Chinese students on the arrest of Zhao Yan

I want to urge readers to head over to We Observe the World for a bird’s-eye view into the thinking of today’s Chinese university students. In particular, there is a series of posts on the recent arrest of Zhao Yan, the man who allegedly broke the news in September of Jiang Zemin’s impending retirement, that is absolutely intriguing. I am struck by the way the students interpret this incident, and by what seems to be an automatic tendency to try to defend the arrest and the CCP. There is also quite a bit of criticism of foreign journalists who have condemned the arrest, and a particularly angry reaction to Nicholas Kristof’s article about the incident, which bore the title China’s Donkey Droppings.

This reaction by the students is not an unusual or bad thing. As an American, when I hear foreigners level charges against my country I often feel a knee-jerk response at work, and I get somewhat defensive. (Much as I loathe our president, I am not of the school that America is the source of all the world’s evils.) So I can understand their impulse to defend their government and their country. (Don’t all of us feel that way at least to some extent?)

The similarities and subtle differences in the students’ logic and perspective on this one issue is quite fascinating. I am always cautious against generalizations like, “Chinese people think this way” and “Jewish people think this way.” And yet, there are some striking similarities in their thought processes and they all seem to reach similar conclusions.

As I read their posts, I had to wonder just how open they felt they could be. Were they afraid that if they were too critical of the government they’d get in trouble? Do they truly believe it’s the government’s duty to control the news that’s reported? Did they feel peer pressure to conform to one another’s opinions? Whatever the answers, it’s an interesting if at times frustrating read (and some of them write better than a lot of native English-speaking bloggers I know).

Please check it out.

The Discussion: 21 Comments

I had to stop reading after this line:
“All of it involves really sensitive topics that are banned and have to be banned in China.”
in order to keep my blood pressure stable.

February 4, 2005 @ 6:50 pm | Comment

I want to know why she wrote that. Is this the brainwashing we talked about in other threads? What’s behind it??

February 4, 2005 @ 6:53 pm | Comment

Dear Richard,

Thank you for the support. However, I must say that when this assignment was made, I did not tell them they were writing for publication; we were at the point where we were dealing with writing in the Op-Ed form and length. As they wrote their pieces, all of them thought that the only reader would be me, their professor.

It was only afterwards that I told them that with their permission we would publish the best of the some 60 papers on WOW. There was no peer pressure or government pressure to shape their conclusions.

Why is it that westerners think that if Chinese don’t conveniently believe as westerners think they should, it must be due to “brainwashing” or fear of government? Is it just possible that they are not craving revolution and American-style “democracy”?

In each of the article’s so far–and there are more to come–there have been thoughts expressed that have never been expressed on a public platform in China by Chinese students.

Anyway, thanks a million for the plug and link, my friend. Ellen and I miss you greatly.



February 4, 2005 @ 8:01 pm | Comment

Hi Joseph. I don’t necessarily see it as brainwashing, but this topic came up in a earlier thread, which is why I brought it up. And I realize they are not (all) craving Western-style democracy, which probably isn’t right for them today anyway. But I am a Westerner, and for a Westerner it is difficult to come to grips with a young person saying that the government should and must control the news. This is not a criticism of your students, but an observation and a question combined.

February 4, 2005 @ 8:07 pm | Comment

Actually, having read all of the posts by the students, I feel most of the writers are pretty much outspoken. Almost each post includes (some) criticism of either the openess in the media or the way the government has been handling this case. That most writers, while critical, at the same time also talk positively about the government etc is understandable as they still have to start their careers. The fact that they publicly write like they do is already a big step in the right direction.

February 4, 2005 @ 8:10 pm | Comment

The fact that they publicly write like they do is already a big step in the right direction.

I’ll buy that.

February 4, 2005 @ 8:23 pm | Comment

Dear Richard,

You know me well enough to know how strongly I believe in Free Speech; most of my public career has involved my strong defense of the First Amendment in America.

It is difficult at times for me to restrain myself from screaming my personal viewpoints about censorship of any kind during my lectures–actually, I do, but only as it applies to America, the only nation I am qualified in as an expert on journalism and a free press.

As I see it, my job here is to get students to think about issues they have either taken for granted or just assumed they should not voice opinions on–and to start talking about them and writing about them.

Please remember that something like WOW has never happened at a Chinese university before. Is there fear that we will go to far and get the Journalism Department at BFSU in very hot water and me sent home? You betcha, but we are forging onward until someone stops us.

I think it is important for readers to know that no one other than myself and the individual student authors see the articles before they go online. The deans of the department have so far given me a blank check with which to do my work of preparing the next generation of Chinese journalists. Whether I am succeeding or making a mess of it all will only be known in the years to come.

Thanks again, and all the very best,


February 4, 2005 @ 10:25 pm | Comment

I sometimes wonder how much of what we hear from people in china is a result of living in a world where only one side of the argument gets heard, and how much is the result of an unwillingness to speak out, and I’ve come to conclude that there truth lies somewhere in between and that many people only hear one side of the argument and are told that the other side is automatically wrong, so they don’t bother/dare to consider it.

People either don’t know that there is another side or are afraid of what may happen if they think about it, let alone voice it.

Any country that views democracy and political debate as being an unhealthy idea, has already walked too far down the side of the fork in the road for its people to be able to automatically able of appreicating that there are two sides to everything.

February 5, 2005 @ 2:16 am | Comment

These are by far not the most hostile response towards free speech, I should say. In fact, if Zhao Yan had not been working for NY Times, but for Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Urban News), then he could very likely be venerated as hero by the same students.

Donkey droppings may be a vivid Mandarin idiom, but that does not mean a ‘foreign evil’ like Nicholas Kristof has a license to use it, especially against China’s government. At the first sight at his column, I knew he had made a grave ‘mistake’ unforgivable by Chinese.

