The large-scale shift to telework brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is prompting businesses around the world to explore new avenues to engage with clients and friends. Harris Sliwoski is no exception, and we are happy to provide this podcast series: Global Law and Business, hosted by international attorneys Fred Rocafort and Jonathan Bench.

In Episode #44, we are joined by Isaac Stone Fish, CEO and founder of Strategy Risks, as well as a renowned journalist. We discuss:

  • What initially drew Isaac to China, where he lived for seven years, and his experiences visiting all of China’s provinces, autonomous regions, and direct-administered municipalities.
  • The importance of interesting conversations in a journalist’s work.
  • Isaac’s new venture focusing on political risk in China.
  • Chinese companies and ESG: The soft complicity of low expectations?
  • The one thing on which Isaac strongly agrees with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
  • What does a post-CCP China look like, and the implications for the United States.
  • Reading, listening, and watching recommendations from:

We’ll see you next week when we sit down for yet another provocative conversation, this time with Kai Friedrich Niermann.

This podcast audio has been transcribed by an automatic transcriber.

Fred Rocafort  0:07 

Global law and global business go hand in hand, but never seem to keep pace with each other. The importance on the global stage of developing and developed nations waxes and wanes, while consumption and interconnectedness steadily increase all the while laws and regulations change incessantly requiring businesses to stay nimble. But how do we make sense of it all? Welcome to Global Law and Business hosted by Harris Sliwoski International Business attorneys. I’m Fred Rocafort,


Jonathan Bench  0:37 

And I’m Jonathan Bench. Every week, we take a targeted look at legal and economic developments in locales around the world as we try to decipher global trends in law and business with the help of international experts. We cover continents, countries, regimes, governance, finance, legal developments, and whatever is trending on Twitter. We covered the important the seemingly unimportant, the relatively simple and the complex.


Fred Rocafort  1:02 

We hope you enjoy today’s podcast. Please connect with us on social media to comment and suggest future topics and guests.


Isaac Stone Fish is the CEO and founder of Strategy Risks. He is also a contributing columnist at the Washington Post visiting fellow at the German Marshall fund, an on air contributor to CBSN and the author of a monthly column on China risk forbearance. A fluent Mandarin speaker iseq lived in China for seven years, he has traveled widely in the region and in the country, visiting every Chinese province Autonomous Region and municipality an impressive feat. He is also a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Truman national security fellow and alumni of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers program and the author of a forthcoming book on Chinese influence in America. Isaac, welcome to Harris Sliwoski’s Global Law and Business.


Isaac Stone Fish  2:09 

Thanks for having me.


Jonathan Bench  2:11 

Isaac, I joked with you before we came on air that you made me feel like I didn’t know anything about China after looking at your credentials. So impeccable credentials. You know, we all have our own story as to why China and Asia drew us in. Very curious to hear your background, what took you there? What kept you engaged seven years is no small length of time. So very curious to hear your background there.


Isaac Stone Fish  2:31 

Thanks, Jonathan. So I grew up in Syracuse, which the Chinese call snow city, and close with my parents and my brothers, but I wanted to get as far away as possible as soon as I could. So when I was a junior in high school, I started looking for adventure programs. And I almost went to Bolivia, almost went to Senegal, but for some reason, which I don’t fully understand, still, I decided to go to western China and to Xinjiang, I think part of it was China just seemed so large that I could never get bored. And then, as you know, you and so many others, I just got the bug and I just kept going back and back and can’t seem to quit the place.


Fred Rocafort  3:16 

As I mentioned during the intro, visiting every single municipality in China is an impressive feat. And I think that perhaps you can let us know what the number is right? I don’t know off the top of my head. But for folks that are perhaps not that familiar with China. This is not a small number, right? We’re not talking about large subdivisions. I mean, they they are relatively large, but still China’s a big country. So we’re talking. My guess is we are talking 1000s of municipalities. So in addition to some clarity regarding the stats, I’m sure that that you picked up some great stories along the way, wondering if you could share some of those with us.


Isaac Stone Fish  3:58 

Totally. So for municipality is referring to the Chinese technical term of it, the the fourdirectly administered municipalities that Beijing, Shanghai,  Chongqing, and Tianjin and then the 23 provinces, the five mostly questionably named autonomous regions like Xinjiang and Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau. And then I don’t personally count Taiwan as one of them, other people do, but, you know, visiting Taiwan as well. And I think I mean, one of the memories that sticks out the most to me was I was having dinner in some one chopstick city in Hunan with my little brother who was staying with me at the time. And there was this Chinese official who we later learned worked for the local tax Bureau, who would sort of come by and say hi, and you know, take a shot of boggio with us and as we were leaving the restaurant, we learned that he paid for our meal which was very kind of him. And I go outside and I see him in front of a fancy car, basically falling down drunk saying, I own this place like, this is my town, like really like, you need anything done. I’m the guy here, you need to not pay your taxes, you need to find another way in. And like, I’m the person that everyone has to come to. And his wife was mortified. And she was saying, oh, Hunan is a city as a as a, as a province with 1000s of years of history with many important historical sites. And we hope that you, you know, will enjoy your visit to Hunan. So she was giving the official party line at the same time that our husband, you know, mid level bureaucrat was talking about how things actually were and was one of those rare glimpses that allow you to see that the way people talk about things is often so different from the way things actually run.


