Monique Taylor: I like focusing on current events

Monique Taylor is a lecturer in the Global Political Economy track with a focus on China. We discussed her current projects, the latest developments in China, as well as her life in Australia, Singapore and Finland, and her interest in photography.

You teach a number of courses at both the bachelor's and the master's level, in the GPC program it’s for example the core courses Historical development of economic theories and Explaining the scope of differences in GPE. What do you enjoy most about being a teacher, and also what do you like about teaching at the University of Helsinki?

I'm also taking the GPE thesis seminars, which has been a great experience. The thesis seminar is one of my favourite courses because it entails one-on-one interaction and an in-depth look at each student’s research ideas. I generally like that the MA courses in the GPE track are quite small and conducted in a seminar style, which is my favourite type of teaching. The thesis seminar takes that one step further since each student presents their own research and I give more extensive individualized feedback. I teach a large bachelor course as well called Globalization and Global Governance, but I prefer the master's courses: they are smaller and I’m dealing with seasoned students, so we can take the content and discussions to the next level.

But in general, what do I like about teaching? When you're an academic, you have the teaching and the research side of the job, and the research side can be isolating at times, especially if you're doing independent research. I've always liked that I can teach as well, as it enables me to meet and interact with new students each term. And I also like keeping on top of large bodies of knowledge that often lie outside of my own relatively narrow research area. Teaching many different courses forces me to do that, so I enjoy teaching areas outside of my comfort zone a great deal. 

The interaction, and the idea of transmitting and sharing knowledge with each other are things that I appreciate about teaching. I've always had that idealistic conception of the university ever since I was very young, I loved the idea of it. Something I’ve specifically enjoyed about teaching at the University of Helsinki is gaining a Finnish/European perspective on world politics from discussions with students. I also appreciate the range of courses I’ve been able to teach, along with the strong focus on GPE at master’s level.

In your research, you specialize in the political economy of China: especially the state capitalism and political economy of state-owned enterprises in strategic sectors such as energy, IT, or communications. What are you working on right now?

Those are my traditional areas of research that I keep going back to because they remain important, contemporary, and fast-moving topics: every couple of years, there's so much I can write about and update on what has happened previously. Especially in the past decade, China has gone in quite a different direction in so many ways, so there have been many new developments to keep track of and attempt to understand.

I started my PhD. research in the 2000s, which was during a significantly different era of Chinese politics and economic development. Tracing and tracking all the changes since then has been variously fascinating, exciting, and concerning. That is something I like about focusing on current events: you can see these changes happening before your eyes that you need to get a handle on and conceptualise, which isn’t always easy. I have kept up my interest in energy security as well. The oil industry is the classic case study I write about, but I’ve also become more interested in clean energy and China's attempts at energy transition.

And then my most recent area involves exploring the concept of China's digital authoritarianism, but coming at it from a governance perspective, explaining the institutional environment for that sector, the state apparatus that supports it, and how it has changed over time. I am looking at these things in historical context: over the past 10 years, there have been significant changes in the mode of governance of some of these more strategic industries, and in general, the shift to a Party-centric mode of governance, where you have the Party actively eroding a lot of the state institutions. It has really changed the dynamic of policymaking, especially in strategic sectors. Looking at these new dynamics in relation to the internet has been both interesting and challenging.

I’m working on a book on this topic right now, and one of the chapters concerns how Beijing is attempting to regulate the technology companies in China. This issue has received coverage in business news over the past year – looking at how Beijing suddenly cracked down on a lot of tech activities after these Chinese tech companies previously enjoyed quite a lot of freedom. For instance, cryptocurrencies have been banned, fintech is being heavily regulated, the use of video games by minors has been restricted, all this kind of stuff. Beijing is pursuing a very different model of governance and regulation of the internet sector than what we see in other countries.

