Protector of Pandas, Friend to Farmers

We’re sitting at a table in Rice Paper, the little Asian-fusion restaurant in Linden Hills.

When I asked Jim Harkness, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, if he would talk to me over dinner he said sure, I should pick the place. His house is in this neighborhood, I reasoned, and he lived in China for more than a decade. He heads up an agency that advocates for family-owned businesses. Rice Paper should be perfect.

The server hands me a menu and I study it for a second. “What looks good to you?” I ask.

“Well, nothing, actually,” Harkness says. He is staring at his menu, eyebrows beetling fiercely. Then he looks up. “Oh, I probably should have told you, I’m kind of an anti-fusion snob. I mean, generations went into creating authentic, regional Asian cuisines. Can’t we just stick to one? Why do we have to mess them up by mixing them all together?”

I have no idea what to say.

Harkness shrugs. “You never know, maybe I’ll be won over,” he says. “But I doubt it.”

He’s a young-looking 45, with a handsome, unlined face and dark hair. I attribute this to the way he’s lived: single, unburdened by so much as a cat, following a career path based entirely upon his whims and interests rather than mundane exigencies such as car payments, children, a 401(k). But no matter how solipsistic his approach, there’s no denying Harkness is doing great work.

He’s just returned, for instance, from a summit in Beijing where he was asked to speak about the trade relationship between China and Africa. I ask him for his position. He begins with a sketch of the history: “China’s leaders came up in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, during the Cold War, at a time when the country’s ties to third-world countries were based largely on the movement toward non-alliance. And a big part of their foreign policy has always been this notion of non-interference.” After several minutes, he shifts to the modern day: “In today’s world, a world of global economies, that’s a sort of naïve view and it ends up dovetailing very conveniently with a trade policy that’s focused on getting resources, like oil.” He launches into descriptions of the various groups opposing China and concludes with: “Frankly, I’m not terribly sympathetic to the U.S. or European countries saying that China’s motives in Africa aren’t pure because of our own 400-year history of plunder and colonialism, stretching right up to the present.”

He takes a breath. The server — who seems to have every table in this busy little restaurant — stops back to ask if we’re ready to order.

“Not yet,” Harkness tells her. “I’m formulating a theory about Chinese foreign policy here. It takes time.”

Finally, we choose two dishes, Plantation chicken and a Curry Plate with tofu, and agree to share. He orders a domestic beer (Rice Paper has obtained a beer and wine license since its “dry” opening in 2003), warning me to avoid imported Asian beers because most of them are awful.

“How did you end up in China in the first place?” I ask.

He looks perplexed again, then begins at the beginning.

Harkness grew up just a few miles away, in Minneapolis near 50th and Girard. His parents both were the children of missionaries — his father born in Mozambique, his mother in Korea — so their lifestyle, even with children, was peripatetic. Harkness attended Minneapolis Central High School when he wasn’t traveling with his family, and took classes in Chinese. In 1976, the year he was 14, he was selected along with a group of other high schools students from the United States to visit China as part of a “friendship delegation.”

“That was the era of ping-pong diplomacy,” he explains. “I think they ran out of other ‘welcoming’ things to do, so they invited this group of high school kids over, wined and dined us, took us to the Great Wall. I thought it was great. Had a mad crush on one of the female Red guards — unrequited, by the way.”

He returned, finished high school, and took up the Chinese again at the University of Wisconsin. In 1981, he traveled to Tianjin as part of an exchange program. But it wasn’t global politics that Harkness was interested in, it was ornithology. He was — and still is — riveted by birds.

While earning his master’s degree in sociology at Cornell University, he signed on as a consultant to the International Crane Foundation, based in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The tiny nonprofit happened to be launching a project in China and they were in need of someone who spoke the language.

Harkness glowers and announces, “In the mountain where there is no tiger, the monkey is king.”

There is a pause. “Which means?” I prompt.

“Since none of these salt-of-the-earth Wisconsin bird nuts knew Chinese, they thought I was some worldly sophisticate. I became their king. They’d find some Chinese scientist who didn’t speak English, and I’d be sent to translate and help him artificially inseminate black-necked cranes.”

Pages: 1 2 3