“Thirty years ago, if you had told an American that China would look this way, we would have been eager to embrace that vision. Now that it’s here, there are problems, sure, but this is an outcome that we used to wish for, that we should wish for. It’s a good thing,” said Edward Steinfeld.
Steinfeld’s optimistic view of China’s role in the global economy may run counter to that of many Americans, who tend to pay more attention to the country’s headline grabbing violations like currency pegging, than its successes. But it’s a view that Steinfeld firmly believes in. His most recent book, Playing Our Game: Why China’s Rise Deosn’t Threaten the West (Oxford University Press, 2010) explains why.
“There were many ways that China could have developed, many avenues it could have taken, and the avenue it ended up taking involved integrating very deeply with the global economy, absorbing many of the institutional rules by which the global economy is running, absorbing them into its own domestic system,” Steinfeld said.
The violations still exist, Steinfeld is quick to add, but “in comparison to what China looked like 30 years ago it has very dramatically converged to a set of rules that we not only observe, but rules that we in the West created.”
This transformation — not only economically but politically and socially — in China over the last three decades is what Steinfeld has focused much of his work on. His interest in the country began through a somewhat “serendipitous” route, when he stumbled into a class on Chinese contemporary history and politics during his sophomore year at Harvard. Following graduation, he moved to China to teach for a couple of years. He arrived just weeks before the Tiananmen Square protests began.
“That was obviously a bad time for China but, for better or worse, it was a really good time for a foreigner to be there. Many people had left, and my Chinese colleagues were grateful that I was there. So they took it upon themselves to show me things and teach me things, and I was a huge beneficiary of their generosity. From that point on the hook was planted and I began to witness China’s economic transformation. It was such an extraordinary story that I couldn’t pull myself away from it,” Steinfeld said.
Steinfeld went on to earn a master’s and Ph.D. in political science from Harvard when he returned to the United States.
Steinfeld’s research has shifted with the changes in China’s economy. Originally focused on how big state-owned companies were adjusting to the transition from socialist command planning, Steinfeld later looked at how China-based manufacturers were innovating and developing new market-related capabilities.
“If you’re interested in how poor countries become rich, somewhere in that story is going to be a story about producers upgrading and learning to do things that are more complicated than what they could do in the past and that lead to higher returns,” Steinfeld said.
Steinfeld just returned from a year-long sabbatical in Beijing, where he was a visiting scholar at Tsinghua University School of Public Policy and Management working on his latest project. He’s doing a three-year study of energy technology innovation in China, funded by the U.S. government’s Minerva project.
Studying how energy technology companies work, Steinfeld is trying to understand how knowledge flows between China and the Western countries that it works with to develop this technology, including the United States.
“I think increasingly there are unique kinds of innovation happening in Chinese industry, ways to pull cost out of products and to find ways to manufacture them less expensively. That has important implications for how the U.S. economy works,” Steinfeld said.
Steinfeld comes to Brown from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he served as professor of political science, professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, director of the MIT-China program, and co-director of the China Energy Group.
He sits on the board of directors for the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a nonpartisan public organization of business people, former policymakers, and academics to foster relations between the two countries.
At Brown, Steinfeld will be a professor of political science and a faculty fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, where his former MIT colleague Richard Locke is now the director.
While knowledge can be a great motivator for research, Steinfeld said that he’s always been equally spurred by the desire to make social change. That desire is part of what attracted Steinfeld to Brown and something he hopes to keep working toward as he moves forward with his research and teaching.
“Nobody can single-handedly change the world, but we can work together to effect improvements. Whether researchers or practitioners, we all have to be engaged. At Brown there really is a commitment to doing good in the world and a sense of social responsibility on the part of all of us. I certainly hope my research contributes in small ways and maybe even bigger ways in helping to resolve some of these issues.”