Jonathan Bench  5:54 

I’m very curious to hear kind of your general career as a journalist, is this the kind of thing where you, you know, you have these interactions? And then you start to think of a story? And or do you kind of have a story set in your mind? And you have to go find sources for it? I mean, how does, how does that come about? I assume there’s no linear way to do that. But I’d love to hear more about that process.


Isaac Stone Fish  6:16 

It’s a great question. It really depends on how you’re evolving the story. So sometimes news will break. And then you have to find analysts or people involved to speak about the story. Sometimes you’ll be talking to people, they’ll say something that’s really interesting. And you’ll just sort of go, huh, I didn’t really, I didn’t really expect things that way. When I was in Beijing, I was working for Newsweek, and I was doing more of the straight news reporting. And then, afterwards, before I started, this company, was doing a lot more opinion writing and opinion writing is a lot more of you talk to someone, and they say something and you realize, Oh, that’s different than I expected, or, oh, that’s a different than what I thought the conventional wisdom was. Because when you’re writing an opinion story about China or anywhere, you’re in conversation with the rest of the people who are debating that topic, and so you take something that goes in some way against or hopefully adds value to, or hopefully enriches what the debate is on that subject. It’s not out of a vacuum.


Jonathan Bench  7:18 

You’re bringing to mind all my China stories when I was teaching English there in my early 20s, I think a couple of the couple of things. And I was just kind of mystified, I didn’t know what was going on. So my, my wife and I were newlyweds at the time. And we were in a small town, outside of Deyang, which is in Sichuan Province. And we were just out for a jog one afternoon running through local town. And this was a small, very countryside area. And, and there was a crowd of people, and they were they were beating this guy with rocks and bricks, and I stopped dead in my tracks, you know, 15 feet from this group. And I was, you know, my fight or flight was triggered, and I’m just watching it thinking, do I do I help? Or do I run, right? And so I just stood there, and my wife’s grabbing my arm saying we need to go, we need to go. And it was it was kind of a pivotal moment for me. I mean, I was 20, maybe 21-22. And I’d never seen that kind of I never seen that kind of brutality outside of movies. And I had no context for it either. And so in my mind, as I was in China, I was trying to figure out the backstory for things right, without really any context, just coming in as a, you know, as as a wet behind the ears 20 something, trying to figure out life in general, and trying to do it within the context of what’s going on in China at the time. This was early 2000s. You know, that was that was mystifying for me.


Isaac Stone Fish  8:35 

Wow. That’s really intense.


Jonathan Bench  8:38 

Fred and I can talk China all day, by the way, we absolutely love love having you here with us, because it never gets old. It’s like you said there’s it’s such a diverse place in so many ways. And so it’s kind of hard to just dial in and say, well, Isaac, we only have time to talk about five or six questions with you. Sorry, we have to, we have to cut out everything else. But we are very interested in hearing about your new venture focusing on political risk in China. Can you tell us about it and about your motivation that brought you to this point?


Isaac Stone Fish  9:05 

Definitely. So I got frustrated as I started looking into ESG scores, environmental, corporate social governance, specifically, ways to rank US and global corporations on usually, you know, on their climate policies, but also on some of their regulatory policies and their HR policies. And I realized that, and actually, someone told me this, and they were pretty upset about it. You know, I can’t claim that I found it myself, but that a Chinese company could have say two women on the board, or good climate policies, but make security cameras for concentration camps in Xinjiang and have a high ESG score. And I realized that for China, the way that people would think about some of these corporate social responsibility issues were in their mind very apolitical. There’s this idea out there China has a different political system. So we don’t actually need to target these issues. And we’ll just work on environments and cultural issues that we think we can work on. But I believe this is very much playing into the Communist Party’s hands. And there’s nothing in China, unfortunately, that isn’t political, because the party is an intensely political entity. And so I got into this, because I wanted to see better information coming out about Chinese corporations and US corporations. And because there does seem to be this tendency for people in a lot of different industries, but perhaps, especially in the financial services industry, to not push too hard on some of the political links between the party and businesses. And the one thing that I strongly agree with the Communist Party on is just how central and important it is to life in China today. And I think there needs to be a lot more information out about that.


