Report on the Work of China Focus
Following is the full text of the Report on the Work of China Focus delivered by Senior Adviser Jiakun Jack Zhang at the Summer Session of the 2016-2017 academic year on July 10, 2017.
China Focus Blog was founded four years ago as a joint-venture between a group of ambitious students at the UCSD School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) and the 21st Century China Center (21CCC). By combining the resources of the center with the energy of GPS students, China Focus Blog has grown into the premier online publication on contemporary China in the University of California system just as the 21st Century China Center has become and the premier university-based think tank for the research of U.S.-China relations in the world. China Focus has published 175 articles and garnered over 700 followers on facebook, nearly 2000 followers on Twitter, and 2200 fans on Weibo.
The 21st Century China Center has gathered more than a dozen social scientists researching China under one roof, hosted numerous visiting scholars and fellows, and attracted twenty Ph.D. students in political science alone to UCSD. With the addition of the new Masters of Chinese Economic and Political Affairs program, GPS will be home to one of the largest collections of China scholars in the United States.
Having served as adviser to the blog since its founding in 2013, I look back at China Focus’ accomplishments over the past four years with great pride. The blog’s founding coincided with the dawn of a golden age for China studies at UCSD. The 21st Century China Center has gathered more than a dozen social scientists researching China under one roof, hosted numerous visiting scholars and fellows, and attracted twenty Ph.D. students in political science alone to UCSD. With the addition of the new Masters of Chinese Economic and Political Affairs program, GPS will be home to one of the largest collections of China scholars in the United States. China Focus drew upon the wealth of opportunities made possible by this surge of China-related resources at UCSD. We were lucky to interview influential China-hands such as Winston Lord, Stapleton Roy, Jerome Cohen, Cheng Li, Evan Osnos, and Kaiser Kuo. We hosted a debate between Barry Naughton and Victor Shih about the future of the Chinese economy and covered dozens of talks by visiting speakers on subjects ranging from Kevin O’Brien on rural migrants to Minxin Pei on crony capitalism. One of the great joys of working in an organization at the startup stage is that growth is exponential. The first articles China Focus published were lucky to get a dozen readers, today our most popular articles attract thousands of readers and widely shared on social media. Our annual China Focus Essay contest, now in its third year, has received twice as many submissions with each call for papers (read the 2016 winning essays here).
Community over content
China Focus Blog must answer an important question to successfully transition from a startup to an established player. Indeed, every successive board struggled with this question during my tenure as adviser: where can a student-run China blog add value in an increasingly crowded media landscape? Today we must compete for readers with mainstream news outlets that provide ever more China coverage on the one hand and specialist publications such as ChinaFile and SupChina that feature expert analysis on the other.
The comparative advantage of China Focus is the wealth of China scholars at UCSD and its value proposition is in providing a platform to connect these scholars with each other and with the wider world. Academics are trained to produce knowledge for a small group of peers and poorly incentivized to make that knowledge accessible to a mass audience. The siloed structure of universities reflects the cliquishness of its faculties, it is a system well adapted to the production of knowledge that is also particularly ill-equipped to disseminate it. The result is that even interested students do not know about professors who work on topics they came to GPS to study and students outside of GPS, including hundreds of undergraduates who study Chinese, never find out about 21CCC at all. There are too many opportunities and resources available at UCSD for any one student to take in and knowledge gained by one generation of students is too often lost to the next at graduation.
This is an opportunity for China Focus Blog; we can achieve more by building community than generating content. When it was first established, China Focus struggled with what kind of content we should be producing, experimenting with news summaries, academic articles, even film reviews. What we realized was that there’s little sense in generating content for the sake of creating content; instead if we strive to connect information and resources with the right people China Focus can be the online hub for all those who are interested in China. Our goal was to build a community of China scholars at GPS, then UCSD, then the UC system, and finally the world.
The comparative advantage of China Focus is the wealth of China scholars at UCSD and its value proposition is in providing a platform to connect these scholars with each other and with the wider world.
The content will come from giving voice to members of the community and allowing them to connect with each other. Take the China Focus Essay Contest for example, by soliciting for submissions from across the University of California system and Fudan University and publishing the winning essays, we create an opportunity for students to share their insights on the U.S.-China relationship with their peers and for their work to be recognized by Professors like Susan Shirk. Another way that we build community is through our quarterly alumni newsletter, which keeps the growing pool of China Focus alumni and contributors informed about opportunities on campus and at the blog. We try to make the knowledge produced at UCSD more accessible to outside world by helping support the work the 21CCC and Fudan-UC Center by publicizing events, interviewing speakers, and promoting the China21 podcast.
End of the beginning
Esteemed colleagues, I will step down as adviser to China Focus ahead of the 2017-2018 academic year. My tenure as adviser to China Focus has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my graduate career and a cherished part of my time at UCSD. I know that future leaders of China Focus will carry on the work of building a community of China scholars centered at UCSD. I leave the blog in the capable hands of Luke Sanford, who will take over for me as adviser. I hope that China Focus can build upon the progress of the past four years and achieve even greater impact during the next four.
I am honored to have had the opportunity to have worked with a series of capable editors, Thomas Murphey, Peter Larson, Marika Heller, and George Flannery and to have gotten to know so many talented staff writers and contributors. I would like to thank our content partners with JIPS, Prospect, Yale China Hands, Duke East Asia Nexus, U.S.-China Week, and Teacup Media. And I hope that China Focus can continue to diversify and improve its content by drawing upon an ever-growing network of contributors, whose ranks I will look forward to joining. Finally, I am grateful for the support of Susan Shirk, Victor Shih, Barry Naughton, Lei Guang, Sam Tsoi, Jude Blanchette, Xu Xian, the 21st Century China Center and the Fudan-UC Center. May the circle of UCSD China scholars grow ever larger!