Interview for Young Australians in International Affairs

This interview originally appeared on the Young Australians in International Affairs’ Careers Blog.

1. To start, many of our readers are university students and I’m sure they would be interested to hear about your background. What did you study at university and were you involved in any clubs or societies there? What fostered your interest in international affairs?

I studied a Bachelor of Arts (Languages) at the University of Sydney, majoring in Chinese and Arabic. I also hold a Master of Diplomacy from Peking University in China.

In Sydney, I was a member of the Chinese cultural appreciation society and was involved in the student Arts journal, ARNA, as both a contributor and editor. In Beijing, I was active in the international student community, and pursued my interests in calligraphy and Uighur language through various societies at Peking University.

I was a keen student of history at school, and I think this played an important role in fostering my interest in international affairs. This interest further developed over the course of my undergraduate studies, as I realised the importance of linguistic skills and cultural knowledge in understanding international relations.

2. We recently published a set of articles that centred around the question of choosing to pursue post-graduate studies in international affairs. What made you decide to complete a Master’s degree and to study overseas?

During my undergraduate studies, I undertook a yearlong exchange at Peking University, where I completed an intensive Chinese language course, and some Arabic classes. It was definitely a culture shock. It was difficult to adjust at first because I did not yet have a firm grasp of the language.

Within a few months, however, my Chinese improved immensely, and I was able to appreciate the unique opportunity to immerse myself in the cultural and linguistic environment. I was experiencing the challenges and excitement of living in the world’s most populated and fastest-growing economy.

I enjoyed it so much that I went back to Peking University for my Master’s degree. Although English-taught programs were available, I decided to complete my postgraduate studies in Chinese, as it would allow me to simultaneously enhance my knowledge of international relations and develop an academic level of Chinese.

My advice to students considering studying overseas: go for it! The best way to understand a particular country, region, language or culture is by living there yourself. You will learn much more than reading about it or studying it from afar.

3. I note that you speak both Chinese and Arabic – quite an achievement – why did you choose to pursue languages and how do you think your knowledge of additional languages has shaped your career?

I started learning Chinese when I was quite young. I took it up for my own personal interest – I just wanted to be able to read and understand the writing that looked so different to English!

When it came to choosing my subjects, my degree gave me flexibility to pursue two language majors, so I chose Arabic, for several reasons. Firstly, Arabic is a very important language, but not many non-background speakers in Australia learn it. Secondly, I felt that Arabic and Islamic cultures are poorly understood in general, and I wanted to understand them for myself. Thirdly, I knew from my study of Chinese that I would really enjoy the challenge of taking up a language that is very different to English.

Without my Chinese language skills, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today in my career. I use it on a daily basis; to communicate with colleagues in China, proofread important documents, and keep up-to-date with the latest news.

For research, it is essential to be able to read primary sources; English translations of Chinese texts are often poor and inaccurate, and for more obscure topics, unavailable. Furthermore, the ability to communicate comfortably with others in their native language is a strong foundation for long-term friendships and business relationships. It saves a lot of time, stress and reduces the opportunity for misunderstanding.

4. You have co-written a book! Congratulations! How did that come about? What have been the challenges and rewards so far?

Last year, I started working on the book by completing some background research and analysis of Chinese sources for Kerry Brown, then Director of the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre, who had been commissioned to write the book. A few months later, Kerry said that as I had already done so much work, why not write a few chapters and become a co-author?

This was unexpected; usually research assistants are barely acknowledged in publications, if at all. I feel very fortunate, and grateful that Kerry recognised my talent and potential, and gave me this very rare opportunity to demonstrate my ability as an author!

It was challenging to manage my time between writing and doing my day job. It meant a lot of work in evenings, on the weekend, and during the Christmas holiday period. Also, before writing the book, I had very little understanding about the editorial process. The manuscript had to be finalised about six months prior to the publication date. Therefore, unfortunately I couldn’t write about any new developments in the book at a later stage. Another challenge I am facing is that, in certain circles, I am perhaps not taken as seriously as deserved because I am not an academic in the traditional sense.

Of course, it has been extremely rewarding to see my efforts come to fruition. Being co-author of a book with a prominent China scholar will undoubtedly have a huge benefit to my career, regardless of the direction it takes.

I haven’t received my copies yet, but I am very much looking forward to seeing my name in print!

