Tag: East/Southeast Asia

Nicholas Hung: Taiwan

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Nicholas Hung (left) with Ms. Hung Hsiu-chu, a former deputy chairperson of Taiwan’s Nationalist Party.

Nicholas Hung is a first-year student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC), working towards a graduate certificate in Chinese and American Studies before completing his master’s degree at SAIS in Washington, D.C.

Nicholas spent his summer in Taipei, Taiwan as an intern for the Kuomintang (KMT), also known as the Nationalist Party, in the Republic of China. While interning in the KMT Central Committee’s foreign media and international affairs section, Nicholas completed Chinese-language courses at National Taiwan Normal University. Before embarking on his studies at the HNC, he graciously agreed to discuss his experience at the KMT headquarters with the SAIS Observer.

What were your responsibilities working at the KMT Central Committee’s foreign media and international affairs section?

I worked directly under the section chief, Mr. Eric Huang, who is actually now working towards a master’s degree at SAIS. My primary responsibility was to prepare daily news briefs by condensing information from various news sources into a single document. I also worked on local media outreach for press conferences. Additionally, I was involved in coordinating outreach to representatives of foreign countries and institutions such as Canada, Australia and the American Institute in Taiwan.

Why did you want to pursue this internship?

Personally, I’ve always been interested in politics. While I previously considered going into politics, I thought that the current political environment in the United States might make that quite difficult. On the other hand, I thought pursuing opportunities in foreign service, where I could be involved in political analysis at the macro level, might be more accessible.

What were some of the challenges and rewards of your internship?

It was great to be able to live in an environment where I could learn Chinese and meet a lot of interesting people. I shook the hand of the chairwoman of the KMT at the time, Ms. Hung Hsiu-chu, and I got to meet representatives from the European Union contingency and do some translating. But most of all, I think it was an opportunity to see how a political party works, especially in the context of Taiwan’s unique history, culture and democratically active society.

One challenge was language. While I was in a country I knew somewhat well, I was operating in a language that I was not as comfortable with. I grew up speaking Chinese at home, but did not really focus on reading and writing. But by working in a Chinese-speaking environment and taking language courses, I was able to make improvements and prepare myself for my studies at the HNC.

Another challenge was operating in the KMT itself, which has been around since 1912 and is somewhat set in its own ways. In Chinese culture, many believe that the elders are more experienced and have the right to control the dialogue. So for young Taiwanese people, myself included, it can be challenging to engage with different viewpoints, morals and values, especially on issues like LGBTQ policies. As an older political party, the KMT is not going to “rock the boat,” at least not as much as the Minjindang (Democratic Progressive Party) or the Shilidang (New Power Party). But, I was there to learn and regardless, there will always be similar challenges wherever I go. If the KMT can modernize and take stronger, more civil rights-oriented stances, I think they can make it.

Can you put your internship into an international perspective for us? In what ways was your work relevant?

Taiwan is one of our few democratic allies in the East Asian region. This is especially important in the context of Mainland China and its Belt and Road Initiative, investment initiatives in Africa, and so on. For someone like me who was born and raised in the United States, this was an opportunity to go out and understand a different culture and democratic political structure. The best part was to witness the young people of Taiwan so willing to go out and march for various causes. As an undergraduate, I wrote about the Sunflower Student Movement, which consisted of Taiwanese students who occupied the Taiwanese government’s legislative chamber in protest of the KMT passing the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with Mainland China. This was so inspiring to me, especially given that in America, the younger age brackets have some of the lowest voting turnouts. If the United States could attain that same level of active participation, imagine the impact we could make! Beyond that, it’s all about comparison. We examine intercultural differences so that we can learn from both the positive and the negative.

How do you think this experience will apply to your studies at SAIS and beyond?

Here at the HNC, on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, I plan to study the Mainland Chinese outlook. With the aspiration of joining the foreign service, I want to focus on East Asia through either an international relations or comparative politics lens. Whether I have the opportunity to work at the American Institute in Taiwan or an embassy in China, I am eager to be back in this region. The experience has informed me about what I want to do academically and professionally; it also taught me about who I am as a Taiwanese-American. Even though Taiwan is small, we cannot forget our friends across the Taiwan Strait!

