China will likely play an especially influential role in determining the outcome of many of the biggest challenges of the next century. India also seems very likely to be important over the next few decades, and many other non-western countries — for example, Russia — are also major players on the world stage.
A lack of understanding and coordination between all these countries and the West means we might not tackle those challenges as well as we can (and need to).
So it’s going to be very valuable to have more people gaining real experience with emerging powers, especially China, and then specialising in the intersection of emerging powers and pressing global problems.
In a nutshell: Many ways of solving the world’s most pressing problems will require international coordination. You could help with this by building specific experience of the culture, language and policies in China or another emerging power. Once you have that expertise, you could consider working in an AI lab, think tanks, governments or in research roles.
Key facts on fit
You’ll need fantastic cross-cultural communication skills (and probably a knack for learning languages), a keen interest in international relations, strong networking abilities, and excellent judgement to be a good fit.
Why is experience with an emerging power (especially China) valuable?
China is increasingly a leader in developing new technologies; Beijing is widely seen as a serious competitor to Silicon Valley5 and is the major source of non-US ‘unicorns.’6
As a result, it’s difficult to understand the scale and urgency of these pressing problems without understanding the situation in China. What’s more, it’ll be difficult to solve them without coordination between Western groups and their Chinese equivalents.
At the same time, China is not well understood in the West.
Interest in China has grown in the last decade, but it still lags 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,7 while the starting level of cultural difference is larger.
All this suggests that having experience with China could be an extremely useful skill for improving collaboration between China and the West on many of the world’s most pressing problems, avoiding potentially dangerous conflicts and arms-race-like dynamics, and improving the actions and policy of governments and institutions in both China and the west.
Of course, a similar argument could be made for gaining expertise in other powerful nations, for example India, Brazil, or Russia.
However, we see Russia as likely to be less important than China because it has a weaker technology industry, so isn’t nearly as likely to play a leading role in AI or biotech development. It 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. Also, as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war, most Western citizens should probably avoid travelling to Russia.
For some similar reasons, India and Brazil also seem 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 coordination gap already, reducing the need for additional specialists.
Given this, we’ve spent most of our time researching China. As a result, we focus less on other emerging powers in this article, and most of our specific examples focus on China.
However, we do think that gaining experience with these other countries is likely to be valuable and is currently under-explored, especially given how important they could become in the next few decades. In fact, if you’re at the beginning of your career, it may even be valuable to think about which countries are most likely to be particularly influential in a few decades and focus on gaining expertise there. Becoming an expert in any emerging global power could be a very high-impact option and could be the best option for some people.
Safety when spending time abroad
Spending time in some emerging powers can be dangerous, and that danger can change depending on fast-moving events.
We’d always recommend reading up on your government’s travel advice for the country you’re planning to visit. Don’t travel if your government recommends against it (for example, as of September 2023, the UK and US governmentsrecommend against travel to Russia).
What does building and using experience with an emerging power involve?
Building this skill set involves working in roles that will give you real opportunities to learn about an emerging power, especially in the context of trying to solve particularly pressing problems.
Ideally, you’ll pick one emerging power, and try to gain experience specifically in and about that country. This might include working in policy, as a foreign journalist, in some parts of the private sector, in philanthropy, in academic research, or in any number of other roles from which you’ll learn about an emerging power (some of which we discuss in more detail below).
These roles overlap with ways you might build and use other impactful skill sets, like research or communicating ideas. That’s because, in order to have an impact with your experience of an emerging power, you’ll usually need to use other skills as well: for example, you might be doing research on AI safety in China (using research skills), developing or implementing US foreign policy (using political and bureaucratic skills), or writing as a journalist in India (using communication skills).
The distinguishing feature of this skill is that you’ll build deep cultural knowledge, a broad network, and real expertise about an emerging power, which will open up unique and high-impact ways to contribute.
Working with foreign organisations on any topic requires an awareness of their 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 attitudes like, in the emerging power you’re learning about, around doing good and social impact?
If you wanted to make connections with people in the emerging power interested in working on major global challenges, what messages should you focus on, and what pitfalls might you face? How does professional networking function in the emerging power in general?
We expect that fully understanding these topics will require deep familiarity with the country’s values, worldviews, history, customs, and so on — noting, of course, that these also vary substantially within large countries like China, India, and Russia.
