Last summer, China unveiled a plan to become the world leader in artificial intelligence, aiming to create a $150 billion industry by 2030.

“We must take initiative to firmly grasp this new stage of development for artificial intelligence and create a new competitive edge,” the country’s State Council said. The move symbolised the technological thrust of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” promoted by President Xi Jinping.

And it’s not just AI. China is becoming increasingly important in the solution of other global problems prioritised by the effective altruism community, including biosecurity, factory farming and nuclear security. But few in the community know much about the country, and coordination between Chinese and Western organisations seems like it could be improved a great deal.

This suggests that a high-impact career path could be to develop expertise in the intersection between China, effective altruism and pressing global issues. Once you’ve attained this expertise, you can use it to carry out research into global priorities or AI strategy; work in governments setting relevant areas of China-West policy, advise Western groups on how to work together with their Chinese counterparts, and other projects that we’ll sketch below.

For this reason, we’ve added “China specialists” to the list of priority career paths we’re preparing to publish. Although there’s still much we don’t understand about this area, we think it’s an option especially worth considering if you’re aligned with the effective altruism community, have an interest in China, and are relatively good at humanities compared to quantitative skills.

In the rest of this article, we explain why understanding China is valuable. Then, we suggest concrete career steps you could take along this path, both in the short and long term, whether you have a Chinese or Western background. We’ll also explain why we don’t think outreach in China is a good idea right now.

There are already several people going down this path, but we need a lot more expertise and connections. In the next few years, it seems useful for up to 10-20 people in the community to develop significant expertise across the relevant topics.

For this reason, we recently began working with a part-time specialist advisor focused on China (Brian Tse), who co-authored this post, and can provide one-on-on-one advice, introductions to others working in this area, and help finding funding.

Speak to us one-on-one

If you’re already familiar with the effective altruism community, want to pursue this path, and you’d like to speak to our advisor, let us know here:

Speak to us

Why is it important to understand China?

China plays a crucial role in almost all of the major global problems we highlight. For instance, China is the largest foreign investor in Africa, larger than the US, which highlights its importance in global development.1 China is the largest emitter of CO2 emissions, accounting for 30% of the total,2 and the Chinese government is arguably more proactive in increasing energy efficiency than the US.3 China recently became the largest consumer of factory farmed meat.4

In the areas of global catastrophic risk and emerging technology, China has an even more central role. It’s one of the most important nuclear and military powers. As the largest trading partner of North Korea, China plays an especially important role in reducing the chance of conflict on the Korean peninsula, making it vital within nuclear security. As home to nearly 20% of the world’s population,5 it will play a central role in mitigating pandemics.

Meanwhile, China is increasingly a leader in developing new technologies. Beijing is widely seen as a serious competitor to Silicon Valley,6 and is the major source of non-US “unicorns”.7 After the US and UK, it’s probably the next most important country in developing and shaping transformative AI (the UK is only a contender because DeepMind happens to be headquartered in London). 8

This all means it’s difficult to understand the scale and urgency of these problems without understanding the situation in China. What’s more, it’ll be difficult to solve any of these global problems without better coordination between Western groups and their Chinese equivalents.

At the same time, China is one of the least well-understood countries in the West. For instance, I (Ben) studied history for 13 years at school, but didn’t study a single module of Chinese history.

Interest in China has grown in the last decade, and my school added a module on Chinese history soon after I left. But interest in China still lags well behind many other countries. For instance, in American colleges and universities, the number of students studying French is three times larger than those studying Chinese,9 while the starting level of cultural difference is larger. There is a similar degree of interest in Japanese, despite China’s population being 10 times larger.10

The situation seems to be the same within the “effective altruism” community: a global movement that we helped to start, which aims to use evidence and reason to search for the most effective ways to do good in the world.

Many key organisations in the community want to better understand China to inform their work. For instance, the Open Philanthropy Project has recently funded several organisations doing work in China (covered later), and representatives of many of the AI risk research organisations have attended conferences in China.

However, these organisations struggle to find people who combine an in-depth knowledge of effective altruism with knowledge of China’s culture and role in key global problems. They also struggle to find people connected to relevant Chinese experts. This suggests that people who want to coordinate with the community could play a valuable role by providing these kinds of expertise and connections.

Which topics are most important to understand within effective altruism in China?

At 80,000 Hours, we think the most pressing global issues often relate to global catastrophic risks and emerging technology, and they are also where China is relatively most important, so we think this is where the most important topics lie.

What follows are some specific topics we’d like to see more people gain relevant expertise in. These are all vital issues to understand in the US and UK as well, but the intersection with these issues and China is particularly neglected.

AI safety and strategy

Safely managing the introduction of transformative AI requires global coordination, and it won’t be possible to achieve this without an understanding of China, and coordination with Chinese organisations. This means understanding issues like:

  • What is the state of AI development in China?

  • What attitudes do Chinese computer scientists have towards AI safety and their social responsibility? Who is most influential?

  • How does the Chinese government shape its technology policy? What attitudes does it have towards AI safety and regulation in particular?

  • What actions are likely to be taken by the Chinese government and companies concerning AI safety?

(Read more about AI strategy and policy.)

