Clay Baldo is no stranger to China

Politics & Current Affairs

Clay Baldo, creator and host of the Strangers in China podcast, talks about the third season on the chaotic Shanghai lockdown of 2022.

Illustration for The China Project by Derek Zheng

Below is a complete transcript of the live Sinica Podcast with Clay Baldo.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with The China Project. Subscribe to Access from The China Project to get access. Access to, not only our great daily newsletters, but to all of the original writing on our website at We’ve got reported stories, essays, and editorials; great explainers and trackers; regular columns, and of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region, to Beijing’s struggles as it eases off on COVID-19 restrictions. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

This week on Sinica, I am delighted to welcome Clay Baldo, the creator of the amazing Strangers in China podcast, which I am proud to say is a part of the Sinica Network here at The China Project. If you are not familiar with the show, please give it a listen. The first seasons are fabulous, and as you will see, Clay has produced just one hell of a good show — the sound design, the mixing, the subjects, the characters, the topics that he covers, and really especially just the guests that he picked. If you like great radio magazine format shows, you will just love Strangers in China. Folks, I am happy to announce that in a day or two, we will be releasing the first episode of the latest season; that’s season three. And you are in for a real treat.

I don’t know what awards are out there for podcasts, but this one deserves a big, old fat nomination, as it is just a fantastic example of what this medium can do. The season focuses on the Shanghai lockdown of the spring and early summer of 2022, which Clay and his girlfriend experienced, and which Clay documented. And today, we are going to be talking all about Strangers in China, season three. Clay Baldo, welcome to Sinica, and congrats, man.

Clay Baldo: Thank you so much, Kaiser. It’s an honor to be here. It really is. I love your show and I love being able to work with you guys, so it’s been such a pleasure.

Kaiser: Well, you make it really easy because I mean, as we will get into, you just give me a finished product that I have almost nothing that I need to do to. So, I mean, that’s just fantastic. But let’s start in, maybe you can give us a little bit of a preview of, well, this episode, which listeners will be able to hear just very shortly, but also a little bit about the remaining episodes in the series. Tell us whether there is an overall story arc to the whole thing and maybe what some of the through lines are that tie the thing, the whole series together.

Clay: Yeah, so I think in a lot of the coverage that I read about the lockdown, a big, not that it’s not well reported, and not that it’s not thorough, I find a lot of it really incredible and amazing. But one of the things that I think is missing usually is the “how”. How does this lockdown work on a day-to-day basis? How is it that a person goes about living through a time like this? When we were going through the lockdown, from my friends and my family in America, there was a lot of confusion or misunderstanding about how locked down exactly we were and what a day-to-day in the life was really like. And that’s what I really focus on in my first episode.

Kaiser: And that’s the title of the first episode — A Day In the Life.

Clay: Yeah, exactly.

Kaiser: I was hoping you were going to pick Beatles’ songs as titles for all the rest of them, but you didn’t go that way.

Clay: Yeah. Well, I guess China is trying to “let it be” right now, so we’ll see how that is. But yeah. Basically, the reason I started with Day In the Life is because I think it really situates our listeners nicely into what it feels like on a day-to-day basis when you’re underneath such this massive apparatus of red tape and policy and being under the thumb of a jūwěihuì 居委会 and being around all these people that you barely know in your neighborhood and stuff like that. I think I needed to be able to capture that first, because so much about what the lockdown is, for the people who experienced it, is living day-to-day and living in a neighborhood in a big city in China.

Kaiser: And that’s what your focus is.

Clay: Yeah, the first episode, for sure.

Kaiser: Yeah. We’ll get into what a juweihui is and what a xiǎoqū 小区 is, the neighborhood, the level at which you look at this. What about the following episodes, like the second one, third and fourth? Yeah.

Clay: Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. The first episode is really about before the lockdown. My xiaoqu, we were locked down actually in March. The official citywide lockdown starts in April, but we were actually locked down for about 11 days, right towards the end of March. And so, I focus on a city that is going into the lockdown in that first episode. And then my second episode really gets into the meat and potatoes of the day-to-day life of lots of people around the city. And I got a lot of really interesting perspectives to share just on a day-to-day what a normal person in Shanghai’s life looked like in this incredibly crazy time. Listening back to all of the audio, the thing that you have to really understand on a fundamental level is what made this so hard was not that any given day was very terrible. Most people — most people survived this.

Most people got out of this without any particular grievous harm to their person in any way, but you can’t underestimate the level of anxiety of being under this incredible lockdown. And on a day-to-day level, I just was listening to audio of one of my friends and he was saying like, every conversation that we have is about the lockdown, because that’s all we can think about all day long.

Kaiser: Right.

Clay: And you hear about the harrowing stories, and all of that just lives in your brain every day, all day,

Kaiser: Lest anyone stop now and not think they want to go on with this, I want to offer this up as a prophylactic because this is not exactly a season-long expat whine session. It’s not you guys just winging about how awful things are. Yeah. I mean, it’s really, there’s a lot of small heroism in it, and there’s just about you guys coming together. I mean, it’s you and all your neighbors knitting yourselves together into a real community. It’s actually got a lot of feel good in it.