Jonathan Bench  11:00 

Interesting, it reminds me a lot about the way we’re looking at Wall Street firms that have, you know, they do business with Chinese companies that are listed on our stock exchanges. And we’re kind of looking the other way and saying, Yeah, I mean, we could dig into the morality of what’s going on. But it is really good for business here. So let’s not rock the boat too much.


Isaac Stone Fish  11:19 

Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And I think there’s, there’s the policy element, there’s the ethical element. I mean, there. Yeah, sometimes one of the things I’ll say to people is, you know, you and I might disagree about whether or not it’s ethical to invest in Xinjiang on a region where there’s upwards of a million Muslims in concentration camps. But you know, right now, the US government feels that it’s unethical, and also, in some ways illegal, and therefore, you need to have a strategy for dealing with it.


Fred Rocafort  11:46 

You bring up a very good point, which is that, and I think this is sometimes lost on people. When we, for example, talk about forced labor, which is something that ties in directly to the issue of compliance with with customs laws here in the US, we often get pushback from people who say, well, you know, it’s not as bad as they make it out to be. Or we get people who say, well, you know, there are some prisoners work in the US, and how different is that from prison labor in China, and regardless of the points that they might, in fact, be successfully making. This is something that I keep coming back to a certain degree, it’s it’s irrelevant, right? I mean, the fact that we might have our own issues, for example, with prison labor, or with other issues, doesn’t change the fact that there are laws on the books that say that, for example, you cannot bring in goods that were made using forced labor. Right. So that’s a good point to highlight that, regardless of your sort of big picture analysis of what China is doing correctly or not, there are laws that we have here in this country that we need to, to comply with. And perhaps that’s a good segue into another question that I have, which is looking specifically at international companies, foreign companies, whether they’re from the US or somewhere else that are operating in China? What are their particular challenges when it comes to ESG? I think we can intuitively sense that there are going to be some issues there. But I wonder if you could flesh those out?


Isaac Stone Fish  13:21 

I think the issue for a lot of global companies and ESG there’s there’s a few there’s, there’s not a standardized way of looking at it. And so companies are trying to figure out, how much do they want to emphasize a certain type of ESG over another type. The I would say the biggest issue with ESG is its unwillingness to tackle human rights issues, especially as it relates to China. So there’s the Sustainable Development Goals that the United Nations puts out. And a lot of global companies have have signed on to pushing ahead with these. But in part because of Beijing’s influence over the UN, the goals are written in a way where you don’t really have to tackle knotty issues involving human rights in China. And I’m picking on China here, in part because this is you know, about what you guys do in part because China certainly deserves it, in part because China is far and away the largest market for these companies, you know, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, they’re just smaller places. And so the human rights abuses of those governments aren’t as important irrelevant to us businesses. You know, Starbucks doesn’t see its salvation and everyone in Saudi Arabia, drinking coffee, and just, you know, combining that with the excellent point you were making before Fred. companies use ESG as a PR strategy, and I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. But you kind of think about the counter argument that people make to us about, oh, well, the US does prison labor too. And then you can just imagine, you know, having a conversation with someone at Nike, for example, and saying, Well, great, like, why don’t you try to use prison labor in the United States for some of your products and see how that sells, or, you know, if it turns out, like it actually turned out in this case that you’re lobbying against a bill against forced labor in China. You can try to publicly make that what about his argument, but certainly your customers and shareholders and stakeholders are not going to appreciate it. And so, you know, part of this is ethics part of its policy. And part of its the optics.


Fred Rocafort  15:25 

Your comments remind me of something that one of my friends back in China used to say, someone who worked in this general field, I remember, once we were at Starbucks, and they had a bulletin board with some photos, and they, you know, they had, they had a sign there that said, you know, corporate social responsibility, and all these pictures of the Starbucks employees going to like a nearby old folks home, to take them, you know, cakes and things, right. And that to them was the extent of corporate social responsibility. And I remember very clearly, my friend getting pretty livid and saying, This is not what it should be like, I mean, that’s like a nice first step. That’s a nice gesture with your neighbors. But that’s, that’s not, that’s not really what CSR is all about.


Isaac Stone Fish  16:09 

Yes, exactly. I was well said, Fred. I definitely agree.


Jonathan Bench  16:14 

So Isaac, let’s zoom back, I want to cover some big picture questions with you not just kind of where do you see China going in the next five to 10 years, you know, relationship with the US in the world. But I want to drill down after that into things that businesses individuals should be aware of like, I’m personally wondering, can I go back to China at some point, right. But I’m going to table that for now. Because it’s a very real concern for those of us who deal in China and with China, but are doing it from afar, and kind of seeing how things are rolling out. So let’s start big picture, though. So then we can zoom in? Where is China going in the next five to 10 years? I think Xi JinPing’s continuous consolidation of power within the party is is fascinating and scary at the same time. What do you see happening, you know, there in the next five to 10 years? And and how do you see that affecting relationship with the US where our political cycle is, is for years?


