When US diplomat Brent Christensen arrived in China in 2007 for his new assignment, he noticed the color of the sky was not necessarily blue on the Chinese government’s self-declared “blue sky” days.
So when some money became unexpectedly available to him, he purchased an air quality monitor and installed it on the roof of the US embassy in Beijing, just so he could get an accurate sense of how bad China’s air pollution really was.
“No one had a very clear picture on how serious it [air pollution] was, because the Chinese published data that was clearly not accurate,” said Christensen, who now heads the Taipei Office of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which represents US interests in Taiwan in the absence of formal diplomatic ties.
Photo: Liao Chen-huei, Taipei Times
“We did some analysis and [it] showed that even with the data that China was publishing, they were cheating on their declaration of blue sky days,” he told the Taipei Times and the Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister paper) in an interview at his residence in Taipei.
With his new gadget in place, Christensen started publishing the data he collected on the embassy’s Web site. It was not long before people began to consult the embassy’s air quality information.
As could be expected, China was not happy and it took its complaint directly to Christensen.
“I do not remember how many times they complained, but I think their complaints just went away when it became obvious that there was such a big demand for this information,” Christensen said.
Eventually, the Chinese government succumbed to public pressure and began to publish accurate air quality data itself, he said, admitting that he did not anticipate his little innovation would end up having such a widespread impact.
Wanting to make a difference in the world was what brought Christensen into US foreign service, but being a diplomat was not what he dreamed of becoming when he was younger.
Growing up in Utah, Christensen said he had always aimed for a career as a dentist, until he realized dentistry was not a profession where he could make much of an impact.
“You know the mouth is only that big. It is a small world... I think it is true that you can have a big impact [being a dentist], but on a micro level,” Christensen said. “So when this opportunity [foreign service] became available, I decided to try it and here we are 30 years later.”
Looking back, Christensen believes he made the right choice.
However, he was less sure about that during the first 18 months of his first overseas assignment in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he served as a visa officer at the AIT.
“Initially, I did not particularly enjoy being a visa officer and then the [US] Air Force health profession recruiter found me somehow and called me up one day and wanted to persuade me to go back into the Air Force Dental Corps,” he said.
“I must say I was tempted,” he said, adding that it was one of the toughest decisions he has ever had to make.
Over the course of his diplomatic career, Christensen’s job has brought him and his family back to Taiwan again and again and again, which he attributed to fate.
Asked about the most remarkable changes he has observed in Taiwan over the years, Christensen said he was impressed by how Taiwan has embraced environmental protection and internalized it as a social norm.
“I think when we were here in the late 1980s, the pollution problems were actually quite obvious, [like] air pollution. And the Tamsui River was still black and smelly, but coming back in 2012, Taiwan had really transformed,” he said. “The sky was fair, there was a lot of green space and all these riverside parks.”
Christensen said he also noticed a sense of order and civility when he arrived in Taiwan for the second time as AIT deputy director.
He believed it owed much to the democratic process Taiwan has undergone in the past three decades, which led to the maturation of civil institutions.
“It is really impressive,” he said. “Taiwan has really become a real model of not only democratic values, but also in the way those have been implemented.”
To allow Taiwan to share its environmental expertise with other partners in the Asia-Pacific region, Christensen in 2014 helped develop the International Environmental Partnership, a platform for countries around the world to share experiences and technologies in the area of environmental protection.
The partnership also paved the way for a visit in the same year by then-US Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy, who was the first Cabinet-level US official to visit Taiwan in 14 years.
As this year marks the 40th anniversary of the US’ Taiwan Relations Act and the establishment of the AIT, Christensen said he plans to move his staff to the institute’s new facility in Taipei’s Neihu District (內湖) soon.
“We also want to be able to use that [the new facility] as a platform for expanding our activities in every other way,” he said.
In terms of his goals, Christensen said he would like to ride along the east coast of Taiwan with his wife of 38 years for the spectacular views, take a trip to the outlying island of Matsu for its traditional Fujian-style buildings, and run a few more half-marathons.
He said that he and his wife are open to other new adventures in the nation — except for another hike up Taiwan’s highest peak, Yushan (玉山).
“We have already climbed Jade Mountain... It was a tough climb,” he said. “I think once is enough.”
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