LRCCS Spotlight: Postdoctoral Fellow Will Thomson

  Dr. Will Thomson   LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow Anthropology

Dr. Will Thomson

LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight series, I sat down with Will Thomson, LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow.  In it, Dr. Thomson talks about his time working as a construction worker in China and about rethinking architecture

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Couillard: Where do you call home?

Dr. Thomson: I grew up near Boston, but my family moved from Arkansas, and we returned every summer to visit my grandparents.

Couillard: How did you initially get interested in China?

Dr. Thomson: I took a poetry class in high school, where there was a Chinese exchange student who spoke very little English. Our teacher involved her by working together to translate Tang dynasty poetry. We read them in class, beginning from the original Chinese characters, moving to a direct phonetic transcription in pinyin, then reading the literal word-for-word translation, and finally the more literary interpretation. Something amazed me about watching the poem’s meaning emerge out of incomprehensible Chinese characters and forming something beautiful.

The next year, in college, at UMass, I enrolled in Chinese language as a major. I also studied journalism and started an independent college radio station. 

Couillard: When did you decide to become a scholar?

Dr. Thomson: After graduating, I worked in media, first at a digital video startup and then in online reporting for the NPR station in Boston. I like talking to people, so having conversations and capturing people’s stories was fascinating work. However, I wanted to develop a career related to China. When I left Boston, I started a writing project on food and culture in rural China. I quickly realized that I lacked the tools for the kind of project I had in mind. That is when I started considering returning for grad school. Though I didn’t have any background in anthropology, it seemed to me to be closest to journalism, as a discipline where you go out and engage with people. And it is true that the best anthropology and the best journalism start to converge. I want my work to be comprehensible and non-jargony, and also to describe cultural dynamics without losing subtlety and accuracy.

Couillard: Sounds like a difficult balance.

Dr. Thomson: It can be, but I think that if you treat your audience with respect, everyone can understand complicated topics when explained carefully. For me, the fun part of long-term research was discovering how you end up being led in different directions. In my current project, I started off with questions about migrant workers and urbanization, but the deeper I got, the more I turned towards the outside conditions that affect and define those workers, in this case, architecture and design.

Couillard: Tell me more about your current research.  What was your field work?

Dr. Thomson: My fieldwork was in Xi’an, one of the first places in China I lived in and a city that I watched grow over the years.  The project focuses on the lives of rural construction workers who build the cities’ infrastructure but then are prevented from making the cities their homes.

Couillard: How did you research that?

Dr. Thomson: I started off with an elegant, almost poetic design for research, but like most plans made from far away, reality never conforms to your imagination. I planned to get to Chinese construction sites through architects to study interactions among workers, designers, and management.  The problem was that sporadic site visits with architects wasn’t enough to make for deeper relationships.  There’s no space on a construction site for someone who doesn’t have a technical role. After months trying to gain access, I met a construction boss who “hired” me as his construction worker – which was not part of the original plan. I ended up installing steel frames on a high-rise building for three months.

Couillard: You were a construction worker?  Like with the 6 day weeks, living in a dorm, that sort of thing?

Dr. Thomson: Yeah. I figured construction would be heavy labor, but actually, I discovered that the work was physically easier but also more tedious than I expected. Mostly, I just prepared frames and handed tools to others.  We lived together in a dorm in an urban village across the street from the construction site, six to a room, two to a bed.

Couillard: So you didn’t just share a room, you shared a bed?

Dr. Thomson: Yes—and I also went back with them to their hometowns for harvests and the Spring Festival.  For 11 months of the year, they work in the city, putting their life on hold, in some ways, sacrificing to earn money to improve the future for themselves and their families. 

  Dr. Thomson harvesting wheat with one of his coworkers from the construction site

Dr. Thomson harvesting wheat with one of his coworkers from the construction site

Couillard: How did this happen?  How did you get that job?

Dr. Thomson: I suspect the construction boss was bored and thought that having a foreign worker might change things up.  On first day I showed up, I was kicked out. A site inspector saw me and asked, “Who are you?  You can’t be here.”  And I thought to myself, of course I can’t be here. It ended up working out, and I was back at work the next day. I was really thankful to the boss and the crew who I joined. I learned a lot from them and my experience there. 

Couillard: What were some interesting stories that happened during your research?

