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Beijing

by on August 4, 2014

In May*, I was amongst a number of academics based at Scottish HEI’s invited to Beijing by the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE). The purpose of the visit was to develop collaborations between Scotland and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), following the development of a Memorandum of Understanding between the RSE and CASS in 2013. It was the first workshop organised between the RSE and CASS at which topics such as Sustainable Development (myself and Prof. Ian Docherty), City Development (Prof Richard Bellingham, Brian Veitch), and Reform of the Public Sector (Profs. Alan Anderson and Jo Armstrong) were discussed. Despite being a very brief visit (I arrived on the Sunday morning and left on Wednesday afternoon) we managed to pack a lot in – thanks to those in RSE and CASS who organised everything for us.

It was my first visit to China and quite an experience! I don’t know what I was expecting but I would be the first to acknowledge the pervasity of Chinese stereotypes……… Certainly, it is difficult for me to imagine how Beijing might have looked, 5, 10, 15 years ago, as by all accounts the pace of development has been astonishing. When I returned, many friends and colleagues asked me about my experience and the best word I have found to express this is ‘surreal’. Surreal in the sense that so much of the Beijing I saw was familiar, and yet simultaneously and intriguingly different. The towering glass buildings, congestion, and fast food joints made me feel I could be in any modern city, yet at every turn, and despite these features, Beijing is so very different; the sounds, smells, tastes in particular.

Without wishing to turn this entry into a holiday album, below are some images I captured:

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(Top left, me on the Great Wall; top right, Chinese Opera; right, the Great Wall; The RSE delegates; The Forbidden City).

But the experience was not just a cultural one. We were there to work, after all. The presentations from both the RSE and CASS delegates were highly informative, and it was incredibly interesting to hear more about the historical and current challenges facing China. The CASS presentations were particularly illuminating as they revealed a lot about the nature of academic research in China. For instance, it appeared that the preference is for data generation rather than theoretical development, and a desire to collect quantitative data and build complicated models to understand human behaviour. Unfortunately I’m not sure that they understood me prattling on about the importance of subjective experience and qualitative research!

But what surprised me most was that apparent lack of engagement from the CASS scholars. The respectful and polite nature of Chinese conduct was one I was expecting, but I was surprised by the extent to which it dictated proceedings. I anticipated that language would be the primary barrier to discussions and networking activities. Yet even those for whom English was no problem at all, seemed reluctant to engage in conversation about their research interests. Unfortunately I never managed to resolve this, and still I am not sure what I would have done differently to engage colleagues from CASS. Nevertheless, I feel that there is potential to work around this, and think we (the RSE scholars) need to be more imaginative in how we engage and enthuse our Chinese counterparts.

The other thing I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on, are the very basic challenges facing China, ones which we rarely have to consider in Scotland. For instance, I went armed with a presentation about low carbon and what we are doing in the UK to encourage more sustainable homes. Yet low carbon is, in effect, a relatively nice concern to have – whilst in Scotland we are encouraging householders to do more with less, or to be more efficient with what we have, in China basic needs are often not met so it is not a matter of doing more with less, but instead of having any reliable form of energy at all. It certainly made me stop and think.

So, despite the potential difficulties of collaborating with colleagues in CASS, the little I saw of China was enough to whet my appetite to undertake research there. With a bit of flexibility (and humility!) there is massive potential to collaborate with colleagues in CASS many of whom, for instance, have not encountered qualitative research, in order to further the sustainable homes agenda. Indeed, it seems that the RSE and CASS are united in a desire to develop a joint programme of work, something we in the Centre for Housing Research, hope to be involved in.

Above all, however, I came away from China thinking about the ‘us and them’ dilemma. I recall driving to work a few weeks later, listening to a phone-in programme on Radio Scotland about the potential for Shale Gas in Scotland. In a heated debate, one caller disputed that responsibility for more sustainable energy generation should fall on our ‘Scottish’ shoulders and pointed to the massive emissions that were being generated in China. The ease with which we ‘blame China for global warming’ is not exactly unusual, indeed, a few years ago I perhaps would have shared such a view. However, when one considers the minute contributions to emissions per head of the population in China (relative to our massive contribution), and also the fact that it is largely the manufacture of products headed for the ‘West’ which generates these emissions (embedded carbon), it reminds us of the necessity of thinking about our own role in climate change. Why shouldn’t someone in Beijing be able to enjoy air conditioned travel in their own car, thereby avoiding breathing in heavily polluted air whilst walking around in 40 degree C heat? Even if that single car contributes further to global warming, who are we to disapprove of that choice?

* Sorry, long overdue post!

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