Alex Cowen: China

Alex Cowen is a master’s student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) in Nanjing, concentrating in International Economics. Before coming to the HNC, he wanted to spend his summer working in China, so he cast a wide net looking for different options. In his search, he found an opportunity to internwith JD.com (JD), the second-largest e-commerce company in China.

Tell me about your experience at JD.Picture1

I was part of JD Run, an eight-week internship with JD. There were a total of 65 interns, both Chinese and international, in the program. We were all assigned positions in different departments: I worked in marketing. As part of the Run program, we also had a special project, where a team of interns supervised by a full-time JD employee could choose one of seven different projects. I worked on a project with JD Fresh, a consumer goods service similar to the Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s model that emphasizes freshness and quality goods. It’s a fast-growing market in China: People are more interested in higher quality food. They’re also working with the “workerless supermarket” concept where you scan your face to open the door, you collect your items, and then you scan your face again to exit.

What were your day-to-day responsibilities at JD?

My regular function in the marketing department was to work primarily on international intellectual property and branding, as well as sports sponsorships. I attended meetings with my mentor and contributed to various promotional projects such as, for example, working with artists designing bags for JD or on sponsorships from professional soccer teams in China and Europe. I also did research on “fresh” brands like Trader Joe’s to determine what Chinese brands can learn from them.

What were the most challenging and the most rewarding parts of your internship?

Those two kind of go hand-in-hand. The most challenging was working in Chinese. I knew I wanted that experience before coming to the HNC, but there were growing pains. Often colleagues would not assign me work because they weren’t sure if I would understand what they were saying. I had to figure out how to communicate in their language and meet them in the middle.

The most rewarding thing was the feeling that I made a genuine connection with my Chinese colleagues. Finally, I was assigned meaningful work; it turned out that breaking the ice was all that really needed to happen. By the end of the summer, it was still hard, but I felt like part of the team, and it was really rewarding seeing how much people really appreciated me being there.

What perspectives on China and the world did this experience provide you?

I saw how Chinese businesses and commerce are globalizing. The United States has an existing business model, and Chinese companies like Alibaba and JD are trying to move into that space and learn from them. There’s a lot for both Chinese and foreign firms to learn. In particular, foreign companies often think that they can waltz into China and do business with companies like JD, Alibaba or Tencent, but that’s not necessarily the case, especially in 2018. Moments come and go really quickly in China when it comes to what’s most popular and lucrative. Once upon a time, being a foreign brand in China meant that you would automatically succeed, but now Chinese consumers are more informed. Companies have to understand the nuances of the Chinese consumer and how they differ from region to region.

How has this experience either reinforced or changed your goals?

I don’t know if e-commerce is where I want to work forever, but this internship opened my eyes to the breadth of opportunities available. Companies like Alibaba, Tencent and JD are moving into foreign spaces as global companies, so they have a demand for people with global skills. If you can move around within the company, it’s a good way to get exposure to a lot of different skills and industries. When I first came to the HNC, I was set on studying economics with the intention to work in finance or consulting. This experience helped me realize there’s way more out there. It made me more acutely interested in foreign trade, international business, the international economic system and how firms make the whole system work.

Any advice for students who are seeking internships?

In general, just don’t be afraid to ask — either for help or for what you want. People who are older than you or in higher positions will tell you certain things based on their experience, but it might be different for you. Until you find out what the real situation is, don’t be discouraged. People often get discouraged when people say “no,” but if you ask enough times, someone will say “yes.”


China’s Society People

By Jesse Adler and Jing Xuanlin

English article co-researched and written by Jesse Adler and Jing Xuanlin. Chinese translation below by Jing Xuanlin.

NANJING, China — While enrolled in a language school in southern China this past summer, I encountered a new kind of Mandarin slang. On an otherwise typical midsummer day, after having just been out shopping, I walked into class wearing a newly purchased pair of sunglasses and a T-shirt with a graphic vaguely reminiscent of the Louis Vuitton logo. Immediately, my teacher commented that I looked exactly like a shè huì rén, or “society person.” What was that supposed to mean, I wondered? Thus began my investigation into the trending Chinese subculture known as the shè huì rén.

