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A Rare Glimpse of China

  • News Image
    Clayton Tucker stands near a water reservoir near Luoang, China. Tucker spent four weeks in China this summer as part of a program sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the University of Pittsburgh’s Asian Studies Center.
  • News Image
    Clayton Tucker (back row, at right) and fellow participants in his NSF-funded program stand with a Chinese farmer and a local Chinese official in a village in Shanxi Province.
  • News Image
    Clayton Tucker sits on the steps of a mountain temple near the city of Yuncheng in Shanxi Province.

Southwestern student gets to see parts of China this summer that few Americans have seen

A Southwestern University student had the opportunity to see parts of China this summer that few Americans have ever seen.  

Clayton Tucker, a senior majoring in International Studies with a focus on East Asia, spent four weeks in China as part of a program sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the University of Pittsburgh’s Asian Studies Center.  

The program, titled “Negotiations and Impacts: Water Policy Across China’s Loess Plateau,” was designed to explore the impact of China’s ambitious “Great Western Development Strategy” on rural, northwest China. Northwest China is particularly deficient in water and hosts two of the world’s most fragile dry land ecosystems − the Loess Plateau and the Tibetan highlands.

The Loess Plateau, which is located in the upper and middle reaches of China’s Yellow River, covers an area of more than 640,000 square kilometers and is home to more than 90 million people, including 55 million mostly poor farmers. Its yearly erosion of 1.6 billion tons of soil per year ranks it among the most extreme erosive climates in the world.   

Tucker was one of 12 undergraduates from across the country who were selected to participate in the program. Tucker said he learned about the program from Allison Miller, an art history professor who specializes in China.

“I had very little understanding of rural China and I felt that if I was going to understand China fully I would need to see and know the rural area,” he said.

Tucker said he also was interested in the environmental focus of the program. “I believe understanding and overcoming environmental issues will be critical in the near future for all countries in the world, and due to China’s population and rapid industrialization it will likely be forced to lead the way,” he said.

In addition to the Chinese classes he has taken at Southwestern, Tucker said two other classes helped prepare him for the program. One was the Texas Politics Internship Program taught by Political Science Professor Tim O’Neill and the other was the Japanese Politics class taught by Political Science Professor Alisa Gaunder. Tucker said the Texas Politics class covered a lot about environmental policies in Texas, which he can now use as a comparison with China’s, and the Japanese Politics class taught him how to write research proposals and research papers.  

The program began with a week of training at the University of Pittsburgh, and then participants headed to China June 20.  

Tucker was assigned to a political science research team that included a political science professor from the University of Pittsburgh and three other students − one from Middlebury, one from the University of Kansas, and one from Cornell. The team spent two weeks in villages along the Yellow River Corridor conducting research on the relationships between local economic development, overdependence on coal mining, the central government, and China’s water supply. Several Chinese students helped the team with conducting interviews, and finding and translating documents.

Tucker said the highlight of the program was the opportunity to see places that few Americans ever get to see. For example, they visited a small farming village in southern Shanxi Province that was built completely underground. “The town elders claimed that these dwellings were built 40 generations ago,” Tucker said. “They also claimed that Americans had never visited their village, nor have they ever talked to an American.”

Tucker said he and other program participants attended banquets hosted by Chinese officials and learned (through trial and error) how to act properly during such important banquets.  

Program participants returned to Pittsburgh July 11 to write up the findings of their research.  

“One thing I didn’t expect was how challenging it can be to do proper research in an authoritarian country, and how much patience and persistence it takes to do good research,” Tucker said.  

Tucker said he also was surprised at how insignificant water seemed to be to the local residents. “They only seem to care about water whenever it floods or when the Yellow River runs dry,” he said. “Otherwise they use as much as they please − thus in some ways actually creating and intensifying the water shortage problem.”

Tucker said participating in the program has reinforced his interest in Chinese international relations and Taiwan issues. He hopes it will prove to be a good stepping stone to further studies in graduate school.