2003 Student-Faculty Fellows: Illinois Wesleyan University
Towards Sustainable Development in the Chinese Countryside
Mentor: Abigail Jahiel, Department of Political Science
Students: Robert Calahan ’04; Katie Coleman ’04
Research trip to China postponed to Summer 2004 because of 2003 SARS Crisis
Abstracts of Reflections and/or Research
Although I have been to China for research many times before, several factors made this ASIANetwork-sponsored research trip to China unique. Some of these proved rewarding, others more challenging. As my first extensive stint doing fieldwork in the countryside on agricultural issues and the environment, I learned a great deal about farming in contemporary China, the restructuring of agriculture there; the role of local government in promoting sustainable development, and environmental changes taking place in part because of these factors. Unexpectedly, I also learned a great deal about the reemergence of class stratification in rural China. In this reflection piece I discuss how this experience has impacted my professional development, noting the changes in my short term research agenda, which now includes plans to write two papers from this fieldwork experience (one on local government efforts to promote sustainable rural development in China, the other on the reemergence of class stratification in rural China) as well as the positive impact this trip will have on my teaching. But I also discuss the challenges of the trip which made it more difficult to learn as much about environmental conditions in the countryside as I anticipated. These included poor timing politically, the large contingent of people and high perceived-status of our research group, the difference of doing research using translators and some of the problems of doing so. I conclude that the opportunity to do collaborative student-faculty research though challenging, was nevertheless very rewarding, and express my gratitude to the Freeman Foundation for supporting such endeavors.
Our team set out to understand better the environmental problems in the Chinese countryside, the causes of these problems, and how the development strategies promoted by government officials affect farmers’ decisions and ultimately the environment. We achieved our goals to varying degrees. Government officials naturally wanted to introduce us (particularly within the immediate political context) to the efforts they had taken toward sustainable agricultural and rural development. We visited agricultural technology stations, methane producing households, wugonghai vegetable greenhouses and mushroom houses, and consolidated large-scale farms where high-value vegetable production was taking place or fruit trees were being planted or fisheries established, as well as a very large-scale state farm whose business was substantially for the Hong Kong and international market. We also saw projects to restore soil and prevent further erosion, and to inexpensively treat village wastewater. We learned that government intervention – in the form of education, technology, financial incentives, and assistance with market access – played a dominant role in the decisions of farmers who participated in more sustainable agricultural ventures, as well as in the establishment of sustainable rural infrastructure projects. Through the process of our research, we also learned much about the reemergence of class stratification in the countryside. After three meetings in Bloomington-Normal this summer following our return from China, we have begun work on two separate articles based on our research findings, one, similar to our original intent, on government efforts to promote sustainable development in the Chinese countryside, the second unanticipated one on the reemergence of class stratification in the countryside. We expect this second article will inform our analysis of the first, as we continue to consider the merits and shortcomings for environmental sustainability of government efforts within the larger rural context of class stratification and rural development strategies.
As I go to bed tonight, I realize that we share something so much more powerful and uniquely human. We all share an understanding and a noticeable eagerness to know and learn about one another. — Late night notes from a Jiangsu hotel
The opportunity given to me by ASIANetwork to travel abroad to conduct cutting edge research in my field of study is an opportunity that I will treasure for the rest of my life. For the month I spent in China researching environmental conditions in the countryside, I finally put my educational preparation into practice. The personal contact with Chinese farmers and government officials added a personal sense of urgency to academia for me, a reminder that the point of research and study is to change the world, not just to interpret it. By shedding fresh light on some of the lesser-known environmental and economic challenges facing the countryside (where a majority of the world’s most populated country live) as a result of spectacular economic development, our group has the ability to draw attention both in America and in China to these issues and to make a difference in the lives of real people. At times both exhilarating and frustrating, the trip forged connections between people who seemingly had nothing to connect with, and in doing so, showed the fundamental humanity which bonds us all.
The personal, intimate interactions of this trip have only increased my dedication to continuing my studies about the Chinese countryside and Asian history at the graduate level. In terms of future graduate work, the trip also provided me with invaluable research experience. I certainly learned the necessity of flexibility and keeping an open mind when conducting research abroad.
Political sensitivities, cultural uncertainties, and linguistic challenges combined for a surprising, yet enlightening journey through the Chinese countryside. Using three excerpts from my personal journal as a catalyst for further reflection, this passage attempts to illustrate how these unexpected differences encountered during our ASIANetwork-sponsored research trip affected both my ability to conduct interview-based research during our project and my thoughts on continuing such studies. T his trip showed me that there are many other, non-traditional communications tools at our disposal â€“ even, and especially, when we don’t speak a common language. Kind eyes, an understanding smile or a smile that admits ignorance and a signal of respect for someone else are accepted universally. And I learned what it means to conduct research in a country and a language that are both foreign to me. As I realized that my own ignorance of certain issues was more of a barrier than any external influence, I began to appreciate just what I will have to do in order to study and research in a foreign country independently.
I have always considered teaching English in a foreign country in order to gain valuable life experience and broaden my international horizons. More recently, my passion for environmental issues has matured into a real desire to pursue a degree in environmental policy. Now that I understand just how important China is to the global environmental situation, I am eager to return to China, where I plan to teach English, learn Chinese, and better my understanding of the country before returning to graduate school to further my formal environmental education.
Venues for Sharing
We intend to present our research findings to the Illinois Wesleyan community in two venues: our report on class stratification in the Chinese countryside at the Asian Studies Brown Bag colloquium later this semester, and our analysis of government intervention to promote sustainable development in the Chinese countryside at a forum sponsored jointly by the Development Studies Team and the Environmental Studies Program sometime later this year. In addition, we hope to publish the article we are now working on class stratification in the Chinese countryside in one of the major Asian Studies journals, and will give further thought to whether to present a paper on government intervention to promote sustainable development at the International Studies Association’s 2006 Conference or to seek publication for this piece. Finally, Katie and Bob are considering writing a piece on their experience doing research in China for the IWU alumni magazine.