China Policy: An Early Career Guide
How to navigate China Twitter, what to read, why write, thoughts on advanced degrees, and why you really should learn Chinese
Great, you want to be a China policy analyst. But how to get started?
The following is my attempt to put my best advice in one place, supplemented with input from people I admire. What follows is biased towards my personal experience, namely working in China-adjacent policy research outside of academia in the US and building the ChinaTalk newsletter and podcast, though much of what I say likely applies more broadly outside the US and to other policy areas.
Give your assignments a chance. And the supplementary reading. And the papers of footnoted things that seem interesting. Get $5 used versions of your coursework on Amazon so you can read with a pen and write in the margins. If you’re struggling to focus while reading PDFs on your computer, get an old iPad, read in Paperpile or the snazzy new Zotero 6, and take notes there.
If your assigned classwork reading isn’t grabbing you, don’t be scared to ditch boring stuff and hunt for what keeps you up at night wanting to finish. As the wise Tyler Cowen once said, “don’t read stuff you don’t love reading”.
How do you find the really good stuff? Start with SupChina’s best 100 China books list, explore the fantastic FiveBooks website which has a very well-developed China section, check out Tanner Greer’s attempts to introduce folks to Chinese history or his favorite books, or ask people on Twitter.
I promise to write my own “Modern China onramp syllabus” which I’ll update here by the end of this year.
Be wary of books about China without citations from Chinese sources (much more common than you’d expect) and dragon or panda metaphors in the title.
I’m biased against spending too much time reading the news vs developing a foundation of knowledge, though for interviews for policy-relevant internships and jobs you will have to demonstrate a strong level of fluency in current developments. To start on that path, subscribe to Sinocism (he offers a student discount), follow his links and get engaged in some storylines, and read what people are talking about on Twitter.
Your particular information diet is going to be what allows you to bring unique value as an analyst and thinker, so as you start to get caught up on what “everyone” is reading, don’t be scared to read things it may seem like “no one” else is.
Speaking of Twitter…
Get on Twitter
I think Jose’s right.
My time on ‘China Twitter’ has been a profoundly intellectual and empowering experience. For starters, you get to:
Ask smart people questions. It’s one thing to go to zoom office hours from 2:30-3:15 and ask your frazzled professor something about a topic they’re probably not that deeply read in. It’s quite another to be able to directly reach out to the leading expert in a said topic, who if they’re on Twitter is probably up for random conversation, and, if you ask politely, you can likely start a conversation with that person who may bring his or her other expert friends into the discussion. Twitter, if used correctly, can be office hours 3.0.
See how people in the field think and read. ‘Meta-reading,’ or developing deep media literacy around news stories and policy discussion is one of the most useful skills you won’t get just through books. Spending time on Twitter watching how professionals discuss whatever in particular it is you’re interested in will give you a baseline that you can then engage with and contribute to.
Short-circuit credentialism…to a point. Fancy degrees, recommendation letters and personal references from prestigious people don’t hurt. But personal connections are the way to get around not having the standardized test scores or the money to go to lots of expensive schools. You can develop these sorts of relationships through what may start as a random Twitter back and forth.
Meet and develop genuine relationships with peers. 95% of the people you meet in “real life”, your high school and college friends, don’t care about China as much as or in the same way as you do. You may make a handful in a policy graduate school, and some more living in Beijing or Shanghai or DC, but you don’t have to do either of those things to find your crew. Perhaps the most affirming thing about the time I’ve spent on Twitter is that I now have maybe two dozen folks in the field, some of whom I’ve never met in person, with whom I feel “in this together” navigating research and career questions.
Realize you’re just as smart as the ‘experts.’ On twitter you’ll see people who have fancy think tank jobs, once served in senior levels of government, and have tenured academic positions have terrible takes that you know are wrong. Yes, it’s fine to feel depressed at the amount of mediocrity that exists out there, but also let this inspire you that you’re less far from contributing to the knowledge frontier than you might think!
