On the eve of the Class of 2019 graduation, we are thrilled to connect with a China Studies’ alumnus from the class of 2018 – Daniel Rechtschaffen. Daniel is currently working as Government Relations Manager at the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, China. Our current MA student Min Guo interviewed Daniel on his journey to the China Studies program, his experience at the Jackson School, and his career path after graduation.
How did you get interested in studying about China? What was your background before joining the China Studies program?
Daniel: My first exposure to China came at 19 years old and was a bit of a fluke. I was pursuing my bachelor’s degree in New Zealand and had wanted to transfer to a Canadian school, but I missed the application deadline and suddenly ended up with nine months to kill. My mom suggested that I attend an au pair program—and she’s a French professor so she suggested France—but I picked China instead because it seemed more exotic.
Things were a little rough the first couple weeks because I was initially placed in Beijing with the family of a corrupt government official—who someone later told me was ensnared in Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, although I never confirmed that—but things soon got better after I switched to a second, much nicer family. I spent six months in China and then transferred to university in Canada where I took up a minor in Chinese.
After graduating I moved to Shanghai where I lived and worked in journalism and editing for three years before attending the China Studies MA program at the University of Washington. During that time, I was one of the founding editors of the Shanghai-based news agency Sixth Tone.
When you were in the China Studies program, what was your research interest? What were your favorite courses? What did you like most about the program?
Daniel: The China Studies program at UW is cross-disciplinary, so we were able to flirt with different approaches to studying China. At the beginning it kind of felt like a hyper-focused first semester of a bachelor’s degree.
I ultimately became most interested in censorship and the technological tools the Communist Party (CCP) uses to propagate it because of my background of working in media in China, where we had run up many times against the impassable wall of the censor. I wrote my thesis on how China deploys the “Fifty Cent Party,” an army of hundreds of thousands of web commentators, to spam and troll social media with pro-Party narratives after “sudden public emergencies,” which are basically any sudden events the CCP thinks may lead to social instability like an earthquake or factory explosion. It was later published in the Mapping China Journal.
In terms of my favorite courses, I loved China’s Political Economy with Clair Yang. She was a first-year professor when I had her in late 2017; she was young and very in touch with modern China, so she had a lot of insight into current trends. But honestly, everything I took in the Jackson School was an excellent course. My favorite element of studying there were the carefully curated reading lists by all the professors that gave us a broad understanding of China issues. Furthermore, the UW campus beautifully set up for readers—I spent countless hours each week in a library window seat above the greenery poring through our readings.
Can you tell us about your current job? How did you get there?
Daniel: I currently work as a government relations manager at the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Shanghai. We are an industry association of around 1,500 corporates that represents American business interests in China. I manage AmCham Shanghai’s relationship with the U.S. government in D.C. and in China, our section’s policy publications, and our Government Policy Support program. It’s a really rewarding job which lets me focus all my energy on the U.S.-China relationship. I also get to do a ton of writing and editing—my favorite past-times—on my favorite subject: China.
Like my first trip to China in 2011, getting a job with AmCham was also a fluke. I had applied six months before graduation to a web design role at the company, which I obviously didn’t get because I have zero experience in that, but they kept my resume on file. Then, one week before graduation, right as I was about to accept a non-China-related writing job in Seattle, the director of AmCham Shanghai’s government relations department called me up and offered me a job. The previous manager had just put in his resignation and the stars lined up for me.
I should qualify that though by mentioning that in the months leading up to my MA graduation I probably applied to hundreds of jobs—I tried average three job applications a day. So, while luck is an important ingredient, you need to put in a ton of effort to increase your odds.
You are working and living in China now. What do you like about living in Shanghai?
Daniel: People think of Shanghai as a megalopolis, which it is, but my space is quite small. I work, live, and spend most of my time in two adjoining districts: Jing’an and the Former French Concession, both of which are in the heart of downtown and are known as the foreigner-heavy areas, meaning there are a ton of cafes, restaurants, foreign grocery stores (for essentials like cheese), and bars. I live in a lovely little French apartment with high ceilings and big windows and I cycle to work every morning along the tree-lined streets of the Former French Concession.
I like my routine in Shanghai. Work is interesting and not overly stressful (we’re a non-profit so they give us lots of vacation!), and the people you meet here are worldly and my kind of people—meaning, they’re interested in China. The city is ever-changing in terms of the culture scene, it’s very developed, international and convenient, and I also think my part of the city is beautiful. All around it’s just a pleasant space to work and live in.
What are your long-term career goals?
Daniel: I’ve always wanted to work in the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer but after working closely with the Department since arriving in AmCham I’m wondering if I wouldn’t just be frustrated by all the bureaucracy there. On the one hand I’m very interested in returning to D.C. in a few years, where my family lives, and joining a human rights NGO that focuses on China, but I’m also considering maybe going into the private sector in a consultancy or something. Ultimately, I just want to do meaningful work that lets me continue writing on and studying China, and I imagine that I will probably hop around different industries as I continue pursuing that ambition.