Browser Interviews: Dan Wang

Baiqu: Welcome to The Browser Interviews, today I'm with Dan Wang who is a Shanghai based writer focusing on China's technology development. Welcome to The Browser.

How to channel Xi Jinping Thought

Baiqu: So, what would you recommend if someone wanted to know more about China's technology developments? I mean, this is your area of expertise, so where would you recommend that they start.

Dan: I spend a lot of my time thinking about things a bit broader than that. Every morning when I wake up, I wonder what's going on in the mind of Xi Jinping, China's top leader, and I try to figure that out, and a lot of my thoughts now are very much concerned with determining what Xi Jinping Thought looks like over the next few years. To do so, I do things like subscribe to Qiushi, which is the party's main theory magazine, the English translation is known as Seeking Truth. In addition to all of my technology work, I write annual letters – basically a very long essay in the beginning of the year, every January 1st – thinking through a little bit more about what's going on in China. (You can find these letters on my site).

Now, my quick summary now of what's going on in China, what people have to realise, is that this is both a dynamic society as well as a repressive one. I used to work in California, in Silicon Valley, and the saying from Mark Zuckerberg was "move fast and break things." And I feel that this is a society that practices move fast and break things, not just in tech, but in so many other areas. And in addition, this  is a society that practices move fast and break people.

So we have both move fast and break things and move fast and break people. And I think we should never forget that both of these things are true, that we cannot let the repressiveness and invalidate the dynamism, nor vice versa. That is a lot of what I try to figure out in my pieces and to try to come to terms with this society that is always very changing, for the better, and also for the worse, it is all a big contradictory mess that we have to figure out how to really understand.

Baiqu: That's very well put. And my question really, which I'm sure everyone is thinking, is how do you wake up every morning and channel into the mind of Xi Jinping, one of the most powerful men in the world, who's also very mysterious? Do you have  a practice, is it more academic, or are you doing a more kind of a spiritual channeling of Xi Jinping in your mind and trying to think about what he might be pondering for the day?

Dan: It's completely mystical. First, it has to be informed by my dreams; second, it has to be informed by the 7:00 PM daily news broadcast of what the General Secretary did the previous day; and third, all of the government's announcements. Once you have this potent mix and we have a result... usually it is wrong. So my track record in fact here has not been a very good one.

Baiqu: But, you know, keep going, hopefully at some point you'll get it right.

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How to find inspiration

Baiqu: Great. Okay. Second question. What would you recommend if someone is searching for inspiration?

Dan: A drive down the coast of California. Every year I try to do this once, to go down the California State Highway 1, which I typically do going from San Francisco – where I used to work, which I think of as my spiritual home – to drive down, not quite to Los Angeles, but to something like San Luis Obispo. It is, I think, one of the most gorgeous drives in the world, where you have a Pacific ocean on your right, you have these gorgeous waves that are coming by, you have these dune hills on your left – every time I go, when I see and smell the sea air, when I can hear the waves, I always think that this is such a marvellous thing. Driving back through also is a fantastic experience.

Now in this COVID year, things have become much more challenging to actually hear the California coast. Now what I have done to try to replace that experience in China is to travel much more in this big country. Three weeks ago, I just cycled from Guiyang in Southwest China to Chongqing, which was around 600 kilometres through the mountains of the Southwest. Another fantastic experience, kept going by bowls of noodles every three hours along with some ice cream to replenish myself, and the scenery really is out of this world as well. But Baiqu, as soon as I can, I'm going to go back and do some camping in Sea Ranch in California and drive down to San Luis Obispo with the incredible Pacific ocean on my right and these beautiful mountains on my left.

Baiqu: Oh, you painted such a beautiful picture.  I've never been to the West Coast, but now I want to go and I want to do this exact route. I mean, I'll have to learn to drive first, but then I will do that. So do you think it's the mixture of nature and being in motion that kind of brings inspiration for you?

