By Melissa Mayers
Long before Beijing became the global city we know, Dr. Joan Kaufman was assigned there as the first international program officer of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in China. It was hard to live there in the 1980’s, she recalls, people were scared and cautious with foreigners.
She has now returned to Beijing as the new Director of the Columbia Global Centers | East Asia.
Throughout her distinguished career she has been, among others, a lecturer at Harvard’s Medical School and Kennedy School of Government, a consultant for the Rockefeller Foundation, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the UN, and most recently the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI).
I met up with Dr. Kaufman to get her thoughts on her new post at Columbia and her insights on the future of U.S.-China relations.
Congratulations on your new position. How were your first few weeks on the job?
Thank you. Really busy… but really exhilarating. I started September 1, so I flew to China and I spent the first week in the office there. I am simultaneously a visiting scholar at Tsinghua University for the Fall semester, so I am living in an apartment on campus there. And then I came back and gave a presentation at the AIDS Vaccine Conference in Boston, which was sort of the coda of my previous life in some way, my ten years of working for IAVI. Then I came here for the Global Summit this past week. So to say it was busy would be an understatement. Non-stop crazy, multi-tasking to the maximum, but definitely exhilarating and exciting.
What will your new role entail?
My job right now is just to learn the ropes and the programs and operation of the Center. We’re actively in discussions with many institutes and departments in schools around [Columbia’s] campus about launching new programs. We’re also looking at developing internship opportunities for SIPA students and new initiatives that will really take advantage of the China Center’s extended network on issues like sustainability, global education, and water. We have a fantastic SIPA alumni network in China.
I’d like to go back to your roots for a second and talk about how you got started. Was there an experience or event that sparked your interest in China? What was the catalyst?
I really began my China studies as a result of taking a summer school class at Columbia between my freshman and sophomore year in college, on Chinese art, which was taught at the Met [The Metropolitan Museum of Art] by a Columbia professor who was also the curator of the Asian Art exhibits there. It was such a great class and I was so taken with it—I was an Art History major at that time—that I ended up going back to school in the fall and taking everything Chinese. Starting with Calligraphy, Chinese language and then I took a Chinese History class. My history professor was actually Robert Oxnam who later became the Head of the Asia Society in New York. So my interest just sort of snowballed and I quickly became a Chinese studies major, graduated as an Intercultural/ Chinese Studies Major and went on to graduate school to do a masters in Asian Studies.
Tell me about the first time you visited China.
It was for work. The UN hired me when they opened their offices there in 1980. [Only eight years after the Kissinger/Nixon diplomatic initiative had opened up what was then called Mainland China to the world.] I was in the first group of U.N. people working in China. There were only about ten to fifteen international staffers at that time working with an equal number of Chinese staff.
How did the Chinese people receive you at that time, given that you were a part of that first international group?
Well, that was a very closed time. That was right after the Cultural Revolution and you know, I have always found the Chinese really warm and great to work with but at that time it was very closed. People were really very cautious with foreigners so there wasn’t a lot of personal interaction outside the office. People were really scared and very restricted in what they were permitted to do with foreigners. You couldn’t invite your colleagues over for dinner or anything like that.
So what was your social life like there?
If you went out to the restaurants, you had to finish eating by 6:30pm. There were only four or five places that were open to foreigners. There were only two places to go on Saturday night: either the disco at the International Club or the disco at the Nationality Palace. It was kind of a dark and dreary time. It was hard. Hard to live there then. Very isolating.
Did you ever go outside of your comfort zone or break the rules?
I spoke Chinese, so I had a different kind of life than many of my [foreign] colleagues. In order to see my Chinese friends I would basically dress up like I was Chinese, completely cover my face, and ride my bicycle over to their houses at night to see them. I would sneak into their apartments, which was not allowed.
Was there ever a sense that the Chinese government was watching you?
Actually, when I was living in the diplomatic compound I had this elevator lady whom I always assumed was just working for the Public Security Bureau, keeping tabs on who came in and out of my apartment. But everybody would say [jokingly], “oh our phones are tapped and the elevator ladies are the spies” and stuff. That was just sort of life in Beijing at that point.
But then I was on a beach vacation at this placed called Beidaihe, which is a couple of hours from Beijing, and I ran into my elevator lady on the beach! She was there because she worked for the Diplomatic Service Bureau and they were holding a retreat. So it completely confirmed to me that she was essentially working for the Foreign Ministry. It was very funny, we had this moment of recognition and it was like you know, the cat’s out of the bag.
And now the atmosphere there has changed?
Oh totally. It’s completely transformed. I have many, many close friends and you just go out, socialize. There is so much happening in Beijing now, and there are zero social barriers. Zero. It’s just like any other place in the world. If I were to compare 1980 to now, it’s almost unrecognizable.
Switching gears now…given your vast experience with reproductive health and population issues in China, what is your opinion of China’s One-Child Policy?
I don’t think they need the One-Child Policy anymore. They are entering into below replacement fertility at the same time that there is a big aging population. They have done such a good job with health care that life expectancy is really very high—as high as it is over here [in the U.S.]. They have a lot of older people and the working age population is shrinking disproportionately because of the One-Child Policy. They are going to have a high dependency ratio with the elderly population and a shrinking working age labor force supporting pension systems. I think that they should get rid of the policy and a lot of demographers and economists think the same way. There is not going to be a big surge in fertility if they lift the policy. People are not going to go out and have a lot of kids. It’s just sort of like the policy is hanging on, almost like a knee-jerk response. Just the fear factor that if they remove it everything is going to go to pot. But I think that the opposite is true and they really need to kind of smooth out the age ratio.
What are your thoughts on the future of U.S.-China Relations?
I think as China rises to a more important place in the world, the power to be intractable on certain issues is probably going to be more intense. There will be some tensions, which are probably going to get worse rather than better. Unless there is going to be significant political reform in China, it’s hard to predict whether U.S.-China relations are going to get better or worse. It’s going to depend a lot on what happens after this current Party Congress in China and what the next regime in China does and that’s going to start probably early next year. The Party Congress, an important political conference in China, will determine the new leadership line-up for the next ten years. And what happens there will largely determine China’s relationship with many other countries in the world.
What role can Columbia’s Global Center play in all of this?
Well, the future of U.S.-China relations is one thing and then the role that Columbia can play in giving China a bigger place at the table is another—trying to provide an entry place in the global discussion, and help provide a mechanism for China’s perspective on Global issues. I think that’s part of the process in shifting the balance and creating a mechanism for dialogue that is different than what other universities are doing in China. We can also play a role in trying to foster greater understanding about China and East Asia at Columbia.
If you could give an anecdote to describe one of the ways that China has transformed over the years, what would it be?
Comparing the traffic in 1980 to 2012. As a foreigner I had a car when I worked for the UN and there were not many private cars in Beijing at that point. I had a little yellow Toyota that I bought second-hand from the Pakistani embassy. There were no traffic lights on the streets, and you were not allowed to drive with your lights on at night. You had to drive with your parking lights on because of all the bicycles. You didn’t want to blind the bicyclists. So it was crazy, you were dodging cyclists, but there was nobody else on the road. It was me in my Toyota, a couple of other people, and these enormous limousines called “Red Flags” that all of the government officials were chauffeured around in. I used to be able to get from one corner of Beijing to the other in about 15 minutes door-to-door because there was no traffic. By comparison now, Beijing is just gridlock. It takes 2-3 hours to get from one end to the other.
That’s quite a change.
Well, at least you can turn your headlights on at night now…
Melissa Mayers is a former staffer of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). She is currently a Master of International Affairs candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).
Responses have been lightly edited.