Who should you follow? If you like ChinaTalk, seeing who I follow and interact with on Twitter is a decent place to start. Some other pointers from friends:
Quality over quantity (Pradyumna): As you tweet more and see posts going viral it may seem as if the most important thing is building a large audience. But that is harmful for the reason that you should not write or tweet for most people. It is worth having a high quality of things you tweet to attract the right quality of people. Or in other words, do things you are proud of.
Quote Tweets as an Onramp (From Emily Weinstein): Get started by tweeting quotes from and links to articles, reports, or speeches you find of particular interest or significance. You don’t have to hop on Twitter tomorrow and immediately have the hottest takes in town. Think of your profile as a curated newsfeed to start, and once you feel more comfortable, then start engaging with more of your personal view.
Other writing on how to use Twitter:
Alexey Guzey’s post featuring lots of really smart people saying how important Twitter was to them
Guzey’s Best of Twitter substack is an equally impressive advertisement for the platform
Zvi’s elaborate use of lists, but feel free to trust the algorithm for the first few months
To be sure, in this line of work there is a non-insignificant potential for online harassment, particularly if you are an ethnic Chinese female working in the space. However, while you are still sub-3000 followers the chances of this impacting you are very small.
Get off Twitter too
It is addictive and you can overdose on it. Check out the OneSec app or just don’t install Twitter on your phone. Consider using the free StayFocused chrome add-on to limit the amount of time you can spend on social media. It also helps to mute Twitter notifications on your devices so you can choose to seek it out on your own terms.
Get really good at Chinese
Everyone you will talk to, people who can’t speak Chinese included, will say that the amount of Chinese they have is the bare minimum required to write credibly about China. That said, if you’re not a native speaker, try the best you can to frontload investments in language, as the older you get the harder it will be to find time.
If you’re looking for things to write (see below), there is a huge amount of informational ‘alpha’ left in taking Chinese language sources and putting out summaries or annotated translations. Just posting random interesting things you see on Weibo or WeChat plus a tiny bit of context can earn you tens of thousands of Twitter followers.
Unfortunately, the best way to get good at Chinese is to live in China, and with Zero COVID going nowhere anytime soon, aside from the lucky few Schwarzman Scholars whose program has the connections to get them in the country. Taiwan still seems reasonably accessible for study abroad programs and has a boatload of scholarship programs to help ease the financial burden.
My collection of beginner to intermediate tips I made into a youtube lecture, and for advanced learners, I’d encourage you to check out the app 小宇宙 for podcasts and troll Douban for contemporary TV and movie recommendations.
iTalki and DuChinese are also fantastic apps for learning and keeping up with Chinese language practice (you can find really good Chinese tutors on these sites for under $10/hr–DM me if you’re looking for particular folks I have a few teachers who I would love to send more students to). Learn Chinese with Rita is a fantastic youtube channel and I highly recommend her pronunciation course (which you should take the earlier the better so you don’t learn bad speaking habits).
That said, advanced language ability is not a golden ticket to a career working in and around China policy. In particular, you’ll need to develop skills in research and writing, which brings us to our next section.
Put your thoughts out there
We live in 2022. There are zero barriers to creating content that will get read or listened to. Tweeting, writing, and podcasting will force you to think clearer. There’s no shame in learning in public, particularly as someone early in their career.
Tier 1 Platforms:
Twitter: Good threads can get you positive attention from your peers, interviews from prestigious media outlets, and even job offers. The worst thing that will happen to you early if you write an analytical thread is that no one will read it. Low-stress types of threads that don’t even require you to stand on a limb and put your own views out into the ether include tweeting bits from books you read and translating stuff from Chinese. Consider using a threadmaker tool instead of writing directly in the twitter client.
Newsletter: Writing pieces from scratch is hard. Instead consider starting with translations + commentary, book reviews, or responses to reports. For young China-curious people who have shown a lot of great initiative, see Vincent and Pradyumna.
Podcast: Here are my generic tips for starting an interview-based show, which is the easiest format to get off the ground. In brief, interviews benefit from you not having to come up with original ideas to make the content as you can just riff off of your guests’ research and insight, plus you get to meet and hopefully impress people who could otherwise only maybe guilt into a not particularly insightful short career talk.