Biorisk

We want to answer the equivalent questions for AI safety with biorisk. For instance:

  • What is the state of synthetic biology research in China?

  • What attitudes do Chinese biology researchers have towards safety and social responsibility?

  • How does government technology policy relate to the risks from this technology?

Chinese culture

Working with Chinese organisations on any topic requires an awareness of Chinese culture, history and current affairs, as well as good intuitions about how each side will react to different messages and proposals. This involves understanding issues like:

  • What are Chinese attitudes towards doing good and social impact?

  • If you wanted to make connections with Chinese people interested in working on major global challenges, what messages should you espouse, and what pitfalls might you face? How does professional networking function in China in general?

  • What are Chinese attitudes to philanthropy? Who are the most influential figures in philanthropy? Who might be amenable to a more evidence-based style of giving?

We expect that fully understanding these topics will require deep familiarity with Chinese values, worldviews, history, customs, and so on – noting, of course, that these also vary substantially across the country. This type of familiarity is generally best built up based on lived experience in a place, rather than based on desk research or a small number of conversations; we see this as one of several reasons that spending significant time in China is likely to be valuable.

We also need people with outstanding skills in written and spoken communication in Chinese.

International coordination and foreign policy

Improving coordination between Chinese and foreign governments can help with the management of many types of catastrophic risk, and many other issues.

  • How, when and why does China provide public goods globally?

  • What do China’s new foreign NGO and domestic charity laws mean for its international collaboration on global causes?

  • What are China’s foreign policy priorities, and how is it likely to handle the possibility of global catastrophic risks?

  • How can coordination between the West and China be increased, and the chance of conflict be decreased?

  • How should Western government policy concerning catastrophic risks relate to Chinese policy?

Other global problems

Outside of global catastrophic risks and global priorities research, many of the key organisations working to reduce factory farming are expanding rapidly into China, so expertise in China and factory farming is also useful.

Among the global problems we tend to focus on, knowledge of China seems comparatively least important within global health and development. This is because China is not as important a player in international aid and global health, so the community is able to make headway without as much China-related expertise. It also seems easier to find people who are already experts on the intersection of China and development policy than with the topics listed above.

Knowledge of and connections with effective altruism

With everything listed above, we’re not only looking for people who understand these topics, but also people who combine this with an effective altruism approach to doing good. This means trying to help all people equally (cosmopolitanism), trying to identify the most effective ways to help, aiming to have well-calibrated judgements and justifying them with evidence and reason. We find these attitudes are quite rare, especially in foreign policy, which is often focused on national interest and driven by gut judgements.

Similarly, it’s important for people to have connections and trust with the existing effective altruism community, so you can inform them about China and help coordinate their efforts. Even if you have a great deal of knowledge of China already, and while we want anyone involved who is committed to our ideas, if you can’t speak the language of effective altruism, then it’s difficult for the organisations to use your assessments of Chinese issues.

With that in mind, the list below suggests some ways to do two things at once; to develop expertise in relevant Chinese topics while also getting more involved in the rest of the community.

How many people does the community need?

Our rough guess is that it would be useful for there to be at least ten people in the community with good knowledge in this area within the next few years.

By “good knowledge” we mean they’ve spent at least 3 years studying these topics and/or living in China.

We chose ten because that would be enough for several people to cover each of the major areas listed (e.g. 4 within AI, 2 within biorisk, 2 within foreign relations, 1 in another area).

Getting to this point probably requires a significantly wider network of people in the area, and for many more people to experiment with this path. So, it could be reasonable for 30+ people to seriously experiment with this path, and to aim to build a network of over 100 people within the next two years.

Longer term, there will likely be a need for many more people with a knowledge of China, as new organisations and projects get founded, and hire staff.

We don’t want to do “outreach” in China

In the early days of 80,000 hours, we made many mistakes doing outreach in the UK and USA, which have been difficult to unwind.

For instance, even today many people think 80,000 Hours is primarily about earning to give, despite us saying many times we don’t think earning to give is typically the highest-impact option.

When we start talking about effective altruism in China, people often assume that this means we want to go and persuade people in China to become “effective altruists”, and perhaps start donating to effective charities.

But we don’t see building a broad-based effective altruism community in China as a key priority, and in fact see these efforts as likely unhelpful.

First, any kind of broad-based outreach is risky because it’s hard to reverse. Once your message is out there, it tends to stick around for years, so if you get the message wrong, you’ve harmed years of future efforts. We call this the risk of “lock in.” Lock in is partly caused because once there are websites and media articles about you, they stick around. But it’s also because first impressions are difficult to shift.

China also presents more risks than most countries due to government censorship and the one-party system, which is often wary of non-governmental groups that try to bring about grassroots change. If an organisation is blacklisted, then that’s a nearly irreversible set back.

Second, not only is mass outreach hard to reverse, it also seems especially easy to promote an unhelpful message in China.

One reason is that Chinese culture is pretty different from the West, so the best way to discuss issues may well be different too. For example, Chinese writing is much more likely to involve historical references or quotes than the Western equivalents. Rather than quote Peter Singer, one might consider quoting Mozi — arguably the earliest consequentialist philosopher in history who in around 400 BC wrote about the importance of “universal concern” (兼愛) towards all people.