The origin of the term shè huì rén can be traced to the term hēi shè huì, or “black society,” which refers to China’s secretive criminal underworld. Membership within the hēi shè huì often entails heavy involvement in drug trade, extreme violence and a rigorous initiation process. In contrast with hēi shè huì, the shè huì rén culture is largely based on the online activities of Chinese millennials. There is no formal organizational structure. The culture mostly revolves around ironic and self-deprecatory humor, visual memes and fashion.

Beginning in late 2017, videos featuring Chinese millennials wearing gold chains, sunglasses and full-body tattoos began going viral on popular social media sites. In comment sections and on message boards, users were quick to classify this group as shè huì rén. There is an irony here: While the phrase “society person” may hint at someone living up to society’s expectations, many shè huì rén come from the lower classes of Chinese society. They have relatively poor educational backgrounds and lack stable work lives. Furthermore, while they may put on airs of living a gangster lifestyle, shè huì rén have no real association with China’s criminal underworld.

One factor that may have contributed to the emergence of shè huì rén culture is rising income inequality in China. Looking at the country’s Gini coefficient, according to the International Monetary Fund, China’s income inequality has increased more in the past decade than any other country. On top of high income inequality, young Chinese are experiencing a decline in social mobility. A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies study shows that while 70% of the college-aged population in Shanghai are pursuing postsecondary education, just 19% of residents in the Guangxi autonomous region are doing so. With increased demand for highly-skilled labor in China, those who lack college degrees will likely face difficulties in bridging the income gap. This economic reality may cause some young people to seek out an alternative form of social recognition and identity, which is where the shè huì rén culture offers its appeal.

Essential to shè huì rén identity is the appropriation of a British cartoon character called Peppa Pig. Despite Peppa Pig’s cute and friendly appearance, the cartoon has become symbolic of shè huì rén culture and, more broadly, of anti-establishment sentiment across Chinese youth culture. It is increasingly common to see shè huì rén with Peppa Pig tattoos or apparel hanging out and riding motorcycles together, or chain-smoking and drinking cheap alcohol. By identifying with an innocent and “cute” icon such as Peppa Pig while at the same time mimicking elements of gangster culture, the shè huì rén have established themselves as a subversive force within Chinese society, unique in their sense of humor and their rejection of mainstream societal expectations and values.

Interestingly, the fashion associated with shè huì rén has grown in mainstream popularity, as many ordinary students, office workers and even celebrities have embraced Peppa-Pig-branded clothing and accessories. Perhaps, by donning a Peppa Pig T-shirt or wristwatch, anyone can believe for a moment that they are a shè huì rén themselves, especially when posting photos on social media platforms and receiving praise for adopting a shè huì rén style. Corporations have caught on to the trend. The Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is currently producing a full-length Peppa Pig motion picture. Meanwhile, in Beijing and Shanghai, Peppa Pig theme parks are scheduled to open in 2019 — just in time for the Chinese year of the pig. However, even as the shè huì rén culture and lifestyle gains popular momentum, it is also receiving criticism and pushback. For instance, the Global Times, a state-owned Chinese newspaper with links to the ruling Communist Party, accused shè huì rén of being nothing more than “unruly slackers roaming around, and the antithesis of the young generation the Party tries to cultivate.”

Like all fads, Peppa Pig and the shè huì rén moniker will fade from popularity. But what will become of the people that make up the core of the shè huì rén culture? They are of the millennial generation born in the mid-1990s. They come from the lower tiers of Chinese society and lack both education and job prospects. While they enjoy widespread cultural appeal today, there will be a time when the attention dissipates, as the mainstream generation settles into their busy lives and forgets about their shè huì rén contemporaries. Moreover, the culture has already drawn some ire from the Communist Party, perhaps foreshadowing even more troubles in its future. For now, though, stock up on the Peppa Pig merchandise while supplies last!



