While Carl Riskin was an undergraduate student at Harvard in the late 1950s, momentous changes were taking place in China. Led by the country’s Communist leader, Mao Zedong, China had embarked on the Great Leap Forward, an ambitious plan to turn the country into an industrial and agricultural powerhouse.
The approach, including the ill-fated “backyard furnaces,” brought economic disaster and famine. But Riskin was fascinated by it all, and went on to an academic career specializing in China’s economic development. He has been teaching economics at QC since 1974. At the same time he has published widely on China’s economy and is a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute.
Riskin has traveled frequently to China, where he has close friends. He learned to speak fluent Mandarin and does research from original Chinese sources. It’s not a particularly difficult language, he says. “I’m an avid pianist, so I don’t have big problems with the tones.”
As China moved increasingly to engage with the world, Riskin was put in charge of writing the first two United Nations Human Development Reports on China, starting in the late 1990s. (The Chinese authorities were most touchy about the section dealing with women’s issues, he recalls.)
In recent years the scholar has been studying income distribution in China. The big question now, he says, is whether the current worldwide economic crisis may undermine recent government policies aimed at “harmonious development”: reducing regional disparities, environmental destruction, and an over-reliance on exports.
QC President James Muyskens is focusing the college more on the borough’s Asian communities as well as on the study of the region, says Riskin, who is developing a new course on the Chinese economy. Beyond that, the scholar likes the role QC plays in providing higher education to immigrants and other communities that often did not have it before. “I’m very happy to be a part of that,” he says.
Favorite book: “This has changed many times. Currently, it is probably the great sprawling novel by Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing. It’s about race and music and the changing culture in the decades after World War Two. It rings very true to one who grew up in that period. The impact of racism on the lives of its main characters makes a devastating story. And no other book I know captures what the passionate love of music feels like the way this one does.”
Favorite music: Anything played by pianist Richard Goode. Riskin occasionally attends his master classes.
Courses taught: general economics, environmental economics, and developmental economics.