Watson’s China Initiative begins its second decade with an ambitious agenda

Entering its second decade, the Watson Institute's China Initiative seeks to understand China's rapid transformation from a variety of perspectives.

Created in 2013 and housed at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the China Initiative brings together scholars with diverse expertise in various fields to cultivate a rigorous and nuanced understanding of contemporary China. The Initiative facilitates collaborative research drawing on a wide range of disciplinary perspectives including the social sciences, the natural and physical sciences, engineering, public health, medicine and the humanities at Brown. The Initiative also reaches beyond the University to engage experts on China from across the world.

In the ten years since its inception, the Initiative has generated groundbreaking scholarship on China and the Chinese diaspora. Highlights include research on the effects of rapid industrialization and urbanization on Chinese society, the drivers of Chinese foreign and security policy since the founding of the People's Republic, the public health consequences of environmental pollution, the nature of China's evolving interactions with Russia and India, the drivers of substandard workplace conditions in global manufacturing operations, the nature of China's expanding military and power projection capabilities, and the ways in which Chinese, American and European companies have collaborated to create innovative products in the energy technology domain.

“ The way people live their lives in China today is so dramatically different from how they did 30 or 40 years ago. It's arguably the greatest transformation and the most rapid transformation — whether economic or social — in human history. ”

Edward Steinfeld Director of the Watson Institute and China Initiative

Watson Institute and China Initiative director Edward Steinfeld explained that the Initiative aims to understand China not exclusively as a geopolitical entity or through the lens of U.S.-China relations, but as "a locus for the intersection of technological change, demographic change, political change and economic change." Steinfeld said, "We've tried — with analytical rigor and a multidisciplinary approach — to shed light on the transformations happening in China, partly because we want to understand China, but also because it is such a large and consequential place." 

The greatest transformation in human history

Steinfeld said that while the rest of the world is also undergoing remarkable changes, "The way people live their lives in China today is so dramatically different from how they did 30 or 40 years ago. It's arguably the greatest transformation and the most rapid transformation — whether economic or social — in human history. The implications of this, whether positive or negative, are consequential for virtually every major global challenge we face today, and any potential solutions we hopefully will pursue in the future." 

The changes that have transpired in China are typically expressed in economic terms. Since former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping launched a series of economic reforms in 1978, according to the World Bank, China's GDP growth has averaged over 9 percent a year, making it the world's second-largest economy today. Steinfeld says researchers with the China Initiative seek to understand China, and how rapid change has impacted the lives of Chinese citizens, in ways that extend beyond the story that is typically told about its economy.

Because the country has changed so rapidly in ways that have profoundly affected the rest of the world, Steinfeld argues that in studying it, we should not think of China as a monolithic entity or reduce it to any one thing. By bringing together scholars from across disciplines, the China Initiative makes the case that looking at China from many different perspectives, rather than limiting research to particular sub-fields or perspectives, is essential to understanding contemporary China in all its complexity.

This approach means that much of the research done through the Initiative couples both geopolitical themes, of which China is an essential aspect, and issues that reside at the most micro level — that of the individual citizen. "I think our sense in the China Initiative is that if you want to understand — or a key way to understand — the huge revolutionary transformation happening in China, is to investigate how it plays out both in the global context and on the ground in ordinary people's lives," said Steinfeld. 

Politics and everyday life: Politics and the global

Steinfeld cited ongoing research by new China Initiative postdoctoral fellows Shanni Zhao and Na Fu, as well as research by Watson Assistant Professor Tyler Jost and Visiting Professor Lyle Goldstein as prime examples of work that spans the range of levels of analysis, from the global to the very local. 

Zhao is investigating the topic of marriage and matchmaking in contemporary China from a social and cultural anthropological perspective. "What I love about Shanni's work," Steinfeld said, "is that she is not looking directly at issues of legitimacy of the system or directly at people's political views." Instead, "It's going through a mode that's very central to many of our lives, but we wouldn't normally think of as at the root of understanding politics or understanding the state." 

Fu is researching a topic some might consider pedestrian — shoes. "Na's work is important because it relates to something very basic that's used all over the world and is produced in globalized supply chains," said Steinfeld. "And there have been big shifts in the way that's being done. We've moved from mass production toward mass customization." He added, "What is impressive about Na's work is how she is examining something many people would view as nonpolitical as a window to understand how people relate to their society, and how production changes create changes to their identity and their politics." 

Jost focuses on how bureaucracy, especially the nature of the national security apparatus, deeply influences any nation's foreign policy, including China's. In his new book "Bureaucracies at War," Jost demonstrates how at various points in history leadership infighting has interacted with bureaucracy in ways that have led to miscalculation and war. He shows this with respect to China, but also comparatively with respect to India, Pakistan and the U.S.

Goldstein focuses on both Chinese and Russian strategic development, particularly with respect to maritime affairs and nuclear strategy. Through fine-grained analysis of domestic sources in each case, Goldstein has developed what Steinfeld characterizes as "an unparalleled understanding not just of what the nature of expanding military capabilities actually entails (or may not entail), but also of how those capabilities interact with state intentions." Goldstein has also explored the implications of this for China's relations with the United States and Russia.  

Beyond politics

Steinfeld expressed a desire with the China Initiative's research to try to move beyond not just the contemporary political discourse in the U.S. about China but also the actual political situation within contemporary China. Steinfeld explained, "The current state of U.S.-China relations, and current politics in Beijing are, of course, important. But, in many ways, the transformational capacity of China, in the past and future, goes way beyond politics. At a human level, the willingness and ability of the Chinese people to embrace change in their lives and foster it is remarkable."

"For a lot of us, change is not something we are comfortable with," said Steinfeld. "Change is hard. And to have your life flipped in so many ways in terms of what you need to do to be successful, what success means professionally, personally, what your kids are thinking about those issues, to have that changed so completely in a short period of time, and then to adapt and accommodate that — that's remarkable. And that's, in fact, what many Chinese citizens have done in recent years," he said.

Steinfeld said, "One of the principles of the China Initiative is that harnessing the capacity for change is — and will continue to be — critical for tackling the great societal challenges of our time, whether within any single country or more likely, across humankind."