Dr. Thomson: Well, we were working 19 floors up on a platform like a window-washing cart, and I’m afraid of heights. I put all my trust in the safety gear. Then, one day, the motor on our cart malfunctioned, and we had to remove our harnesses to climb in through a window. To the other workers, it was nothing. I realized how accustomed they were to bodily risk, but I was terrified. 

  The view from Dr. Thomson's work site

The view from Dr. Thomson's work site

Couillard: What kind of an impact would you like for your research to have on the world?

Dr. Thomson: I want my ethnography of construction to start a conversation within architecture that could help change the design-labor relation.  Right now, there’s no space in architecture for labor, and that’s a curious absence.  Consider the word ‘architecture’ in English. It refers both to the design process and to the completed product, but the intermediate phase of construction–that’s not considered part of architecture.  There’s a big gap.

But, the Chinese language suggests a different relationship—a continuum of designing and building.  An architect is 建筑师and a construction worker is 建筑工 (Editor’s note – for those who don’t read Chinese, both words contain the same root 建筑, the only difference is the character that follows: for architect, that word is 师, or master, and for construction worker that word is 工, or worker).  

The tendency in western architecture has been to commodify and objectify labor. My hope is to help people see workers in a different light by rethinking architecture from the construction site.

Construction workers are not seen as authors with any claim on the finished form. If architects instead thought more about the social collaboration between design and labor, they could improve working conditions for construction workers. 

For all of us, when we go around thinking of the world as a product of design, we marginalize laborers. On the other hand, if we look at the world as the combination of design and of physical labor, we will start to see workers in a different light as well.

Thanks for reading!  Stay tuned for more

LRCCS Spotlight: Tarryn Chun, Postdoctoral Fellow

  Dr. Tarryn Li-Min Chun   LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow Asian Languages & Culture

Dr. Tarryn Li-Min Chun

LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow
Asian Languages & Culture

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series, I sat down with Dr. Tarryn Chun, LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow, who talks about her experiences working in theatre as well as her research on the technology of 20th century Chinese theatre.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Couillard: As usual I’d like to start with your background.  Where do you call home?

Dr. Chun: Ann Arbor, actually!  So I’ve come full circle.  My mother is from Michigan, my dad is from New York City - he’s Chinese American.  I grew up around Chinese culture and was always interested in it, but I didn’t start getting interested in Chinese theatre until I was in college.  At that time, I thought wanted to work IN the theatre, on Broadway or off-Broadway, until a professor asked me if I’d ever considered going to grad school.

Couillard: When did you first get interested in theatre?

Dr. Chun: I’ve been fascinated with it since I was a little kid.  It felt special because I associated it with going to New York to visit my grandparents – a new place, a new culture, excitement.

Couillard: When was the first time you went to China?

Dr. Chun: The summer after my junior year of college, when I went to Beijing to do a language program and research for my senior thesis project.  That was my first foray into fieldwork—it took me all summer to work up the nerve to start interviewing theatre artists, but once I got going, my complete unawareness of what I was doing actually made me quite bold. I somehow managed to get my hands on the personal phone number of Meng Jinghui,  who is a major theatre director, and cold called him at home! 

I actually was supposed to go to China a few summers before that, but my first trip was cancelled due to SARS.  So I stayed at Princeton and did summer stock theatre instead. I worked on the technical and managerial side—I even learned to play the snare drum for a production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. But no acting—I can’t act to save my life.

Couillard: What do you like about stage managing ?

Dr. Chun: When you stage manage you tend to sit at the very back of the theater, in the lighting booth, far away from and high above the stage.  You get a bird’s eye view where you can see everything in the theatre–the stage, the wings, the audience.  I liked that perspective, especially the feeling of being able to see so many different elements come together.  In a way, it’s very similar to one of the things I like about research: seeing the puzzle pieces of a project coming together. 

Couillard: So what do you focus on in your research?

Dr. Chun: I look at the relationship between art and technology, with Chinese theatre as my main focus.  I’m particularly interested in a set of related questions that has been asked across various forms of cultural production: for example, how has technological modernization affected artistic innovation? How do aesthetics change when the elements of craft—materials, equipment—change? Questions like these are raised most obviously in relation to mediums like film and photography, because the camera is a markedly modern invention. Theatre, in contrast, is a much older art form and one often characterized by liveness and ephemerality.  