Pradyumna adds, “a podcast gives you a network of people if you do it well especially combined with Twitter. Always do ask your podcast guests whom you should talk to next, and if you think they like you, ask for an intro. [Jordan: if you actually read the book you will be more prepared than 95% of the interviewees and the guests will notice and appreciate it!] Slowly you can end up with better guests than you thought you would!”
Tier 2 Platforms:
Youtube: Youtube is a magical platform but for unsurprising reasons doesn’t have a ton of great content about modern China on it. If you’re interested in learning how to edit video, consider starting a channel! The downside would be that not a lot of policy people go there to learn.
TikTok: Deeply researched analysis isn’t going to win you followers, a compelling presentation will, and there aren’t a ton of your policy peers who are swiping for China takes. That said, it is definitely possible to make smart, compelling content on TikTok that can be career-enhancing. Kyla Scanlon’s TikTok+twitter+substack+youtube for economics is a very replicable model for the China space.
Worried something you create will leave you unemployable? Don’t trust me that it probably won’t? Then do it anonymously! Turning anonymous internet credibility into personal credibility is a relatively straightforward task, and unless you pick fights with the vigor of BadChinaTake it’s extremely unlikely someone will care enough to try to ruin your day. Lastly, when you DM people on Twitter, you can always identify yourself as a student looking for advice.
Finally, once you have a portfolio, it’s not the worst idea in the world to make a personal website. Notion ones are particularly painless.
As you’re networking, discount heavily any advice you receive (including mine) as basically everyone, unless they’re completely miserable or you’re catching them on a bad day, will tell you to do more or less what they did.
Don’t spend too much time writing for college or grad-school outlets. Personal blogs or newsletters will better rebound back to you. If you have a good enough pitch, editors at professional publications (who you can meet on Twitter!) will consider it. In your initial email to them, say you’re an “independent researcher,” not a sophomore, and only after they take your pitch and you submit a good first draft is it okay to reveal how young and precocious you are. By the way, ChinaTalk takes pitches and pays for writing!
China generalists are a dying breed. See if you can pair your interest in China with another skillset (data science, energy policy, climate science, tech policy, transportation policy….) to set you apart from the crowd. Even if you don’t end up getting a job that lines up 1:1 with your interest, having developed a specialization will signal to potential employers your ability to bone up on topics that aren’t just ‘China.’
Living in DC, going to a DC-based school for an MA, and interning in-semester as much as possible is the dominant strategy for getting a DC blob job. That said, taking this route will by no means guarantee a position, and you very well may have to intern for $15-20hr with no benefits/health care for a considerable amount of time even after graduating before finding yourself a fulltime position. What’s more, this path is not really going to help you differentiate your thinking and analysis or support your language progress.
Q: Should I even get into the China-adjacent policy game in the first place?
A: I totally buy the 80,000 Hours-y argument that China analysts have a uniquely important role to play in helping the 21st century not go off the rails, and I’ve made about a decade of life choices around this contention. But from a lifestyle perspective, if you can find other things to do with your life that will fulfil you, you honestly probably should. Supply exceeds demand for policy analysis, and even people who have demonstrable expertise in very hot topics like China tech will not have an easy time finding gainful employment.
Even if you do get on a track, pay is poor relative to what your brainpower could earn if you applied it in a different direction. Undergrads with the intellectual capacity to succeed in policy-land can make 3x+ straight out of the gate in tech, finance or consulting, and that gap only widens over time. If everything broke right for you over the past two decades, you today might be sitting in a brand name Mass Ave think tank making 150-250k as a senior fellow, with, if you’re lucky, some consulting work on the side. Check out the IRS tax filings for leading foreign policy think tanks Jake Eberts collected to see what your potential future boss’ take-home pay is. Pay in Congress is also dark though the executive branch is marginally better.
On the plus side, it mostly feels like work with a purpose and that helps ward off existential dread. Because of the labor market challenges, people are generally only getting into this game because they care so your colleagues are likely to be passionate and enthusiastic (and/or have a financial cushion), and because supply outstrips demand they’ll most likely be pretty competent as well. I’ve found it to be, with a very small handful of exceptions, a supportive community I enjoy engaging and spending time with. Also, very few positions in this field will have you consistently working 100-hour weeks like the highest paying non-engineering white collar jobs out there.