Isaac Stone Fish  17:03 

I’m going to answer that by saying that things that we really do not know, but which I think are probably the most important questions about China’s future. So we’ve we’ve a pretty good sense of, broadly speaking, where Chinese people were many aspects of Chinese industry are, and we can make some predictions on where they’re going. But what we know really so little about is what’s going on at the top of the Communist Party, and how the members of the Standing Committee feel about each other and how much support she has from standing committee from the to Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission in the body that oversees the party’s army, the where the retired elite are, and we still don’t know if she has broad support, among them has very little support. There was talk about, what 510 years ago now of what the former Politburo Standing Committee member john Kong and the former Politburo member bush Eli was doing was an anti party coup, I think those are the words that top officials had used. So we really don’t know what direction that party is moving in, I think it’s safe to assume that it’s going to grow more, both more confident and more repressive and more dangerous. But it’s very difficult to say, I think we also don’t know if Communist Party ruled China is an aberration or a new type of history for China. You know, I think, I always think when when Chinese officials talk about China having 5000 years of history, China does but the Communist Party ruling China’s but what one and a half percent of that, and at some point, the party will no longer rule China. And you know, will that be next year? Will that be 40 years from now? Will that be 200 years? It’s impossible to say. But I feel like the question of where China is going in the next five to 10 years and where us China relations are going? The most important answer to that is something we can’t know, which is what’s going on in the Standing Committee and at the top of the military. And how tight is the control.


Fred Rocafort  19:08 

And listening to these comments. It suggests to me that you would look favorably at the longer telegram just for for those non China junkies, who who might be listening, the longer telegram refers to a recent essay, if you will, about China and about the direction that US policy and probably that of its allies as well should be taking it a reference is to a very famous telegram refers to communication from from a post overseas and this was going back to the Cold War era, there was a famous telegram that basically laid out what the US policy towards the Soviet Union should be so so they’re they’re sort of making that that distinction there. So anyway, that’s that’s a bit of background but what are your views on the on the new China telegram, I mean, because that that’s one of the themes that it focuses on in the fact that we don’t know what’s what’s going on. There’s there’s not there’s no transparency regarding the leadership. But there are bound to be faultlines and the telegram calls for the US to to, for lack of a better word to exploit these. What are your general thoughts on on the telegram? And related to that? I mean, do you think it the prescriptions for US policy are generally correct?


Isaac Stone Fish  20:29 

There’s a scene in Charlie Wilson’s war where they quote an old Chinese proverb I think it’s like sidelong Sharma like Mr. Tsai loses his horse, this idea that you don’t know whether something is going to be good or bad until much later, in this case, it was arming the Afghan quote unquote, Freedom Fighters there. I certainly don’t believe that Xi Jinping should be ruling China. But the question of whether or not the parties should be ruling China, you can’t answer that without trying to think what could or should come next. So certainly a democratic system of governance would be better for China than the current Communist Party. And certainly, there’s a lot of eventualities that would be better for China than its current political system. But there’s also the possibility that, if Xi Jinping gets deposed, the person who takes over is worse, it’s really not hard to imagine, worse leaders coming into power, or, for example, and anti gem, a Japanese demagogue who taps into Chinese grassroots hatred against Japanese people, and, you know, then we have world war three against the Japanese. So I’m aware that it’s a it’s much easier to criticize and say, here’s the problems with this, then to put forth another solution. But one of the reasons why I’m very mixed about the idea of pushing to remove either Xi Jinping, or the Chinese Communist Party from power is what comes next. And that’s all I mean, there’s the oftentimes someone will make that argument there as well, it’s, you know, it’s up to the Chinese people to decide. And it’s unfortunately not up to the Chinese people to decide because of the way their system of governance is. So I don’t know what I think should happen. I’m curious what you guys think, do you believe that China would be better governed or better partner better to its people, if Xi Jinping were in power?