Existing English language materials are also unsuitable because they focus on the wrong topics. Many materials in the West focus on the value of donating to charities in Africa, but internationally focused philanthropy is much rarer in China, and the Chinese government has prohibited foreign nonprofit organisations fundraising in the country.11 Moreover, it’s not the key priority — what’s needed is a good understanding of China rather than funding.

We’ve also found significant problems in our attempts to translate Chinese materials so far. For instance, the direct translation of “effective altruism” that was initially used (有效利他主义):

  1. Used a term for “altruism” that implied a great deal of self-sacrifice.
  2. Sounds obviously foreign, which we expect would make it less appealing.
  3. Sounds like a political ideology, which may not be viewed positively by the government.

Likewise, one of the possible translations of “existential risk” (生存危机) is very close to the name of a computer game (生化危机), so doesn’t have the credibility one might want.

Third, we don’t think mass outreach is the ideal way to promote effective altruism in the West either. This is because the ideas of effective altruism are unusually complex, and the media tends to oversimplify them. We think it’s better to focus on in-person discussions, or if written materials are used, then books, academic articles and podcasts rather than short-form content are preferable. Read more.

Putting all this together, if there is going to be a Chinese equivalent of effective altruism in the future, then the materials would need to be home-grown: developed from scratch by people with a deep understanding of China. Acting quickly with existing materials is likely to lock in poor messaging, and spoil future efforts.

Rather than focus on outreach, our priority is to better understand and coordinate with China. We want to do this by making a small number of strong connections with experts. Instead of creating irreversible risks, this strategy better serves the short-term priorities around global catastrophic risks, where knowledge is the key bottleneck.

How can you start a career in this area?

If you want to gain expertise in the topics above and effective altruism, what are some good ways to start?

We commissioned Brian Tse to do several weeks of research in Chinese careers. He combined this research process with his own educational experiences at Tsinghua University and University of Hong Kong, as well as projects with the Open Philanthropy Project on farm animal welfare, Good Food Institute, Future of Humanity Institute and Foundational Research Institute on topics related to China. He has also worked with J.P. Morgan in Hong Kong and an AI startup in Beijing. Based on this very preliminary work, we’ve made a list of options that seem especially promising.

Broadly, the aim is to get a useful combination of the following as quickly as possible:

  1. Knowledge of the intersection of China and an important global issue, such as the topics listed earlier.
  2. Knowledge of and connections with the effective altruism community.
  3. A general understanding of Chinese language and culture. This probably requires spending at least a year living in China.

What follows is a list of specific career steps you can take to gain the above. Most people should pursue a combination depending on their existing expertise, and personal fit.

We think it’s both useful for people who grew up in China and in the West to pursue this path. It would be great to have more Chinese people involved in the effective altruism community, and for more existing community members to learn about China.

Get involved in the effective altruism community

It’s important to understand and have connections with the effective altruism community in the West, especially the organisations that do work relevant to China.

If you’re new to the community, then the best way to start making connections is to attend an Effective Altruism Global conference in San Francisco or London. We list more ways to get involved here.

Beyond this, it would be ideal to spend time working or interning in one of the relevant organisations. See a list of organisations and a guide to getting jobs at them in our career review.

It might be possible to get funding for people with knowledge of China to do placements in Western organisations. For people especially focused on China, there is also a WeChat group for the Chinese-speaking community with around 100 members, and local meet ups in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei. If you contact us at the end of this post, we can make introductions to these groups.

Apply to these top scholarships

We’re aware of two “Chinese Rhodes scholarships”, in which you study China-relevant topics for one year at a top university, while being introduced to an influential network. These are extremely competitive, but worth considering if you have strong undergraduate qualifications and some kind of impressive extracurricular achievement.

The first is the Schwarzman Scholarship, which is based at Tsinghua University. See our separate write up.

The second is called the Yenching Scholarship, which is based at Peking University. Yenching offers more courses in humanities and seemingly has a greater engagement with Chinese literature relative to Schwarzman.

These are open to both Chinese citizens and people of other nationalities. People from both backgrounds can benefit from gaining an influential network in China and studying Chinese international affairs.

Do relevant graduate study

Outside of these highly competitive scholarships, there are many relevant graduate programmes, starting with Masters programmes then leading to PhDs.

Which subjects?

If you want to work on issues around future technology, then it might be better to simply study something like synthetic biology or machine learning, and then increase your China-focus later.

Alternatively, you could start studying economics, international relations and security studies, with a focus on China. Ideally, you can also focus on issues like emerging technologies, conflict and international coordination.

It’s also useful to have a general knowledge of Chinese language, history and politics.

All of these subjects are useful, so we’d recommend putting significant weight on personal fit in choosing between them. Some will also better keep your options open, such as economics and machine learning. See our general advice on choosing graduate programmes.

Which country?

Once you’ve chosen a programme that’s a good fit, our guess is that it’s generally best to aim to go to the highest-ranked university possible, whether that’s in the West or China, rather than specifically aiming to study in China. It’s probably more useful to gain an impressive credential than spend time living in China, since there are many other ways to do that.

An alternative is to look for a joint programme, such as the Dual Degree offered by Johns Hopkins SAIS and the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University. John Hopkins is highly ranked for policy masters, so this course combines a good credential with the opportunity to study in China.

