David cooking Chinese cuisine with two of his awesome Chinese classmates and friends, Lizhi and Yihao Xie

Engaging with China From F&ES

When I arrived at F&ES, I was transitioning from many consecutive years focusing exclusively on China. My interest in China included three years living in Beijing, as well as a commitment to building Mandarin fluency, understanding Chinese culture and society, and greatly familiarizing myself with China’s economic development opportunities and challenges. Having spent so many years building expertise on China—more than a decade, dating back to my first visit to Beijing midway through high school—my decision to enroll at F&ES meant pivoting more fully into the environmental realm, and likely moving China away from the core of the activities and issues I was exploring. It also meant moving myself, literally, to New Haven from Washington, D.C., where I’d lived for three years previously following my three years in Beijing. Fortunately, since arriving, Yale’s impressive array of resources, programming, and students have provided me a wide range of opportunities to continue engaging on major China-focused issues and honing my related skills.

David and his two research partners, Aaron Feng and Paul Hatanga, touring Kenya's Standard Gauge Railway project inside of Nairobi National Park during March 2019

David and his two research partners, Aaron Feng and Paul Hatanga, touring Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway project inside of Nairobi National Park during March 2019

The most notable way I have continued this focus has been through two major research projects I have pursued, both over the course of my two years at F&ES. Starting last fall, I began working with two classmates, Aaron Feng of China and Paul Hatanga of Uganda, on a big research project focused on China’s infrastructure investments in East Africa, through the lens of the Chinese financed and constructed Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) in Kenya, and proposed equivalent project in Uganda. For this study, which has extended through our entire two years at F&ES, Aaron, Paul, and I have examined the environmental, social, and economic implications of this project as a way of better understanding the value and risks posed by China’s investor role in Africa and other developing countries. After many months of discussions and pitches, Aaron, Paul, and I were able to raise enough money across four different institutions to afford a two-week spring break trip to Kenya and Uganda that permitted us to experience SGR firsthand, as well as engage directly with a range of stakeholders connected to the project. The three of us are currently planning a follow-up comparative study that examines similar Chinese financed and built SGR projects in other countries of East Africa.

In addition to this project, I’ve also had the wonderful opportunity to work under Professor Marian Chertow on a research grant focused on Rwanda’s domestic industrial policy, in particular on the country’s push to develop its apparel industry by raising tariffs on secondhand clothing from the US and other developed countries, and China’s role in the market. For this project, I was fortunate to travel to East Africa yet again, this time alongside Professor Chertow and Ph.D classmate Matt Gordon to Tanzania and Rwanda during late spring to examine these issues through meetings with government officials, textile factory operators, and academics. This school year, I am continuing to work with Professor Chertow on the project, as we craft an article for publication and continue advising the Rwandan government.

Beyond these big projects, I have also had the chance to explore trending China issues through my other courses. In Professor Chertow’s Corporate Environmental Management and Strategy course, I gave a group presentation on China’s decision to ban imports of heavily polluting plastics, a policy that has jolted the global waste industry and forced leading plastics exporters such as the US to reconsider domestic waste industry strategies going forward. I have also been cultivating a startup concept through frameworks from various courses I have taken during my time at Yale focused on improving electronics recycling practices in China and other regions of the world with large populations.

The planning committee for the 3rd Annual Yale Symposium on Chinese Overseas Investment Impacts, hosted in January 2019

The planning committee for the 3rd Annual Yale Symposium on Chinese Overseas Investment Impacts, hosted in January 2019

These projects have not only created fascinating subjects to study during my degree, but also provided a valuable platform for diversifying my longtime interest in China to a broader focus on China’s influence on the world more generally. In the process, this has widened networks that could open doors for potentially exploring these topics professionally full time.

Separate from my more traditional studies and research, I also have spent the past two years participating alongside classmate Kate Logan in the Fields Fellowship program, through which we receive Chinese lessons with a tutor twice per week. This has been a wonderful way to maintain advanced Mandarin skills, while also honing and developing these skills toward subject areas at the intersection of my career interests. I began with this fellowship during spring 2019 and look forward to continuing with it through the end of my degree.

I have also worked with Kate, Aaron, and others over the past two school years to organize Yale’s Annual Symposium on Chinese Overseas Investment Impacts, which we hosted in January 2019 and will again in early 2020. For this symposium, the planning committee has brought together scholars and practitioners from around the world to discuss the sectorial, regional, and economic complexities of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Through this annual symposium, the committee has sought to make these intricate and nuanced implications of China’s outward expansion more accessible to students, faculty, and other members of the F&ES and broader Yale communities.

David cooking Chinese cuisine with two of his awesome Chinese classmates and friends, Lizhi and Yihao Xie

David cooking Chinese cuisine with two of his awesome Chinese classmates and friends, Lizhi and Yihao Xie

Finally, one of the great highlights of my time at Yale, has been the opportunity to engage with a range of truly impressive Chinese classmates and colleagues across the university. Through my various projects, courses, and other activities, I have met so many bright and talented Chinese nationals who have further enhanced my understanding of China’s growing influence, while establishing wonderful friendships and relationships that I am confident will endure once we have all graduated and moved on from the university.

F&ES has me broaden my understanding of various environmental challenges and opportunities, and I am grateful that Yale’s many resources, networks, and faculty have enabled me to apply my growing environmental knowledge in contexts often relating to China. I look forward to honing this newly acquired environmental knowledge base and skills within a forthcoming career that continues to deal directly with China, as I work to help China and other emerging economies realize increasingly sustainable development strategies.

Contact: david.solomon@yale.edu