.14 In Thailand, people are having the sorts of offline fun that are no longer so easy to find in China’s big cities. They’re tripping out, they’re dancing in clubs, and, the most difficult act to pull off, they’re sometimes congregating to discuss how life can be better. Imagine the sorts of music they could make and movies they could produce if they didn’t have to face an overbearing censor that forces their work to be in line with “socialist core values.”

Chiang Mai also reminded me of the pluralism that’s still possible in Chinese culture. My 2021 letter focused on how the control tendencies of Beijing can be balanced by the more freewheeling and outward-looking commercial instincts of Shanghai in the east and Shenzhen/Guangzhou in the south. Beijing now decisively has the upper hand. That means more state management of the economy and a total lack of embarrassment from government officials to scold, nag, and meddle in the private lives of citizens. The commercial spirit of eastern and southern China may have withered, but even Maoist communism couldn’t suppress it totally. I bet that spirit will live on. Chinese have had 40 years to engage more with the rest of the world, and Xi is not a good enough storyteller to convince everyone to fully turn inwards once more.

It’s easy to forget that the Politburo is entirely made up of old men. Spending time with young people, in Chiang Mai or elsewhere, is a good reminder that the Politburo isn’t representative of the country. The China of the future will not look like the China ruled by old men today. Maybe you’re not convinced that Chinese kids blissed out of their minds on psychedelics will be the sharp tip of the spear for change. I’m not sure I am either. But I suspect that they’ll do good things for the China they’ll one day inherit.

***

It’s time to talk about books.

I’m not sure why I was never able to get into Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Perhaps it is because he reeks of a debilitating introversion, and I find something very suspect about a writer who talks about how difficult he finds interacting with other people. But Knausgaard’s The Morning Star worked for me. Rather than being auto-fictional, he has written something more straightforwardly resembling a novel. It combines the good parts of Knausgaard’s trademark — acute social observations that hide under dribbles of detail —  with plot action that is heightened by supernatural tinges of Christian horror. I loved the social commentary. The Norwegian characters in The Morning Star are people who want to be left alone but also feel a tormented desire to correct the behaviors of others. They default to gobsmacking amounts of drinking. Perhaps it’s not surprising that not one child or teenager in the book could be described as happy.

Though there’s plenty of plot in this book, it still affords Knausgaard his indulgences. The novel ends with a 54-page essay titled “Death and the Dead,” written by one of the central characters in the book. The Morning Star is the first of four novels. It’s with some trepidation that I see that the third book (already published in Norwegian) is called Det tredje riket, translating to The Third Kingdom… or perhaps Reich. Is it going to feature a long disquisition on Hitler, as happened in the ultimate book of My Struggle? Poor Karl Ove. His demons, I fear, beset him once more.

There were so many things I didn’t think about Chinese food until I read it in Fuchsia Dunlop. Her new book Invitation to Banquet is organized around 30 dishes to explain every aspect of Chinese cuisine: Cantonese sashimi, for example, to discuss knifework; and Mapo tofu to talk about the intense flavors that comes from fermenting the bean. Fuchsia raises the questions I have: “Where is the creativity, where the delight, in simply roasting a chunk of meat and serving it with bald potatoes and carrots, as the English like to do?” And I feel like she is speaking for me when she is lamenting the poor use of leafy vegetables in western cuisine: “either overcooked or served brutally raw as some strange kind of virtue,” compared to the Chinese greens, which are “more generously portioned than the apologetic little dishes of spinach served on the side… and cooked as carefully as anything else.” I wish that there was a book like this for every cuisine to introduce techniques and traditions through personal stories.

Fuchsia is a superb writer. The miracle of her books is that she combines extraordinary research with pleasurable writing. The latter comes from her appreciation for the physicality of eating. Her sentences ooze with sensuality on the ravishments of the cuisine, reminding us that food produces physical pleasure.