If you don’t yet have many connections with the effective altruism community, then you could also use graduate study as an opportunity to gain these, by being based in one of the main hubs, including the San Francisco Bay Area, London, Oxford, Cambridge and Boston.

If you’re a Chinese citizen, then you can also consider:

Think tank research roles

Think tank roles can let you learn about relevant areas of Chinese policy, while also offering a good general purpose early career step for people who want a social impact. If you decide against working on China, then you can switch into other policy areas later.

One promising option is to work at a Western think tank studying issues relevant to Chinese technology and global catastrophic risk policy. There will be opportunities to work on China-related areas at many think tanks, but some focus more on the most relevant topics. For instance, Brookings Institution and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace were both funded by the Open Philanthropy Project.

Beyond that, it could also be useful to work on anything concerning international coordination and foreign policy, such as the U.S.-China Relations Independent Task Force of The Council on Foreign Relations and the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. Another option is to work at a U.S.-China joint partnership institution such as Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy by applying to their Global Intern Program in Beijing.

If you’re a Chinese citizen, you could aim to work in a top Chinese think tank, such as the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to enter roles in Chinese think tanks if you’re not a Chinese citizen.

You can read more about think tank roles in our separate profile.

Work in another policy or politics position in your home country, focused on Chinese-relevant policy

Besides think tank jobs, you can also take other early career policy positions, such as in government, political parties, or influencer roles like journalism, to establish your career. Then, over time you can specialise more and more in China-relevant issues.

For instance, you could work in a relevant government agency and specialise in China-related issues (e.g. see our list of agencies in the UK), you could advise a politician on technology or foreign policy, or you could work in technology or foreign affairs journalism.

This path has significant flexibility, since it would be easy to switch into other policy issues if you decide not to focus on China.

Learn Chinese in China

Although Chinese takes about four times longer to learn than most European languages for native English speakers,12 if you study effectively, it’s possible to get to conversational fluency in 6-18 months of full-time study.

Our guess is that if you want a career involving China, this is probably worth your time. Many people in China don’t speak any English, and although high school and college students are required to study English, many are only proficient in reading rather than speaking. Being able to speak Chinese makes it easier to make friends and demonstrates your interest in the country. So although translation apps are improving rapidly, we expect it’s still going to be worth it.

Written Chinese, as you might use in business, however, seems to take at least several years of hard study, because there’s a significant difference between conversational and formal Chinese. This makes the question of whether or not it’s worthwhile much less obvious (though it might be required for certain options).

How can you learn most effectively? Most classroom teaching is pretty inefficient compared to what’s possible. I managed to learn 2-3 times faster than what is typical by doing the following, and I’ve seen others do the same:

  • Live in China while you learn, and ideally aim to speak Chinese 100% of the time. If possible, aim to do full-time study.
  • Focus on one-on-one conversation as much as possible, since then you’re directly deliberately practicing the most relevant skill, and the most useful vocab. You can get a one-on-one tutor for around $10/hour.
  • Learn vocabulary with a spaced-repetition app like Memrise or Anki, where you focus on the most commonly used words, and the words that you find yourself most often using, rather than what you’ll find in common syllabuses.

It’s easiest to start in a university language course, perhaps ideally in a prestigious university, such as Peking University. Alternatively, you could go to a place that specialises in teaching foreigners, such as the Beijing Language and Culture University.

These typically involve 3 hours of classes per day in the morning, with the afternoon free for learning vocab, homework, one-on-one lessons, and conversations with Chinese friends or other students. I did this for 3 months in Beijing and Dalian and found it really fun. After you settle in, you could switch to 100% one-on-one practice, which is more efficient.

These courses typically cost about $300-500 per month, depending on the intensity and duration of the program,13 plus in Beijing or Shanghai you might need $1200/month of living expenses. If you’re willing to live in a second-tier city such as Xian, Chongqing and Wuhan, then your costs could be about halved.14 If you’re still at university, it’s often possible to do a semester abroad as part of your course.

Alternatively, you can also consider intensive language programs offered by places such as CET, IUP, Middlebury and ACC. These are generally seen as the industry leaders. They are more expensive, and don’t give you the brand a university, but are generally considered to let you learn faster, due to smaller classes and language pledges.

Some particularly good resources on language learning include:

Work as a foreign journalist writing about China-relevant issues

If you can specialise in a relevant area, then you can build up expertise while building a good network.

For those already proficient in Mandarin and with a China-related degree from a top university, such as China Studies or International Relations with a focus on East Asia, you may wish to consider working as a foreign correspondent in China.

English-language news agencies such as Reuters, the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg maintain large bureaus in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong and often hire younger journalists.

Most major international publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The Financial Times also have a smaller but significant presence in the same cities where you can apply for internships. A fresh graduate would expect to intern for about half a year before finding a full-time position.

Alternatively, it is often easier to find work at China-based English-language publications where you can do original journalism such as the South China Morning Post (which has a graduate scheme), Caixin Media or Sixth Tone.

We do not recommend working for Chinese state media, as there will be few opportunities to create original content and most work will likely be polishing articles translated from English.

We wouldn’t recommend directly writing about effective altruism in China due to the issues with mass outreach noted earlier.