5. Lastly, we couldn’t let you go without asking you what you think will be the main issues that will shape Australia’s role in international affairs in the years to come.

In my opinion, Australia hasn’t had to work very hard so far to achieve a reasonably high status in the international community. Therefore there doesn’t seem to be much incentive to learn about or engage with our region, or other parts of the world for that matter. This will have to change if Australia is to keep up with the pace of globalisation.

More about Simone’s book, China and the New Maoists:

In China and the New Maoists, Simone and her co-author seek to closely examine the vocal figures in China today who claim to be the true ideological heirs to Mao, from academics to activists. They also explore efforts by the state to draw on Mao’s image as a source of legitimacy even as the state attempts to control and sanitise his influence. China and the New Maoists provides an insightful, on-the-ground look at the current social and ideological pulse of China.

Her book can be purchased here.

Publication of China and the New Maoists

Yesterday, my first book, China and the New Maoists was published by UK-based Zed Books.

The book was co-authored with Professor Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. book cover

The book explores Mao Zedong’s enduring symbolic and political importance, and the impact of Maoist ideas in popular online and social media. It also examines the state’s efforts to draw on Mao’s image as a source of legitimacy, even as it attempts to control and sanitise his influence.

Stanford University’s Andrew G. Walder described China and the New Maoists as

… a lucid and absorbing account of the Party’s fumbling attempts, in the authors’ words, to ‘extricate itself from the quagmire of neo-Maoism.’

Julia Lovell, literary translator and lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, called the book

[a]n extraordinarily concise, informative and insightful account of the legacies of Mao Zedong for contemporary China… They have written an essential guide to one of the key political, cultural, social and economic conundrums of China today.

China and the New Maoists is available for purchase online and in bookstores.

China’s Contested Internet by Guobin Yang (ed.)

The title of China’s Contested Internet evokes images of a battle between the Chinese government (or Chinese Communist Party) and the popularly-termed Chinese “netizens”, the 642 million users of the Internet in China. On the contrary, the contributors to China’s Contested Internet demonstrate throughout the book’s 10 chapters that most scholars’ narrow focus on government vs netizen seriously limits the scope and depth of scholarship of online interactions in China. In fact, there are multiple contestants in and contests over China’s Internet, and they all have important parts to play in the story of its evolution.

The term “netizen” itself is challenged; in her chapter ‘Hackerspaces and the Internet of things in China’, Silvia Lindtner argues that rather than being considered passive users of the Internet, netizens should be actually viewed as empowered individuals who contribute to knowledge production by developing new technologies. With the Chinese government largely perceived as a monolithic entity, it is sometimes easy to forget the agency that individuals have in changing, adapting, or even creating the systems in place.

China’s Contested Internet, Guobin Yang (ed) (NIAS Press, August 2015)
China’s Contested Internet, Guobin Yang (ed) (NIAS Press, August 2015)

Similarly, official microblogging accounts of government departments are usually viewed as being under the direct command of China’s central government. This is perhaps a byproduct of a general lack of awareness, on a more basic level, of divergent interest groups within the central and local governments. However, as Jesper Schlaeger and Min Jiang explain in their chapter ‘Official microblogging and social management by local governments in China’, far from simply being pawns of an all-powerful body, local governments are afforded a certain degree of freedom and flexibility in their approach to managing official microblogs and responding to citizen feedback, and may be described as “fragmented” in their approaches.

Of course, fragmented interest groups also exist among China’s “netizens”. In examining the case study of the so-called Southern Weekly incident of 2013, Sally Xiaojin Chen demonstrates that the online and offline action taken by those protesting the Guangdong propaganda department censorship of Southern Weekly’s New Year editorial reflected distinct motivations and expressions, all facilitated by the medium of the Internet. Therefore, in this case, the contest was not only between citizens and the government, but also citizens and media outlets, between different media outlets, former journalists and media outlets, and citizens with conflicting goals, as each party sought to shape the outcome of the ensuing protests.