Eventually, you’ll move from building the skill to a position where you can use this experience to help solve pressing global issues. To use this skill best, you might also need to combine it with knowledge of a relevant subject matter — some of which we discuss here. We discuss some ways to have an impact with this skill in the final section below.
How to evaluate your fit
How to predict your fit in advance
This is likely to be a great option for you if you are from one of these countries, if you have spent a substantial amount of time there, or if you’re really obsessively interested in a particular country. This is because the best paths to impact likely require deep understanding of the relevant cultures and institutions, as well as language fluency (e.g. at the level where you might be able to write a newspaper article about biotechnology in the language).
If you’re not sure, you could study in one of these countries for a month, or do some other kind of short visit or project, to see how interesting you find it. (Although recent tension between the US and China could mean that spending significant time in China could exclude you from certain government positions in the US or other countries — many of which could be very high-impact career options — so this is a risk.)
Other signs you might be a great fit:
Bilingualism or other cross-cultural communication skills. Experience living abroad or working in teams with highly diverse backgrounds could help build this.
We think it’s also important that you’re interested in trying to help all people equally and identifying the most effective ways to help, aiming to have well-calibrated judgements that are justified them with evidence and reason. We’ve found these attitudes are quite rare, especially in foreign policy, which is often focused on national interest.
How to tell if you’re on track
Only a few people we know have ever tried really gaining this skill, so we’re not quite sure what success looks like.
It’s worth asking “how strong is my performance in my job?” for whatever you are doing to build this skill. Don’t just ask yourself — you’ll get the best information by talking to the people you work with or the people who you think are excellent at understanding the emerging power you’re focusing on.
Hopefully, after 1-2 years, you will have:
Started building a strong network in the country you’re learning about
Learned something substantially important and impressive, like knowing a language to (almost) fluency.
Found a fairly stable job relevant to the emerging power you’re learning about where you’re rapidly able to learn more (like one of the things we list below)
Built up knowledge of a global problem that you can combine with your experience of the emerging power to have an impact later
How to get started building experience with an emerging power
Broadly, the aim is to get a useful combination of the following as quickly as possible:
Knowledge of the intersection of an emerging power and an important global issue, such as the topics listed below.
Knowledge of and connections with the community working on the pressing global problems you want to help tackle.
A general understanding of the language and culture of an emerging power, which probably requires spending at least a year living in the country. (Though again, having a background in China or Russia — and possibly even just visiting — could exclude you from some Western government jobs.)
Below is a list of specific career steps you can take to gain the above knowledge. Most people should pursue a combination depending on their existing expertise and personal fit.
For many people, the best option at the start of your career won’t be any of the steps in this section. Instead, you could take a step towards building a different skill that you’ll use in conjunction with experience of an emerging power — even if that initial step has absolutely nothing to do with an emerging power.
This option has significant flexibility, since it would be easy to switch into another career if you decide not to focus on an emerging power.
To learn more, we’d particularly highlight our articles on how to get started building:
We’d guess that these are the most relevant skills to combine with experience of an emerging power, but we’re not sure — for more, see all our articles on skills.
But if you’re ready to start building this skill in particular, here are some ways to do it.
Go to the country and learn the language
If you’re a fluent English speaker, it takes around six months of full time study to learn a western European language. For other languages — like Chinese — this time might be more like 18 months.8 (Learning to write Chinese can take much longer and isn’t clearly worth it.)
You can learn most effectively by living in the country and aiming to speak the language 100% of the time.
We’re not sure how valuable it would be to learn other languages common in emerging powers, like Hindi, Russian or Portuguese. In general, it’ll depend on the ease of learning the language and the prevalence of English in the country you’re focusing on — especially among decision-makers.
Teaching English in an emerging power
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.
The huge demand for English teachers means 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 four hours of work per day. For instance, you get a monthly salary of $2,100–2,800 per month during a typical one-year program offered by First Leap. Job benefits include work visa sponsorship arrangement, flight to China, and a 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 even more if you do private tutoring as well.
This option won’t get you equally useful skills and connections as the other options in this list, but you will be able to learn about Chinese culture and study the Chinese language at the same time.
