2019 Harvard Student Delegation - Gaia van der Esch: On the verge of power shifts


China has been a present topic in my life over the past decade. During my high school years my parents went on a trip to China and I remember listening with curiosity to their stories about this fascinating civilization on the verge of old and new, wondering if one day I would get a chance to see it with my own eyes. During my studies in international relations in Germany and France I started learning about todays' China, its efforts to alleviate poverty, its fast development, and its political system. In my work in Africa and in the Middle East I then started having a first-hand experience of China’s foreign policy and international cooperation. I had a chance to further deepen this understanding during my current master’s at Harvard’s Kennedy School – where China is part of our daily discussions on topics of poverty alleviation, economic and social development, and great power competition.

Coming and witnessing the incredible development of China with my eyes was thereby a long-awaited opportunity. This trip allowed me to better grasp China as a whole:

  • As an Italian living abroad, the hospitality of our hosts and of the Chinese people more generally struck when compared to many other countries around the world: like in Italy, food is the main way to connect with people and make them feel welcomed;
  • I also witnessed this sense of Chinese pride for the longstanding history and civilization – just as Italians have towards the Romans. One difference that I found between Italy and China relates to how this sense of pride is showcased: in Italy and Europe we have conserved ancient buildings and cities which remind us about this past on a daily basis, in addition to our shared history that is transmitted between generations. In the cities we visited in China (apart from the Great Wall) there is little remainders of these physical structures but this sense of ancient civilization and history is nonetheless conserved through the writings, stories and myths that are transmitted from a generation to another, and there is a strong pride around this concept which reminds me of my home country;
  • I found fascinating how all of this is transformed today in a modern and advanced country which is searching its space and role in the world. China has resources to implement ambitious projects related to poverty reduction, environmental protection, urban planning, and regional integration. During the past decade alone, it has undergone impressive changes which are shifting China’s role and narrative: from developing to developed country; from an occupied territory to regional/world power. The meetings during this trip allowed us to better understand what China’s internal and external priorities are, and how China is thinking about these rapid changes in power dynamics. The decades to come will surely bring many more drastic changes to China’s and the worlds’ socio-economic and political dynamics.

These considerations and more broadly first-hand experience of this trip to China will constitute a reference point and a source of reflection for the future. As a leader, I hope I will be better equipped to understand and react to upcoming changes in world power dynamics following this exposure trip to China. These 10 days have allowed me to gain a unique insight into Chinese culture, way of thinking and strategic priorities which I am sure will allow us to improve cross-cultural understanding and cooperation for the years to come.

Gaia van der Esch is an Italian/Dutch Master in Public Administration Candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and President of the Kennedy School European Club. She was nominated by Forbes as 30under30 in 2017.

Prior to this Masters Gaia worked for seven years in international aid, holding senior positions with international NGOs. Among others, Gaia was the Global Deputy Executive Director of IMPACT Initiatives, which facilitates evidence-based decision making of humanitarian responses by UN Agencies and Governments.

In Spring 2019, she participated in our Harvard Kennedy School Exchange Program where she visited Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai.