The ever-changing Middle Kingdom
I undertook a request from the QAR to write about my recent visits to China with some trepidation, as I’m no expert on that country. In fact, I’ve only visited on five occasions. My first trip was in 2005, when I went to Beijing to participate in an international conference focused on long-term environmental change, and colleagues at the Institute of Geology and Geophysics (Chinese Academy of Sciences) and at the Geosciences University invited me to give some lectures.
I returned twice in 2010 – first on a lecture series that brought me to Hefei to deliver the keynote lecture at the International Conference on Environmental Indicators, as well as lectures at Fudan University and Shanghai Normal University, and the Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.
My second trip in 2010 was mainly a stopover in Hong Kong on a lecture series in Nepal, where I lectured at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong.
In 2012, I had the honour of being awarded an Einstein Professorship by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. As a result, I presented a four-day course on paleolimnology at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, as well as delivered the Einstein Professor Lecture. This was followed by visits to the Yellow Mountains and Xi’an and a lecture back in Beijing.
In June I returned for a two-week trip to southwestern China that involved some lectures and a short course at Yunnan Normal University in Kunming (where I was also made an honorary professor), as well as trips to Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La – yes, there really is such a place; it’s near the Tibetan border – concluding again with a lecture in Beijing.
China is a fascinating and highly diverse country, with vast potential, but it also has vast environmental problems. The sheer size of, well, almost everything in China is often my main first impression, whether we’re talking about traffic in Beijing, the number of people using the subway in Shanghai, or the size of some university classrooms and lecture halls.
A second major impression is the speed at which various things can be done. For example, what may have been a small, starting academic unit or operation a few years ago, can very quickly become a giant department with a full complement of dedicated faculty, staff, and students, dwarfing many similar longstanding programs in North America and Europe.
I’ve also begun to appreciate China’s diversity – partly in its landscapes and biology (which are closer to my fields), but also in the diversity of the peoples and cultures. For example, on my latest trip to China, within one day’s drive I passed from regions where the Bai people (one of the 56 ethnic minorities recognized by China) were common, then the Naxi, followed by the Yi, and finally the Tibetans. In each of these regions the dress, architecture, and the food changed markedly.
I ate very well in China, even if what I ate often was an adventure. The most memorable dishes on my most recent visit were fried bees and roasted bamboo worms. Once we were near Tibet, I lost count of the various, but delicious, ways that yak is served – whether stewed or roasted, and served with yak cheese and Tibetan tea.
The contrasts in China are another thing that can be striking. While walking through some old town or village, it often looks like you’re in a place where time has stood still. Then, within a few kilometers the high-rises and the ubiquitous construction cranes re-appear.
The eight-year interval since my first visit to China is hardly a sufficiently long enough time to establish a significant trend, but I’m left with some general observations, at least as they relate to my interactions with scientific colleagues and their students.
First, the quality of the written and spoken English, especially by the younger people at the universities and institutes, continues to improve rapidly. Chinese scholars are very much encouraged to publish their findings in North American or European journals, to the point that I’ve heard some say that if they publish their findings in a Chinese journal it almost “doesn’t count” for promotion and other advancements.
Second, the thirst for connections and meaningful interactions with western universities, such as Queen’s, continues to accelerate steadily. A large number of collaborative programs are being proposed, with the general intent of hosting Chinese students and other researchers in our labs for extended periods of time. Indeed, in Queen’s new internationalization strategy, China is a region of strategic focus.
Third, I have observed that the infrastructure, including lab equipment, is as good or often better and certainly appears to be more easily attainable than the equipment that we have in many labs in North America. Science is “big,” and it’s getting “bigger” in China.
The disciplined work ethic of my colleagues and especially Chinese students, as a group, continues to impress me. (Mind you, this isn’t to say that Queen’s students don’t work hard). As one example, at my recent lecture series in Hefei, the organizers decided to schedule some of my lectures for students in the evening – two hours on a Friday and a Saturday night! I laughed as I asked if they actually expected any students to come to non-compulsory lectures on these evenings? My hosts didn’t seem concerned, and they were right. In fact, the lecture halls were packed on both evenings.
Despite all of the positives I saw in China, the country clearly has some tremendous issues to deal with. With the multitudes of challenges that may have complex solutions, there’s no shortage of work for an environmental scientist such as me.
My main research focuses on water-quality issues, atmospheric pollution, and climate change, all of which are very much on the minds of my Chinese colleagues. I chuckle to recall my first trip to Beijing in 2005. I remember looking out the window of my hotel room each day and saying “Boy, Beijing sure has a lot of fog!” It was by Day Four or so of my stay that I realized, “No, that’s not fog. This is what Beijing smog looks like – at least on many days!”
Nonetheless, in some respects, the Chinese are ahead of the West. For example, a large number of houses there have solar panels, mainly for passive water heating. However, the environmental challenges in China are enormous, and my colleagues clearly acknowledge as much. My own specialty is related to water issues, and there’s no dearth of important projects to work on in China. For example, the sheer size of the country’s algal blooms dwarfs anything I’ve seen in North America. Other less visible water-quality issues, such as various contaminants and the effects of climate change, may severely impact China’s future.
One of the things I miss most when I’m in China is the simple pleasure of turning on a tap and taking a drink of water – rather than having to boil it beforehand.
Research and bringing evidence-based policy into action will be key to China’s success in overcoming its environmental challenges. I’m not naïve to the enormity of the problems on the country’s horizon. Although I’ve often been frustrated in Canada by our attempts at getting our politicians and policymakers to be more appreciative of the wealth of scientific data that can better inform their decisions, I know that I can openly criticize our government. Speaking out in the same way can be problematic for Chinese scientists.
The pace of expansion of many environmental laboratories and research institutes in China is a positive sign, as is the dedication of the country’s researchers. I’m hopeful that many of the approaches we use and have developed here at Queen’s – such as using lake sediments to demonstrate the trajectories of environmental problems – will be part of their solutions. I was pleased to learn that one of my textbooks is currently being translated into Chinese.
I have several more invitations to visit China, and I hope to accept at least some of them. In addition, many of my Chinese colleagues and their students plan on visiting Kingston. To be candid, I get extremely nervous about these reciprocal visits, as I can’t imagine how I could possibly approach the level of hospitality that I’ve enjoyed in China.
Prof. John P. Smol, OC, FRSC, is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change, Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab (PEARL) in the Queen’s Department of Biology.