Dan: It is the mix of nature, plus being in motion and thinking a little bit more about the built up physical environment. Now the one disappointing thing about California is that in terms of building it is a catastrophic failure. The San Francisco municipal authority has spent about 20 years trying to add a bus lane to the main thoroughfare and so far, it has still not succeeded. In something as simple as houses, San Francisco is very, very poor at building. I'm full of denunciations of San Francisco. And to me, it is a little bit disappointing that it's best work, the Bay Bridge, as well as the Golden Gate Bridge took place nearly a hundred years ago and it has lost the ability even to build something as simple as a bus lane. Consider Treasure Island, which the authorities built in a spate of celebration because they built the Bay Bridge too quickly and I think that  California, rather, isn't able to do something like that anymore.

Now, when I think of my favourite Chinese cities, I would say that they are one Hangzhou, which is close to Shanghai, and the other is Chongqing. Both of them have very different approaches to nature. Hangzhou I think is very well-integrated into nature, its centre piece in the centre of the city is a massive lake. It is surrounded by tea plantations, gorgeous mountains and it is the first place in China where I thought this is quite like the rivers, lakes and woods of Southern Ontario, where I grew up.

And then it's a completely different interplay with nature in Chongqing, in which I feel that the authorities have overcome them. It is a fantastic, vertiginous city, I think the most cyberpunk city in the world, where you go into a building, go up 11 floors by elevator, and come out street level again, you have subways that traverse buildings, and it very much represents a conquest of nature whereas Hangzhou is integrated with nature. And I want to see a little bit more of that in California. So, you know, maybe Los Angeles can represent a conquest of nature, San Francisco can represent a surrender of nature right now. We have neither. I would like to see more.

How to make quarantine more tolerable

Baiqu: Cool, that's brought it right back to California. But I like what you said about Chongqing, I've been there and I never quite thought of it that way, but yeah, I guess it is a real feat in the way that they've built this mammoth of a city.

So next recommendation, what would you recommend, in COVID times especially, to make post travel quarantine more tolerable?

Dan: I spend a lot of time thinking about the operas of Mozart and in particular, the three Italian operas of Mozart. So these are the Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte. And I think the standard, um, ha response to, you know, what is the right Mozart opera of these to appreciate, everyone, usually cites Don Giovanni. I'm going to present a little bit of a dissenting view, and I'll put my bet on Cosi Fan Tutte, which is certainly my favourite of the three. And Cosi Fan Tutte has very much a poor rep among not just musicians, but all sorts of critics, because it's story is manifestly silly and its morality is at best confused, and at worst quite repulsive. And I think what people can't quite reconcile with Cosi Fan Tutte is that Mozart vested some of his very best music into what is such a strange opera.

And, you know, in my mind, I think we just have to accept is that this is a story in which the emotional register far exceeds the dramatic setting. And that's kind of a bad thing, but it is just something that we have to deal with. We cannot ignore that Mozart wrote to some of his most tender music in the duet, which really forms the emotional centre in the opera, in the story. And it is pretty annoying that we have to go through Albanians with disguises and a lot of silliness in order to get there but I say, let's ignore it, the story is dialectical, what we have to do is simply close our eyes and think about the music and not think about the silly Albanians, but in my view, that is the very best piece of music that Mozart composed.

Baiqu: Wow, that's a very strong argument. And can I ask, do you listen to a lot of opera in general? Is that your usual playlist in the background when you're at home working or relaxing, or are you quite eclectic in terms of your music taste?

Dan: Oh, very much so, I'm afraid that my musical knowledge extends from the Italian operas of Mozart through the Italian operas of Donizetti, and Bellini, and Rossini, terminating in Verdi. I know nothing else, but within this canon of mostly opera buffa I know a little bit. So I wonder if there are many other people like me out there Baiqu, what do you think?

Baiqu: I am sure there are, and you know, anyone who's reading this interview, please comment and tweet at Dan so that he knows he's not alone.

Dan: Great, thank you.

Baiqu: Yeah. What is it about opera that draws you in so much? What do you love about it?

Dan: Well, with respect to these composers especially, I think it is a mixture of momentum and thinking very carefully, especially about the soprano's role in a buffa opera in which they are thinking a lot about how to make the soprano's voice as appealing as possible, either to be fully supported by the orchestra or to be completely unsupported, or to be supported only by a few instruments - usually the clarinet, oboe, or a few violins. And then within basically these rules, I think there is a lot to play with. So the extraordinary lyricism of the soprano, sometimes the tenor, but especially the female voices, the thinking about momentum and a tremendous sense of melody.