In general, China’s Internet is either studied through the lens of total control, or as a component of “liberation technologies” enabling ordinary people to create freedom and democracy in an otherwise oppressed society. In her chapter ‘Voice, power and connectivity in China’s microblogosphere’, Marina Svensson highlights analyses of the 2011 Wukan protests, which resulted in the overthrow of the local government and election of a new village leader, as well as responses to the Wenzhou train crash in the same year, as popular examples of this trend. Svensson challenges this narrow view of liberation technologies, noting that while there are more Weibo users in China than Twitter users in the West, only a very small fraction of these users are what are described as “amplifiers” or “transmitters” with any voice or influence over online debates. Online and offline, those occupying influential and public positions, rather than ordinary citizens or marginalized groups, are those whom many netizens consider “opinion leaders”, and therefore of whom the government is most afraid.

On the other side of the coin, Jian Xu argues there is an online weiguan or “spectator” culture, rooted in historical and political traditions, that is reflected in participation in such online forums as Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and Weibo. His chapter ‘Online weiguan in web 2.0 China’ posits that the

 … virtual, leaderless and networked weiguan action has become one of the most important collective actions in present-day China to express disagreement, grievance and dissent, and form public opinion…

and that “active spectators” have the potential to influence both government and citizen campaigns.

China’s Contested Internet is based on the notion that, in editor Guobin Yang’s words,

[t]he Internet in China has taken on such distinctly Chinese characteristics that it may now be called the Chinese Internet in the same way… we call China’s literature ‘Chinese literature’ or China’s politics ‘Chinese politics’.

In other words, scholars should not simply conceptualise the Internet in China, but consider it a unique world known as as the Chinese Internet.

However, after reading the 10 chapters of this volume, which explore topics as diverse as hackerspaces, online novels, government consultation, community groups, and ethnic identity and racial contestation, readers will discover that, while the linguistic and political features of China’s Internet may be distinctive, it shares characteristics with the Internet elsewhere. It is multifaceted and complex, and its use varies depending on which section of society, institution or individual is examined and what issues are at stake.The contestants and contests are not necessarily unique to China. After all, the Internet is about connections, not isolation.

This book review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books on 15 March 2016.




cameras and clocks




Changing Chinese Cities: The Potentials of Field Urbanism by Renee Chow

Many first-time visitors to first-tier Chinese cities are surprised at the high-rise apartments, hotels and office buildings that dominate the skyline. these cities can lead one  to forget that, despite its rapid growth, China is still very much a developing country. Cities such as Shanghai and Beijing have been transformed into urban metropolises that rival (by some estimates even surpass) New York and London.

Visitors returning to such cities for the first time in a decade, or even a single year, find them transformed almost beyond recognition, and not always for the better. In the economic miracle that is China, the drive for breakneck development has led to the widespread erosion of traditional architectural and residential cultures, and transplanted the rural with the urban, creating something of a crisis for the future of urban planning.

Changing Chinese Cities: The Potentials of Field Urbanism, Renee Y. Chow (NUS Press, June 2015; University of Hawaii Press, June 2015).
Changing Chinese Cities: The Potentials of Field Urbanism, Renee Y. Chow (NUS Press, June 2015; University of Hawaii Press, June 2015).

On the one hand, first-tier cities have to accommodate and provide for growing populations and fulfil demand for better amenities. Until now, the government’s response has been to raze ancient hutongs in Beijing and lilong alley communities in Shanghai in favor of supersized, homogeneous, massed-produced structures that appear to fit Chinese and international notions of modernity. On the other hand, the Chinese people and those in power express pride of their ancient cultures and traditions. Although they have not had much success, there have often been significant protests against such practices. Chinese urban planners therefore grapple with the difficult decision of whether to build a modern, developed environment or retain unique, established residential cultures centred on courtyards and collective living.

 In Changing Chinese Cities, Renee Chow, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Berkeley, offers a different perspective on these challenges. Chow argues that it is possible—indeed preferable—for Chinese cities to modernize without superseding their traditional aspects, and calls for a more nuanced approach to urban design. Chow remarks that a lack of attention to “common architecture” has prevented urban planners from adopting this nuanced approach. Exploring the cities and surrounds of Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai, Chow’s collection of essays examine the relationships between ancient and modern, public and private, and inner and outer realms in China’s urban identity and progress.

Chow describes Beijing as a “city of objects”, typical of any first-tier city across the country: 

… Figures splinter everyday life in the city—the urban fabric is disconnected, illegible, disorienting, uniform, homogeneous, monotonous, self-serving, and lobotomized.

To this end, she advises a shift in urban development away from “figures and objects” towards “field urbanism”, or a more holistic view, and challenges the idea of ubiquitous high-rises being representative of progress.

