Steven Lewis: A ca­reer of study­ing China BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By MAY ZHOU in Hous­ton mayzhou@chi­nadai­

Be­cause of his ex­ten­sive knowl­edge of China, Steven Lewis, the C.V. Starr Transna­tional China Fel­low at Rice Univer­sity’s Bake In­sti­tute, has been in­vited be­fore Congress nu­mer­ous times to help law­mak­ers bet­ter un­der­stand China. Just last year, Lewis tes­ti­fied be­fore the US-China Eco­nomic Se­cu­rity Re­view Com­mis­sion on Capi­tol Hill con­cern­ing China’s mar­itime dis­putes in the East and South China Seas.

Lewis also helped se­cure a $15 mil­lion grant from Hous­ton’s Chao fam­ily to es­tab­lish the in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary Chao Cen­ter for Asian Stud­ies at Rice, where he has been as­so­ciate di­rec­tor since 2004 and cur­rently acts as the in­terim di­rec­tor.

Lewis’ pas­sion is in the study of pol­i­tics and govern­ment, which is how his jour­ney into China schol­ar­ship got started. Lewis chose Chi­nese as his for­eign lan­guage at Ohio Univer­sity in the 1980s. “I was in­ter­ested in be­ing a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent,” he said.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing in 1985, Lewis went to China to im­prove his lan­guage skills. While teach­ing English at Bei­jing Nor­mal Univer­sity from 1985 to 1988, Lewis hired a pro­fes­sor to coach him in Chi­nese. The pro­fes­sor taught him how to read the work re­port of the 13th party congress, which got him into Chi­nese pol­i­tics.

Dur­ing his time in Bei­jing, he also worked at Xin­hua News Agency one sum­mer as a copy edi­tor, then got a job at Newsweek mag­a­zine’s Bei­jing bureau as a news ar­chiv­ist.

Lewis’ dreams of be­com­ing a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent were shat­tered through the ex­pe­ri­ence of one of the mag­a­zine’s Bei­jing cor­re­spon­dents. “She spoke very good Chi­nese,” he re­called. “She spent al­most half year get­ting in­ter­views with the Min­is­ter of De­fense and var­i­ous gen­er­als.”

How­ever, Newsweek’s New York edi­tor re­jected the piece and re­quested a story about pan­das in­stead. “She was so an­gry she was punch­ing the of­fice re­frig­er­a­tor: ‘Pan­das? God damn pan­das?!’ she said. I re­al­ized then I didn’t want to be a re­porter,” Lewis said.

As a news ar­chiv­ist, Lewis kept files on all the top Chi­nese lead­ers. “I re­mem­ber Hu Jin­tao, Wen Jiabao and all those new lead­ers who had just come out. I had files on about 200 Chi­nese lead­ers.” Lewis re­al­ized his in­ter­est was in pol­i­tics.

In 1996, he com­pleted a PhD in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in St Louis. His dis­ser­ta­tion was on how the­o­ries of property rights changed as China moved from a planned econ­omy to a mar­ket econ­omy.

The same year, Lewis got a one-year po­si­tion at Rice Univer­sity. At the time, No­bel Prize-win­ning econ­o­mist Eli­nor Ostrom vis­ited Rice and she had a pro­found im­pact on Lewis.

“I told her no­body was in­ter­ested in China, se­ri­ously, no­body cared, I was the only China per­son there. She told me, ‘ You have to do what you love and if you are per­sis­tent, even­tu­ally some­thing will hap­pen’,” he said.

Lewis took her ad­vice to heart and op­por­tu­nity in­deed did present it­self. Ford Mo­tor Com­pany and Cooper’s Li­brary gave $500,000 to the Baker In­sti­tute to study Chi­nese cul­ture and how it’s chang­ing. Lewis got the job in 1997 and started his now of­ten cited Tran­si­tional China Project.

