Monday, January 17, 2011

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it! For boldness has genius, power and magic.”

That’s a German saying that a friend once said to me when I was in a rut. It’s something I try to keep in mind whenever I find myself doubting whether I can do something, or when I’m unhappy with what I’m currently doing.

Last week I finished three intense weeks of working three jobs: a full time SAT tutoring job, and two freelance jobs, one helping a Chinese guy named Sam Wu to edit his business school applications, and another helping the China Energy Storage Alliance prepare a paper on US, European and Japanese energy storage policies.

So the question right now is, what’s next?

I’ve been told that I’m welcome back at the Research Center for Sustainable Development. I’ve also been tentatively offered a full time research job at the China Energy Storage Alliance. Both would be decent options to get some more experience in my chosen field…

But the funny thing that I realized recently is: I’m tired of sitting at a desk doing research. Yes, you might be thinking “it’s only been a little over seven months since you graduated Daniel – two of which were spent working at a “summer camp” in France – and you’re already tired of sitting in front of a desk? Bad news…” The other thing I realized though is that sitting at a desk doing research is not going to get me where I want to go either. So where do I want to go?

Sure, I still want to work in clean energy, but I also want to be an entrepreneur: I want to run my own business, be my own boss, and build new innovations that will change the world. I also want to become fluent in Chinese (duh, that’s why I came here…), travel around China and Southeast Asia, meet some interesting people and have new experiences. I recently came across this quote that just about sums it up:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." ~ Mark Twain

Ironically, I came to China with the idea that I WAS NOT going to teach English. Everyone who comes here from the US and Europe comes to teach English, and I wanted to be different. But recently I began rethinking this. Teaching English, as well as some other subjects taught in English, are the highest paying jobs a recent graduate can find here by a long shot that don’t really require any specific skills or experience. Why shouldn’t I take advantage of my most marketable skill – being a native English speaker – to make some money, and spend that extra time and money I will save studying Chinese, having some fun experiences, and looking for new opportunities in the cleantech sector while I’m at it?

Another thing I realized about a year ago is that almost any clean energy business that’s worth starting requires at least a few million dollars in start-up capital. With relatively little business experience, there’s no way I’m going to attract that kind of capital right now. And being in a foreign country where energy is highly regulated and government connections are a necessity to start an energy business, this would be nearly impossible for me at this point.

However, one business I’ve thought about starting is importing Mongolian vodka to Beijing. Yes, Chinggis vodka, which I discovered during my trip to Mongolia, is not currently sold in Beijing. However, it has won international awards for its taste, and it won the five-vodka tasting contest I hosted at my friend’s apartment last month, easily beating name brands like Absolute and Sky. Considering the low selection of vodkas and the name recognition that Chinggis has begun to build within the foreign community here (I wasn’t the first to discover it on a visa trip to Mongolia), I think there might be a market for it. And I’m sure there are other opportunities out there as well.

So I started out with the idea that I was going to come here and find a clean energy job… and that somehow has evolved into teaching English and maybe starting my own business… You never know where life will take you, as long as you are willing to sail with the winds.

Fairwell, Niu Niu

I received some bad news shortly before Christmas. Niu niu, who was my “host father” when I was living in China last summer, passed away, at age 61. (Important Note: I created this blog with the intention of telling stories about my China experiences, so normally I wouldn’t mention things of such a person nature, but Niu niu was such a significant part of my China experience that it seemed appropriate). A few months ago the doctors discovered that he had cancer, and in November he had surgery to remove it. The surgery was successful and he had been home recovering. But he also had a heart condition, and died of a heart attack suddenly in early December.

Luckily I had the chance to see him one more time when I first returned to Beijing last September.  On a crisp fall day I traveled out to his apartment on the edge of the city, where sprawling apartments and the massive Capital Iron & Steel mill meet a small village at the foot of the mountains. Last summer I spent a lot of time hiking with Niu niu in those mountains, but since was not in any condition to be hiking now, I had to go that day alone. It was a beautiful day and the colossal view of the steel mill from the mountains was just as I remember it. As a result of these hikes, I wrote an article for an online news organization called GlobalPost last summer, about the water pollution and scarcity problems that I had observed, and that Niu niu had told me about. 

When I arrived at the bus station to meet Niu niu that evening, I could see right away that his health had deteriorated. We went to his apartment and had a good conversation, catching up on the past year. So far niu niu is the only person I’ve ever really gotten to know solely through communication in another language (he can speak about 5 words of English). Then we ate dinner with his wife and daughter, and his wife commented on how my Chinese had improved. This was encouraging, as I’d rarely heard her complement anybody.

As I was leaving, Niu niu told me to come and visit every once in a while, “yinwei women shi pengyou,” (because we are friends) was one of the last things I remember him saying to me.

