Vanishing China: A Rhetorical Analysis

Mar 30, 2022

Below is a 12-minute video about China, and why this guy on Youtube thinks it is likely to collapse.

I'm not here to analyze his argument (though I will make some comment on it). INSTEAD, I'm going to focus on the rhetorical devices that he uses to persuade viewers.

This video was presented to me by Youtube's algorithm. I have never heard of the channel (GEOPOP), nor the speaker (Peter Zeihan), nor have I researched them at all before writing this.

This is not intended as endorsement or criticism of his analysis. My goal is not to try and position the speaker as some kind of evil svengalli. Much of what he is doing is likely unconscious. I'm not here to throw stones at the speaker, I'm here to point out the techniques he uses that every consumer of media should be aware of.

When we recognize these techniques, they become less effective.

Because reading my notes will change your perception of this video, I recommend watching the whole thing before looking at my annotations, then using the time stamps to go back and observe what I'm talking about.

If you have other short videos you'd like me to analyze, feel free to link to them in the comments.


00:04 - "You want me to get into the 2nd issue of why the Chinese are going to vanish?"  - This is a subtle rhetorical trick designed to activate the bandwagon effect. We're more likely to listen to someone if we think other people are already listening to them. He's responding to the interviewer, but the deep structure of this comment is to imply that he's been asked to speak. He isn't just some rando on a soap box, people want to hear what he has to say.

00:06 - "They are literally vanishing as people." Emotionally charged, surprising statement that goes against common wisdom (and fears) about China, revving up interest in his presentation. Delivered right at the beginning when he has to grab our interest.

00:17 - Graph! Science! This is a compelling graph and helps strengthen his argument. There's nothing nefarious about this, but worth noting that graphs help reinforce a message and are often misleading or incomplete. These days I always look carefully at the X and Y axes, because that's a common way of mispresenting data. (As far as I can tell, this graph is legit.)

00:20 - "Bomb". Notice the emphasis of the word, spoken over an image  of a baby in a crib in a hospital nursery. The words and the images are unrelated, but your brain doesn't know that. It links the two, heightening the urgency and intensity of this message.

00:30 - He's presenting facts that purportedly come from China itself. There's nothing wrong with this, but it's worth pointing out. Insider information is usually deemed more credible.

00:40 - "RUN OUT". Listen to how he emphasizes these words. 'Running out' is a major fear most humans - especially these days - so notice the accentuation of this fear-based language. Designed to increase listener investment on the subconscious channel.

1:03 - Huge shout out to the editor of this video. Really well done. This video could have just been static shots of two dudes talking, but instead, we get these excellent graphics that give us insight into life in China. This is just stock footage - you can get access to library's of this stuff for as little as $30 a month - but it profoundly increases the perceived value of this video AND creates an audio and a video channel of information, increasingly mental engagement. And while there's an upside to production value, it's also a common tactic for Credibility Hacking.

1:12 - Rising intonation on the word 'academic'. Great speakers like Mr. Zeihan are skilled hypnotists. They're not always conscious of what they're doing, but they learn to speak in a way that keeps people engaged. Throughout this video, Mr. Zeihan is frequently changing speaking speed, intonation and pitch, and accentuating different syllables in surprising and unexpected ways. This guy is a master of these techniques. He's exciting to listen to. He's making valid points, but it's important to recognize that these techniques are often used to by-pass the listener's critical faculty and get them to accept a nonsense argument. All of this is done subconsciously in the mind of the listener, which is why it works.

1:16 - Repetition and intensity on the word fear. And then illiteration of F-sounds. We like illiteration. It's fantastic fun to find yourself fully immersed in fabulous sounds. When the actual sounds are really engaging, our brains move away from critical analysis of the content.

1:45 - "We've already seen." Have we though? WE statements are often used to activate the bandwagon effect.

2:02 - Imagine having a conversation with someone who was speaking to you like this. You wouldn't put up with a friend speaking to you like this. He's using the authority voice. It's a little deeper, a little slower (accept when sped up for effect), and a little more certain than the average person would be. This is a hypnotic technique. It's the language a teacher would use when lecturing students. And though we don't put up with it in equal relationships, we are conditioned to accept this voice from broadcast messages and people in positions of authority.