Jonathan Bench  22:34 

That’s a great heavy question. Yeah, I mean, if we’re talking about total elimination of the Communist Party, that’s one avenue, if we’re talking about within the CCP regime change, that’s something else. So I’ll take the first one first, if China is going to do without the CCP, you’re right, that it’s not a small number of party cadres who are still going to be in country, right? It’s not like they’ll just evaporate, they’ll have to be assimilated somehow into the system. And that would be I mean, if you think like, you know, if tomorrow, the CCP were disbanded, we had open and free elections. These are the people who have been governing the country, right for for the last 70 years. And so you’re thinking, well, are we really going to see a lot of ideological changes? I’m not so sure, right. And maybe someone like jack ma could step up and say, Hey, you know, what, I was successful in business, I understand how the world sees us, and I want to help improve that. That may be a compelling message, you know, one of the technocrats steps up. So that’s kind of my first, you know, my first thought I haven’t I honestly haven’t thought about it. Since you asked the question, right? As it’s always the question is always well, is China going to change and most of us are very pessimistic about the next several decades, and we just think, well, we’re gonna have to lump it along with everyone else, until something happens down the road. But if we could write that and say there’s a regime change within the CCP, I think that’s also a really interesting question, which is, what’s been going on behind the closed doors and none of us have access to? Is it going to be better or worse? She had such promise when he stepped in, right, and then he’s kind of grown more authoritarian, over the last 810 years. I wish I could have these political discussions with our, with our State Department and other government officials and get their real inside view on what’s going on that probably we’re not all privy to. And so I would say, you know, do we dom do we don’t? I don’t know, jury’s out for me, Fred, what do you think?


Fred Rocafort  24:24 

Well, I grew up in a community with with a lot of Cuban exiles. And one of the themes that often came up when talking to to Cuban exiles was the fact that the government that preceded Castro’s government was by any measure, a pretty bad government. And there were even people who ended up in exile but had it originally supported the Cuban Revolution, right. So growing up that stood out to me as a great example of this general idea that you’re brought up by that we just don’t know what’s going to happen, right. So we have to be very you know, be careful what you wish for a more recent example that I think of is what happened after the Iraq war. I remember at that time I was I was working in Washington. And I remember having conversations with folks in the bureaucracy who said, there was a reason why after the ouster of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, there’s a reason why, you know, we didn’t we didn’t go all the way to Baghdad. Right. And, and it seems that we’re now ignoring those reasons. So so I think history is full of examples of situations where a bad situation can can definitely turn wars, right. So for me, ultimately, to kind of directly answer the question, if the alternative was China giving electoral democracy a try, then great, I think that would almost certainly be better. But as I think we all recognize, here, there, there is definitely the potential for for something worse emerging out of it, whether that is elements within the party, or elements outside of it, or as Jonathan suggested, that the sort of reformed cadres, you know, liberated from communist theory, a lot of things can happen, right? I mean, there could be for some that might lead in a positive direction for others, it might lead them into into a more more negative direction, right? One, they might turn to ethno nationalism, for example, and or or militarism. So, yeah, I think we have to be careful with wanting the CCP to to disappear, something that we also have to keep in mind, which is that in the case of China, right, you don’t really have an alternative in recent history, right? I mean, it’s not as if the Chinese people can can look to their past to find any alternative model of governance that is relevant. If you talk about a place to take another Latin American example, if you think of a place like Venezuela, it wasn’t that long ago that they had more or less normal governments, right. So it’s not as if the current regime has had that long to really transform the country, right? People in living memory, people remember, remember, governments have a different character, but in but in the case of China, first of all the alternative, you’d have to go back, what seven years and even then the the alternative is one that is not really very practical, the republican government. So I think that given the fact that essentially China would have to come up with something new, then there are clearly some some great risks there. So if we can go for the better scenario than yeah, all I’m all for change, right. But we have to recognize that things could go and a lot of different directions.


Isaac Stone Fish  27:49 

That’s another fascinating thing about where we are today is that Beijing today appears more stable than at any point, since maybe the early 19th century, maybe the late 18th century with with the 10, long Ember. And yet things could radically change so quickly, you know, that regime could disintegrate or grow far more powerful. I mean, we are and I don’t mean to be glibly dark, but we are due for another world war, that this has been, despite all of the dislocations over the last couple of decades, this has been a fairly long period of global peace. And the only thing we know about periods of global peace is that they don’t last very long. So it does feel very easy to imagine a radical change, but it’s difficult to know what type and when.


Jonathan Bench  28:39 

Isaac, are you familiar with a geopolitical artist named Peter Zeihan?


Isaac Stone Fish  28:43 

No, I’m not.