And then in terms of future directions, I would like to look at how China is exporting this approach, either actively or inadvertently. For instance, looking at the Digital Silk Road idea where tech companies help to build digital infrastructure, particularly in developing countries, and how these host countries are responding to it. And then the other part of this idea of exporting digital authoritarianism looks at China’s expanding efforts to set its own technical standards for digital technologies and for the internet more broadly. China has even come up with a new internet architecture called the new IP, the new internet protocol. This leads to a host of big questions: why does China want to build a new internet? What is it responding to, what will a new internet architecture entail? What will this new internet look like? And even down to these technical standards for different areas of the internet and digital technologies. This is very political stuff and I think the West is just waking up to this now: countries in the West have typically viewed technical standards as a technocratic area that is best left to private industry to figure out. Whereas China is actively engaging with this in a very politicised and top-down manner.

You are a member of the University of Helsinki Chinese Studies Research network, which co-organized a conference called China's Rise and Asia’s Response last June in cooperation with the Nordic Association for China Studies. Your contribution was titled A Governance Perspective on China's Digital Authoritarianism. Can you tell us more about the network, as well as your presentation?

The Helsinki Chinese Studies research network consists of scholars who are working on different aspects of China in different fields and disciplines: for instance, scholars from geography, cultural studies, media studies, gender studies, and so on. Professor Julie Yu-Wen Chen heads the network: she is based in the cultural studies department, and is also the director of the Helsinki Confucius Institute.

We have done events in conjunction with the Confucius Institute, and some of us within the network have worked together on research grant proposals, for instance, for Academy of Finland and Horizon Europe. I think that is something we will do more in the future: collaborative research projects, drawing on our range of expertise. Members of the network also deliver seminars – I did a book talk with the Confucius Institute. Some of us are getting more into podcasts, talking about our different China topics in that format, and also engaging in small events where we just get together occasionally and catch up.

Helsinki University hosted the virtual conference China's Rise, Asia’s Response conference last year. I contributed to that paper on China's digital authoritarianism and also chaired a panel. It was a joint conference with the Nordic Association for China Studies and the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS), and as part of that, there was also a PhD. workshop held to bring together PhD. students who are working on China throughout the Nordic world, and beyond: there were one or two students based in East Asia. I was invited to co-host the event, which was quite intense as we worked through two full days, but also a fantastic experience. Each student delivered a paper on their PhD research and received feedback from me and professor Duncan McCargo from NIAS at University of Copenhagen, who was the main organiser and co-host. We invited other scholars who had the relevant expertise, and then students would comment on each other’s work. The workshop also ran information sessions for the participating students on different aspects of the PhD. experience and career options. It was the first time I had worked this much with PhDs: I do a lot of work with MA students in world politics obviously, but not with the doctoral students here.

Last year you published an article about China's evolving energy security strategy. Russia is the second biggest exporter of crude oil to China, it has about 15 percent of the market share. Due to the Western sanctions after Russian aggression in Ukraine, there is speculation about Russia shifting its focus primarily on China. What does the Russia-China relationship look like right now, and what role does energy play within it? 

This question raises a lot of complex issues. Certainly, a lot has changed since I wrote that article last year. I think I could write another one, updating everything and making a different set of arguments – in the article I commented on the impact of the US-China trade war and the pandemic situation, but now there is a range of new dynamics around energy security.

While I’m not an expert on the China-Russia relationship, I can make a few observations based on what I know about China’s foreign policy approach. Right now, it would be interesting to know what China really thinks of how far Russia has gone with this war. There is this whole idea that Putin headed to the Winter Olympics in Beijing to speak with Xi and held off on invading Ukraine until four days after the Olympics ended. This also came on the heels of the bold ‘friendship with no limits’ joint statement between Russia and China. And obviously, China is abstaining, and Russia is vetoing UN Security Council resolutions regarding Russia's actions towards Ukraine. Early on some state-run newspapers in China made the argument that how Russia feels about the Eastern separatist parts of Ukraine is similar to China’s view of Taiwan. So maybe China was under the initial impression that the invasion would just be about securing those regions in a limited military intervention rather than an all-out invasion of the entire country with the aim of toppling the Ukrainian government. Because that really goes against the cornerstone of China's foreign policy, which is non-interference and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. And China firmly believes in that – historically, China has not been a country that goes around invading others. In the UN Ukraine is recognised as a sovereign state, whereas Taiwan is not recognised as a sovereign entity – it is still nominally part of China. In this sense, I'm surprised that China would continue to support Russia, but perhaps Beijing has gotten itself into an uncomfortable and difficult situation where they can’t easily change course. The energy factor really complicates things, as China is heavily reliant on Russian oil and gas. China is under a lot of pressure from the West to withdraw its support for Russia, so it will be interesting to see what will happen.

