Deborah Seligsohn: An Interview with Our New Expert

Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics  >  Trustee China Hand

By Alyssa Perez

This week, the Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics welcomed Deborah Seligsohn to our team as a non-resident senior associate. Dr. Seligsohn joins with decades of experience in US-China relations with a particular focus in public health, energy and environmental politics. With distinct pleasure, I picked her brain for her thoughts on a career in China, environmental policy, and the future of US-China environmental relations. 
Read her full bio here.

Before beginning your academic career, you had a career in policy. What has been the biggest difference in this career shift?

I think there are two big differences. The first is simply practical – academics teach. That’s not something we do in the policy world – though we spend a lot of time mentoring up-and-coming staff. But teaching a whole classroom of students is very different than working one-on-one with a junior officer. There’s a lot more planning and design involved. I find it intellectually rewarding and quite different from the intellectual challenges in the policy world.
The second and the biggest difference has to do with the kind of questions that you are trying to answer. In academia, we are trying to identify generalizable theories about the way the world works through a hypothesis testing methodology. As such we work with complete data sets that either have to be data on things that have already occurred to data that we can cause to occur – such as an opinion poll. And we are very much concerned with determining causality. This requires rigorous use of methods, whether quantitative or qualitative, and is slow, careful work. The reward is if you do it right you might determine a set of social relationships that are widely applicable. 

In policy we are generally most concerned with what’s going to happen next, and what are our choices at this moment in time? We probably need to know what happened, but we can’t wait for the data set to be complete. And we are going to use whatever data is available to think about how best to act now and into the future. We may well use information gleaned from academics – many principles for how to best provide aid or reach out to voters, for example, were first tested by academics. But we generally can’t wait for the best academic study of now to happen before we get to the question, what next?

Both types of work are fulfilling. I found after a number of years in the policy world I wanted to be less driven by the day to day and more able to examine issues deeply to look for root causes.
What drew you to a career in environmental policy in China?

I actually started working on environmental policy in New Zealand, and loved it. I was already a budding China Hand. I majored in East Asian Studies as an undergrad and wrote my senior thesis on women in Chinese politics, so that was already an interest of mine. Then I was assigned to work in the US Embassy in New Zealand as my second foreign service tour. That was an incredible environmental education. New Zealand was leading a global effort to ban driftnet fishing, so I was involved in connecting Wellington and Washington. A New Zealand official was a co-chair of one of the major working groups of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change just as it got going. So I learned about international environmental efforts on the job from people who were really at the cutting edge. And then I brought that interest with me to my tours in China.
What advice would you give to young professionals seeking a career in China policy?

Learn a policy area – don’t just learn about China. I was lucky to learn environment on the job – though I then went back and did a Masters in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy – but that was mainly because the environment was so new, especially as an area of diplomacy. Nowadays most people starting out have great subject-matter expertise as well as Chinese language.
The foreign policy field is predominantly male. How has this affected your pursuit of a career in China policy?

Like any other woman, I’ve had my share of sexist bosses. I’ve been lucky that in those circumstances I’ve generally found other people who were supportive – including bosses’ bosses. I do think one of the toughest times for any woman working is when you have young children – not because you will be less effective – in fact, you are probably more effective – but because all kinds of people, both male and female, make assumptions about your availability and dedication – without ever actually talking to you. For the most part, I have found people to be collegial, and the work to be excellent. One thing I will say is working on clean energy in China is an almost entirely male world, and that didn’t seem to matter at all. Chinese partners tend to view Americans as Americans and not worry too much about our gender, even if they might be sexist to women within their own organizations. I also think that these issues are improving – and the fact that young people of all genders want a better work-life balance means that things like having children or taking care of elderly parents have to be factored in by bosses for everyone without singling out women.
With the Biden administration settling in, what should we expect in this new administration in terms of US-China climate cooperation?

I think both the US and China will make progress this year. We are heading up to a very important meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Glasgow in November. Countries are expected to make new commitments. President Biden has already announced an ambitious 2030 target to cut emissions in half (from a 2005 baseline), and what will matter is whether he can actually pass the legislation that makes this a meaningful target. President Xi announced a 2060 carbon neutrality target last year. The 14th Five-Year Plan goals announced thus far are not as ambitious as we would have liked to see, and what will be important this year is whether he announces new goals that are more in line with the 2060 target- a clear early and low-peaking target. China had already announced peaking by 2030, so we’d like to see that earlier and with a clear peak number. What is heartening is that President Xi did say he expects to control coal use in this five-year plan and phase it down in the next (i.e. from 2026 onward). This implies a peak earlier than 2030, but it would be helpful to see that laid out. I think we can expect that the Chinese will time their goals for the Glasgow meeting. 
This is what US-China cooperation will actually look like – the setting of new goals. There also has to be some cooperation on financing for developing countries. But other than that, climate mitigation will be about competition, not cooperation. With ambitious goals, companies will compete to provide non-carbon options for the best possible price. This will include US and Chinese companies, as well as companies from many other countries. We need a framework of goals, but the real work will happen in each country as we replace our electricity supply and transportation systems.

Alyssa Perez is the program manager in the Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at CSIS.