Yet, if we zoom in on the technical elements of the stage, we find that they’re driven by similar processes of modernization, and we can start to ask questions about the way that specific innovations – like the shift from oil lamps to gas light to electric lights – altered how artists and playwrights conceptualized what could and should happen on stage.  

Couillard: What are you focusing on right now?

Dr. Chun: I’m mainly working on my book manuscript, by writing a new chapter for it that looks at the Model Operas (yangbanxi) from the Cultural Revolution.  The yangbanxi are fascinating in that they’re bespoke propaganda theatre – artists spent years working with political leaders thinking about how to make these as ideologically correct and as politically effective as possible.  I’m particularly interested in a set of volumes that were published in the 1970s; they’re 400-page books that include scripts, blueprints for set pieces, pictures of makeup and costumes, diagrams for lighting equipment, and other information—essentially manuals that would enable the yangbanxi to be replicated with extreme precision. 

These ideal forms were created for large modern theatres in urban environments with access to incredible resources, yet they were tasked with spreading to every corner of the country. I’m curious about what happened when those shows travelled to smaller cities and villages.  When the productions didn’t have access to such technical excellence, how did that change the piece?  Did everybody get to see the ideal form of the play?  And if they didn’t, how did that change the efficacy of the propaganda?

Couillard: How do you like working in Michigan?

Dr. Chun: The department of Asian Languages and Culture is really unique in that so many of the faculty work on performance and visual culture! Plus there’s a great community and support for interdisciplinary work through LRCCS, and we even had a Confucius Institute specifically focused on the arts . It’s a fantastic environment for my work. 

Couillard: What’s important to you about this research?

Dr. Chun: A couple of things.  First – I love the process!  I enjoy going back to historical material in search of things that have been overlooked and trying to figure out what’s important and why.  Details like what color a particular costume piece was might be irrelevant to how wars are fought and won, but they can be extremely significant to the creation of culture.  Theatre and other performing arts were a very important part of Chinese life in the 20th century, but they’re hard to research and haven’t yet gotten as much attention as they should. There are still lots of missing pieces.

Couillard:  So is this about having a more robust historical understanding of that period in time?

Dr. Chun: Definitely, but it’s also about trying to account for the lived dimension of cultural history.  Theatre-making and theatre-going are lived, ephemeral experiences, collective experiences. Artists are conscious of their connection with audience members, and vice versa. But there’s always also a layer of mediation involved: the script, the costumes and makeup, the scenery and lighting are in between the actors and the audience. The technologies of the theatre shape their shared experience of a performance. I think I’m trying to capture the nuances of how that works, how all those different things fit together.  

Thanks for reading!  Stay tuned for more interviews with LRCCS Postdocs!


LRCCS Spotlight: Blake Miller

  Blake Miller   Political Science PhD Candidate  Statistics MA Student LRCCS Doctoral Fellow

Blake Miller

Political Science PhD Candidate
Statistics MA Student
LRCCS Doctoral Fellow

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight series, I sat down with Blake Miller, LRCCS Doctoral Fellow.  In our interview, Miller discusses his research on the fascinating "50-cent party (五毛党)" of government appointed "Internet commentators" and their role in guiding public opinion.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard.  Transcribed by Erzhan Xu.

Couillard: So tell me about your background. Where do you call home? 

Miller: I am originally from San Diego. But before my family moved to San Diego, I spent a few years of my childhood in Singapore. So a lot of my family friends are Chinese Singaporeans.  I grew up pretty close to Chinese culture and celebrated the Spring Festival with them when I was in San Diego.  I went to Stanford, majored in political science. I was originally interested in American politics, and I took a course on Chinese Politics by Alice Miller. 

After that I became really interested in the Chinese political system, and became really fascinated with Chinese media and how Chinese citizens use the Internet after working for several years as a research assistant with Larry Diamond.  I focused more and more on media, and information control. A lot of the work I do now is on censorship, propaganda, and the 50-cent party.  After I graduated from Stanford, I worked at three different companies as a software engineer. 

Couillard: You were a software engineer? But you studied politics? 

Miller: This is just after I graduated. I had to pay off my student loans somehow! I always knew working in tech wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, so I came to Michigan, and I have been working with Mary Gallagher on my political science PhD. 

Couillard: You wrote a paper on detecting 50-cent commentators. How do you know when a post comes from the 50-cent party? 