Work in top foreign companies or a foreign office of a top Western company
Working at any high-performance company — such as a top startup — is a generally great initial step to build career capital. And if that company is based in an emerging power, you’ll get to learn about the country at the same time. For example, you could look at startups that have been funded by top Chinese venture capitalists, such as Sequoia Capital China, Sinovation Ventures, and Chinaccelerator. Read more about startup jobs.
You don’t need a technical background to work at a startup: there are often roles available in areas like business development, operations, and marketing.
In general, the aim would be to learn about an emerging power, gain useful experience, and make relevant connections — rather than push any particular agenda or otherwise try to have an impact right away.
Another advantage of this option is that you could follow it into earning to give. In some countries (like China), charities can often only be funded by citizens of that county, which could make earning to give a more attractive option if you are a citizen.
You could also aim to work at an office of a top Western consultancy, finance firm, or professional services firm in the country you’re learning about. 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 an emerging power. 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 increasing opportunities and importance of emerging powers. Another consideration is that salaries are generally lower in emerging powers, even at international firms (with the exception of Hong Kong).
Do relevant graduate study
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 focus on an emerging power later.
Alternatively, you could start studying economics, international relations, and security studies, with a focus on a particular emerging power. Ideally, you could also focus on issues like emerging technologies, conflict, and international coordination. See ideas for high-impact research within China studies.
It’s also useful to have a general knowledge of the language, history, and politics of the power you’re studying. So another way to get started might be to pursue area or language studies (one source of support available for US students is the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships Program), perhaps alongside one of the topics listed above.
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.
Should you study in the country you’re gaining experience of?
Once you’ve chosen a type of programme that’s a good fit, we think it’s generally best to aim to go to the highest-ranked university possible — whether that’s in the West or the country you’re studying — rather than specifically aiming to study in a foreign country. It’s probably more useful to gain an impressive credential than spend time living in the country since there are many other ways to do that.
An alternative is to look for a joint programme, such as — in the case of China — the dual degree offered by Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University. John Hopkins is highly ranked for policy master’s degrees, 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 and want to get involved, then you could also use graduate study as an opportunity to gain these connections 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 interested in studying in the West, you might want to consider that:
The China Oxford Scholarship offers up to 20 scholarship places to students from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau to pursue postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford.
Work as a foreign journalist
If you’re proficient in a foreign language, you could try becoming a foreign correspondent in the country you’re gaining experience with. It could help if you have a related degree from a top university (e.g. China studies or international relations with a focus on East Asia).
English-language news agencies such as Reuters, the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, and Bloomberg maintain large bureaus across the world (including 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 small but significant presence in many major world cities where you can apply for internships. A fresh graduate should expect to intern for about six months before finding a full-time position.
If you’re focused on China and coming from the West, 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.
If you’re interested in doing good in an emerging power, it helps to understand attitudes about doing good in that country. One way to do that is to learn about philanthropy. You could also aim to make connections with philanthropists in an emerging power — this comes with the added benefit of building a network of (often wealthy) do-gooders.
One career option here is to work at research institutions dedicated to the topic of philanthropy. For example, in China, these include:
China Global Philanthropy Institute, which was established in Shenzhen by five prominent Chinese and American philanthropists: Bill Gates, Ray Dalio, Niu Gensheng, He Qiaonyu, and Ye Qingjun. The institute organises training programmes such as the Global Philanthropy Leaders Program for China’s High Net Worth Individuals.
Before pursuing these options, it might be useful to first learn about best practices in Western philanthropy, perhaps by taking any role (even a junior one) at Open Philanthropy, GiveWell, or other strategic philanthropy organisations.
What other knowledge should you gain to have an impact?
Once you’ve chosen a particular emerging power, you can gain expertise in the following topics. These are all vital issues to understand in the West as well, but the intersection of these issues with China (and other emerging powers) is particularly neglected.
What are the emerging power’s foreign policy priorities, and how is it likely to handle the possibility of global catastrophic risks?
How can coordination between the West and the emerging power you’re focusing on be increased and the chance of conflict be decreased?
How should Western government policy concerning catastrophic risks relate to policy in the emerging power?
Other global problems
Many of the key organisations working to reduce factory farming are expanding rapidly into China, India, and Brazil, so expertise in these countries and factory farming is also useful.
Knowledge of China seems less important within global health and development than in many of the other global problems we focus on. This is because China is not as important a player in international aid and global health. 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. We’d guess a knowledge of India would be more relevant to global health and development.
