The day before she departed for her spring semester in China, I sat down with second-year and West Hartford, Vermont native, Allison Cameron to chat about her Joint Research Project. We discussed her research on hydropower in Southwest China, the conflicting interests in hydropower development, as well as the bias some Americans bring to their research.
What is the JRP, Joint Research Project?
The joint research project is run through Vermont Law School’s U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law (the China Program) in collaboration with universities in China. The China Program selects Vermont students to pair up with law students at universities in China to work on research papers on topics related to Chinese environmental law.
How did you decide to apply for the program?
Before I came to VLS, I studied Chinese in both undergraduate and graduate school. I lived in Nanjing for a semester in 2003 and in Beijing for a year in 2005. After that, I worked for several years in an immigration law firm outside Philadelphia. When I was selecting law schools, I was looking for a new way to use Chinese professionally and thought environmental law might be a good way to do so. VLS stood out because of the China Program.
What is your research topic?
My partner and I are researching hydropower development in Southwest China and its impact on downstream countries in Southeast Asia. We have narrowed our topic to look more closely at China’s Environmental Impact Assessment Law and some of the implementing regulations to analyze how they can be used to improve the process of selecting sites for hydropower stations.
Are you using a specific case study?
We are looking at two case studies. One, Xiaonanhai hydropower station, is located in a rare and endemic fishes nature reserve on the upper Yangtze River. It is my understanding that in order to push the environmental impact assessment through, the boundaries of the nature reserve have been shifted multiple times. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of literature on either of our case studies. We are hoping to gather more information from future interviews.
That is interesting as it illustrates the competing interests at play between energy production and preservation. Have you found any other competing interests in your research?
Yes. The China Program maintains a blog on which the JRP students write entries on current events related to our topics. Major news related to China and hydropower happened when Burma halted construction of a dam financed by a state-owned Chinese energy company in the fall of 2011. This was a big controversy. Part of Burma’s rationale for halting the plan was public pressure against the project. Many local people used the river for subsistence or would have to be resettled as a result of the dam. There are many social impacts of dam construction. That is another competing interest.
That is interesting that that controversy is happening in Burma considering its long history of human rights violations. So, on another note, what is it like working with a Chinese research partner? What are the challenges?
My partner is great. Her name is Luo Wei, and she is a graduate student at Remin University of China School of Law, where I will be on exchange this spring. The biggest challenge for us has been the difference between the U.S. and China in citation culture. Where an American law student obsessively cites sources of information, it seems that much more is considered general knowledge in China. So as we have been writing the paper together, we have had to go back and find sources for many of the sections my partner wrote. This has been a challenge.I have also noticed a general pressure to be critical of hydropower in China.
Pressure from whom?
U.S. academics. The U.S. is past its phase of installing dams. Because the U.S. has realized some of the serious environmental and social consequences of dam construction, it is now actually taking down some dams. As a result, many U.S. (and other international) institutions are extremely critical of China’s plans to promote hydropower as a source of clean energy. But working with Luo Wei and her advisor has helped me to see the other side of the discussion. China is growing rapidly and needs an energy source. There are costs to hydropower development, but maybe it is a better option than, say, coal.
I think it is interesting that you have pressure to critique the energy source. You bring your bias to this project, and it is being reinforced by what is around you.
Well, the pressure is coming from both sides. People have very strong opinions about hydropower development in China. Luo Wei and I want to be objective, and we want to write a meaningful paper. But it has been difficult to navigate the conflicting pressures and find our own voice on the topic.
The US is considered “developed” and China is considered “developing.” Could you talk about the potential problems that this may have when you are doing research?
There is definitely a risk of American students approaching Chinese environmental law with an arrogance about the superiority of U.S. systems, which is not particular to Vermont Law School students. All of us are at risk of mistakenly believing that our way of thinking is correct and that “we” are going to fix “their” way of thinking. However, I believe part of the reason the JRP program exists is to challenge this destructive perspective.
Have you talked about this issue in class?
Not really. It might have been implied, but it was never really directly addressed.
What is the end goal of the JRP process?
One main objective (or the hope) of the China program is that we publish a paper. I don’t know if that is my objective. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed the process.
Could you comment overall on your experience with the China program and if you would recommend it to other students?
I would absolutely recommend the China Program to other students. The JRP program is a worthwhile experience. A handful of students came to VLS specifically because they wanted to participate in the JRP program. As far as I can tell, this is not an opportunity available at other law schools, even schools that are larger or have more programs related to China. In addition, I feel very fortunate that Vermont Law School recently signed a partnership with Renmin University because it will provide me with the valuable opportunity to spend a semester at Renmin this spring studying Chinese law and language.
Edited by Heidi Conner & Allison Cameron