Clay: No, absolutely. You know what, I would say it’s a very un-whiny few episodes. More than anything, you have to understand, you have to be immersed. I want to give people that sense that we had of the anxiety. But I think in a broader context, the thing that this lockdown was really about was about togetherness. I think we’re going to be getting into more community in a few minutes here, but the unprecedented thing here is the way that people in your xiaoqu, the way that people in your neighborhood really came together and created a new sense of community that I don’t think we’ve ever had ever in such a big city or in Shanghai. That was the thing that’s unprecedented here. The lockdown was not unprecedented.

The anxieties were not unprecedented. I think the really unprecedented thing, the thing that’s the real reporting here is how people came together in such an adverse time.

Kaiser: Yeah. So, episode two is about the meat and potatoes of actually how it went. Episode three is about these camps, these fāngcāng 方舱.

Clay: Yes, exactly. I was lucky enough that I talked to probably 10 or 15 people who were at a fangcang at some point, but there were three who allowed me to interview them for the podcast, two of which you are not going to know anything about. You’re not going to hear their voices. You’re going to hear their story, and that’s about it. You’re not going to hear any details about them. They were very worried about repercussions of speaking to me. But one of them, unfortunately… certainly not unfortunately, it’s an incredible story, but the person that I got to really open up and talk to me, and I’m allowed to disclose his information, is one of my foreign friends who had just such a harrowing experience going through that. and I was talking to him, bringing… Talking to him about it, brought tears to his eyes in sort of the realization of how much fear he had through that process and how much it broke him down to be able to have to go through just an awful period of his life.

Yeah. I mean, that episode is really going to be a tear-jerker, I think a lot of people are going to be able to relate actually deeply with him because he is just an such a wonderfully empathetic person. But yeah, his story is really incredible, so I’m really glad. The first three episodes are really the kind of what you kind of expect. Not expect exactly. There’s a lot of really crazy and interesting stories within each of these episodes. But the fourth episode is the one that I’m most excited about because it’s sort of about the end of the lockdown. And it really felt like the end of just the beginning. That June, late May and June where it was like Shanghai felt like a powder keg.

It felt like anything could have popped off anything. There was so much energy and excitement about being released, and there was so much anger amongst people that I talked to. And the real story is that there is just sort of completely unorganized, completely sporadic, completely spontaneous groupings and partying that would just be happening all throughout the city, where people all just got the same idea. We’re unlocked and there’s nowhere to go, let’s go meet on an Anfu road, let’s go meet on Huaihai, let’s go meet on 乌鲁木齐路Wūlǔmùqí lù and just have these incredible street parties in a way that, just under the Xi Jinping administration, I feel like, has not happened at all. Those things have been completely erased from Shanghai, essentially, and the spontaneity of these incredible gatherings where there was just such an outpouring of emotion.

I remember just seeing people gathered in groups crying together and people expressing their… And I caught a bunch of it on tape. I mean, there were so many people who were just out and about willing to talk to me on those nights.

Kaiser: Yeah. And they gathered once again at the end of November on Ürümqi lù (路, road). So we will talk about that as well.

Clay: Well, before that “infamous gathering” or famous gathering, however you’d like to look at it, that was the site of the first huge we’re unlocked party. I think it was May 27, I can check the date on that, but May 27, all these young people have seemed to be unlocked or… I even talked to people who broke out of their compounds and spontaneously just gathered around there. And there was quite a debate and there was quite just a huge online social media reaction to, “Oh, these rowdy kids gathering and partying in the streets. They’re so annoying.” Or, “God bless those kids for still having the resilience to be able to enjoy themselves in such abject times.” I think a lot of what you’re seeing now in the past couple weeks has been…The crucible for a lot of that spontaneousness, that gathering comes from those end days of lockdown.

Kaiser: Yeah. Interesting. So, let’s get back to your approach, which I thought was really terrific. I would say that there’s something Hessler-ian about the way that you talk about your neighbors and present them with all their quirks but also with all the dignity that they really deserve. There’s never a sense that you are belittling them, that you’re looking down on them, which I really loved about it. And like I said, this is not like some expat winging session. It’s quite great. But one of the main characters isn’t an individual, but an institution. And it’s something that anyone who’s lived in China has experienced before. But I think we should break down exactly what a juweihui is, a neighborhood committee.

You have a very complex relationship with the juweihui of your xiaoqu of your neighborhood. Can you talk about that, the good, the bad of the neighborhood committee in your experience?

Clay: Yeah. So, the first thing I want to preface talking about the juweihui, first of all, I just want to thank my friend, Dan Macklin, who works for The Diplomat because I talked to him through this process, and talking to him allowed me really to empathize with the people in the juweihui. And I do empathize with them a lot. So, you have this group of people who, for the most part, in normal circumstances, I’m not going to say that they don’t do anything, but their role is very minimal in sort of the administration of the neighborhood. I know that they have projects that they work on, and they work a lot with the older residents in the community a lot more, and they have a lot more interaction there. But generally, they’re not an intrusive part of your life living in Shanghai.