Once you have this skill, how can you best apply it to have an impact?
In general, having an impact with this skill involves three steps — not necessarily in this order:
Choosing 1–3 top problems on which to focus. It’s possible you’ll want to do something highly problem-specific (like doing AI research in an emerging power), but it’s also possible you’ll want to do something more broadly applicable (like working as a journalist). Either way, the problem you work on is a substantial driver of your impact, so it helps to have 1–3 top problems in mind.
Find a job that uses your complementary skill in a way that’s highly relevant to the emerging power you have experience with. Decide between jobs depending on your personal fit. If you can’t find one of those jobs, try to get a job that continues building your skills. For example, there might be a great policy job available that has nothing to do with emerging powers — and you can always switch back later in your career.
With that in mind, we’d recommend reading the relevant article for your complementary skill — these articles also contain ideas on having an impact using that skill. Depending on your personal fit, those ideas could be higher-impact than the specific suggestions in this article.
Also, many of the options in the section above on how to get started could easily become impactful as you gain experience, for example:
Below we list some additional options that are harder to enter without a few years building up your skills.
Work in an AI lab in safety or policy
If you’re a citizen of an emerging power, especially China, you could try working for an AI lab in that country. The lab could be commercial or academic.
You could try to get a role working in technical safety research, and, in the long run, you could aim to progress to a senior position and promote increased interest in and implementation of AI safety measures internally.
You could also try working as a governance or policy advisor at a top AI lab — this could be a lab based in the emerging power or a role at a western AI lab focused on emerging power dynamics.
Work in roles focused on an emerging power in organisations focused on reducing existential risks
Many key organisations working on existential risks want to better understand China to inform their work. For instance, representatives of many AI risk research organisations we recommend have attended conferences in China.
These organisations struggle to find altruistically motivated people with deep knowledge of top problems as well as knowledge of China. They also struggle to find people connected to relevant Chinese experts. So you could use this skill set to aid organisations working on existential risks.
If you want that research to have an impact, your role as an academic could become closer to advocacy, using a communication skill set. For example, you could work on AI safety at a top Chinese university lab, which could be valuable both for making progress on technical safety problems and for encouraging interest in AI safety among other Chinese researchers — especially if you progress to take on teaching or supervisory responsibilities. (Read more.)
In industry, it could be worth exploring opportunities in semiconductor or cloud computing companies in emerging powers, especially in China. This is based on our view that shaping the AI hardware landscape could be a high-impact career path.
You might also consider supporting the translation of materials related to pressing problems into the language of the emerging power, in particular reputable academic materials — although be aware that this can be easy to get wrong.
Finally, there are likely many other promising opportunities to apply this skill now and in the future that we don’t know about. After all, a notable thing about this skill is that it involves gaining knowledge that western organisations — like 80,000 Hours — lack by default. So if you go down this route you may well discover novel opportunities to use it.
Find jobs that use experience with an emerging power
If you think you might be a good fit for this skill and you’re ready to start looking at job opportunities that are currently accepting applications, see our curated list of opportunities. You could filter by policy or location to find relevant roles.
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 August 24, 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 August 24, 2017.
The same figure was used by the Chinese media company Sina in reporting the Paris Agreement meeting in 2015.↩
Source: OECD (2017), Meat consumption (indicator). doi: 10.1787/fa290fd0-en (Accessed on August 24, 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 US, China consumes twice as much meat than the US in aggregate. Being the largest global consumer, China eats about a quarter of the world’s meat.↩
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 August 24, 2017. In the last century, there was a number of regional flu strains that originated in China: Asian Flu (1957–1958), Hong Kong Flu (1968–1969), SARS (2003), and most recently H7N9 Avian Flu (2013).↩
According to Global Technology Innovation Hub Report 2017 published by KPMG, 26% of 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).
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 August 24, 2017.↩
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, equalling about 30%. Moreover, there are four Chinese companies in the world’s top 10 in terms of valuation: Didi, Xiaomi, Lu.com and Meituan-Dianping. Archived link, retrieved February 26, 2018.↩
U.S. Department of State, The Foreign Service Institute. “Language Learning Difficulty for English Speakers”. Archived link, retrieved October 14, 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 a level of fluency. Mandarin Chinese belongs to “Category III: Languages which are quite difficult for native English speakers,” which takes about 2200 class hours.↩