In my view, these things are not just entertaining, but also it can be very, very profound to have a sense of that Italian style in which you're doing - it seems like they're just offering up pieces of genius and then dashing it off rather carelessly and moving on. Now I think that is such a great impression to convey, and that is very much the skill that I think Mozart mastered to be able to dash off these pieces of music which are perfections and then to move on to the next one. That is not really the sense that we're getting from the German composers, from the Beethovens and the Wagners, are spending way too much effort to deliver drama. I rather prefer the Italian approach.

How to experience China differently

Baiqu: Great! Thank you for that.

Okay, next question – moving far away from Italy, closer to where you are. What would you recommend if someone wanted to experience China in a different way? So not your typical Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, or partying in Shanghai, something a little bit different. What would you suggest?

Dan: Well, partying in Shanghai is a lot of fun. I recommend it.

Baiqu: Yes it is. Alongside the partying, what else should people do?

Dan: In addition to the Italian opera, do let me know if you want to party in Shanghai, via tweet.

But I agree with the premise, you know, thinking, taking a look at something like the Great Wall or the old Summer Palace in my mind has never been all that fun. Um, because these things are not so different to, in my view, from a Google search of the images. It is not that substantially different in a way that I think Google Images can not possibly convey the majesty of the California coast.

In my view, what can not really be conveyed very easily on China are two things: first, the extraordinary dynamism of the society, which I observe closely in Shanghai in which you have things changing all the time, and that is not something that we see very much in the west anymore, in my view.

I used to work in California, as well as New York City. These are by consensus two of the most dynamic places in the U.S., and I don't see that they are quite so dynamic as places like Shanghai, Shenzhen, or Beijing.

And, you know, when I think about the ever-changing society in China, I think about the physical infrastructure, which is getting torn down all the time. People would complain that  you don't have marvellous buildings  from, let's say the Song dynasty or the Tang dynasty in the way that you would have incredible cathedrals being preserved and France, but the plus side of this equation, I think is that things are changing. The physical environment is changing all the time, which I don't see that the Chinese are so attached to these gorgeous buildings that their ancestors have made. They're after brighter and newer things.

We have the central government orienting itself as very much an institution for change. The most important, economic agency is the National Development and Reform Commission – Reform is in the title. I used to be a philosophy major. I studied quite a lot of Hegel, and I think this is very much a Hegelian set up, in which reform can never terminate, there will always just be more contradictions to resolve. And Development is also a wonderful word. I think the worst thing in the world is to be a developed country because the means that nothing new can change what you want to be is a developing country, because things can continue to change.

The other part that I think cannot be adequately conveyed is the joy of Chinese food. I spend a lot of time figuring out where to eat. My favourite cuisines are Shanghai, the broader region of Shanghai cuisine, Sichuan food as well as food from Yunnan, which is the far Southwest.

Yunnan food, to me, is using the methods of Southeast Asian cooking with Chinese ingredients or vice versa. I've always been confused about which was which. But the food of Yunnan is very interesting indeed. Every year I try to go to the mountains of Yunnan to pick the mushrooms, the mushrooms are really the stars of the cuisine. I put on some galoshes, I put on a hat, take a picnic basket and then go picking the mushrooms. The good news is that I've only been poisoned three times, and the even better news is that they keep getting more delicious.

Yunnan cuisine features rice in pretty much everything. You have noodles made out of rice, you have pancakes made of rice, and it can be a very tasty sort of rice product. And third, I think the Yunnan hams are really one of the stars of Chinese cuisine. It can be a really marvellously tasty affair, and between all of these things, I think that Yunnan cuisine has become  more trendy in China now. I hope it can become more trendy where you are, reaching even the far away lands like London. That will be good.

The Cure For An Existential Crisis?

Baiqu: That would be good. I miss Yunnan food a lot. And you're right, rice does feature in everything, there's the rice wine as well, which is very delicious. And I really liked the Yunnan grilled cheese, it reminds me a little bit of halloumi, but it obviously tastes very different. And I think, especially in East Asian cuisine, you don't have cheese featured very often -- in Tibet yes, and then in Mongolia I think there's a lot of dairy consumption, but Yunnan cheese for me is quite special.