In November, I was delighted to join Fuchsia at a banquet table to record an episode of Conversations with Tyler. I made a joke at the table about how English people have sex. And I asked several questions, including: why is Indian food so much more preoccupied with long-simmering stews, while Chinese food is made up more of quick fries? How well do we understand the cooking traditions of pre-Culture Revolution China? And given that Chinese cuisine has an elitist focus on Cantonese and Jiangnan cuisine, what might a people’s history look like?

Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth. Everyone warned me how filthy Philip Roth can be, but no one prepared me for how riotously funny he is. Through tormented monologues, the narrator pierced various mysteries of Jewish life for me. First and foremost: their famous affinity for Chinese food. Second, their notion of guilt. Roth was especially fine on the ambivalence of the Portnoy family to assimilate: on the one hand, they celebrate their Jewish differences while trying to prevent their kids from dating shikses, and on the other hand would so like to be treated like WASPs. 

At one point I found myself feeling more sympathetic to some of my Jewish friends. These poor boys. They might be the only people who have it worse than those of us with Asian parents.

The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb. One of the great American cartoonists spent five years drawing the first book of the Bible, without skipping any parts. I loved it. R. Crumb tackled this task with a straight face, not indulging his usual appetite for the grotesque, weird and pornographic. A book this strange, after all, doesn’t require any more spices to be interesting. No need to gussy up the story when you’ve got tales like Lot and his daughters.


I want to say that this is a good way to read the Torah. Genesis and Exodus in particular need to be read with care, and having illustrations with every other sentence forces the reader to slow down. When I previously read Genesis, I had too quickly passed over, for example, Noah’s covenant. Crumb draws God as an old man with a mighty beard, his brows locked in a permanent scowl. He never expressed regret for destroying humanity with a great flood, but he vows to Noah never to do it again. Rather like the Communist Party, I couldn’t help thinking, which has never apologized for the great disasters it unleashed in the 20th century, but would afterwards vow never to drown the people in another Cultural Revolution.

I was delighted to find that Crumb used Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible. That golden-backed translation has been sitting on my shelf for too long without a serious reading. One of my goals for 2025 is to read at least the Five Books of Moses, as well as some of the Writings. I welcome tips on how to engage with this text, including the best way to organize an effective reading group… do please send me a note if you’ve done this.

I spent a lot of this year in the Midwest, and found myself wondering why Chicago grew to gigantic size in the 19th century, remaining America’s second-largest city until as late as circa 1980. Somehow I stumbled on Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon, which tackles exactly this question.

Cronon’s history of Chicago focuses not on its neighborhoods, its architecture, or its political machine. He mentions not a single mayor of the city. Instead he uses economic geography to explain how Chicago became the hinge of different zones. Chicago was the great inland connector of New York with New Orleans, (through canals, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi); it connected the western prairie to eastern oak-hickory forests; and it was a city that connected the hinterlands with the market, the farm with the factory. Railroads changed everything, including Chicago’s economic orientation: rather than gravitating towards the South, pulled along by the drift of the Mississippi, railroads forcefully integrated Chicago with the eastern markets. 

Chicago’s early growth was driven entirely by trade in commodities. Wheat, for example, spurred the invention of the futures contract. Railroad time demanded a loading tempo that could no longer be matched by men carrying sacks of wheat on their backs. Along came one of the most underrated inventions in American history: the steam-powered grain elevator, which allowed storage and rapid unloading of huge quantities of wheat. The elevators encouraged the commingling of wheat from different farmers, which stimulated the creation of wheat standards. These were defined by a private body, the Chicago Board of Trade, from the top grade of “Milwaukee Club” down to “No. 2 spring wheat.” When farmers deposited their grain into elevators, they would receive a receipt of the quantity and their grade, which could be redeemed for actual grain. Soon enough, these receipts would be bought and sold. Voilà. Grain had turned into a financial abstraction and the futures market was born.