In the two months that I lived with him, Niu niu taught me a lot about life in China, especially for the more rural, working class citizens that many foreigners rarely interact with. He was a good friend, and he will be sorely missed. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

In my humble opinion, Mr. Chairman…

“…Well, I work for the Chinese government,” is my typical response these days when people ask what I do in Beijing. At the least this gets some raised eyebrows (I usually tell them I’m a ninja right after that), and it’s always a fun icebreaker. But these conversations usually don’t convey what a unique and eye opening experience working at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has been.

Like many of the other 10 million or so people working in this city, I’ve spent the last three months squishing into the subway or braving the chaotic roadways of Beijing during the morning and evening commutes. On the days I was feeling adventurous (and the weeks when I was living in an apartment that was close enough), I mounted a rickety, one speed bicycle and joined the fleet of other bicycles, electric bikes, scooters, motorcycles, cars, trucks and busses, honking and barreling their way through the crowded streets. There is no rhyme or reason to this mess, and very few traffic laws are obeyed – the winners in this giant game of chicken are usually the ones with the most guts and the biggest bumpers. Being on a bicycle put me second to last in the pecking order, just ahead of the pedestrians, so I had to be bold if I was going to get anywhere.

Rush hour in the subway
A few times during this commute, I would approach a major intersection with four to five lanes on either side of the road and line up with the rest of people, bikes and motorbikes. As this crowd grew and began to achieve a critical mass on both sides of the road, it would inch farther into the line of moving cars, which would begin to get narrower, speed up and start honking loudly in response – like a stream trying to squeeze through a narrow channel blocked by rocks on either side – daring one person to step into their path. Finally, a gap in the cars would emerge and the crowd would suddenly pour across the road – creating a solid barrier of people, bikes, motorcycles, and sometimes even horse drawn carts. The unlucky car that still had a green light would screech to a halt, honking in frustration. Somewhere in the cluster of people and vehicles, I would begin weaving my way to the front, narrowly avoiding hitting, or being hit by, other earnest commuters.

A few hundred meters after each intersection usually came another obstacle course: a bus stop. Whoever designed Beijing’s streets somehow overlooked the fact that the busses have to pull into the bike lane to pick up passengers. So as three or four busses would pull up to let on the throngs of passengers waiting at the bus stop, the bicycles were suddenly either forced out into open traffic, or had to try and squeeze between the bus and the passengers before the bus doors opened. At these times I felt like a tinny dingy trying to navigate between large ships in a congested harbor. I took some videos of this morning commute recently (this was challenging and a little dangerous, because it meant I only had one hand free to slam on the brakes or turn suddenly in traffic). I’ll be posting them on Youtube shortly with a link here.
Rush hour on the streets

Finally, after a good half hour of metropolitan madness, I would arrive at an ordinary office building in the heart of Beijing.

This office building however is home to an organization that many Chinese people dream of working for. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) is China’s most prestigious institution for social science (read: economic) research. CASS is one unit of the greater Chinese Academy of Sciences, and each unit is home to several different research institutes. While not a direct department of the government, one of my colleagues explained the relationship between CASS and the Chinese government by the location of the CASS building in relation to the rest of the city: In the old days, China was ruled by an emperor who lived in the Forbidden City, the palace that still sits at the center of Beijing. The Chinese believe in fung shui, an ancient spiritual art that puts great importance on the physical location of certain structures and aspects of a home or city in relation to the others. To this day, the land that sits on the same axis as the Forbidden City in Beijing is considered much more desirable, because of the positive fung shui it provides, and the closer to the palace, the better. Today, the main Chinese Academy of Social Sciences building is built on this axis, in the same location as the home of the ancient emperor’s economic & financial advisors.

Research Center for Sustainable Development office building
The Research Center for Sustainable Development is housed in a small building just to the north of this main building, and it is in this building that I came to be one of two foreigners working for CASS. By my third day on the job (when the whole institute went out for lunch together), everyone already seemed to know my name, even though I still hadn’t met most of the researchers there. Over the following weeks, I got to know many of my colleagues on the Climate Change Team over lunches – which were usually eaten in a cafeteria across the street – and also came to understand the hidden hierarchy that defines the relationship between each individual in my office. While nobody has a title except “PhD,” each person has a distinct rank, based mostly on seniority and perhaps a bit on expertise. I went out to lunch one day with the Institute’s Communist Party Secretary (every government outfit has one of these people to make sure everyone is following the party line), along with a guest of his and several other researchers. Everywhere we went, the Secretary and his guest would go through the door first – in fact they’d both insist that the other walk through first – and the other researchers would follow in order of “rank.”

The funny thing is that, as a foreigner, I can sense that many of my colleagues are unclear as to where I fit into this hierarchy. For example, I once caught a woman who is 30 years old and has a PhD referring to me in a way that implied we were equals, even though I was technically working on a project under her supervision at the time. While this in some ways puts me at an advantage and gives me more flexibility, this and the language barrier also create some limitations.