Miller: The paper you are referring to is a method for automatically detecting 50-cent commentators using machine learning and natural language processing tools.  The method identifies 50 cent party members using metadata like IP address, post volume, and social media data. Using a leaked dataset for validation, my model predicts real 50-cent posts from a small district propaganda department with 94% accuracy.

Couillard: Woah, that’s pretty impressive. So who are these people? 

Miller: There is a common misconception based off their name – that they’re supposedly paid 50 cents per post and work part-time.  There is no evidence to support this.  These commentators come from a wide variety of different bureaucracies.  So my research assistants and I have been crawling official government documents for publicly available rosters of “opinion guidance” employees. These rosters and other documents surprisingly are openly available on government websites.  Their most common official title is “internet commentator” (网络评论员). 

Couillard: So do they do this full time? Or is it just part of their job? 

Miller: There are some full-time employees with the title “internet commentator.” During what’s called a ‘public opinion emergency,’ they will rally other people within the bureaucracy to join the core team. These are the only “part-time” commentators to speak of. If there is a public opinion emergency that they can anticipate, they sometimes will have a detailed public opinion contingency plan.  An example is a coal mine collapse. They have plans ready for when one happens and have specific instructions for how commentators are supposed to respond to negative opinion. 

Couillard: So who’s pulling the strings?  Is this coming from the central government or local government?

Miller: “Opinion guidance” teams can be found at several bureaucracies, even prison systems and forestry bureaucracies. Based on some initial findings, it seems like propaganda organs – Internet information offices, propaganda departments, civilization offices, anything that is involved in propaganda – only comprise about 25% of the commentators in my database.

It’s very decentralized, and the tactics and the method of guiding opinion vary a lot.  For example, on an article about the South China Sea tribunal ruling, there are some comments that seemed to echo the party line – deescalate, try to prevent protest, try to keep everything calm, and push faith in the central government’s ability to deal with this problem.  There are a lot of those posts. But there are a lot of other posts where the 50-cent party is attacking individuals, calling people idiots, using very colorful language, calling for war with the U.S., and even flinging racial slurs about Filipinos.

Couillard: So it’s not exactly one voice.

Miller: Not always.  But at the same time, you have things like the Tianjin Port explosion. It seems like in that case, commentators are pretty uniform in their message.  There were lots of concerns in the comments about the government responsibility and corruption.  And the commentators, instead of discussing any of that, shifted the conversation toward talking about how brave the firefighters and first responders were, how sad it was that many died, etc. 

[Editor's note - Click here to read Miller's case studies on the TIanjin port explosion and the South China Sea, co-authored by Mary Gallagher]

From some deep diving into opinion guidance manuals, it seems lots of bureaucracies have plans that are being continually revised.  When something like this happens, they write up reports on how to improve the plan, how they responded to the crisis, how they could have done better. And these 50-cent party members are learning how to better guide opinion, they are like an underground force that is digesting public opinion, responding to it, and in a very iterative way, learning how to best deal with ‘harmful information’, ‘harmful content’.  There is an element of authoritarian learning that the 50-cent party facilitates.

Couillard: That is fascinating and terrifying. So it sounds like what you are saying is they are getting better at their jobs. Do you think they’re successful?

Miller: Whether or not they are actually effective in guiding public opinion or changing minds, is something that I need to spend more time exploring and is actually a major question in my dissertation. I don’t have an answer for that yet. 

Couillard: Can normal internet users sniff out 50 cent people?  Or do they go undetected? 

Miller: I think there is a range in the level of sophistication within a lot of these 50-cent party members.  Some of them, you immediately know can’t be a real person.  Like someone just writing ten messages in a row about how much they love Xi Jinping. It doesn’t appear to be that convincing.  But I mean, the firefighter comments, I don’t think people see those comments and think, “Okay, it looks like I’m being manipulated.”  

At the same time, I’ve found that almost one in five comments that the Chinese news consumer sees is fabricated by the government. So even if some of these comments are detectable to ordinary people, they still might be persuasive in the aggregate.

Couillard: Phew. So what kind of impact would you like for your research to have?  What’s your goal in exploring all this?

Miller:  I think the point of my research is to clarify that online information control in China is not very well understood, and that China's aim to make information control less visible is about getting more accurate information about public opinion. Rather than directly and visibly intervening and creating a chilling effect, the government’s seems to favor guiding opinion from behind the scenes. Without anyone knowing the government is manipulating the information individuals see, they feel free to express their true beliefs, valuable data for the regime. These data, collected en masse, are processed to inform policies and targeted repression.

