Ex-staff Perspective On 10 Years Of CWR: Hongqiao Liu

By Hongqiao Liu 26 October, 2021

On the 10th year anniversary, former principal researcher Liu reflects on how her time in CWR helped her to see the value of cultivating knowledge

Liu's major highlight was the rare earths report which makes people see Liu as a specialised journalist with analytical skills & great insights; she still gets cited & requested for interviews on this topic today
Working in CWR made her see the value of cultivating knowledge & strategic thinking; she was also empowered by being able to directly influence the issues by taking actions & solutions
Challenges remain as we have to go beyond just 'acknowledging' water/climate risks to having real awareness on the severeness of the problems & the emergency of actions needed
Hongqiao Liu
Author: Hongqiao Liu
Hongqiao Liu is a Chinese journalist and policy expert who covers China, climate, energy, environment and everything in between. She currently writes for Carbon Brief, an award-winning specialist website focused on explaining climate science and policy. Hongqiao believes in the power of journalism in fostering informed discussion, decision-making and actions on tackling climate change -- the biggest challenge of our century. Her journalism brings facts, nuance and context to heated discussions about China and provides digestible information on complex policy issues. Her early career as an investigative journalist at Southern Metropolis Daily and Caixin - two of the most prestigious Chinese media - saw her publish a series of influential exposés on social, environmental and governance challenges arising from China’s emergence. Many of her work have triggered public debate, helped foster accountability and sparked critical reform of several national environmental policies in China. She also works as an independent consultant, mostly with international non-profit organisations, advising on strategic planning and policy research. Her clients include some of the most influential advocators for the public good. Hongqiao worked with China Water Risk between 2014 and 2017 as principal researcher.
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CWR: Tell us about your time at CWR …

When did you join?

Hongqiao Liu (HL): 2014.07…I think?

Why did you join?

HL: I wanted to explore new opportunities beyond journalism and the collaboration between CWR and Chinadialogue was quite appealing at that time: an initiative between journalism and non-profit thinktank/research that allowed me to write long articles and reports on the issues that we (CWR/chinadialogue/myself) all care about.

How long did you spend at CWR?

HL: 2-3 years

What did you do?

HL: I wrote three big reports on China’s 13FYP drinking water safety targets, the bottled water industry and rare earths & clean technologies. Then, also activities around the promotion of the reports: articles, interviews, speaking opportunities and engagements with different stakeholders.

CWR: Looking back to your time there, what do you consider as your biggest achievement? Part of the job included public speaking, any memorable firsts? Were you nervous, any tips?

HL: The publication of the rare earths report was really the highlight. I still get cited and requested for interviews till today. It was really the report that makes people see me as a specialised journalist with analytical skills and great insights, which helps with my consulting work. (Of course, people also get confused about whether I am a journalist or analyst. And I also had hesitations on career choices: I even tested it by working at a major investment bank on green finance, which helped me to confirm that I prefer journalism.)

Publication of the rare earths report was really the highlight…

…I still get cited and requested for interviews till today

The 2016 trip to the US was also a highlight: I was sponsored by CWR/ADMCF for a road trip on the east coast to “sell” the rare earth report to high-profile researchers, scientists, and diplomats. Yep, a bit nervous about public speaking at that time, felt intimidated sometimes, but the positive feedback also helped to build my confidence. Looking back, all these have helped me to grow and become who I am today ( “a TED speaker”, among other things…)

Tips for new CWR colleagues on public speaking: prepare well (practice in front of a mirror and record it, if it helps), be confident when you are on stage, (taking a shot of your favourite alcohol also helps) and mostly importantly, enjoy the moment! (Remember, you are invited to speak because you have something interesting, valuable and unique to say and the audience do see you as an “expert” – at least on the subject you are talking about.)

CWR: Is your current work related to water? If so, how? If not, do you still keep tabs on water challenges?

HL: For my work at Carbon Brief, I don’t really cover water specifically, but I do cover the boarder context and policies on climate and energy policy in China.

