Growing in China

After one and a half years since my virtual exchange at Peking University, the moment finally arrived: I was coming to China! In the summer before the start of the program, Yenching Academy sent the incoming Scholars an email which caught us all by surprise: China was again opening up for international students. After preparing for the trip for a month, I boarded my flight to China; this was not just my first flight to China but my very first flight ever! After ten days of quarantine in Xiamen and two more weeks in Beijing, I finally started my academic journey on the Peking University campus, exploring the Middle Kingdom. Since I only started learning Mandarin when I set foot into the country, the first months were difficult; I quickly learned to be comfortable not understanding what everyone around me was saying, appreciating surprising meals I ordered by pointing and saying 一个 and 这个, and asking for help from my newly-made friends when doing anything remotely complex. Looking back, I feel like the complexities of living in China enabled me to grow into a competent and culturally sensitive global citizen who is comfortable in just about any situation.

One of the main things I’ve learned coming to China is how important it is for young China scholars to live for an extended period in the country. Travelling in the Mainland, speaking with its people, and conducting field studies teach you many things a textbook cannot. For example, comparing the soul of old capitals such as Beijing with those of recent metropolis such as Shenzhen; the experience of travelling using the high-speed train from Beijing to Shanghai relative to the Thalys from Amsterdam to Paris; and how Chinese apps, including Meituan, Alipay, JD.com, DiDi, and Taobao, are structured relative to Western apps such as Yelp, Revolut, Gorillaz, Uber, and eBay. Furthermore, I love engaging in (long) conversations with many individuals, including university students in Beijing. Such people-to-people diplomacy is vital for creating mutual understanding between China and the rest of the world, especially as educational exchanges to China have decreased; I feel a strong responsibility to create an understanding of my country and Europe more widely with those I engage with. Lastly, living in Beijing as a Yenching Scholar gave me many opportunities I never dreamed of, including visiting leading high technology companies, conducting interdisciplinary field research with my fellow Scholars, and meeting current and future leaders from China and abroad.

Being in China, especially at the Yenching Academy, provided me with access to conduct interdisciplinary research that otherwise would have been impossible. Firstly, I did an anthropological study on how involution (内卷) influences romantic relationships and the social formation of China’s young elite. Such research gave me rich insights into the lived experience of China’s future leaders, who impressed me with their optimism and ability to overcome significant personal, academic, and professional challenges. Secondly, I was in the field to research at Baidu on how industrial policy supports indigenous innovation, and in Shenzhen with fellow Scholars as part of our Dean’s Research Grant on global value chains. As a China Scholar focused on Chinese tech policy, seeing for myself China’s big tech companies, industrial parks, and ‘Silicon Valley’ taught me things no paper could; for instance, experiencing how and where indigenous innovation is conducted, speaking with those creating or supporting it, and being driven by a self-driving car! Thirdly, I read stacks of books in the Peking University library to conduct historical research on China’s indigenous semiconductor industry from the 1950s till now and the “Two Bombs, One Satellite” program during the Mao era. One of my most exciting experiences while conducting this study was finding some books in the library I wanted to read but couldn’t find before. The books include China’s Techno-Warriors, which provides an excellent overview of the development of China’s science, technology, and innovation system, and 30 Years’ Review of China’s Science & Technology (1949-1979), featuring an 80-page overview of the top scientific and technological achievements over this period.

In Beijing, my favourite trip has been to the Forbidden City; it truly highlights ancient Chinese architectural prowess and is an important site. I was amazed by the structures, unlike anything we have in Europe, the fascinating paintings and patterns in bright reds, blues, and yellows, and the enormous size of the City. As part of my Dean’s Research Grant field research, I visited various government offices, incubators, and startups and travelled around the Pearl River Delta region. Continuing my exploration of the southern part of the Middle Kingdom, the Yenching Global Symposium 2023 brought me to Hainan, China’s Hawaii, during which we received fascinating lectures, saw beautiful scenery, and visited important areas such as its special economic zone. During the Labour Day holiday, I travelled to Shanghai and was finally able to experience what the Chinese mean when they say 人山人海 (people mountain, people sea). However, seeing the Bund and parks and experiencing the many local coffee places and types of 上海包子 made the complexities of travel completely worth it.

I am looking forward to my next trip – the Yenching Academy’s field study in Chengdu and Chongqing! For next year, high on the list is visiting Nanking and Xi’an (the old capitals), beautiful landmarks in Xinjiang and Tibet, and neighbouring countries, including Japan and Singapore.

When not studying Mandarin, most of my time recently goes to my podcast and research on re-establishing academic relations between China and the United States in 1978. My interest in the topic was sparked by one of my classes at Yenching Academy, taught by one of America’s first exchange students after the re-establishment, Frank Hawke. Hearing him speak about his experiences kindled my fascination with the topic, especially when I learned that little or no research had been conducted on the re-establishment or the experiences of the first exchange students. Furthermore,  many leading figures who re-established academic relations are still alive and willing to be interviewed.

I’m grateful for the opportunities and privileges that studying at the Yenching Academy has given me, enabling me to connect and speak with these experts. Recognizing this, I want to spread their insights as widely and readily available. I’ve asked and received permission to publish most interviews as a podcast. The discussions have been incredibly insightful and exciting, especially the stories about living, working, and studying in China right after the Reform and Opening Up started. 

Of all I’ve done since arriving in China, I’m most proud of organizing an event building friendship networks between students at Peking and Tsinghua Universities. I was motivated to organize the activity after attending two similar events at both universities, where I met fascinating experts while building lifelong connections with my peers. However, I was also shocked to learn that few students at Peking University had friends at Tsinghua University and vice versa. Therefore, I saw an opportunity to host students from the two campuses to meet over dinner and drinks with their peers and experts: the inaugural PKUxTHU Innovation and Entrepreneurship Networking Event. Leading this event was complex, requiring collaboration between the Peking University Student Innovation Club, the Business Association of Tsinghua Entrepreneurial Students, and the Tsinghua University Student Association of China and ASEAN. However, considering we managed to reach our maximum number of 150 sign-ups on the very first day before we could even get a WeChat post up, we were right to assume that students would be interested! The event was a huge success and fun to attend and organize. I hope many students had a good rapport with their peers while getting their questions answered and connecting with leading experts.

I am currently leading the team organizing an English-language networking event for Chinese and international students at Peking and Tsinghua Universities on behalf of the Peking University Student Innovation Club and in collaboration with the Business Association of Tsinghua Entrepreneurial Students. I’m proud to be able to contribute to building connections between both great universities and groups of students, which I hope will blossom into lifelong friendships.

This summer, I will be a Young Ambassador at Carnegie China, supporting Prof. Tang Xiaoyang, the Vice Chair of the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University. My plan for the next academic year studying at Yenching Academy is to continue focusing on China’s technology policy, working on my podcast and thesis while learning Mandarin and doing an internship at a technology company. After graduating, I aim to continue working on American and Chinese science, technology, and innovation policy, concentrating on academic cooperation. Regardless of my exact track and whether I will be working in academia or a think tank in Washington, D.C., a technology company in Shanghai, or creating my technology startup in Silicon Valley or Zhongguancun, I know one thing for sure: China has become and will now always the cornerstone of my personal and professional life.

Written by Koen Smeets

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