Q: How scared should I be that whatever things I write or say on Twitter will embarrass me in front of future employers?
A: I would encourage you to highly discount this possibility, particularly relative to the opportunity cost of opting out of Twitter. If you’re the sort of person who is even worried in the first place about embarrassing themselves in front of future employers, as long as you don’t have a closet mean streak and let yourself get baited into attacking people personally, I can almost guarantee you it will not happen. It’s really not that hard to stop yourself from going full Neera Tanden. The chances of something you say going viral, particularly before you’ve spent enough time on the platform to know what might go viral, are infinitesimal. I have to expect that ChinaTalk readers are sharp enough not to say racist, misogynist or homophobic things on social media.
With that all said, if you’re still nervous you can always write and tweet anonymously at first. It’s very easy to transition anonymous internet social capital to your real self later on.
Q: How scared should I be that whatever things I do in China/interactions I have with Chinese people will stop me from getting a security clearance in my home country?
A: It’s impossible to know, but I find it hard to even get on a path to “know China” without going to China and living in the PRC for an extended period of time. That said, you should be wary of out-of-the-blue DMs on LinkedIn, ostensible Chinese think tank employees offering you money in exchange for research, and, for that matter, anyone offering you money in China.
Your odds of getting a clearance are probably a tad higher if your time in China was under a recognized program (probably academic) and not spent freelancing. But overall, time in China, especially if recent, is a barrier, particularly as post-COVID it’s very hard for investigators to verify anything.
Q: How should I network?
I’d highly recommend doing it organically via Twitter. The people you meet who are active on Twitter are self-selecting for being open to engaging with random people on the internet. Plus, you can first off get a sense of whether they are interesting and not jerks from how they tweet.
When reaching out to folks, I’d recommend carefully reading something they write, and in your email make it clear you did–reference specific things they wrote and say “oh X was really interesting”, and have follow-ups.
Lead with wanting to have a conversation about the content, maybe tack on a few career questions you may have in the end, and don’t ask for more than 20-30 minutes of someone’s time. More than any advice you can get from the person you’re talking to, having a conversation about the content that impresses the person will be of higher long-term value to you because you’ll stick out from the 95% of people who ask them questions you can get pretty good answers from in this post.
Q: Should I get an MA?
A: A few factors to consider: do you have a scholarship or money to burn? Do you know how to read by yourself? Reading a lot, writing publicly, soliciting feedback, and making friends on the internet can substitute for much of what an MA offers. That said, there is serious credential creep that makes it difficult with a BA to outcompete folks with MAs for entry-level jobs, and many pathways into the US government like the PMF program and McCain Fellows have graduate degree requirements.
Q: Should I go to law school?
A: I have no idea, but try to talk to at least three lawyers whose careers seem really cool and who are happy in their jobs before you do. My two cents is that it’s very expensive and if you’re dead set on doing China-adjacent policy work, a JD really isn’t a prerequisite. Don’t forget about opportunity cost when considering the years and money you’ll end up pouring into advanced education!
Q: Should I get a PhD?
A: I’m not the right person to ask. I decided not to because I realized I was a little too ADHD to focus that long on one question. I have also found myself happier scratching my ‘teaching’ itch through making ChinaTalk content for the masses as opposed to teaching classes in person. That said, people do cool stuff in academia too!
Do not base a decision to get a PhD only on your GPA and professors’ advice. Find current PhD students and in particular PhD dropouts to get a different view of the path.
Q: I’m not a US national and want to work in DC, what should I do?
A: Be advised that it will be near impossible to find someone in the policy space to sponsor your visa. Only having one year of OPT to offer potential employers will be a difficult sell. STEM-y programs that offer three years of OPT seem to be a much better value proposition, but even then, three years of an American entry level think tank salary are unlikely to make you whole from what an MA without a scholarship would cost.
Q: So Jordan, you do tech + China: any thoughts on working in that space?
A: Never a dull day on the China tech beat! That said, even with all the attention this space gets there seem to be maybe only thirty analysts outside of government who work in think tanks and research firms so for as hot a topic as it is, it’s still a very niche field.