But regarding the energy situation, China has been importing Russian oil and gas to meet its rapidly expanding energy needs for a long time. Russia is one of the single biggest suppliers of oil to China, and up until the invasion of Ukraine, it seemed like a good hedge from Beijing’s perspective. China has decades-long energy deals with Russia along with a pipeline connection (and more planned), so there is a strong and longstanding energy partnership that I think will continue.

You are Australian, and before coming here, you also spent four years as a researcher in Singapore. What brought you to Finland, and how do you like living in Helsinki?

Those four years in Singapore were a wonderful experience. I had lived in Asia previously with my parents when I was growing up, and we visited Singapore lots of times, so it was a very familiar part of the world to me. I always knew that I'd like to get some experience working at universities abroad when I finished my PhD. Initially I looked towards Asia: Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan, and I ended with the position of postdoctoral fellow in Public Policy and Global Affairs at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. I worked in Singapore for four years there and then I decided that I would like to do a stint in Europe. Geography matters and you get a completely different worldview when you live in another region of the world. I thought it would be really enriching to gain a European perspective on world affairs.

When looking at Europe, there are some language barriers, but the Nordic universities have plenty of courses that are taught in English, which is often one of the working languages. I hadn't been to Finland prior to getting this job, but I had visited Norway and Denmark, and I knew I'd love this part of the world: the work-life balance is good, it's clean and green, and gender equality is something that is noticeable here. Finland has a lot going for it.

I have never viewed moving to a different country as daunting; I think probably most Europeans don't either since all your countries are so close together and many of you frequently move around for study and work. But Australia is so far away from almost anywhere else, that the idea of packing up and moving to another country where you don’t know anyone is sometimes seen as a big deal and quite daunting. But certainly, in academia and especially as an early to mid-career academic in a highly competitive global job market, it can really benefit your career to move overseas. I think that early experience I had of expat life with my parents when I was growing up was really beneficial for me because as an adult I view moving abroad as a natural, and almost inevitable, part of life: if you want a particular job and it's somewhere far away, just go for it. And I've been very lucky that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the places where I've had the opportunity to live and work so far.

In your free time, you like traveling and you also enjoy photography. Is there some particular place that you visited during your travels that you think is really photogenic and worth seeing?

Oh, there are so many! I don't think there's been any place in the world where I've thought there is nothing interesting to photograph here, I've always found something remarkable or beautiful to document. But I mean, even when I've read the views of professional photographers, they tend to say, and I agree, it's good natural lighting that really makes for great photographs. I think a place that has that for me is, for example, Turkey, my time spent there was incredible and it has some of the most stunning sunsets I've ever seen in my life. For me, Istanbul is a mystical place, which adds another dimension – I think I could easily spend years photographing that city. Cuba as well has interesting daily life and aesthetics to capture. Also, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and other Middle East countries have great light and colours: the clear blue skies contrasting with the rich desert hues.

Finland has been wonderful as well, even more so for nature and landscapes. And I've absolutely loved photographing the archipelago and winter scenes, the latter of which I didn't have a lot of experience with before moving here. I’ve enjoyed photographing the frozen sea, the snowstorms, the snow drift patterns on the ground, and how snow collects in the trees. So yeah, I definitely think I've taken some of my favourite photos in Finland, particularly in winter.

Monique's personal website with her publications, as well as more of her photographs can be found here.