Jonathan Bench  28:45 

You should look him up. I came across him. I mean, I think, maybe five years ago, and I’ll send you a link because Zeihan spelled Zeihan, not the way not Zion. But anyway, he’s, he’s got three books out now. He’s mid career, you know, maybe late 40s. Really smart brain is he’s an American, and he’s got his own, you know, geopolitical Think Tank now. And he’s, his audiobooks are great. So I listened to two of his he’s got three books out, I’ve listened to two, I’m working on my third right now. And he he’s got his political leanings, but he’s, he kind of looks at the whole world, right? He starts your way back and says, Hey, this is how civilizations developed. And, and it was because of the geological advantages of relative countries and, you know, countries that were isolated, like the US is able to be bordered by oceans, we don’t have the same issues that the flat European plane countries do all together, closely together and ease of access to your neighbors and their resources. So he, he also takes very bold stances about what’s happening, you know, what the data is very data driven analysis. And, and his take on China, and he, of course, he takes a take on on every country that that I would say, is it going to be significant in the next you know, 30 For two years, in his books, and you know, in varying degrees, but he says that the, you know, the economic center of China being in the southeast, that that, you know, if something changes within China, it’s going to be the southeastern part of the country, that’s the economic driver pulling away entirely and becoming, you know, some kind of some kind of balkanization is going to happen. And so, interesting analysis, you know, I mean, he made, like I said, he makes bold predictions, and sometimes he’s right, and sometimes he’s wrong. And sometimes we’ll just have to wait and see, but I thought it was a very interesting thing to consider is, is, you know, where we go back to the Warring States period, kind of dynamics where you, we just have relative warlords, and they’re going to be economic powerhouses, and they’ll probably be broken up state owned entities. And you know, and then the technocrats. Right, so it’s gonna, it’s an interesting overlay to think about, well, if China wasn’t able to be held together, then what would that look like?


Isaac Stone Fish  30:50 

That’s really interesting. Mao Zedong before he joined the Communist Party flirted, I think quite publicly with the idea of a Hunan independence movement. So it says some recent precedent to it as well. Interesting, interesting.


Jonathan Bench  31:05 

So let me let me ask a personal question. Now, as we’re getting along in time today. You know, Fred, and I and our China law blog, we write fairly critically about China and CCP and, and try to give a pretty unvarnished opinion about the way business is done in China right now. And how to protect businesses protect themselves from very predatory practices in China sometimes. Are you going to be able to go back to China? Are we going to be able to go back to China? I mean, that that’s a real question I’ve been wrestling with is my, you know, my passports going to expire? My, my long 10 year China visa is going to expire. You know, What are we going to be able to do?


Isaac Stone Fish  31:41 

One of the maybe a few positives of the dumpster fire that was the Trump administration is this real blossoming of debate about China from a much more critical perspective? And I really enjoyed chatting with, with you and Fred about the future of China. And should Xi Jinping be in power, not because that idea wasn’t in the bloodstream, even four years ago? I think in terms of going back there, there’s a few different questions on that. I mean, I might I originally planned to go back in the spring, and I wanted to go back to Xinjiang, I hadn’t been there in quite some time. And I think there’s, there’s now the ethical question of going, which I still haven’t really decided which side I come down on. I don’t know how much one can intellectually hive off what’s happening in Xinjiang with the rest of China, because certainly things outside of Xinjiang are far better. But it’s, it’s the same system. And it’s the same party. That’s, you know, what’s happening in Xinjiang comes from? So I have a lot of problem with that. And I don’t know what the right decision is there. It’s in terms of whether you guys can go back or not. I think it is a question of individually individual risk. But I think perhaps the more interesting question is, how does thinking that you can or can’t go back, change the way that you think and speak and talk about China. And what I found for myself is this recognition that because of the career choices that I’ve made, it’s unlikely, maybe not even unlikely, but there’s a smaller chance than I would like that I’d be able to get a Chinese visa, I find it quite liberating in a way and that I don’t have to change the way that I speak publicly. Because I’m worried about jeopardizing my access. And I can actually just say what I believe, and I can have honest debates with people about where I think China is going. And I think oftentimes I’m wrong. There’s there’s a lot that I really don’t know. But I find it very refreshing to be able to speak about these things bluntly. So the second to last time I was in China, about two years ago, I went to Johnny C, which is my last Chinese province and glad to be able to say that I went to China’s Arkansas I was fascinating to see. But it makes it easier for me now to say, Okay, I did it, I spent my time there. It’s no longer a country that because of the work that I do, that I can ethically go back to, because of the way it changes how I speak about the place and how I think about the place. I don’t have any family in China. Most of my good friends have left. And in some ways it is a it is an abstract point, because it’s so difficult to get into China right now anyway, but I do feel like there’s a strong case to be made about not going when they’re putting Muslims in concentration camps.