Work in top Chinese companies or the Chinese office of a top Western company, especially in technology

We suspect you’ll learn about relevant issues faster in the think tank roles above. However, if you want to spend more time in China, then another option is to work in a company in China.

If you pick a high-performance company, such as a top startup, then you’ll develop transferable skills, while learning about China at the same time.

Another advantage of this path is that you could follow it into earning to give. Since Chinese charities can often only be funded by Chinese citizens, in the long-term there will be a need for Chinese citizens earning to give.

The corporate path is also especially useful if you can work in an industry relevant to the most pressing global issues, such as AI and biotechnology, so you can make connections in that area.

This suggests aiming to work in Chinese technology companies. Recently, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology identified Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent – collectively known as BAT – and voice intelligence specialist iFlyTek as the ‘national team’ to lead the country’s AI efforts.15 Baidu will focus on developing autonomous driving technologies; Alibaba on smart cities; Tencent on computer vision for medical diagnosis; and iFlyTek on voice intelligence. So if you have a background in the relevant areas of AI and computer science research, you should consider working at these research groups, and their academic collaborations (e.g. the National Engineering Laboratory of Deep Learning and Application).

Of these, previously Baidu (especially its Institute of Deep Learning) was considered the leader in AI in China, but now Tencent is widely seen as having the lead.

Some of the less central AI research groups include: Microsoft Asia Research, SenseTime/Face++ (both leading players in facial recognition in China), Mobvoi (received Google’s first direct investment as a Chinese company in the past six years), Ubtech (has the most intellectual patents in the humanoid service robotic industry), iCarbonX (became a unicorn in less than 6 months since being founded). The latter three companies were selected in the The AI 100 2017 list published by the investment institute CB Insights.

You could also work in promising Chinese startups. Y Combinator has started to admit Chinese companies, starting with Strikingly in 2013. You could also target those that have been funded by top Chinese VCs, such as Sequoia Capital China, Sinovation Ventures and Chinaccelerator. Read more about startup jobs. That said, there is still much more startup expertise in Silicon Valley, so if you have the choice between the two, it might be best to train in Silicon Valley before switching to China.

If you do not have a technical background, it is also possible to work at these AI groups and startups in roles such as business development, operations and marketing.

In all cases, the aim would be to learn about China and make relevant connections, rather than push any particular agenda.

There are many other places you could work outside of technology, even if the connections will be less useful. For instance, you could aim to work at the Chinese office of a top Western consultancy, finance or professional services firm. This offers many of the standard benefits of this path — namely a prestigious credential, flexibility, and general professional development — while also letting you learn about China. We’ve heard some claims that your career might advance faster if you start in London or New York, but this advantage seems to be shrinking due to the increasingly greater opportunities and importance of Asia. Another consideration is that except Hong Kong, salaries are generally lower in China even at international firms.

If you want to focus on earning to give, then the highest-earning options probably involve working in finance in Hong Kong, such as in quantitative trading. Hong Kong is one of the world’s largest financial centres, and also has a very low tax rate of around 15%. Unfortunately, Hong Kong is culturally quite different, so you won’t learn as much about the mainland unless you make a substantial effort.

Work in philanthropy in China

It’s useful to learn about philanthropy in China to understand attitudes to doing good, and it’s also useful to make connections with Chinese philanthropists.

One career option here is to work at research institutions dedicated to the topic of philanthropy in China, such as:

You could also find a list of other philanthropy research centres on the site of Global Chinese Philanthropy Initiative.

There are also Western foundations that work in China, such as the Berggruen Institute, Ford Foundation and Gates Foundation.

You could also attend relevant conferences. For instance, if you’re a social entrepreneur interested in China, you could attend a Nexus Global Youth Summit in the region. It’s a network that brings together young philanthropists and social entrepreneurs. If you would like to learn more about the latest development of Chinese philanthropy, you could attend the Chinese Global Philanthropy Rising Conference by the Global Chinese Philanthropy Initiative in the U.S., Chinese and Chinese American Philanthropy Summit by Asia Society in Hong Kong, and Hurun Global Conferences China Philanthropy Summit (胡润全球领袖论坛中国慈善峰会) by Hurun Report in Beijing.

Before pursuing these options, it might be useful to first learn about best practices in Western philanthropy, perhaps by working at the Open Philanthropy Project, GiveWell, or other strategic philanthropy organisations.

Teach English in China

What’s the easiest job for someone smart but lazy? The top answer to this question on Quora claims that it’s teaching English in China.

Huge demand for English teachers mean that this option is open to most native English college graduates. These positions typically pay $15,000-$30,000 per year, include accommodation, and might only require 4 hours per day of work. For instance, you get a monthly salary of $2,100-2,800 per month during a typical 1-year program offered by First Leap. Job benefits include work visa sponsorship arrangement, flight to China and settling-in allowance of up to $1,500. Another program, Teach in China, offers $900-1,800 per month in compensation but also provides rent-free housing and can be pursued for just one semester. This is more than enough to live in a small Chinese city, and you can earn more if you do private tutoring.

This option won’t get you equally useful skills and connections as the options above, but you will be able to learn about Chinese culture, and study Chinese language at the same time.