Kaiser: Right.

Clay: My empathy extends to them because all of a sudden they are tasked with the ultimate management on the ground level of a policy that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense when you look at sort of the directives that they’re given. And then they have to manage it. They have to make sure that we all stay within our compound. They have to make sure that we stay within our houses. Although that didn’t happen all that much. And they have to deal with a lot of young people, people my age, let’s say, who fight with them, who yell at them, who hassle them constantly. But the reason that they are being hassled constantly is because the inconsistency with the way that they do their jobs, with the way that they… Mostly, the more important thing is the way that they inform us.

Everybody I talked to when it came to their juweihui had so little information about the proceedings of what was to happen. How long were we supposed to be locked down? When was the consistency…? Like, there was no consistency to when testing would happen. There was no consistency as to whether when they would knock on your door and bother you. And there was no schedule whatsoever. The government did provide us rations often during this lockdown, so we had food; most people had food. A lot of people had food, some people didn’t. But we just never got any kind of schedule from them. So, that made our lives very, very anxious. That’s like the small thing.

The thing that really got to me is that they, maybe because they didn’t have any other options in their mind, or they didn’t have the manpower that they needed, or their surveillance systems just aren’t up to snuff, they would do really cruel things. They would lock people inside of their buildings. I think we were a very lucky xiaoqu. But one of the things that you see with the uprisings around the fire in Urumqi is that what probably happened is that there were some kind of COVID restrictions. And like the ones that we saw in my compound where they locked people into their apartment building. There’s a padlock over the door. And who knows who has the key. And the people in there did not get any notice for days as to what even the problem was or what was even happening in there. When they would call the juweihui, they would get answers like, “Don’t bother us. We don’t know. We can’t talk about it.” So, you’re locked inside of your freaking house.

God forbid there was a fire. It didn’t happen to me. It didn’t happen in my building. I live on the ground floor. And so, there was no way that they could have locked me into my house. I have a little courtyard in the back of my house, so there’s no way… I could have escaped if there was a fire, let’s say. But I thought about that a lot. I was like, “Oh gosh, I’m so glad I live on the ground floor so I can escape if there’s a fire.” That’s the kind of sick stuff that goes through your head when you live under a very mercurial and strange juweihui regime.

Kaiser: You’ve talked quite a bit, Clay, about anxiety, about the anxiety that you experienced, the anxiousness, and about the crazy stuff that goes through your head. Mental health is a big focus of this series.

Clay: Absolutely.

Kaiser: You start off right away talking about your own mental health. It’s a very raw podcast in a lot of ways. It’s candid in a way that I think will make some people feel a little uncomfortable. But to my way of thinking at least, it’s unquestionably brave and really admirably honest. And for what it’s worth, at least it’s made me feel comfortable in asking you to talk about your feelings when it came to opening up to this extent. So, could you talk about that? I mean, what does it feel like to just speak so frankly about your own mental health issues, about depression and about anxiety that you were suffering?

Clay: Yeah. Maybe it’s my generation, maybe it’s my, I don’t know, just my sense of privilege maybe that I feel like I’m open to talking about my mental health. I’ve always been that way. I think, much to my parent’s chagrin, I’m very open about just sort of my feelings and telling, being honest about all of those things. That just comes naturally to me, I think. But I think I might get some criticism about like, “Oh, you’re making this podcast all about you when you talk about your mental health.” And okay, that’s fair. But here’s the thing, everybody that I talked to, I asked… You know what, the most important question I asked them was, “How’s your mental health through all of this?” And everybody that I know had anxious, intrusive thoughts about death, about despair, about just this uncertainty that just lives inside of your body and shakes you on a daily basis.

Everybody felt that way. I don’t have the right to speak about other people’s mental health. So, I’m just using myself as a case study to represent what I think all of us were going through to some extent. That said, I think people will be… it’s like it definitely needs a sort of a trigger warning. The second episode is going to get really dark about my mental health, because I’ll tell you this story. I won’t give all the details so you can listen to it in the second episode of the podcast. But essentially, I had a major mental breakdown, and that had never happened to me, ever. I’ve always had depression. I have not always had anxiety. But I did have this major break with reality, with my sense of sanity, where I just… There were a few things that had happened throughout the lockdown leading up to this specific day that it happened, where I felt like everything felt so out of control and so beyond my purview of being able to keep myself healthy and keep going.

And so much of my issue, I think, is that I bottle a lot of things up. My girlfriend would be upset and pessimistic and expressing her depression on a daily basis to me. And I was like, I can’t hear it. I got to keep chugging along if I’m going to continue to make the podcast, if I’m going to continue to be able to handle this. My thing is I do compartmentalize. And so, it just broke, the floodgates kind of broke open at that moment. I think everybody has had this happen. I think one of the things that triggered it was I had this… well, I’ll save that part for the podcast. You get the gist of-

Kaiser: As long as it wasn’t me breathing down your neck about your deadlines.

Clay: Oh, gosh. Yes. Well, that’s a huge part of the second episode is me complaining about you so we’ll –

Kaiser: I’m going to edit all that out, though.

