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. This is part II - click here for part I.
Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard
Couillard: So what happened after your job at the National Committee on US-China Relations?
Knup: I had often traveled to China, but I never actually lived here, and that was something I wanted to do. I got a job at the Hopkins Nanjing Center as the American co-director, and worked there from ’98-’01. Each year we enrolled 100 students—approximately 50 from China and 50 from outside China, primarily the US. Our faculty was also from the US and China. It was an experiment in the promotion of mutual understanding, which is incredibly hard to actually do.
During my tenure the US and China experienced one of the more trying moments in recent US-China relations – the NATO accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. That was a huge test for me and the whole center. It happened in May, and immediately all the friendly relationships among the students that had built up over the academic year became polarized with a stark division between the Chinese and American students. It tore the place apart and was hugely emotional, for 3-4 days. As administrators we tried to bring the students together and tried to talk them into understanding each other but it was a total disaster. Nothing we tried work.
But one day, some students, themselves, put a poster up that said, “Let’s meet in room 205 and talk about you-know-what.” Nearly the entire student body squeezed into room 205 and over several hours they had a discussion mostly about how it felt to be a Chinese person, or an American person, or simply a human being when watching the results of the bombing - people were crying, they were apologizing, and just letting out raw emotion. Almost everyone was able to make amends, while still wholeheartedly disagreeing with one another about the facts around the bombing.
The students could’ve just turned their backs and walked away from one another, but they didn’t. And that’s what the Hopkins Nanjing Center was trying to do. I didn’t really have anything to do with it, but it was an awesome story to watch!
I had a couple other jobs in business sector after that, and now I work as the country director of the Ford Foundation in China.
Couillard: What does that entail?
Knup: I run the operation here. We have four program officers and 17 staff, and make grants of around fifteen million dollars per year. A lot of our work funds research, and we’re interested in advancing social justice. In China that means a lot of research around public policy in service of a more just and fair society.
Couillard: Do you fund mostly Chinese organizations or US-based organizations working on China?
Knup: When we first started in 1979, we were mostly funding US-based organizations. In the mid-1990s we made the shift to making most of our grants to China-based organizations.
Couillard: What’s your vision for the China branch of the Ford Foundation?
Knup: That’s a tough question. There’s uncertainty about how the government will allow us to continue to operate here, so first of all my vision is that we’ll be able to stay here and support the economic and development goals put forth by China itself. I also want us to be as brave as we can be in choosing the organizations we support, without jeopardizing the relationships we’ve built with the local government.
Another thing I’m interested in is Chinese indigenous philanthropy. It’s growing a lot, but is very new. At some point, I’d like for us to put ourselves out of business in China by encouraging local philanthropists to develop enough that they don’t need us anymore.
Couillard: What issues do you tend to focus on?
Knup: We choose themes every so often, and inequality is the main thing we’re focusing on right now – looked at from an intersectional and interdisciplinary perspective. Each country is asked to analyze inequality in its own context. For China, we think about rapid urbanization, and work on social inclusion and economic security for people being urbanized, particularly women.
All people benefit from a stronger legal system and civil society, so we’re doing what we can to support partners who foster development in those areas.
Couillard: How do you negotiate serving the Chinese people without stepping on the government’s toes?
Knup: Our interest has always been seeking to understand what the broad reform needs are, as understood by the people here, while contextualizing that in the political context. I don’t think our mission is at odds with the government here. It’s just a matter of finding partners who can navigate the system in a way to address the needs as seen by the government that align with our values.
Ford has never funded extreme dissidents. Those people probably wouldn’t even want our funding. We mostly operate within the system, or at the acceptable edges.
Couillard: Are there any projects you’re funding right now that you’re particularly excited about?
Knup: I think they’re all awesome! It’s hard to pick out just one. I recently visited one project, so it is on my mind. We are supporting research and pilots around “townization” – the consolidation of several villages to form bigger conglomerations that are more urban. So the question is, how do you build a community out of these disparate groups? And how do these communities work with the government to address their problems? Who has voice and how is it expressed? It turns out that “townization” is a complex process!
What it says to me is that there are attempts to understand how state and society talk to one another, and to discover frameworks for doing that effectively. You can have a 30,000 foot view and say China needs to do this or that, but when you get to the ground and try to implement, it’s really hard. It is important to have an appreciation for how difficult social change can be.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more interviews!