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2020 Graduate Workshop on China in the Urban Age

Health, Food and Waste in the Chinese City: practical, utopian and systemic solutions
Applications have closed on 31 May 2020.

The University of Sydney China Studies Centre is organising the second graduate workshop under our multidisciplinary research agenda China in the Urban Age. The workshop theme is Health, Food and Waste in the Chinese City: practical, utopian and systemic solutions, seeking to include contributions from any branch of the sciences, humanities and social sciences.

The urban age in China has been an age of waste and excess. Waste happens at the point of production and consumption, from sometimes honest efforts that do not consider the unexpected consequences, but also from the dominance of short-term solutions aimed at maximising profit. More is often seen as better – more value, more efficiency, more popularity. But when is it excess? Such values as waste, profit, excess, surplus, all warrant reconsideration, in turn reframing concepts of technology, development and progress. These questions are of historical and contemporary relevance to societies everywhere, so what can China learn from other contexts, and what can they learn from China?

Workshop overview

Urban lifestyles have returned to a dominance of consumption over production. Increasing demands on quality and quantity are responsible for substantial transformations in agricultural practices, leading to sporadic crises. Many solutions invest, literally and symbolically, in technical solutions, which call for more R & D investment, or more specialist education. This repeats a cycle of intensification or accumulation, of resource extraction and asset concentration (hard and soft, e.g. money but also talent), increasing pressure on an industry for which land, resources, labour and capital are already vulnerable. How can technological development include a critical assessment of the habits, cultures or lifestyles underpinning the demands such ‘progress’ strives to meet? Can we rely on technological solutions without first questioning their modus operandi?

Meat production, for example, claims to be increasingly efficient, leveraging ever more sophisticated technology, aimed at a safer and healthier diet, developed in labs that innovate genetic and technical improvements of crops and animals. Such innovations can be framed as urgently necessary to tackle persistent food shortage, malnutrition, the effects of climate change, and reduced arable land. Yet, it typically continues a cycle of wasteful production, relies on increasingly scarce global agricultural products, produces significant greenhouse gas emissions, and raises pressing ethical questions about how production takes place and its broader impact. What are the rights of our species to inflict suffering on other species in the name of reducing costs, increasing production and sustaining an ever-larger population? Genetic modification, when patented, turns what were once areas of ‘common’ agricultural resources into another form of private wealth, excluding some to the benefit of the few, and preventing common access to technologies that are often promoted as being of benefit to humanity. This is a road well-travelled in the pharmaceutical sector, which sees ongoing debates over generics and prohibitively expensive life-saving medicines or vaccines, raising fundamental questions regarding the private or public governance of innovative technologies.

Waste is also a by-product of urbanisation and decades of reliance on products that make life easier for some; not only because of the pollution generated by construction and industrial production, but also because of the process of increased consumption, changing dietary habits. Yet it needs to be conceptualised in a different way. Waste is not only a technical problem of our age that needs to be addressed by increasingly complex technology; rather it requires a rethinking of its role, a conversion of the global supply and production chains. An increasing opposition to the deleterious consequences of waste in the populations of advanced economies has not led to fundamental criticism of the consumption model that continues to drive the waste of global capitalism towards the periphery of this international system.

These are both Chinese and global questions, questions without borders, although they need to be positioned in real experiences, and local manifestations. There remain both positive and negative lessons to be learned from China’s experience, and while solutions are necessary, the unexpected implications of these solutions, both practical and systemic, should be part of the conversation.

Potential discussion fora may include:

Feeding China: a global challenge?

- China’s dominant position as a soybean importer for fodder, the land nexus, Chinese food investment overseas…

Waste economies: who produces it, who recycles it?

- local agricultural waste impact for farmers and benefits for urban residents, circular economies…

Community alternatives: Experimental and realist revolutions

- equality in consumption, equality in production, experiences in community supported agriculture, distinct or radical responses, e.g. hackers, artists, makers, activists…

Food, policy and technology: in which direction?

- less consumption, smaller but higher quality yields; the role of states, what are new technologies trying to achieve, what new problems do they create?

What does a healthy city look like?

- equal, just, well-fed, mobile, well designed, flexible; benefits and issues of the smart-city model, e.g. transport, surveillance, the social contract…

Upcycling humanity: technologies of the self

- narratives of health, food and waste practices; self-improvement and personhood in psychology, science-fiction, religion, futurism...

Dates and location

The Graduate Workshop is scheduled to be held at the University of Sydney (Sydney, Australia) from 26 to 30 October 2020. However, given the current uncertainties regarding international travel in particular, we are also planning to facilitate online participation and delivery of the conference program as much as possible.


It will include lectures and seminars with leading experts and a series of discussion fora that will try to expand the conversation through knowledge sharing around these important challenges. 

See the 2019 Graduate Workshop program here.

Fees and scholarships

There is no enrollment fee for the graduate workshop. 


This workshop is open to current graduate research students and early-career researchers (up to five years post-PhD) who have a broad interest in questions of health, food and waste, sustainability and technology, and whose research relates to China. We firmly believe in a multidisciplinary approach to these issues, and therefore encourage applications from all fields, including the material and environmental sciences. politics, history, the arts and cultural studies, architecture, literature and the critical combination of such fields (e.g. environmental humanities).

How to apply

Applications have closed on Sunday 31 May 2020. Successful applicants will be notified by 30 June 2020.

Please note, the University may cancel or change arrangements for the 2020 Graduate Workshop on China in the Urban Age, including in respect of the content, location, teaching personnel, duration, and policies at any time. We will endeavour to notify all successful applicants of any cancellation or changes as soon as practicable.


All questions regarding the Graduate Workshop should be addressed to


Photo credit: George Steinmetz