Clay: You can edit it out. No, but so yeah, mental health, I think that’s going to be the lasting effect of these lockdowns. Yeah, of course — of course, I’m not trying to underplay the people who actually died through this process, and I’m not talking about the people who died of COVID, although there are some, I’m talking about the people who had died from not being able to get to the hospital, from suicide. That was a huge problem. I’m not trying to diminish that in any way, but I’m just saying the lasting consequence of all of this, I think, is going to be a collective anxiety, depression, etc. Sorry, one more thing I want to say about mental health, I think sort of my thesis, my thesis here is ever since 2020, something’s been wrong with me. I felt this anxiety that I’d never felt before, intrusive thoughts that I’ve never had before.

And I felt like all of Shanghai, this is generalizing, a lot of my friends put the lockdown behind them in 2020, and I always held onto it. I think that there was this sort of creeping melancholy in my life. And I’m a very gregarious, very happy person generally. A lot of this, the stuff that I investigate is how has my environment really shaped my mental health? And I think, yeah, so that’s important.

Kaiser: For any listeners who are interested in mental health and the lockdown, don’t forget that we did do an episode with George Hu, who’s a clinical psychologist and he’s living in Shanghai and really had some terrific, thoughtful things to say about the mental health crisis that he witnessed during the period of the lockdown. So, check that out. Clay, onto something that isn’t… It’s from the polar opposite. I don’t know. I think for anyone who hasn’t actually tried to make a podcast, to create a podcast themselves, I’m not sure that you appreciate how much work goes into making something, especially the kind of show that you did. And you’ve done this all by yourself. I mean, to you, listeners, if you have ever heard one of these multilayered radio magazine-style podcasts and listen to the credits, at the end, you’ll hear a dozen names, or sometimes even more.

There are a lot of people involved. But Clay, I mean, you give me a kind of superfluous credit for mastering the show. But really, I mean, in the case of your most recent episode, all I did was bleep out a few swear words. I mean, it’s all good. Sorry, I had to do that. My boss insists that we do that. I mean, look, all the music, which was, by the way, really well chosen, all the ambient sound, the great transitions that you did, just the types of sound that you included. I mean, as a veteran podcast producer myself, I stand in awe. I mean, really, it’s fantastic. So, how do you do it? I mean, how do you keep all of that? First, like that tape, how do you keep all that tape logged and all that straight? I mean, it would be a mess if it were just me doing something like that. It was amazing.

Clay: I don’t know. I guess, sorry, I have nothing to compare it to. I’ve worked on other shows before. Nothing nearly as complex as, especially what I did with these episodes. But I guess the secret, the only secret to podcasting, doing this kind of podcasting is like, okay, if you want to do it, you have to put in the time.

Kaiser: Just do it.

Clay: You got to put in the time. And I think being very passionate about the people that I know. You talked about this. You said that I do a good job at humanizing the people around me.

Kaiser: You do. Yeah.

Clay: Thank you. I appreciate that a lot. And I know that I can get some criticism about that as well. But for me, I just really find… I don’t make any podcasts really about people I don’t really like, or don’t respect or don’t appreciate in some way. And so, the love is real, the love for the people in my neighborhood is real. Some of these people literally kept me alive through this lockdown. And then some of them were just friendly and great people to have around to keep your spirits up. So, you know what this podcast really is for me? It’s a love letter to Shanghai. It’s a love letter to my neighborhood because I think these people are amazing. And I would never want to do them injustice by A) misrepresenting them, or B) just making some crummy podcast that doesn’t sound great. So, there’s no option for me. I have to make it really good. I have to make sure that I do right by the people that I want to represent in the show. That’s all I can say about it. Yeah.

Kaiser: You just bring in like a huge range of different perspectives in this podcast. And one of the things that I really like about it is it’s not just English speakers at all. I mean, but you do something, you make an editorial choice, which I thought it was really interesting. And I want to ask you a little bit about this. I’m pretty sure that a lot of our listeners do speak and understand Chinese. But what struck me was that how you would… I mean, I know there are a lot who do not. That’s the thing is I know there’s plenty who don’t. And so, usually when I use a Chinese word, I try to explain what that means or whatever. I’m sometimes very frustrated that I can’t bring on non-English-speaking guests because there’s no way to just simply subtitle audio, right?

And so, often what NPR will do is they’ll have somebody just voice over it in translation. Usually somebody of the same gender maybe, or whatever. Somebody who will maybe have you in a Chinese accent so that it just sounds more authentic. But you don’t do anything like that. You don’t do that thing where you fade and then just overdub a translation. Instead, you’ll sometimes paraphrase afterward. And sometimes you don’t even bother with that. What was the thinking here? Because it’s hard for me, as somebody who does understand Chinese, to imagine the experience of a listener who doesn’t.