The project has func­tioned as a plat­form for dis­cus­sion, as well as a teach­ing re­source, on China. Chi­nese writer and for­mer Min­is­ter of Cul­ture Wang Meng was the first speaker. Other em­i­nent speak­ers fol­lowed over the years: renowned writ­ers such as Yu Hua and Bai Xianyong, cul­tural critic and pro­fes­sor of Pek­ing Univer­sity Dai Jin­hua, Chi­nese scholar of phi­los­o­phy and his­tory Li Ze­hou, and for­mer prime min­is­ter of Sing­pore Lee Kuan Yew, among oth­ers. Over­all, the project has hosted close to 40 speak­ers to dis­cuss var­i­ous as­pects of China.

“We took the dis­cus­sion tran­scripts and trans­lated them and put them on the web­site. The pro­gram was very pop­u­lar, it was new and very fresh,


Born: 1964 PhD, Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence, Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity (1988-1996) Scripps School of Jour­nal­ism, BSJ, and Cer­tifi­cate of Asian Stud­ies, Ohio Univer­sity (1982-1985) In­terim di­rec­tor, Chao Cen­ter for Asian Stud­ies (2014-present)

C.V. Starr Transna­tional and many schol­ars were us­ing our dis­cus­sions and cit­ing our con­ver­sa­tions in their ar­ti­cles. Also stu­dents were us­ing it for study,” Lewis said.

Lewis is also in­ter­ested in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween China’s cen­tral govern­ment and lo­cal gov­ern­ments and pub­lic­ity. Since 1998, he has been con­duct­ing an­other two stud­ies of sub­way ad­ver­tis­ing and pub­lic ser­vice ad­ver­tis­ing in China, trav­el­ing there al­most ev­ery year for them.

“I ride the Bei­jing and Shang­hai sub­ways and take pic­tures of ev­ery advertisement. I want to see how they change over time,” he ex­plained. He now has an ar­chive of 4,500 im­ages from 1998 to 2003, with an­other 10,000 from 2004 to 2010 ready to be added.

For the pub­lic ser­vice ad­ver­tis­ing project, Lewis picked five districts in Bei­jing and five districts in Shang­hai. “I pick a shop­ping road and a res­i­den­tial road of a mile or two, walk down the street and take pic­tures of ev­ery sin­gle one I see. I keep them and com­pare them

• China Fel­low, Baker In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Pol­icy, Rice Univer­sity (2010-present) As­so­ciate fel­low, Asia So­ci­ety In­ter­na­tional (2007-present) Pro­fes­sor in the prac­tice in hu­man­i­ties, Rice Univer­sity (2004-present) As­so­ciate di­rec­tor, Chao Cen­ter for Asian Stud­ies, Rice Univer­sity (2004- 2013) Re­search Fel­low, Baker In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Pol­icy, Rice Univer­sity (1997-2010) ev­ery five years,” he said.

The re­sults? “I wrote a paper af­ter the first five years that showed that there are big dif­fer­ences be­tween the districts. The lo­cal govern­ment in each district had a lot to say about what mes­sages to put out.”

To Lewis, China is far from a cen­trally con­trolled state. “Most people would ar­gue that you need look at de­ci­sions at the cen­tral govern­ment,” he said. “How­ever, China is largely de­cen­tral­ized, very lo­cal­ized.”

Lewis said that “in many ways China and US are very sim­i­lar. Both gov­ern­ments are very strong in both coun­tries, both love to com­pete. Amer­i­cans are fi­nally fig­ur­ing it out that the Chi­nese like to com­pete with them, but it does not mean they want to kill us”.

“China and Amer­ica are the two big­gest con­sumer so­ci­eties in the world, if they pick up a stan­dard, the rest of the world will have to fol­low. That means we have to learn from each other. What’s good for Amer­i­cans is also good for the Chi­nese,” Lewis said.


Steven Lewis has been in­vited be­fore Congress nu­mer­ous times to help law­mak­ers bet­ter un­der­stand China.

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