中国,南京——今年夏天,美国学生Jesse到中国南方一所语言培训学校学习,一次偶然,他学会了一句时下流行的中国俚语。仲夏一日,Jesse在外购物后返回学校,当时他戴着一副新墨镜,穿着一件印有类似“Louis Vuitton”标志的T恤,学校老师一遇见他就说:“你看起来简直就是个社会人!”这句话令Jesse百思不得其解,但也正因此次机缘巧合,Jesse开始了对中国“社会人”亚文化的探索之旅。







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Screenshot from Taobao.com, a popular Chinese online shopping website


Sam Smith: China

Screen Shot 2018-09-16 at 3.51.05 PM.pngEnergy, Resources and Environment concentrator Sam Smith spent his summer in Beijing as an intern for International Rivers, a nonprofit organization advocating for the sustainable development of global water resources. Through his work with International Rivers’ China program, Sam researched and visited Chinese hydroelectric development projects while organizing local NGOs to promote indigenous rights and sustainable development.

Sam learned about the organization through a class at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) called “Water Resources and Development,” taught by Professor Wang Zhijian. He emailed an International Rivers representative to inquire about internships and soon found himself a member of the team. As a self-proclaimed “river kid” who grew up along the St. Croix in Minnesota, Sam shared with TSO his highly meaningful experience protecting rivers.

How did you become interested in water resource development in China?

My initial application to the HNC was predicated upon studying the environmental impacts and security issues around Chinese-built dams in Southeast Asia. Chinese hydropower became my key area of interest when I took a river cruise along the Salween River along the Thailand-Myanmar border and learned about the Myitsone Dam project, which was to be built there by a Chinese state-owned firm. The dam threatened the river ecosystem and therefore the livelihood of the local Karen population (an ethnic minority in the region), who have been fighting the central government for almost half a century. I wanted to learn more about large-scale dams and how they impact local communities, including their contribution to conflict situations.

What were your responsibilities?  

My job was to educate Chinese firms and Chinese NGOs about the potential negative effects of hydroelectric power development, particularly dam projects. Day-to-day, I researched and translated Chinese environmental policies for my team. I also interviewed academics and activists about Chinese dam projects for the International Rivers blog. Most importantly, I helped to produce the latest version of the “Hydro-Scorecard,” which is a benchmarking report that assesses the environmental and social impacts of Chinese hydropower projects built all around the world. It will be published this fall.

Congratulations on such an accomplishment! Tell me more International Rivers’ vision.

Dam projects are becoming more significant as China expands its influence with policies like One Belt, One Road (now known as The Belt and Road Initiative), with adverse ecological impacts usually following right behind. China has built over 80,000 dams domestically, and as a result, half of China’s rivers have disappeared within the last three decades. Chinese firms are expanding with over 40 dam projects in places like Cambodia, Pakistan, and Africa, often to the detriment of the peoples living there. International Rivers’ goal is to work with indigenous populations and Chinese NGOs to minimize or eliminate the degradation. Some of our campaigns also focus on protecting remaining Chinese rivers, like the Yangtze River and the Yellow River. We try to encourage China to use best development practices when they expand abroad. I’ve learned a lot about issues with development through site visits.

Site visits?

The most notable visit was to a UNESCO World Natural and Cultural Heritage Site in Chengdu, China called Dujiangyan, which is the world’s oldest operating hydrological system. It’s nearly 3,000 years old –  it takes a fierce river, splits it into two, and uses the water to provide flood control and irrigation to the Chengdu Plain. Our work brought us to this site because there was an illegal dam built 300 meters away from the main feature of Dujiangyan. Corrupt local officials had built the dam to sell electricity back into the gridillegally, of course. We were fighting to protect the integrity of Dujiangyan, so our local partners helped organize protests and worked with provincial- and national-level governments to get the dam removed. We recently found out this dam was totally dismantled in July after a long battle.

What was the most rewarding part of the internship?

This experience taught me what modern environmental and social activism looks like it’s surprisingly decentralized, and we rely on social media and independent research to build momentum around issues. My bosses were impressively organized, coordinating on projects from offices located in Melbourne, Oakland, and Costa Rica respectively.