Build a network in China

Many jobs offer you some opportunity to build connections in China as part of your regular job. For instance, you could volunteer to work on Chinese-relevant projects, or attend Chinese-focused conferences. If you’re an academic, you could aim to collaborate with Chinese researchers.

Some past examples include:

  • World Intelligence Congress, the first international AI convention in China, which aims to encourage international cooperation among global experts in the field. It was hosted by the Ministry of Science and Technology among other highest government authorities in China. Speakers include Jack Ma from Alibaba, Robin Li from Baidu and Nick Bostrom from The Future of Humanity Institute. The conference was held in Tianjin in June 2017.

  • World Conference on Farm Animal Welfare, jointly hosted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Cooperation Committee of Animal Welfare (ICCAW). The theme of the conference is to “advance farm animal welfare, promote sustainable development, advocate ethical consumption” and are attended by international organisations, government agencies, animal welfare experts and livestock industry stakeholders. It will be held in October this year.

  • You could also find a list of major conferences in China on this site.

Other prestigious options often pursued by talented Chinese citizens

Here are some more options often pursued by talented Chinese citizens, though they’re directly less relevant to our list of the most pressing global problems, so we don’t think they’re as useful.

  • Foundations: For instance, work at the Gates Foundation’s China office on domestic health and development as well as promising interventions such as tobacco tax policy.

  • International organisations: Some examples include IFC under World Bank Group and UNDP China office.

  • Teaching accelerator schemes: Working at Chinese poverty alleviation and rural education charities such as Serve for China (黑土麦田) and Teach for China (美丽中国).

  • Social entrepreneurship accelerator schemes: If you are a social entrepreneur, it would be useful to get into programs such as Harvard SEED Fellowship (哈佛社会创新种子社区) and Yiqiao Fellowship (益桥伙伴) with access to local resources, connections and mentorship.

  • Top non-profits: Working at Tencent Charity and China Development Brief (中国发展简报) to encourage public charitable giving and support the development sector.

  • Government position leadership schemes: For example, working at the governmental agency State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development (国务院扶贫办) to implement policy for poverty alleviation.

  • Joining bootcamps: e.g. programming bootcamps such as Le Wagon with programs in Shanghai and Chengdu (ranked #1 on SwitchUp).

If you already have knowledge of China and effective altruism, get in touch

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Here are some examples of the type of work that’s needed, or might be needed in the future.

  • Advise Western organisations in the community, such as the Open Philanthropy Project and Future of LIfe Institute, on how to connect with relevant Chinese groups.

  • Do research into the topics listed earlier (some institutes where you can do this research listed below).

  • Help other effective altruism community members improve their connections in and knowledge of China.

  • Work in a relevant area of government and policy, and help to develop or implement better policies concerning China and pressing global problems.

  • Advise Chinese philanthropists.

  • Set up Chinese counterparts to Western organisations (e.g. the first AI safety lab), or branches of Western organisations (e.g. a Beijing version of Founder’s Pledge).

A list of Chinese and Western organisations working on China-related issues in top problem areas

What follows is a list of specific organisations to consider aiming to work at.

AI safety and strategy

Our top recommendation right now is the Future of Humanity Institute, which is advertising an AI Policy and Governance Internship, which requires “expertise in Chinese language skills and Chinese politics”.

Currently, there are no Chinese organisations that explicitly work on long-term AI safety, so it might be best to work in one of the top Chinese AI labs, as listed earlier.

We also listed the groups which seem most relevant for shaping the direction of AI development in China from short-term perspective:

If you’re Chinese, it might also make sense to work in Western companies on AI safety, such as OpenAI and DeepMind, and then help introduce AI safety research to China.

Read about other organisations in our full profile.

Biorisk reduction

If focused on existential risks from engineered pandemics, we don’t know any organisations explicitly focusing on the importance of China in this area, but you could aim to work at a Western organisation and apply your expertise in China. The Future of Humanity Institute and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk are good contenders, as well as any of the Open Philanthropy Project’s grantees in this area. We would especially highlight Carnegie Endowment for International Peace which is partially funded to look into the Chinese perspectives on biosecurity risks associated with advances in biotechnology, and The Nuclear Threat Initiative which also does work related to China.

Within conventional pandemics (as opposed to engineered pandemics), some options that are especially China-focused include:

  • Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC): appears to be the most important institution working on this problem in the country. The Chinese Field Epidemiology Training Program seems to be a promising option to get your foot in the door. There is also a one-year Western Chinese Field Epidemiology Training Program that was launched in 2016, aiming to increase the epidemiologic capacity in the Western provinces of China.
  • Center for Bio-safety Research and Strategy of Tianjin University: Established in 2016, it is the first non-governmental think tank in China to conduct bio-safety related strategy and policy research and the country’s first NGO to participate at Biological Weapons Convention.
  • World Health Organisation’s China office: It does post-SARS work on emerging disease surveillance and response. Its oversight organisation WHO in Western Pacific Region also developed the framework Asia Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases to respond to emerging disease threats.

Read about other organisations in our full profile.