So yes, I'm looking forward to the first authentic Yunnan restaurant London. That'd be very cool.

Alright. Next question, and seeing as you studied philosophy I think this is a good question for you to answer. What would you recommend as the best cure to an existential crisis?

Dan: Let me refer to one of my favourite books. So, Olaf Stapledon, who is  a British Hegelian, wrote a science fiction book in the 1930s called Last and First Men. Last and First Men is a fairly short piece of work and it is, in my mind, 200 pages of high stimulation. What Stapledon tries to do is to convey the evolution of humanity throughout 18 different species of humanity, until the point where they reach a star faring species. And the gestures and these books are all something like "let's move ahead by 70,000 years and think about the eighth iteration of the human species." And it is just an extraordinary work in which humanity makes catastrophic blunders, they get wiped out by random things like disease and pandemics and solar flares even, in addition to warfare. But they constantly improve in a Hegelian manner, to become ever better.

And in my mind, you know, what we need to do to get out of existential crises is to try our own hand at trying to pay out the next million years of human evolution, let's lift our gaze above the horizon, not to think about what's going on in the next three months, but let's figure out what's going on in the next 3 million years, this should be a good kick to get us out of our existential angst.

Your favourite board game, hobby, and daily habit

Baiqu: That's an excellent answer. Thank you, and I will check out this book. It sounds very, very fascinating and very close to home.  

Now we're onto our last question, which has three small questions tagged in it. Can you recommend one board game, one hobby, and one daily habit?

Dan: Daily habit and hobbies now are very much more physical exercise. I am cycling quite a lot more, and I am played squash quite a lot more. One is more about endurance, the other is competitive. I'm a very competitive person. And in fact, both of these combine very well in my favourite board game, which is Avalon.

I've been playing Avalon for seven, eight years now, and it is something I think about all the time. The very basic premise is that there are seven of us around a table, three of us are evil, they know who each other are. Four of us are good, in general they don't know who anyone else is. And the aim of the game is for the evil people to insinuate themselves as good people. And for the good people to deduce who the evil people are. Very much like a game of the Politburo, if I can say that.

I play Avalon with different sets of people in different cities, I notice very striking variations between them. So the weakest players tend to be the tech workers I play with in San Francisco. They're poor at judging probabilities. Moving fluidly between good and evil roles and, um, sticking too much with our early deductions, to too much of a degree.

The people I play with in New York, a far more financy crowd tend to be better on every dimension. I think one of these things that's true is that, you know, one of the jobs that is a useful at an investment bank is to figure out how to get your boss in trouble without getting yourself in trouble. And that is one of those skills that tends to be quite a bit more useful in something like Avalon.

And the very best players I know in Avalon are the Mandarin speaker who are in finance that I played with in Hong Kong. Those people are just incredible. And I wonder if it's something in the Chinese culture, which is always having to think about hierarchy, always having to think about social interactions, as well as being very good at deduction, which Avalon demands - if all of those combined to make the Chinese people I played with very good at Avalon, and to what extent, I should really be scared of them, given that they are so good at this game of logic and lies.

Baiqu: This sounds like a really fascinating game. I've never played it, but I want to pick it up. I guess it could almost be a testing ground every time you moved to a new city to try and suss out, you know, who are the characters and who you're surrounding yourself with.

Dan: I should write a book about this.

Baiqu: You should, it's really fascinating, and also the differences that you've seen across the different types of people you play with. I wonder, have you played with creative types, like artists or writers?

Dan: You know, I've heard that the very best people at Avalon are police detectives, because they are just so good at sussing out when people are not being quite consistent – I've never had the pleasure yet to you play with a bunch of police detectives, I hope to have that chance.

Baiqu: Well, this is the third request coming out of this interview, police detectives who want to play Avalon, please tweet.

Dan: Yes, Wonderful.

Baiqu: Well, thank you so much for your time. It was such a pleasure listening to you. I feel like I've learned a lot, I'm sure everyone else will. Have a great evening and Shanghai.

Dan: Thanks. And keep those tweets coming.

Dan Wang:  

Qiushi - the official theoretical journal of the Communist Party of China

California State Highway 1

Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte


Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

Avalon - the board game

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