A serious technical background isn’t necessary to do good work, but a technical degree coupled with an understanding of policy and political debates is a hack that can very quickly get you to a knowledge frontier where you can be adding to the broader discussion. Justin Sherman, for instance, was writing articles galore for major publications while a college junior because he brought a technical analytical mindset to the table that the vast majority of think tankers writing about technology-adjacent issues don’t have. The same with taking Chinese content and putting it in a format digestable for English speakers, taking basic technical knowledge in CS, EE, bio or what have you and applying it to a policy setting can be very valuable.
Thoughts from other young analysts I respect
Jake Eberts on creating BadChinaTake
As an early-career professional or student, you unfortunately have to respect the pecking order to some extent, which is why anonymous accounts can get away with being more aggressive as long as they know what they're talking about. Regardless, do not mistake any sort of argument or contention for fighting; it's perfectly okay to use Twitter as a forum to challenge others' ideas. Your name will pop up in people's feeds, which is a good thing.
Do keep in mind that even the most esteemed figures in the field can be functionally just large children, so de-escalation will usually be your responsibility if it ever gets to that, unfortunately.
(From Emily Jin) Ask yourself what is your “northern star” for being in the China policy space?
Synonymous with this question: What gets you out of bed in the morning? What is your raison d’etre? How central is “understanding China” to your purpose, since not everyone’s full focus would be China? For example, you could be coming from a functional background in political economy, and you really want to understand how China may prove or disprove frameworks you picked up in your undergraduate/graduate classes. Your “northern star” in this case may be to understand whether autocratic political-economic systems may prevail in the next century. In that case, China is then by default a polity of focus, though you may still retain your primary analytical lens of political economy.
Test your answer out (recommend stream of consciousness style word doc typing or go old school with a pen) and see if what’s on the page compels you.
Emily Weinstein on humility and being a woman in policy/national security
As in most industries, there are egos galore in DC, and learning how to navigate these is unfortunately part of the experience. This can be even more daunting as a young woman (or minority in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual identity, etc.), as the space has traditionally been dominated by white men. Look at how Erik Larson described the State Department in In the Garden of Beasts as “an elite realm to which only men of a certain pedigree could expect ready admission.” We’ve certainly come a long way since the 1930s, but we still have a long way to go.
Starting out, I felt a strong urge to write on every topic on China – I wanted to be at the forefront of every think tank event, every diplomatic call, every Xinhua article, and more. I stayed up late watching events streamed in Beijing overnight to make sure I was the first person (to my knowledge) to tweet something catchy or notable. I tried to soak up every piece of analysis and have a take on everything. I was exhausted. I felt like I had to do more to stand out, partly thanks to my gender, but also thanks to my own unrelenting competitive spirit, which I see in many of the younger folks making their way to Washington.
This was not sustainable. Instead of continuing down that competitive route, I found myself wanting to lean on others more. Where I previously sought to compete with colleagues to have the best assessment or strongest prediction, I instead wanted to hear their thoughts–not only on their impressions of my takes but also on their takes as well. In doing so, I stopped the relentless doing and started listening. Once I started listening, I stopped thinking that I had “discovered” the next hot topic in China studies, and instead started listening to others in the community–not just the ones who had been around for decades, but also my peers. This was such a humbling practice, and I truly believe it has helped get me to where I am today.
In my experience, humility is such a crucial part of navigating not only the China policy world but also the broader professional environment. It has helped me find a diverse set of allies (and friends!) in my community as well as invaluable teachers and mentors. DC is exhausting and lonely without these resources. Find people to lean on, and don’t let the rat race get to you. Take your time to do honest and thoughtful work, and you will grow your brand organically from there.
David Fishman on unknown unknowns
When you get started in China studies, and especially learning Chinese, you get a lot of praise and attention in China. The expectations for a non-Chinese person are pretty low in terms of language achievement, grasp of Chinese cultural, political, or historical features, etc. It’s too easy to learn a little bit and then get mountains of praise and fool yourself into thinking you know a lot. You’re even more in danger of overestimating your own knowledge after you’ve legitimately learned a fair amount (e.g. a specialized higher degree).