Thanks for reading!  Stay tuned for more interviews from the LRCCS community!

LRCCS Spotlight: Jen Zhu

  Jen Zhu  LRCCS alum '04 Communications Director Carnegie-Tsinghua Center    Photo credit: A. Quan

Jen Zhu
LRCCS alum '04
Communications Director
Carnegie-Tsinghua Center

Photo credit: A. Quan

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight, I travel to Beijing to interview Jen Zhu, LRCCS alum ‘04, who later worked on the LRCCS staff and created the Chinese Studies Blog as we know it! If you never had the pleasure of working with Jen in the past, you can learn more about her here.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Couillard: First let’s hear about your background – where did you grow up?

Zhu: I was born in Beijing, and I moved to the U.S. with my family right after I finished elementary school.  I went to middle school and high school in South Bend, Indiana, did my undergrad at Johns Hopkins, and took a year off from the MA program at LRCCS to study at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center.

Couillard: What part of Beijing did you grow up in?

Zhu: I grew up in the same place I’m living now, which is in Xinjiekou, in Xicheng district. I have very fond memories of going to Houhai almost every day.  

Couillard: What brought your parents to Indiana?

Zhu: At the time my mom was teaching piano at Indiana University, so we moved there.

Couillard: When did you start working at LRCCS?

Zhu:  As I was finishing my MA, I started working at the International Center [not to be confused with the International Institute] and later on became the first China Initiatives coordinator for the University, a position that was located in the International Institute. I initially reported to the director of the II, and after a reorg, my position was incorporated into LRCCS and expanded in other exciting directions including alumni engagement and development.

Couillard: When did you start the Chinese Studies Blog?

Zhu: Actually I think it was originally started by Summer Tucker, who was the center administrator back in 2005.  After Summer started it, I just saw it as an opportunity to add more timely content to supplement the website, which was more cumbersome to update.  It started out as an announcement page, and gradually we added more types of content.

Couillard: Everyone at LRCCS was sad to see you go, and also happy to see you take your next step.  You’ve made a huge impact on so many people involved with the center.  Speaking from personal experience, you got me a job working for Jet Li in 2013, then got me this job running the blog after you left.  Both times I really needed something, and you came up with the perfect solution – you’re like my guardian angel!

Zhu: Aw, thanks!  I can see why you’re doing so well in this job, haha.

Couillard: So what are you up to now?

Zhu: I’m happy to be part of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, the Beijing center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which is one of the oldest think tanks in the world. Our mission is to bring together Chinese and international scholars so they can engage in timely discussions on global challenges and identify possible solutions.  

As the center’s communications director, I oversee the planning and execution of our programming and publications. I’ve had the opportunity to hire most of my team. I learn so much from the team; they are my daily inspiration.  

Couillard: What kind of an impact do you want your career and life to have on the world?

Zhu: I think what I find most enjoyable is connecting people and connecting them with opportunities.  I also love supporting scholarly work on China. For example, one of the last projects I worked on at LRCCS was the post-doc program. And it was most gratifying when one of the scholars published a groundbreaking article – it felt great to have contributed in my own little way to sophisticated research. 

Couillard:  What’s going on right now at Carnegie?  Anything you want to promote?

Zhu: I invite folks to check out Carnegie scholars’ very timely analyses of how the new U.S. administration should approach foreign policy. I’m also very excited about Carnegie-Tsinghua scholars’ work on understanding China’s nuclear policy and the role of advanced technology in security affairs.



LRCCS Faculty Spotlight: Martin Powers

  Martin Powers   Sally Michelson Davidson Professor of Chinese Arts and Cultures  History of Art

Martin Powers

Sally Michelson Davidson Professor of Chinese Arts and Cultures

History of Art

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series, I sat down with LRCCS Faculty Professor Martin Powers, the Sally Michelson Davidson Professor of Chinese Arts and Cultures.  In this interview, he talks about how a discourse of social justice has persisted in China since Han times, and more of the fascinating new ideas to be presented in his upcoming book.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Couillard: So let’s take it all the way back – where do you call home?

Prof Powers: I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Chicago.  I was lucky to be sent to a Catholic school where the academic standards were higher.  My parents hadn’t gone to college but I had a teacher in high school who really pushed me in that direction, so I ended up at Shimer College, where I majored in art history. 

Couillard: When did China come into the picture?

