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The China Connection

Elaine Yu

RESULTS-ORIENTED: The Rural Education Action Project capitalizes on links forged over decades by scholars at Stanford and at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

By Joel McCormick

Scott Rozelle's earliest collaborations in China go back to 1989, when he met Jikun Huang, attached to the China National Rice Research Institute in Hangzhou. It was an auspicious time to work together; field research was virtually unknown in the country. Huang moved to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2000, as director of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy (CCAP).

Rozelle moved too, going to UC-Davis after Stanford closed the 75-year-old Food Research Institute in 1998. He returned to Palo Alto in 2006, convinced only Stanford had the means to support his policy-driven work in China.

REAP-China director Lin­xiu Zhang, who shifts easily between intellectual sparring partner and road-trip fixer, was still a doctoral student on leave from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Hangzhou when she met Rozelle. As he tells it: "Young assistant professor working in Northern Jiangsu accidentally bumps into PhD student working in the same villages in Northern Jiangsu . . . the start of 17 years of working together. "

Eventually, younger talent sprouted. "The good news is you won a scholarship to Stanford," Rozelle remembers telling Hongbin Li, PhD '01. "The bad news is you have to spend two years learning a lot about fieldwork and how to deal with policy makers." Having done that, Li "has all the skills we need in a collaborator, and he knows China." Currently in the school of economics and management at Tsinghua University, Li doubles as REAP's research director. "He is the best young development economist on China in the world—No. 1," Rozelle crows. "He's been on this trip a few days and he's got five or six ideas we never thought about."

Working with top students on important research projects is any teacher's dream, Rozelle adds. "I am very fortunate to have trained more than 15 Chinese graduate students and then watched them go into academics." Two of them, also working at CCAP, serve as managing directors of REAP-China: Chengfang Liu, who studied under Rozelle at Davis, and former Stanford postdoc Renfu Luo.

Yaojiang Shi, chair of the Northwest Social-Economic Development Research Center and REAP-China's director of educational affairs, is a crucial door-opener; his center connects Stanford people with a half dozen member universities across northwest China. Shi first worked with CCAP studying rural public services and later with REAP looking at the impact of massive consolidation of rural primary schools. His overriding priority, he says, is to build a strong base focused on ridding the region of poverty—which makes REAP a natural partner. "We [need to] learn these skills to enhance our own research capacity in order to help local people," he says.

REAP program manager Elaine Yu describes a 24-hour enterprise that is intensively collaborative. Before Palo Alto signs off for the night, China, 16 hours ahead, is already buzzing. While each individual and subgroup brings different strengths, Yu says, "there is always a strong sense that if someone is in the field or already buried with a big deadline, others will jump in to work on whatever needs to be done if they can."

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