Nuclear security

One promising option we’re aware of that has a China focus is the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which hosts the Beijing Seminar on International Security, bringing together experts from China and around the world to discuss nuclear security topics. It also collaborated with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations to organise a nuclear smuggling simulation exercise to highlight how China and the U.S. could strengthen cooperation to prevent or respond to a nuclear smuggling incident.

Another promising option is the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. It’s based in Beijing and has the Nuclear Policy Program as one of its research focuses.

Another option we know less about is the Chinese State Nuclear Security Technology Center: jointly constructed by the China Atomic Energy Authority and the U.S. Department of Energy, it is the largest nuclear program to receive direct funding from both Chinese and US governments. The center aims to improve international cooperation on nuclear security and has the capacity to train about 2,000 nuclear security staff from China and other Asia-Pacific nations each year.

Read about other organisations in our full profile.

Factory farming

If you’re focused on factory farming, consider working at a Chinese animal welfare organisation.

All of the following groups have received grants from Open Philanthropy Project.

Based on our knowledge on their interventions and effectiveness in China, our top recommendations are:

  • Compassion in World Farming (“Compassion”): focuses on corporate engagement work in China, for example through its Good Pig, Good Chicken and Good Egg Production Awards
  • World Animal Protection: has a well-established humane slaughter program and currently focuses on engaging food companies on higher-welfare pig production
  • The Good Food Institute is currently hiring for a Managing Director of China, as well as science and market landscape research interns to look into China.

Other groups:

  • The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA): works with a government agency to advance China’s first comprehensive animal welfare standards
  • Humane Slaughter Association (HSA): translates its guides on humane practices to Chinese and publicizes the translated publications in Chinese agriculture industry magazines
  • The Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education at the University of Edinburgh: sends international animal welfare experts to visit China to work collaboratively with different stakeholders, such as ICCAW, large-scale producers and technical staff
  • The Animal Welfare Standards Project: brings international animal welfare experts to China to promote the implementation of scientifically supported higher welfare standards
  • Green Monday: runs a pilot project on meat reduction in China, spreading the pledge to eat a plant-based diet on Mondays
  • Brighter Green: raises awareness in China about the consequences of factory farming on both animal welfare, environmental and food security concerns through documentary production and workshops
  • WildAid: expands its meat reduction PSA campaigns with celebrity support and donated media

Organisations such as Mercy for Animals and ProVeg International are hiring as they expand in China.

Animal Charity Evaluators have told us that they may be interested in having volunteers analyse animal charities in China.

If you are Chinese, it would be worth looking into volunteer opportunities with local groups such as International Cooperation Committee of Animal Welfare, Good Food Academy (良食大学) and Universities and Colleges Vegetarian Association (高校素盟).

To get these positions, you’d probably need both knowledge of China and animal advocacy, and you might want to build the latter in the West by doing part-time advocacy.

Who are China careers a good fit for?

Compared to our other priority paths, who should especially consider this option?

If you have strong quantitative and research skills, then it’s likely better to focus more directly on AI strategy or technical research; biorisk research; global priorities research, or maybe even decision-making research (though you could combine these with a China focus). You could also consider earning to give in quantitative trading.

If you have a deep interest in effective altruism, a well-rounded skill set and are good at getting things done, then it’s likely better to focus on grantmaking, operations and other high-priority positions in effective altruism and global catastrophic risk focused organisations. You could also try to enter AI and biorisk policy in the US.

Focusing on the China expertise path seems relatively most attractive if you have an interest in China and a humanities research skill-set.

You need to be able to develop your expertise in China and effective altruism to at least the point where Western organisations would want to seek your advice.

If you’re not sure about your level of interest, then you could study in China for a month, or do some other kind of short visit or project, to see how interesting you find it. We may be able to help you find funding to cover this.

You could then pursue one of the more flexible paths listed above — such as graduate study (especially in economics), good early career policy positions (think tank researcher, staffer, government leadership schemes), or work in technology companies — with the intention of focusing on China. But, if that doesn’t work out, you’ll have good back-up options elsewhere in policy, research, earning to give and so on.

Focusing on this path is also more attractive if you’re more focused on issues around global catastrophic risks, emerging technology and factory farming, rather than global health.

If you are a Chinese citizen, then it would be best if you are already significantly involved in the effective altruism community in the West, and ideally have volunteered or interned with some of the organisations in the community.

What about Russia and India?

Many of the arguments above could also be made about Russia and India rather than China. So, we agree that becoming an expert in these countries and pressing global problems could also be a high-impact path.

However, we see Russia as less important than China because it has a weaker technology industry, so isn’t nearly as likely to play a central role in AI or biotech development. It also has a much smaller economy and population in general, and hasn’t been growing at anywhere near the rate of China, so seems less likely to be a central global power in the future.

Likewise, we see India as also significantly less likely to play a leading role in shaping new technologies than China. The existence of many English speakers in India also means there are more people able to fill the knowledge gap already, reducing the need for additional specialists.

All considered, we haven’t listed “Russia specialist” or “India specialist” in our priority paths, though either option could still be worth pursuing if you have a strong comparative advantage in the path.

Next steps

China will likely be one of the most important countries in shaping the 21st century, but it’s still poorly understood in the West. We still have a lot to learn about careers in China, but we hope this post gives you some concrete options to help you start.