Journalism aside, in my consulting work, I still come across water from time to time. For example, my recent project with the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) involved providing analysis on cross-cutting themes on ocean governance, Yangtze River Economic Zone, nature-based solutions (NbS), etc. I think some of my clients like to work with me because of the complexity and variety of issues that I’ve worked on, including water (and the nexus around water).

CWR: Has CWR changed your career aspirations?

HL: Yes, absolutely. Prior to CWR, I saw myself as a journalist who observes and documents. The years at CWR helps me to see the value of cultivating knowledge, relationships/networks/communities, as well as in humanity itself, in addition to all the strategic thinking that I’ve learnt from Debra.

The engagement with stakeholders and policymakers who can directly influence the issues by taking actions & solutions that I care about also makes me feel “empowered”, in contrast to the constant “helplessness” in my previous journalism practice.

I was also much more cynical and in a way, self destructive, in my early 20s, but working with Debra, Feng, Hubert, Dawn, and others at CWR brought strength and resilience to my private and work life. Hmmm, I realised, too, that I only liked to work in a small but dedicated team rather than under some big names. For example, it occurred to me that I cared more about making a difference and impacts than, for example, becoming “rich and famous”…

I learnt from CWR about strategically positioning myself in the collective efforts towards change to generate the biggest impact

One more about about “strategic thinking”: I learnt from CWR, and Debra personally, about strategically positioning myself in the collective efforts towards change to generate the biggest impact. In 2021, a series of events brought me to an awakening moment: I realised that the world needs desperately an excellent journalist to bridge the knowledge gap between China and the rest of the world on tackling climate change, than just another analyst or campaigner. So I returned to journalism early this year.

CWR: Do you think CWR has made a difference over the last decade? What is the biggest challenge you see today regarding water and climate risks?

HL: Of course, although it’s always challenging to attribute the changes to one certain organisation. I personally have seen a lot of discussions I’d had in the HK office in 2014-2017 going mainstream, such as water/climate risk assessment and my own report on rare earths & clean tech (the IEA finally published an overall assessment this year!!) All these “I told you so” moments reinforce my impression that CWR has always been a “thought leader” in leading conversations and catalysing changes.

We have to go beyond just “acknowledging” that water/climate are big problems

Today, I still see “awareness” as one of the biggest challenges. Sure, more people are “aware” of the water/climate risks, but it doesn’t mean everyone, at least the “elite” decision makers are fully informed with adequate knowledge to help them make the right choices – and we need immediate actions, and scale up pilots and initiatives around the world. We have to go beyond just “acknowledging” that water/climate are big problems, and we cannot do it without “real” awareness on the severeness of the problems and the emergency of actions needed.

CWR: Three words/bullets on what makes CWR unique …

HL: Driven; Tactical; Agile

CWR: Any comments, advice to CWR on its 10th year anniversary?

HL: Keep up the great work…?

CWR: Any advice to those who want to join work in the water/climate space?

The best time to join work in the water/climate space is “now”

HL: The best time to join work in the water/climate space is “now”. There are endless opportunities in the space and there will be more. Position yourself smartly and pace yourself well: one can get very frustrated and feeling defeated in a decades-long battle so remember to take care of your own feelings.

More on CWR 10-year anniversary 

Further Reading

  • Apple & Rare Earth Recycling – Although Apple is leading smartphone giants in green commitments, its transparency and traceability of rare earth supply can be improved. Plus, what lies ahead for rare earth recycling? Researcher Hongqiao Liu expands
  • Dug-Up In China: The World’s Critical Raw Materials – China is the largest global supplier of many critical raw materials but growing domestic demand could mean it becomes a net importer. How will other countries secure these materials that are key to a low carbon future? China Water Risk’s Hongqiao Liu explores China’s direction in the 13FYP
  • Rare Earth Black Market: An Open Dirty Secret – The black market exacerbates environmental pollution from rare earth mining in China. With low prices, depleted reserves and contaminated drinking water, find out if your smartphone, tablet or electric car is party to this. Hongqiao Liu expands