Martin de Jong has a ‘thing’ for China. As a teenager, he read quite a few books about the country. He devoured Robert van Gulik’s ‘Judge Dee’ detective series – about a Chinese civil servant at the Tang court – from start to finish. And by sheer coincidence, De Jong was asked to perform research into the collaboration between Chinese and Dutch universities while working as a doctoral candidate in Delft. Nine years on, we find De Jong married to a Chinese woman, with whom he has two children. He frequently visits the country – at least he used to. “We’re considered dirty by now.” By ‘we’, De Jong means all non-Chinese. He may have a Chinese wife, but since Covid first broke he is no longer allowed into the country. A measure that he finds efficient and unfair in equal measure.

Martin de Jong serves as Academic Director of the Erasmus Initiative ‘Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity’: one of the university’s flagship initiatives. De Jong also holds professorships at both Erasmus School of Law and Rotterdam School of Management. In addition, he is a part-time professor at the Fudan University’s Institute for Global Public Policy in Shanghai.

Lockdown

As early as March 2020 – before the virus had even appeared on a lot of people’s radar – he was convinced that the Netherlands would soon be dealing with its own Covid outbreak. De Jong, who serves as the Academic Director of the Erasmus Initiative ‘Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity’, had witnessed via his doctoral candidates and family in China just how quickly the virus was able to spread. “Things will be going south in the Netherlands too,” he thought, “and I need to tell people.” He got in touch with the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), the Royal Marechaussee and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and spoke with MPs from ChristenUnie, GroenLinks and Partij voor de Dieren (“parties that you’d expect to show an interest in this question”). But his warnings fell on deaf ears. “That was very disconcerting.” Unfortunately, the lockdown proved him right.

This was followed by a period during which he hardly went outdoors. His only break from involuntary domesticity was collecting his children’s homework – wearing a face mask, of course. He scoured LinkedIn and other websites to find as much information as possible about the new virus. Ultimately, he gained a handle on this abstract disease. He felt he could make a more effective risk assessment and started taking bike trips in the forest. Nowadays, De Jong can be found working on campus two days per week. He enjoys being back. “You can make do with memories of your colleagues for a while, but eventually you miss seeing them face to face.”

History

De Jong reads far fewer novels than he’d like to. In his spare time and in the evenings, you can usually find him immersed in a history book. He has a lot of catching up to do. At secondary school, he didn’t have History in his finals – which he regrets ‘in a particular way’. He would have like to have studied History, but shied away from this field for practical reasons. Or actually just one: he wanted to make a career. “If I had chosen History back then, I wouldn’t be working as the director of a research centre today.”

As a History student, he would have had hundreds of fellow students – many of whom would have outclassed him. He opted for a degree in Public Administration: “That’s where you found the ‘mousy’ types back then.” His fellow students didn’t really have fire in their belly, in his view. Looking back, he probably owes his own academic career to the rather un-spirited competition. “It wasn’t a conscious choice, but it proved quite convenient that a lot of them aspired to an anonymous job in the bowels of some ministry.”

Reading behaviour

Books read per year: 25

Last-read book: Colin Jones, The Cambridge Illustrated History of France

Favourite genre: History books

Key motives for reading: A thirst for knowledge and to keep his command of the French language up to scratch

Passionate

As a Public Administration student, De Jong was interested in the deeper layers of his field. He read books about how public administration had been set up in other countries, as well as books of a more passionate nature. One of his all-time favourites was Alexandre Dumas’s Camille, about a man’s doomed love affair with a courtesan. When the protagonist is ultimately able to get through to her, she is lying on her deathbed. De Jong is attracted to the scent of ‘forbidden fruit’ found in this kind of drama.

Personally, his sense of justice is too strongly developed for him to dabble in anything improper. He has become shrewder in his dealings though – more tactical – but he prefers to leave it at that. Some of his colleagues have published books about how to strategise your actions. The people around them started to keep an eye out for predetermined manoeuvres – making it harder for them to effectively implement their strategies. If you admit to using strategies, ‘people see behind you fairly quickly’.

Recognising patterns

De Jong is always thirsty for new knowledge. After his fears about Covid had subsided, he bought the book Epidemics and Society, which shows how epidemics have been just as important in shaping our societies as economic developments, politics and war. Two decades ago, the US Ministry of Defense already warned people that in the next millennium, historians would discover that the idea that mankind had almost eliminated infectious disease would prove the greatest misconception of the twentieth century. “This book doesn’t provide answers, but context rather. History keeps repeating itself. The fundamental themes never change – they merely present themselves in new guises.” Whether you’re performing academic research, playing chess or dealing with other people, it’s important to recognise patterns. “This helps you quickly get to the heart of the matter. Recognising patterns enriches you.”

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