In this Career Spotlight, we have the pleasure of speaking to Yun Jiang, a director at China Policy Centre, Editor of the new China Story blog and senior research officer at the Australian National University, about her career in research and policy.
Biography: Yun Jiang is the director at China Policy Centre, an independent research organisation, and the editor of the new China Story blog, which publishes analysis and commentary on China issues.
Yun is also a senior research officer at the Australian National University, working on geoeconomics. In this role, she brings together academics, government officials, and businesses to advance the understanding of geoeconomics, including across issues such as education, technology, research, cyber, and investment.
Prior to joining the ANU, she was a policy adviser in the Australian Government, having worked in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury and the Department of Defence. Her extensive policy experience covers international economy, trade, multilateral institutions, foreign investment, Commonwealth-state relations, economic diplomacy, and military diplomacy. During her time in government, she led a project on integrating economics and national security, and made significant contributions to improving China literacy in the public service.
Yun speaks English and Mandarin fluently. She holds a Master of Public Policy and a Master of Diplomacy from the ANU.
Going back to the beginning of your career, what did you study at university? Did you have a set plan for your career trajectory after graduation?
At 18, you didn’t really know what to do with life. When I picked my degree, I didn’t have a career goal in mind. Instead, I thought about what subjects I might be good at and enjoy. At high school, I was quite good at maths and science. On the other hand, I was terrible at writing, as English was my second language – I came to Australia when I was 11 and I didn’t receive any special support at my high school. So I ruled out humanities and social sciences, because that involved a lot of writing. I didn’t pick science, because I heard scientists don’t get paid very much in Australia. So I chose commerce as the compromise candidate, as it involved some maths and not too much writing.
Initially, my plan for my career trajectory after graduation was to become an investment banker and earn a lot of money. I figured since I was studying finance (because it involved numbers), I might as well try to get rich. Then 2008 Global Financial Crisis happened, and I wasn’t so sure any more. The unethical banking behaviours that were exposed at the time really got to me. I also wasn’t sure about the 100-hour work week that I kept hearing about. Besides, I got a bit bored by finance subjects, but really became interested in international relations subjects, despite my perception that writing was not my forte.
I still didn’t know what I wanted to at that point. But I heard that public service has great work-life balance, in contrast to the finance industry. So I applied for a few public service graduate jobs. Back then, I knew very little about the public service. I have never heard of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and I didn’t know the difference between Treasury and Finance. I didn’t even know there is ministerial staff separate from the public servants. Yet somehow, I got offered a job at Treasury. So began my 8-year-long public service career.
Although even now I still think about becoming a physicist and mathematician every now and then…
You’ve had a fascinating career in both government and academic sectors. Was transitioning from your government policy advisory role to working as a researcher at ANU an adjustment?
Luckily for me, it wasn’t too much of an adjustment for me to go from public service to university. Before leaving the public service, I had a lot of contact with academics, through organising and hosting seminars and roundtables, while I was at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. So I knew what I was in for this time around. Besides, almost everyone told me that my personality was more suited to academia than public service.
I took a significant pay cut. One of the reasons why I made the transition was that I did not have any encumbrance. I had no mortgage and no dependents. Otherwise, the transition would be a lot harder, finance-wise.
In the public service, you are usually discouraged from expressing your opinion too openly and forcefully. Of course, criticising the government or government policy in the public domain is a big no-no. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I decided to leave – I wanted freedom to engage with public discussions and debates critically without having to worry about what my boss in the public service felt.
Even though I was more outspoken than most public servants, I still struggled to express myself assertively. Even now, I have strong reservations about stating what I think directly, without also stating the contexts and nuances around it. I still refuse to make predictions, but instead use words like “may” and “could”.
I really enjoy my new work. I can do my own research and writing instead of writing talking points for others, many of which I can’t say I believed in. But I did learn a lot from my eight years in the public service, and I consider it extremely valuable experience. I would highly encourage people to give it a try.
Tell us about your current role as the co-editor of China Neican. What does your role entail?
First: Great news! China Policy Centre has partnered with ANU’s Australian Centre on China in the World to launch the China Story blog, the next evolution of the China Neican newsletter. The China Story blog is dedicated to publishing short analysis and commentary across the spectrum of China issues.
As an editor of China Neican newsletter and the new China Story Blog, my role can be broken down into three parts. First, I write. There is the weekly China Neican. For that, throughout the week, I scan for topics from news articles, analysis, and reports. I pick the topics that we think would be interesting or relevant to policymakers. This draws heavily from my public policy experience – knowing what policymakers care about. On Sundays, Adam and I spend a few hours each writing about these topics and send the newsletter out in the evening.
Occasionally, I also write analysis or commentary on a specific topic as a whole post, rather than waiting until Sunday. I usually do this if there is a new significant development on a topic that I am very familiar with and I have something burning to say. That way, our subscribers get a more timely update.
Second, I edit the work of others. Adam and I are always on the look out for new contributors to the China Story blog. We are especially interested in contributions from under-represented voices in public debate, such as people from minority backgrounds, students and young professionals, and women. We solicit contributions, work with the contributors to edit their work, and give feedback on how their work is received after publication.
Third, there are also other works associated with China Policy Centre. For example, we organised two events last year, and we hope to do more this year. We also spend time talking to media and promoting the newsletter/blog.
What has been your greatest professional achievement so far?
Starting China Neican the day after I left the public service. Neither Adam (my co-editor) nor I expect Neican to become so big in such a short period of time. Within a week, Neican had influenced some parts of the China debate in Australia.
I didn’t have a set plan on what to do when I left the public service. As I didn’t have a job lined up straight away, I thought I would do things I’m passionate about. While I was in the public service, I used to send around a weekly update on China media articles called Neican. I really enjoyed doing that, but I wanted to do more analysis to go along with it and put forward my own opinion on these issues. I didn’t get as much opportunities as I liked to do analytical work on China while I was in the public service, so I relished the opportunity to do that once I’m outside the public service.
Adam, my co-editor, suggested that we start a newsletter. Initially, we thought it would just be a place for us to rant about China. We didn’t think many people would read our writings, so we were very pleasantly surprised by how well it was received, even from the start.
The advantages of having just two people working on it is that we can be very agile. We can easily try out new things and see if it works, and just drop it if it doesn’t. With two people, we can also keep each other accountable.
I’m very excited that China Neican has now evolved into the China Story blog. I hope through the China Story blog, we will amplify the voices of the underrepresented groups in foreign policy and national security, such as women, Asian-Australians, and young people.
Finally, what advice would you give to students and young professionals looking to pursue a career in international affairs?
1) Talk to people who share your passion.
If you talk to people who share your passion, then you already have something in common, and conversations should be easy! These people might inspire you, open your eyes to opportunities and possibilities you may not think of, and may be just present different perspectives on the topic. And I don’t mean just talking to people who are well-known in their fields. Talk to your peers and undergraduate students as well. Often young people and the new graduates are the ones with fresh thinking and not set in the existing paradigm.
This is especially important if you’re not working on your area of passion right now. It will keep you abreast of the debates and the developments. Note I didn’t use the word “network” because I don’t believe in networking for networking’s sake. You shouldn’t feel like talking to people is for some goal. In fact, even if nothing seems to have come out of it, you’ve had interesting conversations, met different people, and kept your brains engaged.
2) Jobs are like relationships. Success depends on both parties and the compatibility.
Sometimes you would be in a role where you feel like you’re not contributing much or even underperforming, despite all your efforts. Consider the possibility that the job is not a good fit for you, rather than persist. This is especially relevant for those who are conscientious and determined. But it is a problem of balance – sometimes you need to persevere for a while to see the result.