GSP Blog: June 13, 2012

Jun 18 2012 - 12:10pm


This is the first in a series of posts from our Global Scholars Program blog. 
Hey all!
This week has been amazing! Between Saturday and Sunday everybody got to Beijing safe and sound and eager to start our course activities. We are staying at the guesthouse of Peking University (aka Beida) which is located in the Northwest part of the city. Our building is located in the heart of the rather huge Beida campus. This is the last week of the semester for Beida students so they are going through final exams week; this makes the campus a place full of activity.
On Monday we started the course activities with a visit and a briefing at the Columbia Global Center | East Asia. We were received by the wonderful GC staff and were given cell phones, handbooks, and lots of tips about Beijing and China in general. We were also introduced to a group of Beida's graduate students that will be working with us during the Beijing leg of the program. They are master students, most of them recent graduates from Beida, who will help support our research efforts and guide us through some portions of China's culture and history.
On Tuesday we found ourselves at the Columbia Global Center and had our first lecture with Professor Yang and then attended a lecture by Barnard President Debora Spar that afternoon. 
We were all excited for Wednesday.  It was our first of several meetings with local NGO's. We met with Friends of Nature, an environmental NGO that is working on very important conservation and preservation projects in China. They have so far successfully rescued the ecosystems of the Yunnan Forest and the Tibetan Antelope. Other efforts are focused on relocating pollution heavy industries and ensuring the environmental sustainability of historical sites such as the Summer Palace. Our second host, the Chinese People's Association of Friendship with Foreign Countries, is a different type of NGO, one that is actually supported by the government. Here we learned about their efforts to strengthen the Sino-US relations through a historical perspective.
On Thursday we visited Roots and Shoots, Jane Goodall's NGO that focuses on the environmental education of children. Roots and Shoots is actually based inside the Beijing City International School, so we got to hold our meeting on their campus where we were surrounded by dozens of kids during our visit. Afterwards, we went to the rather impressive local office of Greenpeace. This is their second largest office in the world (after Germany) and devoted to different projects and campaigns such as Detox, which focuses on heavy metals pollution and water contamination.
So far we have learned how difficult it is to set up and manage an NGO in China. These organizations need to be really careful about how they raise awareness on the issues they want to tackle. One important thing to consider is to not politicize these topics and make them a confrontational debate with the government. These organizations actually focus their efforts on denouncing those responsible for the environmental problems in the country, which according to the NGOs are domestic and international firms and groups that do not care about the manufacturing and development consequences of their products.  Much more needs to be done, but with the passion and efforts the individuals in these NGOs are putting into their work, certainly some of the most pressing social and environmental issues affecting China will diminish every day.
For the past three days we have also taken a closer look at the urban development of the city and have been amazed by the amount of cars ads! There are dozens of new buildings (commercial, office, and housing) that have recently been built to create distinct, new Central Business Districts -if that is possible in a city, where each CBD has its own state of the art infrastructure. On the other hand, these new developments are in the middle of a city that also has lots of low income residents, so it is difficult to overlook the needs that the urban poor in the city have currently. We certainly are going to be exposed to more of these issues as we continue to explore the city in more depth.
Well, it is the end of the day and we have just returned from our day trip to the Great Wall. After almost two hours and a lot of physical efforts, we all reached the highest point of the Wall, so I guess that makes us all "heroes"! (as Chinese people refer to the ones who conquer the top).
Today is Friday and tomorrow we will be having a session to discuss this week's readings and reflect on our meetings with organizations. Our first week in Beijing is over, but with it the promise that the following two weeks are going to be full of amazing new discoveries and surprises. Talk to you soon!!!