In fact, this is perhaps the first time in my life where I’ve sometimes felt that I was being discriminated against [After talking with a friend of mine, I realize this is not the best language to use. Everyone at CASS is very open minded, and I don't think any of them hold a prejudice against foreigners - I think I was letting some of my other experiences spill into the writing of this one]. This is not the fault of any of my colleagues in particular – they are all very nice to me – but I have twice now been excluded from meetings for the simple reason that I am a foreigner. Both involved discussions with high-level government officials that were considered somewhat sensitive – probably involved climate negotiation strategy or something. And maybe they had good reason, considering the WikiLeaks revelation that the US is using espionage to manipulate the climate change negotiations. But it still felt unnecessary – whatever they had to discuss probably wasn't that high level, considering some of my Chinese peers were allowed to attend.

So what have I actually been doing for these three months, you ask? Well, I spent the first month editing the English language version of a 200+ page book that the Center was publishing on a new proposal for the climate change negotiations. That was fun… (Not. Although, I did learn a lot about this specific proposal and I also learned some Chinese climate change vocabulary).

For the rest of the time though, I was doing some independent research on clean energy product trade between the US and China. This is a hot topic, because of the cleantech “trade war” that has been escalating between the US and China in recent months. Back in September, the United Steel Workers (the largest steel union in the US) filed a trade complaint to the US government, stating that China is unfairly subsidizing the production of cleantech and environmental goods, such as solar panels and wind turbines. Under rules that China agreed to abide by when it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) back in 2002, countries are not allowed to subsidize domestic companies whose manufactured goods are mostly produced for export to other countries. In recent years, China has become the world leader in the production of solar panels and has made a major contribution to bringing down the cost of solar worldwide. However, this is partly because the Chinese government provides domestic solar manufacturers with many different forms of subsidies. In addition, 95% of the solar panels produced in China are exported to Europe and the US. Both Republicans and Democrats used this fact as significant political fodder during the last election (China bashing was about the only area in which the two parties seemed to agree). They claimed that China’s actions were costing the US “green jobs” and enlarging our trade deficit with China. As a result, the Obama administration agreed to go forward with the USW’s complaint and launch an investigation into China’s cleantech trade practices through the WTO. This action aroused much anger among leading politicians and academics in China (including some at the center in which I work). To them, this action seems very hypocritical on the part of the US government (and in some ways I have to agree).

So I set out to look at the trade data on clean energy products between the US, China and a number of other leading cleantech exporters (Germany, Japan, Denmark, India and Brazil to name a few). My goal was to find out whether China was in fact the biggest culprit when it comes to widening the US trade deficit in clean energy products. So I spent several weeks poring over data from the US International Trade Commission’s online DataWeb (this site is a pain – horrible user interface), analyzing the data and compiling it into charts and graphs. I then gave a presentation to my colleagues on my findings. Luckily they let me do it in English (my Chinese isn’t quite good enough for this yet), but I made the power point in Chinese, and we had some discussion in Chinese as well.

My main finding was that Japan and Denmark in fact were the two largest contributors to the US clean energy trade deficit (measured in terms of imports and exports of the two largest product categories: solar panels and wind turbine components), with China coming in third. India and Brazil were also significant contributors. My supervisor for this project (whose title would probably be something like Associate Director of the center if she had a title) seemed satisfied with my findings overall. In fact, since she is a fairly prominent party member, I like to think that my research might actually make its way to some of the higher-ups in the Chinese government. This got my imagination going, and at one point I had this amusing fantasy of suddenly being called into a meeting with the party Chairman and President of China, Hu Jintao, and being asked to give him a brief on my research…

In addition, as I mentioned a while back, I also participated in a public debate on the same subject at the Beijing Energy and Environmental Roundtable (BEER). This is a bi-weekly (or so) speaker series organized by the Beijing Energy Network, a group of about 1500 foreign and Chinese energy professionals working in Beijing. We had been asked to debate the notion that “China’s clean energy subsidies are fair, reasonable and justified.” There were two teams of three people each, and I was on the team debating against the notion, along with an Italian professor of geochemistry and a Chinese professor of environmental politics. Our opponents were the China economic correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, the Founder of a company called Dragonomics, and the Director of Climate Change for the British embassy. The debate was great fun, even though my team lost (having two non-native English speakers on the same team in an English language debate was maybe not the best idea, but I admired their courage none the less). I’ve since joined the Beijing Energy Network Organizing Committee, where I will be helping to plan speaker events and other initiatives (hmmm, kinda like Tufts Energy Forum…)

Thus ended my short stint working for the Chinese government. As the Christmas season approaches, I’m going to be taking on an SAT prep job with the Princeton Review for three weeks, as well as a few freelance jobs doing editing and clean energy research. With a short weekend visa run to Hong Kong in the middle for Christmas day, I’m going to be pretty busy this holiday season. Should keep my mind off the festivities I’ll be missing back in the US.

祝圣诞节和新年快乐!(Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!)