This does not equate to advocacy for greater conservation of ancient courtyards and alleyways, however. Chow recognises the necessity of urban transformation to meet the needs of the cities’ dwellers.

Chow also considers the intimate connections between economic and social policies and urban planning in China. From private ownership before the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, to urban work units under Mao, to separation between land ownership and land rights under Deng Xiaoping, modern Chinese cities have undergone many fundamental changes that have undeniably affected their fabrics. Furthermore, the political (Beijing) or economic (Shanghai) roles of a city inevitably influence their urban landscapes.

Despite Chow’s use of specialist terminology, the appeal of Changing Chinese Cities is not limited to architects and urban designers alone. Historians, sociologists, and those simply looking for a different view of China’s rapid urbanisation and development, will find something in this book. The accompanying photographs and illustrations allow the reader to envision the past, present, and potential future of Chinese cities.

China ultimately figures in Changing Chinese Cities as a case study of the challenges faced by many countries, both developing and developed. Chow’s work is important in considering the cultural costs of urban development, and how these might be overcome.

This book review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books on 19 September 2015.

Policy paper: China’s potential role in international mediation

I have published a policy paper with the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. The executive summary is as follows:

Since the concurrent visits of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in May 2013, there has been speculation in both Chinese and international media that China is poised to play a mediation role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This also reflects expectations by the international community and China’s academic community that as its economy continues to grow and its international interests expand, Chinawill becomea more active diplomatic player.

This policy paper assesses China’s potential role as a mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of the ‘supply-demand’ model of mediation as a framework of foreign policy behaviour. According to this, as a mediation is a voluntary process, its occurrence depends on both the disputants’ and third party’s willingness to undertake it. Currently, China does not meet the conditions necessary for mediation; that is, there is neither sufficient demand from the Israeli and Palestinian sides, nor sufficient motivation for China to supply mediation. This makes the possibility of China acting as a mediator of this conflict very low. However, as mediation does not contradict China’s diplomatic principles, it is possible that these conditions may be met in the future.







这并不否认以前的成绩;实际上,能承认以前的成绩还有进步的余地,有助于促进未来更大的成绩。因此永远不要停止进步 — 不怕慢,只怕站。


Let One Hundred Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything by Liz Carter

During his Hundred Flowers campaign of 1956-7, Mao Zedong encouraged intellectuals to mobilize and publicly criticize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in order to improve it.

Today, the Internet, with its myriad communication platforms, has become another vehicle for mobilization, as online communities emerge to fight for common causes. While the Party obviously does not encourage public criticism, most of the causes championed by netizens are indeed aimed against CCP policy and practice. Liz Carter’s Let 100 Voices Speak examines these hundred voices (or more accurately, 632 million voices) of the World Wide Web and their impact on Chinese society and politics.

In this book, Carter maps the diverse Internet cultures and countercultures that have emerged in recent years, especially via Sina Weibo, which is often described as China’s Twitter. Causes championed by netizens range from feminism, social mobility, and sexuality to pollution, patriotism, education, and anti-corruption. Carter successfully explores the spectrum of internet-based “parties” or dang, all of which have one thing in common: dissatisfaction with how the all-powerful Party is running China.

Let One Hundred Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything, Liz Carter (IB Tauris, June 2015)
Let One Hundred Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything, Liz Carter (IB Tauris, June 2015)

Carter demonstrates the power of social media in China through such case studies as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which revealed the tragic lack of adequate infrastructure planning; the 2011 Wenzhou train crash, which created a critical conversation about the pace of China’s economic development; “Brother Watch”, a Shaanxi official whose designer timepieces attracted public attention to his corruption, and Tang Hui, whose battle for justice for her kidnapped daughter who was forced into prostitution stimulated popular debate about China’s judicial system.

Let 100 Voices Speak also captures the debate within China and among scholars about the relationship between the people, Government, and Internet. Does censorship encourage creativity? Is Weibo a force for positive change, even democracy? Who is actually in control: the people or the Government? These questions have no simple answers, but Carter provides a starting point from which to consider the influence of social media on the non-virtual lives and experiences of China’s 1.3 billion people.

