Summer research in China cancelled due to tariff war

By Emma Howell
Contributing Writer 

After months of  saving up, weeks of preparing, and 15 hours of flying, Professor Deborah McGrath and her research group landed in China. However, as soon as they stopped in Nanjing, they were told that they could not conduct the research they had flown over half the world for.

The students had not expected this twist. Rather, they’d planned to learn about recent sustainability efforts in China. After the public embarrassment of the 2008 Olympics, where several competitors trained in different countries to avoid Beijing’s air pollution, the Chinese government began to enact sweeping reforms.  

One half of the research group meant to study public sustainability efforts and perception of these changes, and were mentored by Professor Scott Wilson, assistant provost for global and strategic partnerships.  Wilson focused on the history of environmental reform in China, and provided context for planned interviews with environmental organizations.

“We [were] conducting interviews with some environmental non-governmental organizations in China, which, due to the structure of China’s government … have to pick up the slack, and fight for some environmental causes, in a lot of cases,” Tristan Benedict (C’21) said.

The other half focused on the effectiveness of these reforms by conducting water quality testing in restored water canals. They spent three weeks working with McGrath and learning the methodology behind water testing.  

“A lot of media and attention, especially in China, is focused on air pollution,” Benedict said.  “Water pollution and soil pollution are not quite as visible, so there’s not as much research being done to those side of things. So that’s what we were going to try and figure out— has the water quality improved since last year?

However, when they arrived in China, they were barred from beginning water testing at the Nanjing Normal University lab that they had planned to use. Though the reasoning behind this decision was never explained to either the students or McGrath, they eventually concluded that they were denied because they had come from an American university. 

“We were not given a specific reason,” said Wilder McCoy (C’20). “But we essentially came to the conclusion that it was due to rising tensions between America and China.” 

During the summer, the trade war between the United States and China worsened rapidly. Originally started by the Trump administration as a response to the U.S.’s trade deficit, the conflict has been characterized by escalating tariff hikes. Unfortunately, in May of 2019, trade talks broke down between the two countries, and on August 5, the Bank of China allowed the yuan to drop to its lowest value since 2008, which many economists see as the first sign of a currency war.  These increased tensions could have resulted in the international trip being halted.

“It’s frustrating that political disgruntlement prevented a research trip.” McCoy said. “University cooperation is something I believe could ameliorate the relations between the two countries.”

Despite this frustrating setback, the students were able to refocus their research on the environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and interview offices that they otherwise would not have had the time to talk to. 

“We were getting to interview people that were at the forefront of some of these efforts.”  Benedict said. “You got to see…. what they were doing in Shanghai versus in Nanjing or Beijing, and how they’re interconnected.”

And with spare time on their hands, they were also able to see more of the country they would spend the summer in, stopping at both the Great Wall and several Chinese museums.