Fred Rocafort  34:44 

There’s a couple of points that I want to follow up on. Definitely a lot of food for thought there regarding the ethical question of whether to travel or not. I remember when I was still in Asia, one of the countries that I visited on a regular basis was was Myanmar and The first couple of times that I went there, you know, things seemed to be on the up and up, you know, so so it was actually rather enjoyable to go there. And then after my most recent visit, that’s when a lot of the information regarding the human rights abuses of the rahang is started coming out. Of course, they’ve been having issues with that for a long time. But that was when you had the attention of the world really, really focused on that. And I remember thinking, there’s no way that I can justify making a trip to Myanmar, and doesn’t matter if this is part of what my client expects me to do. The fact of the matter is, we would be going in there we would be spending money on everything from hotels and restaurants and, and buying SIM cards from some, you know, government owned telecommunications entity, and paying all sorts of taxes. Right. So So I remember making the decision not to go under any circumstance, right. And if the company decided that they needed to send a team, well, at least at a personal level, I wasn’t going to be part of that. Yet, when it comes to China, you know that that led me to think a little bit about my own involvement with China. And this was before, of course, the most recent information regarding Shin Jang. But it also made me think like, well, what’s the difference? Right? I mean, you know, if I want to find differences, I can’t find them. Are there really those differences? Right, and there are places where we wouldn’t think of going yet have I been giving China something of a pass. And then the second point, I just wanted to say that I know exactly what you mean, when you talk about that feeling of liberation, right? Once you don’t have to worry about what’s going to happen because you have to go back or because of what could happen to people you work with. After I left the government, I continued to go to China in a private sector capacity for many years. And of course, I was always aware of the fact that my job required me to go back to China, right, there were periods of time when I was living there. And I wanted to make sure that that was not impacted, right. And then now, having pretty much decided that it’s not a priority for me to make sure that I keep getting China, he says, what happens is you’re able to speak your mind, really, that’s what happens. And this might might be more of an issue with more visible persons than myself. But the other thing is that I would be a little bit wary of being an example, or being pointed to as an example of how normal things in China are right? I would not want to be in a position where the Chinese government could say, look, I mean, this guy writes all sorts of nasty things about China. And, you know, he came here and had a great time. And then nothing happened to him. And he was able to enjoy our hospitality. Right. So what’s the problem? Right? That’s something that I feel is more of a concern these days as well. So definitely something we could we could continue talking about for for a long time.


Isaac Stone Fish  37:50 

I think that’s an excellent point, Fred. And I think, with the question of risk, the majority of people like you and I, who do go back to China these days, don’t have any problems. It’s, you know, Michael kovrig, the Canadian who’s been unjustly detained for more than two years now is a friend and it makes it loom larger than it would if you were just a name that I hadn’t heard of, but I do think, you know, on the one hand, because a lot of time corporations have this, this faulty thinking as well, and corporations believe, okay, if I don’t explicitly say, Taiwan province, then I’m gonna go viral on the Chinese Internet, and there’ll be a big problem. And most of the time, and perhaps even the vast majority of times that corporations, you know, don’t call it Taiwan province, they’re fine. It’s just every once in a while Beijing will make an example out of individuals or corporations. And those are what sticks out in our mind.


Jonathan Bench  38:43 

You know, that reminds me of shaggi Ching. Whoa, you know, you don’t want to be that chicken that’s killed to one the monkey, right? Yeah.


Isaac Stone Fish  38:52 



Fred Rocafort  38:53 

So obviously, as Jonathan said, he cannot get enough China. But let’s switch gears a little bit. A couple of weeks ago, we had a we had a guest on who was born in Liberia. And I pointed out to her that I almost went to Liberia instead of going to China when I was getting ready to head out to Guan Jo to to work at the US consulate there. There was an opening at the at the embassy in Monrovia and I asked about it and was interested in in breaking my my assignment to take up this this assignment in Africa. Part of it was the fact that the assignment in Monrovia would have been a one year assignment and then I would have had another bite of the apple. But anyway, it’s looking back. It’s funny to think how different my life could have been right? If I had gone to Liberia. At that point, my life would be completely different. Maybe eventually I would have made it to China, but it would not have been a life changing experience that it that it turned out to be. But it’s always interesting to think about the what ifs. So I’d like to ask you and let’s frame it in these terms, right if you had an opportunity to work with an organization that you respected, either writing or in some other capacity, but they said we want you to focus on Something different. So you can offer a fresh look, what would it be? I know at the beginning of the interview, you said, you considered going to Bolivia and somewhere else when you were younger. But if you had to do that now, right? If they said, okay, we want you to cover a completely different beat, what would you choose?


Isaac Stone Fish  40:16 

I think that’s such a great question. So part of that part of the answer depends on how hypothetical were allowed to be here. So when I was in college, I spent a semester in northeast China and I spent a summer in India. And in both those places, I got very serious stomach illnesses. I got dysentery and I got Shigella which is a form of salmonella. And so I now have to be a lot more careful about street food than I would be otherwise. So when you were asking the question, I was thinking, Oh, I would love to go and, you know, say be the foreign policy magazine’s Africa editor, and live in I don’t know Joburg or Cape Town, or Monrovia, possibly, and just travel all over Africa. Because it’s a place that I’m very ignorant about, and the countries I’ve been to in it, I’ve found fascinating, and I’d love to learn more. But I also am limited by, you know, not wanting to be in Chad and, you know, kind of hunched over a toilet for three days instead of outside reporting. So, you know, maybe the region would be Latin America. Maybe it would be. It’s such a fun question. But yeah, I mean, maybe it would be something that would allow me to, you know, kick around Argentina and Chile and Bolivia, and then spend a lot of time in the mountains. If we’re if we’re just being very, very hypothetical here.