Carter argues that the “collective experience of censorship” has drawn Chinese netizens together in ways that would be impossible in real life, and describes the unique ways they circumvent censors, including developing their own subversive online language. The book includes a helpful glossary to explain some of this language. At the same time, Let 100 Voices Speak does not ignore the CCP’s vast resources and power, which have allowed it to successfully stem the flow of online subversion before it gets close to toppling the Party. Carter aptly describes this process as “adaptive authoritarianism”.

Nevertheless, Carter is optimistic that online platforms, especially Weibo, will ultimately lead to change at the highest levels of the Chinese Government. The book’s subtitle, “How the internet is transforming China and changing everything”, reflects this. This optimistic assessment might however be viewed in the experience of the so-called Arab Spring: during the protests and their aftermath, many scholars and commentators claimed the Internet played a decisive role in the downfall of repressive regimes. However, looking at the current situation in Egypt, Syria, and Libya, it is evident that idealism is often short-lived. China itself has a long legacy of stifling dissent and activism: the recently adopted national security law will give the Government even greater legal powers to continue doing so.

We shall have to wait and see whether the hundred voices of China’s Internet will be permitted to speak loudly enough to effect long-lasting, positive change, or suffer the same fate as Mao’s hundred flowers, which were brutally purged and forced to remain silent under the CCP’s censorship machine. In the meantime, Let 100 Voices Speak is an excellent introduction for those who are not well-acquainted with the world of Weibo. It is a highly readable addition to previous research on China’s social media, and accessible enough for the general reader with an interest in Chinese society.

This review was originally published by the Asian Review of Books on 7 July 2015.





有时候,还能看到中国所留下的影子。沉浸在外国文化中,不得不变成 ‘外国人’。














Flashback: Luzhou (part two)

This is the continuation of Part One, which was posted last week.

Birthday Party

Accepting P and Z’s invitation, we got into their car again, and made our way to their apartment. 

S and I looked at each other in bewilderment, as we were still very unsure of how this was all going to turn out. We hadn’t envisioned our only day in Luzhou being spent at a stranger’s birthday party. Then again, it seemed a much better use of our time than wandering the streets trying to find the motel.

Another scene from Yaoba. Photograph taken by the author.
Another scene from Yaoba. Photograph taken by the author.

We arrived to a table of home-cooked food, garnished liberally with chilis and spices that characterise local Sichuan cuisine, as well as a very excited eight-year-old boy. He practiced his English with us while we still tried to make sense of everything that was happening.

Z asked us our plans, and I explained that I had hoped to visit the town of Yaoba. 

‘It’s very difficult to get there,’ he said, laughing at us for even considered going there by ourselves. ‘The buses stop early, so you won’t be able to get back to Luzhou if you left now.’

‘I have to go and finish up some things at work now, but we’ll drive you back to the motel, and pick you up in a couple of hours to drive you there.’

Going to Yaoba

The mother banyan tree in Yaoba. Photograph taken by the author.
The mother banyan tree in Yaoba. Photograph taken by the author.

Later that afternoon, the whole family arrived in their small car to pick us up. We spent about an hour and a half driving through the countryside on our way to Yaoba, with P and Z outlining some of the history of the city and its surroundings. 

We were the only tourists in Yaoba, and the residents were very curious to see us there. Z explained that they hardly ever saw foreigners in their town; in fact, for some it would be their first time seeing anyone from outside China.

Yaoba has a rich history, and despite its status as an ‘ancient town’ (古镇), generations of families still reside there and go about their daily lives. The town is famous for its well-preserved Buddhist temple, and its atmosphere has made it an ideal location for a number of film and television productions.

After touring Yaoba’s landmarks, P and Z suggested we visit a local restaurant for dinner. Apparently, wild boar is quite a delicacy, so they decided it would be great for their new foreign friends to give it a try.

It was here that we were taught to clean our plates and cups by rinsing them with hot tea, a trick that later proved useful in other situations. 

As it became dark, we travelled back to Luzhou. We had to get a bus to Chengdu early the next morning, so this was the last time S and I would be seeing our new friends. We exchanged contact details, and reluctantly said our goodbyes. 

Although I haven’t been able to visit the family again since, we have kept in regular contact. If they hadn’t approached to help us that day, it is doubtful whether we would have found our way to the motel, let alone Yaoba. When travelling, sometimes you have to take risks; you may be rewarded with finding lifelong friends in unexpected places.