Prof Powers: When I declared my major at the University of Chicago, they wanted me to choose between European or Chinese art, and I chose China.  This was the 60s so there was kind of an “Asia craze” at that time.  You could go into any book store and find books on Zen, Haiku, etc.

Couillard: So what’s the area of art history you specialize in?

Prof Powers: Well that’s changed over time.  I have a couple books on the Warring States to Han periods and they focus on bureaucracy, and more recently I’ve published quite a bit on the early modern period, especially the Song.  I’ve always blended art and politics, social issues, things like that.  My first book deals with student demonstrations – probably the first in the history of the world.

Couillard: When did those happen?

Prof Powers: The Han period.  The students came from the Capital University in Luoyang.  I found the situation at that time strangely similar to my own upbringing.  Before Kennedy, for the most part only the children of upper class families could attend college.  But then Kennedy comes around with student loans in the 60s and so college becomes much more accessible.  Once higher education includes more than the most privileged, student demonstrations start to happen.  

This parallels what happened in the Han Dynasty.  Up until about the year 130, higher education was limited mostly to the the sons of higher officials,, but after Emporer Shundi, the sons of lower and middle official families had access to higher education.  
So in 157 CE, there was a lot of corruption coming from the eunuchs, and the less well-off students led a major protest against it.  That’s what my first book was about, Art and Political Expression in Early China.

Couillard: Where does art fit in?

Prof Powers: There was a lot of political art at the time.  Many of the people involved in the resistance were killed by the eunuchs, so people made commemorative paintings and hung them up in the postal stations as portraits of martyrs, hoping to stir up the population.  

Couillard: Wow.  That sounds very similar to the “Say their names” movement going on today (  I guess history repeats itself.

So what are you working on now?

Prof Powers: The manuscript I just finished deals with England and China.  England learned a lot about political theory and practice in China from the 1660s through the early 19th century.  Some of the social justice issues discussed in the Chinese documents were similar to those that concerned English radicals – such as free speech or rule of law.

Couillard: How was England learning about China at that time?

Prof Powers: The Jesuits provided a lot of information – the customs, the political system, and even translations of exemplary laws and policy documents.  At that time, any Chinese taxpayer, including women, had the right to bring suits to court.  Anyone could appeal a case.  You could even sue the magistrate.  If a magistrate was accused of a crime, the county was not permitted to investigate the matter – they had a separate department that checked on official corruption.

So the English started learning about this stuff.  Voltaire was reading about it.  Sam Johnson wrote a book review about the content of a major tome on the subject by J.B. Du Halde (1738).  Much of this new information came into the enlightenment discourse by the 1750s and 1760s.

Couillard: Wow.

Prof Powers:  Yeah.  I think there’s stuff in the history of that time that should go out to a broader audience.  People need to know that China had a bigger role in the discourse of human rights as it was developing in the 18th century.  

It’s not about saying “China did it first” – I have little patience with nationalism.  There’s much more at stake.  There’s a trend among bloggers in recent years to the effect that human rights and democracy is just a fluke of Western Civiliazation, and that through most of history, a few rich people at the top have always ruled over the masses.  They think democracy’s time is over and now we’re just going back to normal, which is to say, feudalism.  

That argument is unfortunate.  Because if you broaden your gaze to include China (and probably other places as well), then you find many more cogent arguments for individual rights than the people posing those arguments are aware of.  So maybe an egalitarian legal system is not just a fluke – if some of the same arguments for free speech, or equality before the law, appear in both China and in Europe, maybe these concerns are inherent in the human condition.

Couillard: That’s so cool!  So what are you hoping will be the impact of changing that discourse?

Prof Powers: Number one, I want to undermine that narrative.  But more concretely, from the China side, if they could take ownership of this idea, their leadership might take the notion of human rights more seriously.  I’m also hoping that knowledge of China’s history of social justice writing can help to build bridges.  So instead of the US flogging China for failing to embrace “Western values”, we can focus on our common ground.

Thanks for reading!  Don’t forget to also check out China Mirror, a website Prof Powers is curating designed to provide high quality primary sources about China studies for educators who teach about China but aren’t experts:

Stay tuned for more interviews!