Or consider meat. The “disassembly” line for reducing live animals into salable parts may have been invented in Cincinnati, but it grew monstrous only after it traveled into Chicago. This process enabled meatpackers to sell their wares as far away as New York and Pennsylvania, sometimes outcompeting the local butchers. Chicago’s power projection rested on three things. First, an efficient process that utilized even the marginal bits of the animal — everything except the squeal, the saying went — that local butchers tended to discard. Second, refrigerated railcars and storehouses that were kept cool by blocks of ice carved from nearby rivers and lakes. Third, a ruthless salesforce that cut their prices to the bone to break the reluctance of customers from buying refrigerated beef. This business worked because the Chicago stockyards (as cruel and as awful they looked to the casual observer) produced far less waste of the animal they butchered than their local counterparts.

We like to imagine the Midwest as having been populated by earnest farmers and dour machine tool makers. Yes, it was that. Cronon’s book is a nice reminder that they couldn’t have plied their trade without also depending upon the bloody-minded hucksterism of the big city. 

***

I moved back to the United States in 2023 after being away for six years. Here are some of the things I’m surprised have changed.

The two cities where I used to spend the most time — New York and San Francisco — are quite different, mostly for the worse. The bulk of my friends in San Francisco have moved away, in large part to New York. There’s some chatter that SF is “back,” but I don’t sense that everyone is enthusiastic to return to one of the most dysfunctional cities in the country. But New York has changed as well: I feel that city services (like the subway) have become 5 percent worse, while the price of everything has doubled. It’s dizzying to imagine that quite a few people are now paying rents that are close to $10k a month, and some are even over that threshold. I totally appreciate why people with the means are staying in New York. The cultural amenities are great and people are having enormous fun there.


I spent my year in two smaller towns: New Haven and Ann Arbor. There’s a greater sense of sanity in these places. Most everywhere in America, I feel that businesses have seen broad-based improvements. Calling customer service to resolve an issue used to be a dreadful, hours-long ordeal, and it’s been a pleasant surprise that they no longer have to be. Even my interactions with the American healthcare system are not too bad. There’s definitely an issue with labor shortages across different industries, but that appears to be improving too. 

The disappointment I feel mostly concerns food. You can find pretty good food in America at fairly high prices, but you will never be able to find mindblowing food at the cost of a few dollars — which is the default in Asia. Americans who have never been to Asia will never appreciate how one never needs to cook, because right outside will be a mom-and-pop shop that is preparing a meal that is one order of magnitude tastier and cheaper than one could make at home. A significant (though not unpleasant) culture shock for me is to have to cook most of my meals. On this topic, I’m sad that many people I meet have never been to Asia. I tell them: please try at least to visit Japan or Singapore.

The main tension I see in America is that while the real world is getting better, the Internet is getting much weirder. That is, mainstream activities (like selling goods to people) are improving, but the online fringes are becoming incomprehensible. One of the questions I ask my SF friends is what the entrepreneurial 20-year-olds are doing these days. Are they starting a billion-dollar company, or are they more interested in becoming a memelord who is trying to incite a movement on the Internet? I’m not sure we’re seeing a surge of exciting startup creation, but we sure are seeing a lot more online craziness.

The Internet is a very big place. I suspect we’re still under-rating its importance in society. So I wonder how this tension will resolve… will the mainstream integrate the Internet fringes, or will the fringes engulf the American mainstream? Americans today already are able to be polarized around any issue, no matter how picayune, so I’m nervous about how much more strangeness the online world is able to produce. 

For better or for worse, I’ve left Twitter. The platform was my reading aggregator for the last ten years to find information-dense articles. In 2023, that function completely broke down. Elon’s algorithm changes have deprecated tweets that include links, which drive perfectly sane people not to share their source, writing instead “link in bio” or “link at bottom of thread.” And after Twitter removed headlines from articles, it became much more difficult to figure out what I could be reading. What is Twitter anymore? Not the platform for surfacing information-dense articles, but rather mostly shouting and videos.

On this topic, I’m surprised at how Elon Musk has become so central to the culture. Elon is one half a manufacturing visionary, able to do things with rockets, automobiles, and satellites that no one previously imagined; his other half is a pure gremlin on the public consciousness, who uses his Internet following to drive the rest of society towards madness. It’s not just the Internet that pays attention to his doings: Elon more reliably generates mainstream news headlines than perhaps even the two presidential candidates this year. Who else has become a fixture on every pillar of American imperium: tech in San Francisco, finance in New York, movies in LA, energy in Texas, and government in DC. At an academic symposium I recently attended, I was surprised that Elon’s name was mentioned more often by US national security folks than any government official.

