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!)

1 comment:

  1. What a great way to understand the politics and dynamics there. I was never treally sure what you were doing for sure and this narrative helped me understand. Lots of great experiences! I am proud of you!