2:28 - I'm all for mind-reading - looking at someone's actions and trying to interpret their beliefs and knowledge - but it can be deployed dangerously. Notice the rhetorical double-talk in this section. First he says that Xi has gotten rid of everyone capable of independent thought, then in the next sentence he says that Xi probably has the best understanding of this situation. How can both be true? Where would Xi be getting this excellent information if there's nobody in China capable of delivering it to him?

2:40 - "He KNOWS... He KNOWS." Zeihan repeats this line, becuase he wants us to think of Xi as an evil, smart guy who's controlling all of China and pushing it towards 'naked, blatant ultra-nationalism' which will lead to military conflict. I think Zeihan is right about this, and we should also be aware of how smart communicators can color the way we perceive different individuals and groups.

3:30 - 4:00 - "They don't care." He's making an excellent point here about how elites will ignore the on-the-ground situation and cling to power through any means necessary, even if it means exposing the people to war, starvation, and depravation. We should consider that what he's saying is also true in Russia, Germany, The United States, and a lot of other countries as well.

4:46 - "Extreme". A good example of accentuating specific words for maximum effect.

5:05 - "You can make the argument." This is tricky and subtle. He's going into your head, implying that you'd come to the same conclusion when really he's the one making the argument. Again, I don't disagree with what he's saying, I just want you to hear what it sounds like when a great communicator invites you to come along with what they're saying. They'll make you think it's your idea, and the only logical conclusion, when often it's not.

5:27 - "So imagine..." This is hypnotic language. It's a command to make a picture in your mind. Why do you want someone to make a picture in their mind? Because you want someone to see and feel something in a particular way. Imagine how much influence you would have if you could put pictures and feelings into people's minds at will.

5:49 - I've actually lost the argument here. It sounds right, but I don't know enough about historic debt loads to be able to even check what he's saying.

6:03 - We here the voice of the interviewer, asking the question we're all here for. Will Xi attack Taiwan? Notice how he sets it up by saying that his thinking has changed on this. It's a small and subtle thing, but this increases engagement, because thoughtful people like to see how thinking progresses.

6:12 - I don't think he's wrong about this, but he spends 30+ seconds denigrating Chinese technological capabilities in comparison with the west. This is welcome honey for the ears of his western audience, because we are psychologically invested in believing in the west's technological superiority. And then he says that we'd destroy China if they took over Taiwan. Which is overly simplistic, IMO.

7:01 - "But things are changing". Listen to the way he says this. Again, designed to keep your interest. But Mr. Zeihan, HOW are things changing? He's keeping our brains on the hook.

7:06 - Off-topic. Look how alive this man is. Look at his eyes. Look at how uncomfortable he is with the camera. What a beautiful dude.

8:43 - This discussion of strategic ambiguity between here and the last time stamp is really interesting. Notice also that he explains why he thinks an invasion of Taiwan makes sense, but then backs off saying he thinks there's only a 1 in 3 chance of it. On one hand, this is worth saying, but a less engaging (or less 'influential') presenter would have said as much up front. Zeihan buried the lead.  

9:45 - "I'm a big believer in the long term viability of American power." Hhhhmm. Why are these issues that effect China not also effecting the US? I think he's playing to his audience here, who are probably predominantly US nationals who are psychologically invested in believing in our own countries moral and technological superiority. This video starts to have a narrative about China's weakness and US strength, which is incomplete at best.

9:56 - What?

10:59 - "Remember, everything with Obama is irrelevant... that was just 8 lost years from a foreign policy point of view."  No back-up. No explanation of this statement. I'm no fan of any US president, they're all supplicants of the deep pools of money that run this planet, but this comment left me a little cold. We see now a naked US political agenda. He covers it over with saying Trump also had no foreign policy (obviously), but then uses the last bit of the video to subtly (and fairly) attack Joe Biden. But what was this weird thing about Obama having no foreign policy? Now that you've been hypnotized by his voice and graphics for 11 minutes, here's his unsupported position on the last two democratic presidents. China does not get mentioned in the last 2 minutes of this video on China.

Final Thoughts - I chose to review this video because of the exceptional skill of the speaker and the producers. I think they make a lot of valid points, and a fair number of invalid ones as well. But that's a secondary issue.

We cannot help but influence each other, and many of the more subtle tactics that we use - and that are used on us - get overlooked. I hope that this rhetorical analysis will help you become more aware of how influence techniques can be used for good, and evil.

Liman Albridge