If you’re interested, speak to us

If you already have a little background in effective altruism (e.g. have attended EAG or a local group), then our new China specialist, Brian Tse, can offer one-on-one advice, introductions and help finding funding.

Speak to us

Otherwise, we’d suggest first getting more involved in effective altruism in general, and then working towards this option in the future.

Notes and references

  1. According to the report Attractiveness Program Africa published by Ernst & Young in May 2017, China made the biggest amount in FDI capital investment and created the greatest number of jobs via FDI globally in 2016. Note that in terms of the number of FDI projects, China stood as the third largest country behind the U.S. and France. The figures of the report are sourced from fDi Markets, a service provided by the Financial Times.
  2. Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres, R.J. (2017). “National CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning, Cement Manufacture, and Gas Flaring: 1751-2014”, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Archived link, retrieved 24-Aug-2017. For a clear illustration of the data, see the chart “2014 Global CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning Combustion and Some Industrial Processes”. Archived link, retrieved 24-Aug-2017.

    The same figure was used by the Chinese media company Sina in reporting the Paris Agreement meeting in 2015.
  3. According to a report released by US-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, China accounted for half of the US$2.2tn investment in energy efficiency during 2016.
  4. Source: OECD (2017), Meat consumption (indicator). doi: 10.1787/fa290fd0-en (Accessed on 24 August 2017). From the data, the U.S. consumes roughly twice as much meat per capita than China. Given that China has about 4 times the population as the U.S., China consumes twice as much meat than the U.S. in aggregate. Being the largest global consumer, China eats about a quarter of the world's meat.
  5. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). “World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables”. Working Paper No. ESA/P/WP/248. As of 1 July 2017, according to the report, there are 1.41 billion individuals in China out of a total of 7.55 billion in the world.

    According to Lloyd Risk Assessment, 7 out of 20 (or 4 out of the top 10) cities most at risk of initiating a human pandemic are located in China, measured by potential loss in GDP. Archived link, retrieved 24-Aug-2017. In the last century, there was a number of regional flu strains originated in China: Asian Flu (1957–1958), Hong Kong Flu (1968–1969), SARS (2003) and most recently H7N9 Avian Flu (2013).
  6. According to Global Technology Innovation Hub Report 2017 published by KPMG, 26% respondents voted U.S. and 25% voted China in response to the question "Which countries show the most promise for disruptive technology breakthrough that will have a global impact?".

    Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator, said on Reddit that:
    I think China is probably the second most interesting startup market to me in the world right now (after Silicon Valley).
    Archived link, retrieved 24-Aug-2017.

    During an interview with CNBC in 2016, former CEO of Uber Travis Kalanick said that Beijing will rival San Francisco in the next 5 to 10 years. Archived link, retrieved 24-Aug-2017.
  7. According to Crunchbase, as of February 2018, there are 279 unicorns globally with the U.S. accounting for roughly half of them. China is the second lead with more than 90 unicorns, contributing to about 30%. Moreover, there are 4 Chinese companies in the world’s top 10 in terms of valuation: Didi, Xiaomi, Lu.com and Meituan-Dianping. Archived link, retrieved 26-Feb-2018.
  8. Most experts seem to believe that China still lags behind the U.S. in AI development, but there are several significant factors that may change the future dynamic. For example, China has strong support from the state, abundance of data from a large pool of mobile phone users and potential of talent transfer from overseas. Also, Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and iFlyTek seem to be competitive in AI R&D and commercialisation on a global level.
  9. Goldberg, D., Looney, D., & Lusin, N. (2015, February). “Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2013”. In Modern Language Association. Modern Language Association. 26 Broadway 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10004-1789. As of 2013 when the surveys were conducted, there were 61,055 students studying Chinese, 790,756 studying Spanish and 197,757 studying French. According to the same study, there were 66,740 American students studying Japanese.
  10. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). “World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables”. Working Paper No. ESA/P/WP/248. As of 1 July 2017, according to the report, there are 1.41 billion individuals in China and 127 million in Japan.
  11. "China's New Law Governing Foreign NGOs -- An Overview and Quick Compliance Guide", WTP, May 10, 2016, link
  12. U.S. Department of State, The Foreign Service Institute. "Language Learning Difficulty for English Speakers". Archived link, retrieved 14-Oct-2007. The study was conducted based on “the length of time it takes to achieve Speaking 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3) and Reading 3: General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3).” for native English speakers. To learn “Category I: Languages closely related to English” such as Dutch, French, Italian and Spanish, it requires approximately 575-600 class hours to reach such level of fluency. Mandarin Chinese belongs to “Category III: Languages which are quite difficult for native English speakers”, which takes about 2200 class hours.
  13. For instance, at Beijing Language and Culture University, it costs 23,200RMB (~$3,500) to enroll in a one-year Chinese Language Program. However, if you choose to enroll in a 4-week Regular Course with 20 class hours per week, it would cost 3,500RMB (~$530).
  14. According to Nomad List, a community of remote workers who find destinations to go and places to work, these cities cost about $600-650 per month to live. There are even cities such as Nanyang and Wenling that cost less than $500 per month, but they are arguably much more challenging for foreigners to navigate.
  15. "China recruits Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent to AI ‘national team’", South China Morning Post, Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 4:46pm, Link