I have received a decent number of DMs on Twitter asking for advice and opinions on getting into the world of Asia Policy, particularly in DC. They make me extremely nervous because the path by which I wound up in this orbit was kind of chaotic, and I am no Old Guard member myself. Regardless, here are some things that you should do if you want to maximize your chances, in my opinion. In no particular order:
1. Be Republican, or if you really can't stomach that, libertarian
I'm gonna say it: Young Republicans are some of the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action I can think of. Truly. (And, now, this is also even more true of Supreme Court clerkships.)
This isn't even a partisan smear as much as a statistical observation. There are not a lot of Republicans in colleges, and more respectable employers have to eliminate from consideration the ones publicly tied to College Republican chapters that have been involved in any of the absolutely sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-semitic, or otherwise outrageous stunts and scandals that punctuate the news cycle (every single one of those links is a unique little fiasco that has occurred since 2016).
Moreover, conservative and conservative-adjacent DC institutions that deal in foreign policy, such as Heritage, AEI, Hudson, Cato, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and others have more money and space compared to expressly progressive ones, the largest of which is basically Center for American Progress, and possibly Human Rights Watch, which sort of counts. I'll admit I have not quantified the number of internships formally—that might be an interesting side project, actually—so I can't say for certain, but it seems very likely that the number of "conservative" internships open to you, young whippersnapper, is greater than "liberal" ones (though both possibly fewer than nonpartisan ones).
2. Be able to afford the internship gauntlet
Especially if you're coming straight out of undergrad—and especially especially if your college is outside of the DC area—it can be an uphill battle to get into the DC policy sphere. The system, shockingly, favors people able to live in one of the most expensive cities in the country on stipends and at- or below-minimum wage jobs. The supply of potential interns is huge, partially because schools like George Washington are extremely flexible about building student schedules around internships (which I don't blame them for). Wealthier schools might subsidize you, but generally, that will not be enough.
I was extremely privileged in that I was able to do so. Over summers in undergrad and other periods, some of my internships paid enough to keep me afloat, if not save a little money. Some did not. I was able to weather those with money from family, money I was functionally born into and did not earn by virtue of my own abilities. (Lord knows I don't have that many abilities; primarily, it's just speaking decent Chinese and being a bitch on Twitter.) Thus, I have proceeded to construct my entire social democrat ideology off
the fact that I feel guilty and fake as hell about how patently unfair that is my anger at such inequities.
Anyways—this is not to say the only route is DC, I'm just a Beltway chauvinist. There are plenty of interesting and innovative foreign affairs and related policy organizations elsewhere. Some are in New York, for instance, which is even more expensive. But not all of them! Your university may have one, and COVID-19 at least breaks down somewhat these geographic barriers, a trend which will hopefully persist after the plague ends.
3. Asian Americans: Consider being rabidly anticommunist
I am a white dude whose loyalty to the US of A will never be questioned on the basis of my heritage or skin color. Particularly if you are Chinese or Chinese American, you may well have to deal with asinine accusations of Fifth Column leanings from the right. The best way to inoculate yourself against this is to broadcast your hatred of communism in all its manifestations—the CCP, Nancy Pelosi, universal healthcare proposals—whenever you can. Also, if you want to work for the government and need a clearance, being super anticommunist is even more important, because any family you have back in China will make security clearance much, much harder to obtain.
(In all seriousness, I am so fucking sorry about this. Please, for the love of all that is good, do not let it discourage you too much—your views and experiences are sorely needed.)
Take noted imbecile Rob Spalding, who has a habit of calling things he doesn't like CCP propaganda, particularly if it involves Asian people. This man is still given a platform via the Jamestown Foundation and Hudson Institute. That's really messed up, but hey, it's just how things are.
This phenomenon is not unique to the United States, either. Australia (a country whose hard right has always impressed me with its apparent desire to compete with America's hard right in the category of Most Batshit Anglosphere Conservatives) this month saw a particularly egregious example from a Senator, who demanded three Chinese Australians testifying before a Senate committee hearing condemn the CCP.
The only surefire way to avoid this is to just be rabidly anticommunist, broadly construed. Biden shakes hands with Xi Jinping? Communist, impeach the bastard. CNN interviews someone holding a Xiaomi phone? CCP false flag operation. Ultimately, you can't be called a CCP agent if you loudly proclaim that literally every single thing done by the CCP since its founding has been a barbaric crime unparalleled in human history. You might end up inadvertently throwing other Chinese and Asian Americans under the bus in any subsequent tempest of racial McCarthyism that may well erupt, but hey, you'll be fine, right?
4. Learn the language(s)
You can get away with some really, really bad Chinese in the policy world. If we're being honest, several of those who supposedly Know China have remarkably terrible Chinese reading ability and rely on research assistants, etc., to do the dirty work for them. Don't even get me started on accents and speaking skills.
To be serious for a second, regardless of whether it's Mandarin, Korean, or something else, knowing a foreign language is a major plus—or often, just a prerequisite—that you should prioritize early. East Asian languages, as you’re probably well aware, tend to be extremely difficult for English native speakers to learn; truly functional professional proficiency is most likely not going to come to you after just four years of college classes and a semester abroad, though there are exceptions for the linguistically gifted.
For Chinese, in a perfect world, I would recommend at least half a year or more of intensive language study in Taipei (can't recommend ICLP enough)—it's much easier to acclimate there as a foreigner, your stress levels will be generally lower, and it's genuinely useful to know traditional characters (going from traditional to simplified takes almost no work at advanced levels; the reverse is very much not true). Follow that up with a commensurate, if not greater, amount of time in the Mainland, where you'll have more of a solid language foundation to actually understand and interact with what's going around you, at least to a degree.
5. Twitter network with the loudest people possible
This is related somewhat to Suggestion 1, but theoretically applies to all ideologies. Take a look at Natalie Winters, a "journalist" and apparent undergraduate (University of Chicago, of course) who churns out an exceptional volume of China-related bullshit for a far-right digital outlet founded by an unhinged British dude. That kind of opportunity doesn't just fall on your lap, unless you're from a wealthy or otherwise politically connected family, so you should aspire to network, network, network! Be the reply-guy tweeting "thank you sir" under every tweet of a self-important retired military figure of your choosing. Slide into those DMs. It's all about putting yourself out there. When in doubt, just make shit up and send it to reporters. Your networks will grow from there. Some of the most successful China Watchers out there, like Christopher Balding, do this all the time!
The routes to the Imperial Core are varied and diverse. The steps above are suggestions, not prescriptions. Many people jump over from corporate due diligence work, which can be dry but often lets you keep up some degree of language skills and pays the bills. Graduate school, if you can avoid major debt, may also be a good route. Ultimately, don't take the above too seriously and get all down about it—remember that you technically don't even know if I'm actually a China analyst at all. I could actually just be an extremely bored Europhile who pivoted to the more dramatic China side of Twitter after getting tired of arguing with other Europeans about God-Empress Angela Merkel ad infinitum.