Penetrating China's remote interior

Updated: 2014-11-21 06:57

By MAY ZHOU in Houston(China Daily USA)

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Penetrating China's remote interior

Environmental specialist Marilyn Beach talks about her extensive work in China's interior at her home in Houston. MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY

Penetrating China's remote interior
For Marilyn Beach, an environmental specialist with extensive experience in China, her most memorable project there was the 18 months she spent traversing rugged terrain in remote areas of the west to research the West-East Gas Pipeline Project.

The pipeline runs through ten provinces in China, six nature reserves and intersects the Great Wall in 12 locations, as well as other areas of cultural heritage or archaeological significance.

Along with a team of researchers, Beach traveled to different locations along the pipeline to do field studies and assessments and eventually came up with suggestions for Shell China to establish internationally accepted environmental, social, health and safety standards for the project

"Shell didn't join in the final construction, but our study results were given to PetroChina, which highly praised the study in one of their reports," said Beach.

Beach said it was a subtle nudge from someone that got her started in China.

She had originally planned to study Africa. When she went home for vacation from college at UC, Berkeley in 1985, she visited her best friend, a Chinese American. "Her father suggested that I should go to China, not Africa," she said. The suggestion took root and three months later, Beach was in Beijing studying Chinese.

After half a year learning Chinese, Beach went back to finish college and then to Nanjing University to study the rise of China nationalism during the May Fourth Movement. She familiarized herself with the literary works of main authors of the New Culture Movement.

During that time, Beach traveled to remote parts of western China. She took the train from Beijing to Turpan (Tulufan), then buses to other parts in the region and eventually crossed the border into Afghanistan. "The bus would break down every day at least once, and sometimes for hours we saw nobody," she said.

The trip gave her a sense of the enormity of China, she said. "It also made me think about how similar our two countries are in terms of size," she added. "It's very interesting to think about how the size of country affects a people's sense of self, pride and nationalism. China is so diverse, even within a province."

Studying for a Master's at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Beach's interests in China shifted to the environment, land and livelihood. For her degree she also studied at Peking University, focusing on rural development programs from 1993-1994, followed by a year of study at the University of Hawaii doing research on China's forest policy and timber resources.

Beach was recruited by the National Committee on US-China Relations in 1998 to lead various programs in China. She travels to China every year, working at the national, provincial and local levels.

"My goal is to spend 80 percent of my time outside of Beijing, and 50 percent of my time outside of provincial capitals, so that I can get a sense of what's happening locally. It's always a struggle, especially in regions with local dialects," she explained.

During her years at the committee from 1998 to 2002, Beach developed and managed multi-year political and economic reform projects addressing education, natural resource management and environmental protection in China's Guizhou, Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces.

"We put together a city in Kentucky, which is also economically challenged and a relatively less developed part of the US, and a city from Guizhou," she said. "We facilitated programs and exchange visits between them. The main goal was to increase understanding and learn from each other."

Beach became an independent consultant at the end of 2001, continuing to work for the committee and other organizations. Over the years, she has involved herself in many programs related to China beyond the West-East Pipeline, from sustainable development, globalization and fair trade to organic agriculture, natural resource management and energy development.

Beach described her work in China's interior as difficult and challenging: "But I was never bored," she said. "Even when I thought I understood it completely, I still needed to learn more."

Beach loves the relationship she has forged with China so much that she now wants to pass her passion for China on to her children. Her 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter are both enrolled in a Mandarin Immersion program at the International School of Portland where they spend one hour on English a day and learn all other subjects - including math - in Chinese.

"It's good for their mind, and with my background, it's a natural choice for us," Beach said. "We want them to have the option to communicate with a very large, important and wonderful country with a rich history. Now my son's Chinese characters are far more beautiful than mine, and my daughter corrects my Chinese pronunciation every day."

With two young kids to raise, Beach is now working as a part-time consultant. "Once the kids are a little more established in school, I want to take us to live in China for a few years," she said.

Beach thinks good US-China relations are important: "Both nations are so powerful, they have so many resources under their control. If there is any conflict between them, many people will be affected," she said. "I think the more ties - at all levels - the better it will be. Whenever I see my kids play in China with their new friends, I am ultimately filled with great hope for the future."