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.