Clay: I got to be honest with you, there’s a trolley kind of side of myself who just said, “You know what? Screw it. You know what, if they don’t understand, let them not understand.” That was part of it. The other part of it that’s very real is that dubbing stuff over, if you don’t have a huge crew of people that you can pull from, is a lot of freaking work. Again, when it comes to representation, representing the people well, you really, you got to bring people in. You got to find the right voice for those people. And truthfully, some of the characters that live in my xiaoqu, I couldn’t dub them over. These people have such unique voices and such great senses of humor that if I dubbed over them, it would be a huge disservice.

But also, I think it gives a real sense of what the neighborhood is like and what my experience is like. The one thing that I’m a little worried about is that I think people are going to hear some of the stories or that they’re going to hear the way that I am in the neighborhood and go, “Come on, this is a load of crap. This guy can’t be this such a gregarious guy. He’s walking to throw out his garbage and he’s talking to all these people.” It’s no lie. If you ask the people in my neighborhood, they’re like, “Oh, there’s the mulleted laowai who is just super kind and always wants to talk to everybody.” I do. I really do talk to everybody.

Kaiser: And you really do have a mullet. It’s a curly mullet. It sounds amazing. I’m looking at it right now.

Clay: I do, and-

Kaiser: You wear it proudly. Yeah.

Clay: Yeah, or lazily. That’s always the thing. Just like with the dubbing, there’s a hint of laziness and everything that I do, and there’s a hint of…

Kaiser: Trollishness.

Clay: True care that I put into everything that I do. But no, I couldn’t. I didn’t want to dub over these people. I think they sound great, and I think it works. I think it sounds good.

Kaiser: Yeah. No, it worked for me. But again, like I said, I understood them even though some of them sometimes kind of slipped into a little bit of Shanghainese. How would you connect, Clay, how would you connect the lockdowns that you lived through with the protests that we saw break out over the weekend of November 26th? Do you see a direct sort of line between those? I mean, we talked about the gathering on Urumqi Lu. But aside from that, I mean, do you feel like having emerged from that whole experience, did you feel like there was still this sort of unresolved anger that you knew could be lit again that was like still dry tinder?

Clay: Yeah. I’ll start by kind of giving an anecdote about the temperature at the end of the lockdown, let’s say.

Kaiser: The literal temperature. Because that was a hot summer, right?

Clay: Holy moly. Yeah. There was like five or six weeks where it was over a hundred degrees every single day. Yeah, talk about a tinderbox. I mean, it was just ready… That alone, I’m surprised they didn’t light off more protests, more demonstrations.

Kaiser: Well, it’s just too hot to get out there and protest.

Clay: Yeah. You know what? The thing is, if you look at China from a broad perspective, we, in Shanghai, are very privileged. We have the best facilities. We have the best of everything in all of China. And it’s hard for us to be… and we’re also very insulated from a lot of the issues, the problems of surveillance. We really do feel like we’re a little bougie, let’s be honest. We really do live comfortable lifestyles in Shanghai. And so, not everybody obviously, but I think that all of a sudden you have 26 million people who come to realize that their sense of freedom is really an illusion. And that any sense of moving around that they may feel, every sense of privilege and freedom that they have, all of a sudden felt like it could be taken away. You have everybody in the city, whether they admit it or not, all realizes this now. And so, there may be still a lot of fear around demonstrating, there may be still a lot of uncomfortableness with going against the grain.

Absolutely. But for the most part, you have a lot of people who are very smart, very savvy, and very resourceful in Shanghai. And they feel like as much as they may have been part of some economic miracle, they are more and more aware that they are out of step with the world and they’re out of step with the way that the rest of the world has dealt with COVID. And they’re being hindered by that. And so, I think that from now on, there’s going to be a lot of strife when it comes to that kind of thing. But I’ll give you an example, an anecdote from our lockdown in our compound. This was in our compound. Now, I’m not saying in any way that our compound is out of the ordinary. We’re not harboring revolutionaries. Our compound is a huge mix. It’s a real, like a ton of old people and a ton of kids, and then a lot of 30-year-old people who are working.

But two people were trying to leave the compound towards the end of the lockdown. And by what we had read from the official Shanghai government orders, we were allowed to do so. We were designated as a zone that was allowed to move around in Shanghai. So, these two people just wanted to leave and walk around the compound or walk around in the neighborhood, or go where… I don’t know where they were going. They were just going to go for a walk. And the guard told them that they were not allowed to leave. And then the juweihui got involved. One of my friends who you met in the first episode, Ansel, started arguing with the juweihui, and it turned into this massive thing. You had old people, young people, kids gathered around at our guard gate screaming at each other.

And it was not, there was no sense of solidarity with one side or the other. It was a very mixed bunch of people with very mixed attitudes of all different ages. So, you didn’t have just like one generation feeling one way and one generation feeling a different way. No. Everybody was at odds. Everybody had different ideas. And you could see, even within some of the groups of friends who live in the compound, they started arguing about whether it was okay, not necessarily to go out. Everybody kind of thought it was fine to leave the compound, but was it okay to buck against the authority? And there was total disparate ideas about how that was. There’s no monolith anymore. There’s a new strong sense of community within… even if I disagree with somebody in my neighborhood, let’s say, like an older person who has a different idea about what I think, let’s say, there’s still a sense of solidarity in the sense that we helped each other out. We love each other in a certain way, in a way that we never had before. So, I think it’s a dangerous combination, and I think that people are only going to be more emboldened to make noise.