In a world where quality China credentials are still rare (relative to the importance of the subject anyway), even partial knowledge is enough to score you a respectable career. But just like anything else in life, knowing some can end up being worse than knowing nothing, especially if you only learned the 皮毛.
The deeper you get into learning specialized things in China, the more you appreciate just how large the body of knowledge is that you didn’t know. About history, political trends, cultural sentiments, prevailing attitudes, everything. Whatever it is, there’s definitely an angle you missed. Having healthy respect and appreciation for the potential existence of all the stuff you don’t even know you don’t know will make you a much better analyst.
After a while, you want to use hedging language for everything, which might sound like a lack of surety to a layperson’s ear, (or maybe a turnoff to certain kinds of bosses, who want a black or white answer) but probably will sound like wisdom to your most experienced peers, who know true black and white answers are as rare as pandas. No matter how much “China stuff” you know, there’s still more stuff you don’t know, and even more stuff you don’t know that you don’t know. That stuff will lead you to bad assumptions and false conclusions if you don’t make an effort to account for it.
Kelsey Broderick - try out different jobs, find your niche
Being a China analyst seems relatively straightforward: learn the “truth” about China or US-China and give your take on it. However, your take will vary based on the sector you’re in and the job you take. At a think tank, you will probably be closest to a straightforward analysis job (primary source research, writing, etc.) but you might find that you need a PhD.
At a gov job (in this case a USG job) politics unsurprisingly and definitely matter. Your analysis will be used to fit into the administration’s overarching China policy and you will work toward that end (currently competitive/antagonistic). If you decide to work in the private sector (political risk, in-house analyst at MNC) your analysis will be leveraged more for cooperation or finding the space to continue or expand commercial activity with China.
You will need to decide how you want to use your knowledge and what you feel comfortable using it for. Who you want to inform about China? Do you want to prevent China from rewriting the international system? Do you want to promote commercial ties/try to prevent WWIII? Etc. etc. If you can, try internships in various industries to see what you like - this is where it’s important to reach out to people with China jobs you’re interested in because they can point you in the direction of good/paid experiences.
Gerard DiPippo, former CIA analyst, on how to get into the CIA
Getting a job at CIA requires planning, patience, and luck, but it can be rewarding, especially for those interested in China. The CIA website lists programs, vacancies, and hiring needs and only U.S. citizens should apply. My impression is that functional expertise—economics, technology, cyber, programming, etc.—are in higher demand relative to regional expertise, in part because you’re more likely to be able to acquire the latter on the job. Priority language skills, including Mandarin, are a plus. CIA does not require a master’s degree (or PhD) to join, though if of interest there are programs for officers to continue their studies after they join. I recommend you work through a recruiter, which is easiest if you are enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program. Online applications without recruiter support or referrals are a long shot. If you do not get an interview, reapply in a year or two, as sometimes hiring is subject to budgetary cycles. CIA offers internships for analysts, which are a path to a full-time position.
Everyone must undergo the security clearance process. Even if you receive a “conditional offer of employment,” your clearance could take up to a year, sometimes longer, and is not guaranteed. You should have a personal sense of whether this is a real risk or a drawn-out formality, but at a minimum I recommend not using illegal drugs, be honest and forthright, and don’t try to overthink or game the process. Have a backup plan while you wait. If you manage to navigate the process, you’ll have wonderful opportunities, especially for someone early career.
I hope for this to be a living document and for more folks to contribute their two cents, particularly as there are plenty of aspects of the China analyst experience I either gave short shrift to (JD, PhDs) or didn’t feel qualified to comment on (navigating this world as a Chinese-American or PRC national). If you’d like to add your two cents please drop them in the comments and I can incorporate into the main body as appropriate.
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I left a well-paying job in Calgary to spend two years studying Chinese in Tainjin. Best two years of my life.
I waited many years to marry up my Chinese and my passion for economics. But perisitance paid off.
If anyone is interested in (free) data-driven insights into the Chinese economy have a look here:
Great stuff, Jordan. I wish there was more on this for non-US nationals. I sometimes get questions from Chinese nationals and others and I don't have much good advice to give them other than warning them about how difficult it is to get a visa...