Wednesday, June 6, 2012

2012 Summer Research Fellow - A Visit to Tianjin

This past Tuesday (May 29th) I had the chance to head from Beijing down to the nearby city of Tianjin, about 40 minutes away by high-speed rail line. Back in 2008-2009, my wife lived in Tianjin and worked at an English school there while I was studying in Beijing. I'd travel down to see her almost every weekend since she had work in the evenings and couldn't come to Beijing, so making the trip down always leaves me feeling strangely at home. Despite their proximity, the two cities have very different characters, but as the Chinese would say: ge you suo chang (each has its strong points).

A quick aside on high-speed rail in China. The train has been slowed from a top speed of 205mph to about 180mph since my last visit due to restrictions put in place after the high-speed rail crash outside Wenzhou in July of last year. But that hasn't exactly lessened the trains' popularity as far as I can see. When I arrived in 2008, Beijing South Station was brand new, cavernous and mostly empty, with trains leaving every 20 minutes or so for Tianjin but few running at capacity. You could only reasonably reach it by taxi because buses dropped passengers off about 15 minutes away, and the subway wasn't open yet. This is what the station looked like then:

And here's what it looks like now, with high-speed service open to Nanjing and Shanghai and a subway connection to line 4 on the lower level. Remember that this is basically only for high-speed rail; there are three other major train stations in the city for "standard" rail service.

To me, it's just amazing to see how quickly Beijing has grown into such massive infrastructure.

Anyway, the purpose of the visit to Tianjin was to meet with international relations faculty at Nankai University's Zhou Enlai School of Government. Professors Liu Feng and Huang Haitao, as well as Dr. Li Lijia of the State Council Development Research Center, served as my hosts for the day, a connection that came about from some translation work I did for GWU's Professor Glaser during the past year. After taking a cab to the South Station, catching a 7:35am train, and grabbing another taxi in Tianjin, I arrived at the Nankai University South Gate just in time to see Professor Liu ride up on his bike to meet me before my scheduled talk.

As part of my meeting with him, Professor Liu had asked me to give a guest lecture to his M.A. and Ph.D. international relations students. My topic for the morning was American views of China, and how those views illustrate some current difficulties in international relations theory. I spoke for only about 35 minutes, and then enjoyed taking questions for the rest of the class period. It was great to talk with some Chinese students about their perspectives on US-China relations and to present my own thoughts as well. As ever, Chinese students don't shy away from asking challenging questions, and we touched on everything from Confucious Institutes to US support for Taiwan and human rights. Many thanks to Prof. Liu for the opportunity! Here's a picture during the talk:

After that, we took a short break in the office before heading to lunch with Prof. Huang, Dr. Li and a couple of graduate students. In between taking turns toasting each person at the table and chowing down on flowering miniature cucumbers, numbing peppercorn fish, turtle soup, and two of my favorites - eggplant and spicy tofu! - we had a great conversation about Chinese foreign policy and US-China relations. I also fielded a couple interesting questions from the professors about religion and its role in politics in the US, which of course is one of many huge differences between our two countries' political systems. It was really a pleasure to share lunch and observations with such smart and inviting individuals, even if I have to admit that I surreptitiously passed on the boiled frog due to past experience.

While this visit wasn't a formal interview, the connections I built might be even more valuable. I've been following up for further meetings, to get clarification on certain issues in my research, and for suggestions on who else to talk to during my time here. Both professors have agreed to be respondents for a written questionnaire on nationalism and foreign policy, and Dr. Liu has already helped me arrange a meeting with faculty at Tsinghua University back here in Beijing, for which I'm very thankful - almost as thankful as I was for that spicy tofu on our table.

As ever, thanks for reading!

Jackson Woods
Ph.D. Political Science 2015
Sigur Center 2012 Field Research Fellow
Beijing, China

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