In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight, I traveled to Beijing to interview Elizabeth Knup, LRCCS MA ’87, who’s now working as the director of the China branch of the Ford Foundation. Knup details her journey from CCS to Ford, including her time working as the co-director of the Hopkins Nanjing Center during the bombing of the Chinese embassy in 1999.
Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard. This is Part I - click here for Part II.
Couillard: Let’s start with your background. Where do you call home?
Knup: I was born in Philadelphia, moved to Buffalo, then Rochester, but my family hasn’t lived in any of those places for a long time. Later I moved to NYC, which until recently was the place I’d spent the most time. Now that place happens to be Beijing. I’ve lived here since 2001.
Couillard: So how did you end up getting involved with China?
Knup: This is where I wish I had an amazing story, but really what happened was that I was bored with the languages I’d been studying previously – French and Spanish. One of my best friends, Mary, had recently gone to a language fair and came back all excited telling me, “Oh my gosh, Chinese is the coolest language ever! You can say妈骂马吗 and it’s actually a coherent sentence” And so two of my best friends and myself decided we’d sign up for Chinese, but when it came to fall of the next year, I was the only one to follow through. So to this day, Mary takes credit for my entire life in China.
So really, it was accidental. But once I started to study, one thing led to another and I fell in love with the culture. I studied abroad in Taiwan for a semester and then after undergrad I came to UM to get my MA through CCS, where I studied Chinese under the formidable Harriet Mills. I primarily studied language, and my master’s thesis was on the Chinese education system.
Couillard: Where did you go after that?
Knup: I ended up at the National Committee on US-China Relations, based in New York, the oldest NGO working on US-China relations – it was established in 1966. We did a lot of delegation exchanges, and conferences, bringing policy-makers from both sides together. Historically it is an interesting organization – for example, in 1971 when the US invited the Chinese ping-pong team to visit, the State Department couldn’t be directly involved as this was a people-to-people exchange and the US Table Tennis Association didn’t have the capacity to handle something so large and politically important. So, the National Committee was asked to host the visit, which turns out to have been the opening gambit in the normalization of relations between the two countries in 1979. [Editor’s Note: Since this interview took place, Knup has joined the Board of the National Committee. This year they are celebrating their 50th anniversary.]
Couillard: What were your earliest experiences in mainland China like?
Knup: I first went to the mainland in 1991. For most of my trips there, we were too busy to really do anything outside of work, so I didn’t get much time to explore other things. What was more interesting, I think, was in 1991 the first post-Tiananmen delegation from the Ministry of Education came to the US and I accompanied the delegation for nearly a month. We visited college campuses because they were interested in higher education, but they were also tasked with visiting Chinese students, an agenda I wasn’t super clear about. So of course, there were a lot of Chinese students who weren’t happy about what happened in 1989 and wanted to protest against these people. There was one instance where a protest was happening while we were trying to get to an event, and someone had filmed the whole thing. As we were headed to the airport, the delegation leader said to me, “I’d like you to make sure that doesn’t get on the news.”
Knup: So I said, “I’m sorry, but this is the United States of America, I can’t call up the news station and stop them.” He really had this idea in his head that I should have the power to do something about it. And of course, even if I did have that power, I wouldn’t do it.
Click here for Part II, where Knup talks about her time as co-director at the Hopkins Nanjing Center and director at the Ford Foundation!