Kaiser: Yeah. You talked about how you guys became more tightly knitted to a community. Can you give us some examples of how you did? What were some of the things that brought you all together that created that sense of community?

Clay: Yeah. Well, again, the juweihui, one thing is that you have an antagonist. You have a group of people… You do. You have the juweihui and you know they’re lying to you, you know that they’re inconsistent about things, and everybody’s irritated about it. So, that’s immediately something that brings everybody together. We’re all grumbling. We’re in the group chat grumbling about, “Oh my gosh, this inane policy, this is so ridiculous. Can you believe we have another test?” That brings people. That was really the glue that brought us together in the first place. Another huge thing is we never knew when we were going to get any of our supplies. So, a huge and irritating thing about this lockdown is that we all came together and did these group buys. I’m sure you heard about all of these.

Kaiser: Oh yeah, tuángòu 团购. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Clay: So, you’d be gathering, you’d have to organize these groups together in your xiaoqu. And anybody who wanted hot dogs, I don’t know, as an example, anybody who wanted hot dogs, you’d have to have at least a hundred people in there ordering hot dogs or else you weren’t going to be able to buy them because you had to buy in bulk. So, that was a huge thing. And then of all of a sudden, we realized we had this responsibility and this power to be able to work together and get things done together. There was one day where we ordered water. You can’t really drink the water from the tap in Shanghai. So, we group bought those big jugs of water, and half of our neighborhood went out there on the day that the water was delivered. And we just had a good time playing games and making jokes while we were delivering water to people’s houses.

And the excitement on people’s faces when they received their water was just, it was awesome. You know?

Kaiser: Yeah.

Clay: Every community that I heard about had like a trading table. For instance, me and Elizabeth were… it’s just us and our dog.

Kaiser: That’s your girlfriend, right?

Clay: Yeah, Elizabeth’s my girlfriend. Yeah. Me and Elizabeth are just two people. And they were giving us rations, when they did drop off rations, they were giving us rations for families of five. So, we don’t need all of that. We would put it out at the exchange table, then we might be lucky enough to grab ourselves a bottle of hand soap, or honestly, people were trading video games, people were trading books, people were trading all sorts of stuff. It was awesome. And then, literally by the end, I maybe didn’t know everybody by name, but I knew everybody’s face and everybody was just like, we were all saying hi to each other. One thing, sorry, this is my hero moment. I’m excited to… I don’t smoke. I don’t smoke generally. If my mom hears this, she’s going to kill me. I don’t smoke generally, but during the lockdown, one of the things that was very easy to get on an individual basis was liquor and cigarettes. I don’t know why, but it was very easy to get. So, one day I got a carton of Zhōngnánhǎi 中南海.

Kaiser: Oh, nice.

Clay: I got the fancier ones. I was like, you know what? I am not spending money on anything, so why not get the fancy really nice ones?

Kaiser: The 彩八cǎibā ones.

Clay: Yeah. The hard pack, right? And so I got this carton, and I swear to God it was like blood in the water for the sharks. Because every old man in the neighborhood was like, “Hey man, what do you got over there? Oh, are those the Zhongnanhai? Oh, those are the –”

Kaiser: So, I always thought that cigarettes were way more popular in Beijing than in Shanghai. But hey, I’m glad.

Clay: Well, that was a different story, but yeah, basically, the reason I started smoking, yeah, Nanjing, if I had to choose, Nanjing is mine. But no, the Zhongnanhai, yeah, so we got this garden, and I was just being… I just wanted to be a magnanimous little (bleep) that I am. Oh, sorry. I opened the carton and I just handed out a cigarette to all of the guys who gathered around. And I felt like such a hero. I was like, yes. I’m so cool.

Kaiser: Father Christmas.

Clay: Yeah. Oh, sorry, sorry, one more thing. One more thing. The other thing that was super fun is I got in a trade war with an older lady friend of mine. And she was the volunteer of our building, her name was… well, I’m not using anybody’s real name anyway, but I call her [Jen Aye 0:42:11] in the podcast. And I was like, “Hey, Jen Aye, I know your son lives with you, you have more people in your house. Here, you can have some of my apples.” And then she was like, oh, she was so embarrassed. She was like, “No, no, no, I can’t accept this. This is far too much.” I’m like, no, no, no, no, just take them, whatever. And sure enough, the next day I found a huge box of vegetables on my front door. And she wrote on it like, “These are for you, for the apples.” So, then I was like, oh my gosh. I have to give her something back because this is way too much. I’m like taking food out of her family’s mouth. So, we got in this war, I mean, it lasted the whole lockdown. We kept on giving stuff back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Kaiser: We had the same thing in my neighborhood with me and my sourdough bread trading for the guy next door with a coffee. And he kept up sort of… He owns a chain of cafes here in town where I live. And so, he kept giving me… I’d find big bags of coffee in my mailbox, and I’d have to outdo him by baking like two loaves of really, really good sourdough.