Did SAIS help you prepare for you work at International Rivers?

Of course! In January 2017, I went on the SAIS Frontiers in Energy, Science and Technology (FEST) research trip. Fellow SAIS students, SAIS faculty and I spent two weeks in Vietnam researching the effects of Chinese hydropower on the integrity of the Mekong River. This proved to be very effective during my time at International Rivers.

How will this internship impact your future career?

Hydropower will always remain one of my core interests. However, this internship made me realize I’m interested in analyzing the macro-level policy decisions the Chinese government make regarding energy development. I want to study how powerful institutions like governments and state-run firms impact the developing world.  

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Activists protest an illegal dam built upstream from the Dujiangyan UNESCO World Natural and Cultural Heritage Site.


Mende Thuji Yangden: Bhutan


Mende Thuji Yangden is the first student at SAIS from Bhutan. Over the summer, she returned home for an internship in the capital Thimphu, where she helped manage civil society organizations (CSOs) overseen by Her Majesty Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck. Despite juggling a full-time job, hectic visa applications and family responsibilities, Mende speaks calmly about the historical culture of CSOs in Bhutan, the role of international partnerships in its development and the importance of making time for family and friends.

Where were you this summer and what were you doing?

I was back home in Thimphu, working for a CSO called the Gyalyum Charitable Trust (GCT), which is one of the queen mother’s organizations. I was a research consultant for two months primarily doing strategic planning for the organization, but, as with any job, I got the chance to branch out.

The GCT was formed to coherently manage all the organizations that enjoy the patronage of the Her Majesty Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck. For example, one of the organizations she formed is called RENEW, which stands for Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women. She works with women’s issues, scholarships for higher education, children from poor socioeconomic backgrounds as well as the textile industry and Bhutanese culture.  

What did you do on a day-to-day basis?

For the first few weeks, my job was to come up with a strategic plan for the organization and present it to the Her Majesty Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck and Her Royal Highness Ashim Eeuphelma Choden Wangchuck. Most of my time was spent doing research, understanding problems within the organization and thinking about how to make it financially sustainable. After that, I was carrying out my recommendations in the presentation. A coworker and I also worked together to organize a fundraising event, which was interesting because financial sustainability is one of the major obstacles to CSOs in Bhutan. My work also ventured into creating memos and talking points for the queen mother when she attended conferences on various issues.

I was initially only hired for one thing, but that’s the work culture in Bhutan. You don’t only wear one hat.

What is the CSO environment like in Bhutan?

In Bhutanese culture, the idea of a CSO has always existed—helping communities and the less fortunate, giving away what you don’t need and growing together as a community—but I don’t think anyone has ever conceptualized it as such. The term “CSO” came to Bhutan in the late 1990s, but our first king had this idea of kidu, which means “helping hand” and it’s an ongoing tradition. If you have a problem, the king is supposed to help bear that burden. Historically, it was very uncommon for you to see beggars in Bhutan because you could be homeless but your neighbors would take care of you.

So the culture has always been there, but the problem is financial sustainability and management. The CSO culture is very rich, but there are issues when it comes to financing and regulation.

What was the most difficult challenge?

It was having a full-time job, trying to figure out financial aid for my second year at SAIS and keeping up with my family and friends. The balancing was very difficult. There was so much I had to do constantly—go to the bank or the foreign ministry, visa applications, work full-time, seeing friends—but at the end of the day, family matters in Bhutan.

Did it change or confirm your goals at SAIS?

Experiencing the CSO culture in Bhutan firsthand really helped me better understand international cooperation. I realized that CSOs are a staple of Bhutanese culture, but what’s changing is the international environment. Bhutan is starting to realize that international partnerships and dialogues are increasingly important. I’ve been focusing primarily on grassroots domestic issues within Bhutan, but the internship showed me that understanding the international arena, particularly in regards to international funding for CSOs, is going to be incredibly important.

Do you want to work in Bhutan eventually?

Yes, definitely. I feel like it would be a waste of an education for me to study at SAIS and not take what I’ve learned to Bhutan. There aren’t a lot of us. I have to support my country.