My Year of Discovery at Columbia’s China Center for Social Policy

September 30, 2019 @ 5:11 pm
By Xuan HUO

Xuan Huo (left) with Professor Qin Gao (right) in the Columbia School of Social Work’s lobby

I first met Qin Gao, professor of social policy at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, at a symposium in 2016 at Nanjing University in China, where I am a Ph.D. candidate. The symposium was titled “Social Assistance in Chinese Societies,” and Professor Gao delivered the keynote speech highlighting key lessons on the Chinese social assistance system drawn from her book, Welfare, Work and Poverty: Social Assistance in China.

As my main research interests are poverty and social assistance in China and beyond, I was inspired by Professor Gao’s extensive research on China’s anti-poverty polices and their impact on the poor in our country.

After the conference I obtained a copy of her book and read it from cover to cover.

From Nanjing to New York City

Imagine how thrilled I was when Professor Gao got in touch and invited me to contribute to a special issue of China: An International Journal, which she was co-editing.

READ: “Understanding Welfare Stigma in China:An Empirical Study of the Implementation of Urban Dibao” (co-authored with Lin Mingang) in China: An International Journal 17.1 (February 2019)

And I was beyond thrilled when I had the opportunity to be a visiting scholar hosted by Professor Gao at the Columbia China Center for Social Policy, which is housed within the Columbia School of Social Work.

I then applied for and had the good fortune to receive a grant from Chinese Scholarship Council to support my 12-month stay in New York City.

Intellectual Highlights

I arrived in New York City at the end of August in 2018, in time to audit Professor Gao’s advanced seminar on inequality, poverty and public policy. In the course of observing this seminar, which considers U.S. social policy from an international perspective, I gained the confidence to carry out an empirical study of my own, focusing on welfare participation and mental health among Chinese adolescents but adopting a comparative perspective.

Also during that first semester, I attended a series of lectures hosted by the China Center and the Columbia Population Research Center (CPRC), which exposed me not only to new ideas but also new research fields. In the second semester, I attended Professor John Robertson’s fascinating course on social welfare policy, which afforded me a much fuller understanding of how social policy works in the United States, including its history and philosophical basis.

Another highlight occurred at the end of March of this year, when I had an opportunity to participate in the China Center’s day-long conference, “Caring for All: Challenges and Opportunities in China and Beyond.” Multidisciplinary scholars arrived from around the world to talk about their cutting-edge research on welfare- and health-related issues in China and from comparative perspectives. Many of the presenters emphasized the need to look at China from an international viewpoint—as a player in broader patterns of development, ideas, movements, networks, and systems across the globe. This approach made a deep impression on me. Likewise, I came away convinced of the need for multidisciplinary approaches for addressing complex social issues.

READ: “Columbia China Center for Social Policy Hosts Successful Conference on Caring for All,” by Yalu Zhang, Candice Yandam, and Yahan Yang

Research Highlights

The most thrilling and rewarding aspect of my visit was the opportunity it afforded to receive close mentoring from Professor Gao and to collaborate with her on several research projects. Building on our shared interests in how welfare participation might be linked to multidimensional outcomes for families and children, we used a new, unique longitudinal dataset to investigate the possible consequences of welfare receipt for Chinese adolescents. Through weekly meetings, Professor Gao guided me through the nuts and bolts of formulating and refining research questions and carrying out the rigorous statistical analysis required for our findings to be robust. While these research products are not yet ready for sharing, we are confident that they will break new ground not only for China but for international research in this area.

Another major project I have worked on with Professor Gao is a comprehensive examination of China’s ongoing grand campaign to eradicate extreme rural poverty by 2020. I assisted her with analyzing this campaign in both historic and international comparative perspectives, to highlight progress and discuss challenges. Again, I gained a great deal in closely observing and learning from the passion and craft Professor Gao demonstrated in conducting research on such a broad scale, for publication in a major paper put out by the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), a Berlin-based institute for contemporary and practical research into China. The lessons I learned from this collaborative effort will continue to inspire me as I pursue my academic career.

READ: “China’s fight against poverty: Rallying all forces to eradicate poverty by 2020,” by Qin Gao, in MERICS Paper on China: “Serve the people” (No. 6), 10.18.18, pp. 53–60.

The Many Gifts of a Year at Columbia

By the end of my one-year stay, I am deeply grateful to Columbia for having equipped me with the advanced tools and the inspiration to recommence my Ph.D. journey back home in Nanjing. I also feel I have developed an international network of scholars who share my interests in the Chinese welfare state—beginning with, of course, Professor Gao, who has generously shared both her knowledge and her contacts. I look forward to remaining connected with her and the Columbia network in the future.

Xuan Huo is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Government at Nanjing University and a research fellow at Nanjing University’s Center for Social Security Research. Her doctoral dissertation research focuses on poverty, social assistance, and the Chinese welfare state. She has been one of the main participants in several UNICEF- and EU-sponsored projects related to these topics.

Related link:

My Experience as a Visiting Scholar at the China Center for Social Policy, by Candice Yandam-Rivière (7.24.19 news article)