Clay: Yeah.

Kaiser: Anyway, yeah, it was great. It’s good community building. That’s fantastic.

Clay: Yeah, it was awesome. It was awesome.

Kaiser: Hey, so Clay, as you finally… I mean, I think I want maybe wrap up with this one, but as you know, the whole zero COVID policy seems to be quite abruptly winding down. The wordy now is that there’s going to be a massive wave of illness and maybe deaths that number in hundreds of thousands or even over a million according to some of these models. What would you like to say to your friends and neighbors back there in Puxi, in your old xiaoqu now? Because you’re taking a break from China right now. You’re in Santa Fe, New Mexico, planning going back at some point, but what would you want to tell them right now?

Clay: Well, I’m glad you mentioned this because with reporting on this stuff, it’s become a real moving target at this point of what the policy is. So, I was talking to some friends this morning because I heard the news, maybe yesterday, that they were going to ease stuff. And I’ll give you, let me just give you a sense of what’s going on right now with the people in Shanghai. I have a friend who is not sick in any way, was a close contact with somebody who has COVID. He got a red code and then his xiaoqu essentially was locked down, and he still is locked in for three more days. And then I have two friends who got sick. They’re actually sick. And their xiaoqu doesn’t mind at all. Their xiaoqu, their juweihui sent a bunch of, you know, self-test kits and some care packages for them, and it was like, “Yeah, just don’t leave your house.”

But there’s no guarding their gate. There’s no locking the rest of the compound in. So, the management, the management on a xiaoqu by xiaoqu level, like it’s totally inconsistent right now. They are on lockdown.

Kaiser: I’m hearing exactly the same kinds of stories. The total patchwork right now.

Clay: Total patchwork. But when I was talking to my friend, it was devastating. I mean, she was like, “I’m sick in bed.” She’s got a fever of 102, feeling terrible. She’s feeling better, but not great. And she was saying, her immediate thought, though, was, “I just really hope that my parents and my grandparents don’t get this disease.” That was immediately where her mind went. Everybody’s obviously so cognizant of what it means to unlock. And I guess what I would say to my friends, and especially my older friends is be very, very careful. Do your best to get vaccinated. And it might be more of a lockdown for some people now than it has ever been. There’s going to be a lot more fear, especially amongst the old people. The old people, I will say this, generally, do not give a flying about the policies. They were the ones who are most likely to buck all of the policies in my neighborhood. But they need to be very careful now. They need to be very, very careful because I’m not sure if… I don’t know what prevention measures they’re going to be taking to help the elderly, but if it’s just a free-for-all the way it’s starting to seem, there’s going to be a lot of sickness and a lot of death. So, I’m very worried about them. Absolutely.

Kaiser: Me too. Me too. Yeah. Well, the show is called Strangers in China. It’s creator is Clay Baldo, and episode one drops this week. So, we are going to put it out on the Sinica feed as a bonus, but please, please subscribe to the show itself. Make sure to listen to the shows, and the first two seasons as well. They are truly excellent. All right. And thanks so much, Clay, for taking the time to join me.

Clay: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, thanks so much for having me. I hope it sounded okay.

Kaiser: Yeah, you sound great. Anyway, let’s move on to recommendations. And we’ll start with you, what you got for us, man?

Clay: Yeah. so as far as recommendations go, I know that a lot of your… So, you guys on your show, you guys have like, oh my gosh, you guys have got some of the best China scholarship, etc., coming through to give you all sorts of great book recommendations. And I just can’t compete on that level. So, more to what I do, more to my reporting, I want to report, actually, I want to recommend some Instagram feeds. The reason for this, so there are four people that I really want to recommend, or should I just do two?

Kaiser: Four is great. Go for four, why not?

Clay: Sure. There are four people that I really want to recommend. And my hypothesis here is in a country where you can’t get away with saying very much, where everything that you say is so scrutinized, where all your actions are so scrutinized by the surveillance apparati, apparatuses around, one of the few ways that you can really truly express yourself and give, flip off the polite society is still through fashion. When I’m living in Shanghai, because I’m a fairly gregarious person, I would just see the coolest people I’ve ever seen in my life walking down the street in amazing outfits. And I would approach them. There were several that I would just approach and say, “Hello, I love your outfit. Can I get your information? Can I talk to you about it at some point?”

None of these have proven to make into very good podcasts, although I might have something up my sleeve for later in the year. But my gosh, you have to see these young people in Shanghai and the way that they dress and the way that they comport themselves. And so, I’ve got a few recommendations. I have four. One is fairly famous, which is Windowsen. I don’t know if you’ve heard about Windowsen and his fashion?

Kaiser: No.

Clay: He has designed boots for Katy Perry, and he has designed all sorts of incredible, I mean, really avantgarde stuff. So, Windowsen is definitely somebody that you should check out. More on a friend level, I don’t know Windowsen, but I do know my friend Susu, and we’ll put her Instagram feed on the show notes, but Susu…

Kaiser: Yeah, please.