Elon has been a major figure for the past decade, and it’s likely that he’ll be important for still another. I feel like we have to grapple with him as a world-historical figure, but rather than reading Hegel to understand him, I reach for Philip K. Dick, who knows a thing or two about derangement. I think of Elon as the eponymous figure in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Both Eldritch and Elon are visionary entrepreneurs with enigmatic ambitions, whose every move provokes nervousness in the existing corporate and political order.  We don’t know what is going to happen to Elon, but in PKD’s novel, Eldritch launches half the population into a shared hallucination and subsequently acquires what may be God-like powers. 

(One of my favorite essays in recent years is by Caitrin Keiper: Do elephants have souls? Photo credit: Craig Mod)

I’m taking a pause on letter-writing. In 2024, I’m pouring myself into a book I’m writing on China for W. W. Norton. I’m thrilled to be working with Norton, which has published not only great storytellers like Michael Lewis, but also some of the best China authors like Jonathan Spence and Fuchsia Dunlop. I see this book as something like producing ten of these letters. I won’t preclude picking these back up again, but only after a break.

2017 was my first annual letter. I still believe in the admonition I wrote there: “Knowledge can compound. I’d like for us to think more about how to accelerate the growth of learning. The traditional method of reading more books and trying to improve professionally are good starts, but it’s not enough to stop there. One can learn more by traveling to new places, being social in different ways, reading new types of books, changing jobs or professions, moving to a new place, by doing better and by doing more.”

I’ve written seven annual letters. Every year, a few weeks after I’ve published a letter, I would open up a new notepad for the following year’s. That’s where I put in data, observations, and book recommendations that should go into the next year’s letter. These notes are not organized. In the last two weeks of the year, I sort through everything, try to coax out a structure, and then write the damn thing. I’ve complained about how much work it demands, but I also want to say that it has been great fun. I don’t understand why more people aren’t writing them. It’s not just about sharing your thoughts and recommendations with the rest of the world. Having this vessel that you’re motivated to fill encourages being more observant and analytical in daily life too.

The good thing about the format of these letters is that they are supple. It took me a few years to figure them out, but I did quickly enough start playing with them, like adding in my obsessions with Philip K. Dick, Italian comic opera, and making fun of Britain for specializing in sound-smart industries. 

Maybe my two best letters are 2020, when I described what it was like to read every issue of Qiushi (Seeking Truth, the party’s main theory magazine); and 2022, in which I entered the mountains and became a barbarian. I’ve tended to find that these letters work best when they’re centered around a location (like China’s big cities or the mountains of Thailand), which one can describe at various angles and altitudes. 

Anyway, I’m hardly taking a break by shifting gears into bookwriting. I’ll share more about the book once I’m closer to completion.

For the record, my favorite part of these letters is the section that everyone tells me they ignored. “Great letter, Dan, I skipped everything you wrote about opera.” Let me remind people again why I’m a partisan for Italian comic opera. “The Italian musical argument is the product of a warmer sun and more splendid skies than the gloomy forests in which Germans dwell. Italians emphasize a tight sense of pace. Momentum is an antidote to Wagner, who too often pins down the listener with chords that barely move. And Italians prize the centrality of the voice. That should not sound like a remarkable act in the genre; but consider the Germans, who too often lose themselves in complex orchestration, forgetting that they are composing operas instead of symphonies. The Italian literary mood is playful: Mozart and Rossini never miss a chance to joke about the sublime. I’m less comfortable around the po-faced Wagner, who plainly craves worship. Italian lyricism accommodates greater emotional range; not just soaring declamation, but also comic grumbling and trembling yearning. That is once more a contrast to Wagner, whose temperament wavers between plunging the singers into a trance and agitating them into erotic screaming.”

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