Lester Ross: LRCCS Spotlight, Beijing Edition

  Dr. Lester Ross  Partner-in-Charge, Beijing Office WilmerHale LRCCS Alum '80

Dr. Lester Ross
Partner-in-Charge, Beijing Office
LRCCS Alum '80

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight, I traveled to Beijing to interview Lester Ross (LRCCS PhD '80), whose research at Michigan pioneered the field of Chinese environmental policy and law.  Now he's one of the most prominent foreign lawyers in China, and has even been called upon to help create certain Chinese laws.  Read the interview for more details!

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard.

Couillard: I'd like to start with the basics.  Where do you call home?

Dr. Ross: I was born in New York, but I call Massachusetts home.  I spend most of my time there when I am in the US.  I spent a lot of time in Michigan getting my PhD, and my wife is also an LRCCS alum.  She’s now a leader in the field of Chinese linguistics. [Editor’s note – Click here to check out Dr. Claudia Ross’s most popular book]

Couillard: What was your PhD focused on? 

Dr. Ross: Chinese Forestry Policy. So I did political science with cognates in forestry and economics.

Couillard: That's an interesting combination - how did you arrive at it?

Dr. Ross: I was dual majored in undergrad, studying political science and geology. And by my junior year I realized I wasn’t really good at geology. So I switched to Chinese, switching to something that I thought was useful, and uncommon, and it fit my schedule. 

So I took Chinese, but I retained an interest in natural science or the environment. At the time most people who did China concentrated in comparative politics or international relations. I was the first at Michigan, as far as I know, to concentrate in public policy, with comparative politics essentially as a minor. The subject was understudied, and to some extent, people still occasionally regard my work, as the first serious work in terms of Chinese environmental policy and environmental law. 

Couillard: You've been working in China for quite some time.  What would you say has been the most surprising change that you see in China in the past 30 years? 

Dr. Ross: There has been such enormous change in people’s daily life, it’s hard to say.  One thing that comes to mind is private restaurants. I remember the first time I went to one, a friend invited me in the middle of the winter.  We were sitting outdoors at Beihai eating dumplings, and he was happy as a clam! 

Couillard:  Haha, sounds very fancy.  Going back to your expertise, how did you first start getting interested in Chinese environmental issues?

Dr. Ross:  When I was doing my dissertation, you couldn’t come to China to do field work.  I thought, what can I study to indirectly determine how much people were motivated by ideology as opposed to more material gain?  So I looked at forestry as a long-term investment.  I thought that if people were serious about planting and cultivating trees even though their economic return was deferred, that would show people had really inculcated the ideology.  This was my way to measure altruism.

Couillard: So what did you find?

Dr. Ross:  That people weren’t terribly motivated, not surprisingly.

Couillard: Yeah, sounds about right, haha.  On another note, it seems like in the US, environmental consciousness started as a grassroots movement.  Is that possible in China?

Dr. Ross:  Well, large-scale popular movements are not possible – people cannot organize.  But there is mobilization as well as some smaller-scale popular organization.  For example, you can go into Ministry of Environmental Protection facilities, you will see environmental activists there, because the Ministry knows that they rely on people at the grassroots level to support their policy.  In some areas, there have been tremendous improvements – like stationary air pollutants and water.  In others, like soil quality, things are getting worse.

Couillard: We've heard a lot about your involvement in academia, but what about your current profession?  Why did you make the transition from academics to law?  

Dr. Ross: Several things.  For one, I’d been working on law beforehand.  During the reform and opening, I saw that ideology was losing its status, and I figured something would have to replace it.  I knew it wouldn’t be religion, and I thought law might be the next thing.

I had a sabbatical, so I thought I’d give law school a shot for a semester.  And people said, well, if you’re going to try it, you might as well go all the way.

Later I got into environmental law, and I’m still working in that area now.  In some ways I’m the leading foreign lawyer when it comes to the insurance sector, but my practice has become more general and higher level.

Couillard: What drives you to this work?

Dr. Ross:  It’s practical, it’s intellectually challenging, it pays well.  There’s a lot of interesting stuff.  There’s also opportunities to get involved in a lot of political issues.  I’m very active in the American Chamber of Commerce.  Various embassies also call on me for my perspective on issues their governments are trying to address.  That would be difficult for me to do in any other line of work.

Couillard:  What is most meaningful about it for you?

Dr. Ross:  If we look at the process of mankind over recent centuries, law and economic development are very closely intertwined.  The substance of what is being done in terms of legislation and its implementation is very interesting.  Occasionally the Chinese government will include me as an adviser, and I have even had an opportunity to contribute to writing certain laws here.