Clay: … she has got this sort of metal punk rock aesthetic, gothics aesthetic that is just… She also is a designer. She designs her own clothes and designs all of her accessories as well. She gave me a bag; actually, which was pretty cool. But anyway, Susu, and we’ll link to her as well. Also my friend, Lexi, who he is just incredible. He’s much more high fashion. He was a representative for Louis Vuitton and a model for them, and he models on all of the Shanghai voguing runways as well. Let me stop with those three. Those three, I can really vouch for.

Kaiser: Solidly get behind.

Clay: Yes, so Windowsen, my friend Susu, and my friend Lexi. And we’ll put their Instagrams in the show notes because you have to see these kids. These kids are incredible.

Kaiser: Yeah, can’t wait.

Clay: They’re 20 years old and they have way cooler fashion than anybody I’ve ever seen.

Kaiser: Yeah. I mean, I’m known for my incredible fashion sense.

Clay: Absolutely, dude.

Kaiser: I wear the same outfit every day. Anyway, all right. That’s great, man. So, very, very different from what you normally get, so that’s wonderful. My recommendation this week is one that I actually made years and years ago. It’s probably like in 2014 before our show went to the The China Project and the China Project. It’s worth re-upping. I definitely want to do this because I just recently reread this book, and I was even more blown away and just more in love with it than ever before. It’s called The Long Ships. It’s written by this Swedish man named Frans Bengtsson. It was written during the years of the Second World War. It’s apparently very much beloved among the Swedes. It is absolutely one of my favorite all-time books. At one level, it’s just a rollicking good adventure story, a Viking story, of course.

But it’s just shot through with so much comic genius. It’s just funny from beginning to end. The character, the main character Red Orm, he’s a hypochondriac Viking. Real badass, but he’s a total hypochondriac. It’s very, very, very funny. The author just has a really good time, just with his poor grasp of Christian theology, even after he notionally converts to Christianity. It’s just hysterical. And there’s this irreverence about Christianity through the whole thing, which is kind of a common trope with all Viking stuff because there’s the Paganism and the Christianity. But anyway, I cannot recommend it more highly. The humor is so sly sometimes, but also just like gut busting funny in other times. It’s just a rewarding story.

Clay: That sounds awesome.

Kaiser: It’s so great. It’s so great. I heard there was a movie that was made of it in the ‘60s, which basically just has the same name but no content in common. So, skip that. But the book is just fantastic.

Clay: Sorry, Kaiser, can I recommend one more thing that…?

Kaiser: Absolutely, sure.

Clay: Because look, I have to show my credentials here. This is the Sinica crowd. Okay? They expect high-brow stuff.

Kaiser: No, they don’t.

Clay: Actually, but very seriously, a theoretical book, a book about theory that I leaned on heavily in my writing of these podcasts was brought to me by my friend Dan Macklin, who works for The Diplomat. He told me all about this book, and I dove right into it. I really love the theory now. A book by James C. Scott.

Kaiser: Yeah, Seeing Like a State.

Clay: Seeing Like a State, yes. Oh my gosh, I couldn’t believe-

Kaiser: Great book.

Clay: Yeah. And in my day-to-day, it was so important to my day-to-day because so much of the policy, the zero COVID policy, relies so heavily on architecture, on how well the Juweihui can read, have that literacy about what their community looks like. And the level of scrutiny and security all depended on what kind of building you lived in. I know it sounds frivolous, but it was very, very true. Very true.

Kaiser: I’m going to guess that half of our listenership has already read that book.

Clay: Oh, of course, they have.

Kaiser: I mean, no, it’s truly, truly indispensable for an understanding of, yeah, of authoritarian governance, for sure. But not just authoritarian governance, it’s, yeah, indispensable.

Clay: Absolutely.

Kaiser: Great, great, great book. I totally agree with you. In fact, it’s funny because I was interviewed by this Swiss magazine this morning, or a Swiss newspaper, and I brought that book up about the desire to impose legibility on society and the technocratic mindset. But yeah, funny. All right, man. I will add that as your bonus recommendation. Fantastic one.

Clay: Yeah, sorry.

Kaiser: Clay, thanks once again, and congrats on just such a fantastically good podcast.

Clay: Thanks. Yeah, thank you too, Kaiser. If it weren’t for you guys at The China Project, I mean, I wouldn’t have a podcast.

Kaiser: Well, I can’t wait to hear the rest of the season. And don’t forget, folks, give it a listen and subscribe to it, to the podcast itself. You will not be disappointed. And if you are, let me know.

Clay: Yeah, let me know too. Maybe I can make some changes.

Kaiser: Remember, don’t… but his mental health is fragile, so don’t let him know.

Clay: Oh, please. No, my mental health is stronger than ever after going through that lockdown. I am a titan of mental health at this point.

Kaiser: Yay. All right. Whatever does not kill us.

Clay: Exactly.

Kaiser: All right, man. Take care.

Clay: Yeah, you too.

Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by the China project and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at or just give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter, if that still exists, or on Facebook at @thechinaproj. And be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network, especially Strangers in China. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week. Take care.