I just came across a very interesting article in the Christian Science Monitor ( written by Anne Donohue, a Professor of Journalism at Boston University who spent 6 months teaching at one of China’s top universities (Renmin in Beijing). The article offers her reflections on the political attitudes of her students. She opens by saying:

“I’ll admit it, I was naive. Twenty years after the Chinese government brutally put down a student democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, I thought some vestige of that movement might still be found in China. But after spending six months in Beijing teaching journalism students at Renmin University, where several of the 1989 pro-democracy activists were once students, I found very few young people interested in carrying the torch of Lady Liberty.”

I think the article has some terrific insights re the thinking of Chinese university students. For example, the author states that:

“Rather than feeling horror about the [Tiananmen] crackdown, as most Westerners do, [her students] were more troubled by the chaos and social upheaval those 1989 students might have unleashed had they been successful. Stability and economic security reign supreme; other civil liberties might be nice someday far into the future.”

Later she writes:

“In a weird role reversal, the young students were the ones reminding me, the older teacher, to be patient. Repeatedly, they told me that China is a developing country, and that economic development might one day lead to some of the reforms I was encouraging. But when I reminded them that many developing countries – India, for example – have democracy and economic development, they were unconvinced.

One student boasted that China was going to build a high-speed rail system between Shanghai and Beijing, dislocating millions of Chinese in its path. In India, he lamented, this couldn’t get done, because the people would stop it. To him, and many young Chinese, democracy is too slow and too messy.

One student argued that China has too many peasants who are illiterate and couldn’t understand how to vote. Democracy could not work here, they insisted. I wonder what our forefathers were thinking when they entrusted the whole American enterprise to a bunch of illiterate farmers.

And for press freedom, these journalism students like the guiding hand of the government shaping the message that feeds the 1.3 billion Chinese.”

Much of this rings true for me. I think most university students in China are focused on practical issues such as getting a good job. They are proud of their country and do not put a high priority on seeking political change.

Most interesting to me though was the author’s reaction to these student attitudes vs. my attitude. The author writes:

“I left China discouraged. I wanted for my Chinese students what my American students take for granted: a chance to speak freely, to vote, to work in the field of journalism unfettered by the government. But when I asked my students, if in an ideal world, would they want the government to get out of their lives, the unanimous response was no. They liked what the government was telling them.”

I don’t find the attitudes of Chinese students discouraging. Part of the reason is that I have witnessed firsthand the dramatic changes in China from the 1980s. So in China today I see a society that has shortcomings when viewed from my American perspective. But it is a society which has evolved dramatically in a positive direction over the past 30 years and which continues to do so.

But second, I think I am more hesitant than the author to second guess the attitudes of Chinese people about their own society. I have not been shy over my career (or in this blog) in pointing out the shortcomings in China that I see through my American eyes. At the same time, ultimately, it is the Chinese people who have to decide whether they are happy with their current society and where they want it to go in the future.

In any event, I suggest you read the entire piece. It’s short and very interesting.

Explore posts in the same categories: China, Human Rights, Internet/Media

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