Jonathan Bench  41:44 

Isaac, it’s been a quick 4045 minutes. I mean, it’s been absolutely a lot of fun having you with us, and we appreciate you taking the time to be with us today. We always like to end our podcast by asking for recommendations, something you’ve seen something you’ve read something you’ve listened to lately, that would be of interest, it can be International, it can be domestic, you know, wide open, what do you have for us?


Isaac Stone Fish  42:08 

So I started reading this book called The Sunlight Dialogues by John Gardner. And he wrote a book that I remember reading partially and resenting in high school called Grendel about a wolf told from the monsters perspective, and it was so eye rolling. And this book now the sunlight dialogues feels so fresh to me. And it’s it’s really enjoyable reading something that feels very pleasant, but also challenging escape. It reminds me of reading Lonesome Dove, which was, I guess, still is one of my dad’s favorite books, and my dad and I don’t generally share the same book tastes. So I put off reading it for a very long time. But when I did read it, I thought it was such a such a journey, such a really lovely journey. So Lonesome Dove and the Sunlight Dialogues.


Jonathan Bench  43:01 

Great. Thank you, Fred, what do you have for us today?


Fred Rocafort  43:04 

So I would like to recommend a movie from Taiwan, the English translation is little big women. And in Chinese, the name is way so good on the Google and wait other way. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch, but it’s it’s entertaining. It’s well done. It’s fun. So if you’re looking for some relatively light fare, this is a good movie, you know, bit of a family drama. One of the things that I liked about it the most is the fact that it’s almost entirely in Taiwanese, so there’s very little oil you spoken throughout the movie. So if you’re looking for something to practice your Mandarin, this is definitely not it. But if you’re curious about about the Taiwanese language, or just more generally about about Taiwan, Dan, check it out. It’s on Netflix. What about you, Jonathan?


Jonathan Bench  44:00 

Recently, I was able to tune into a discussion by a Utah new governor Spencer Cox. He spoke at the Harvard Kennedy School on the general topic of, you know, governance, governance, government and incivility. I learned quite a bit about the way he was he was running off against former Utah governor and former combat twice Ambassador john huntsman, so no small feat that he beat him in the Republican primary and then went on to win fairly comfortably in the in the general election. And he’s young, I think he’s 45, local Utah guy grew up on a family farm in a rural part of Utah. Very interesting. background. And you know, he’s one of the things that resonated with me Was he said, I didn’t, you know, my wife and I talked and we didn’t want this, right. None of it. We didn’t want to do this, but we felt like it was the right thing for us to do, which I thought was a real fascinating thing. And you don’t hear that a lot in politics. Right. And so he had, this was about an hour long conversation. Great q&a from from the the master’s level students who are tuning in. And I don’t know that it’s available online yet it says it may be available on YouTube at some point. But as a shortcut to that he’s he suggested tuning into his short 15 minute, first State of the Union address. And I think it gives you the flavor of, of his governance and something I love him and I walked away from this conversation, I went into it feeling still very much jaded. Over the last year, you know, politics had had turned me off completely off of politics, partly because I don’t like fighting, partly because I think that politics is a great way for really smart people to waste a lot of time and money. And so I had a hard time grappling with where we’d come, you know, not not referring to, you know, President Biden being elected, but just kind of where we come in American politics. And, and I was kind of sick of it all and, and listening to Spencer Cox talk about, you know, about his style of governance, and really about how there’s so much more that we have in common between rural communities and urban communities, you know, gave me hope, right, it gave me hope. And I texted my friend who had coordinated this, one of our former guests, actually, James Moore, who is another China expert that Isaac, we should introduce you to because he’s a great guy to know. It just gave me some hope. I texted him, I said, Hey, you know, this gave me some hope. And maybe we can fix this mess, right? And so I felt like if you’re sick of the regular politics, and you want a little breath of fresh air, I recommend checking it out. Well, I said, We want to thank you again for being with us. We hope we can pick your brain again sometime because we certainly share a lot of the same interest and appreciate your your questions that put us on our toes for a little while as well.


Isaac Stone Fish  46:38 

I really appreciate the time and great to chat with you guys.


Jonathan Bench  46:44 

We hope you enjoyed this week’s episode, we look forward to connecting with you on social media to continue discussing developments in global law and business. This podcast was produced by Harris Sliwoski, with executive producer Madeline Williams music composed by Steven Schmidt. Tune in next week for another episode. We’ll see you then.


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