Yes, this thinking is illogic to the extent of absurdity, but Chinese do think this way. They know very well their government is corrupt and not working for them, even better than ‘foreign devils’ do, but they don’t like this truth is spoken out by foreigners.

February 5, 2005 @ 2:19 am | Comment

It’s human nature, when an outsider critisizes you, you rally round.

If Chinese reporters in the US started writing anti Bush stories I’m sure that a lot of otherwise anti Bush voters would defend him even if they would have agreed with the stories had they been published by US citizens.

You can’t blame somebody for telling an outsider not to poke his or her nose in to your business.

China is very insulare, change must come from within or it won’t be accepted.

February 5, 2005 @ 5:04 am | Comment


Maybe I’m lucky? Most Americans I meet are more than ready to accept criticism from an obvious foreigner. Some are harsher, frequently pointing to holes that I don’t know or I don’t have a critical view. Maybe not so representative, but it’s a rather healthy sign.

February 5, 2005 @ 5:21 am | Comment

If you feel disturbed reading comments by BFSU students, then don’t even visit Tsinghua BBS for the sake of your blood pressure. Some commenters there praise the government for its ‘surprisingly refraining’ that it ONLY killed hundreds of people in 1989 incident.

February 5, 2005 @ 6:30 am | Comment

My own note; I think a limitation of Western thinking vis-a-vis China is the poor grasp of the changes that have occured since Tiananmen. By changes, I do not neccessarily mean simply economic, but rather some distinct trends in Chinese social thought towards democracy. Particularly I am speaking of attitudes towards liberalism and post-modernism that seem to have made a retreat from intellectual circles within China. Nationalism has emerged, as numerous pundits have harped on about, yet it is not the racialist policy of the latter Weimar Republic but can be more accurately compared to that of the earlier May 4th movement. The difference between then and now is that this movement is no longer limited to China’s intellectual stratum but also influences nearly every level of society to some extent. That some American commentators have cried fascism, for some on the left and many on the right, is simply a manifestation of the lack of comprehension of the changes in China. Pre-Tiananmen, the more reform minded intellectuals of China found American liberalism to be the goal that should be striven for. An infatuation that stemmed from what I would describe as overly optimisitc hopes and naievity. In a ways this is similar to the attitude in Hungary prior to the 1956 uprising. However in the post-tiananmen era, this optimism has virtually dissappeared, oweing in part to what was essentially a profound dissillusionment with America and it’s political values as well as a core re-trenchment of the communist party and the gradual retreat of Marxism-Leninism as the guideing principal of the state. The attitude has resulted in a re-evaluation of democracy and ideas among China’s reformist classes, one distant from the shrill denunciations favoured by western pedagogues. The concept that democracy is impossible without nationalism has been somewhat forgotten elsewhere yet is being rediscovered within China. Nationalism in part fueled by China’s economic growth has only delayed aspirations for democracy, not abated them altogether. I would argue that a civic minded nationalism is integral before any dramatic changes in government if only to prevent chaos and the fragmentation of the state(I do not approve of any ethnic separatists mind you, so those espousing Tibet, Uighur, Mongolian, Hui, whatever will find little to agree with here). Yet when and if democracy comes, it will likely not resemble what could have been in the summer of 1989 and the attitudes and outlook of the new Chinese state will likely be very much different than what it was then, primarily in its attitudes towards America.

p.s. suffice it to say that there is a certain attitude of cynicism that has been adopted by Chinese students that was not there before. When the west, particularly the United States raises issues with China, many now see ulterior motives. An outlook I share whenever I read anything written by say Charles Krauthammer or John Tkacik about China. Maybe I have spent too much time reading articles and comments left at the Free Republic that I am turning into an inverse Bellevue who seems to enjoy perusing Chinese nationalists websites. ๐Ÿ™‚ Too much negativity shaping my outlook.

February 5, 2005 @ 7:01 am | Comment

Oh come on, I would rather visiting YiTaHuTu website, but they gave me a lots of headache: first they banned visiting from a foreign IP, then it still didn’t survive despite these precautions.

Jing’s observation of the shift of Zeigeist in China seems accurate to me. The trend even surfaces at elite level. Grab a copy of today’s Dushu (Book review) and compare it with a pre-1989 one and you get the picture. Yet, if you insist it’s a re-embracing of May 4 movement spirit, I think it would be a misread of 54, which was more democratic and iconoclast-minded and than on the nationalism side, though it’s sparked by it. My 2 cents, not old enough to offer personal testimony ๐Ÿ™‚

February 5, 2005 @ 7:21 am | Comment

As for Chinese students’ cynicism towards US agenda behind its call for more democracy, I share it if it’s from a Republican administration – and it’s fair.

That said, there is nothing wrong with the call per se, but everything wrong with the Neo-cons strategy trading America’s morality for short term gain and losing out the new century they vow to win.

February 5, 2005 @ 7:30 am | Comment

Joseph, I really admire what you are doing and that’s why I’ve directed readers to WOW several times and include them on my blogroll. I understand exactly what you are doing, and I think it’s a real breakthrough (and I hope other schools learn about it and create similar sites).

Will you be directing your students to read the comments here, or do you think that may be a bit too much for them? (My guess is, unfortunately, that if you routed your students here you could get yourself in trouble, and it’s certainly not worth it.)

February 5, 2005 @ 8:40 am | Comment

Jing, I seriously question the concept that democracy is impossible without nationalism. What definition of nationalism are you referring to? History would seem to suggest otherwise: that dictatorship is impossible without nationalism. This was true for Hitler, for Tojo, for Franco, for Mussolini, for Putin, for Jiang/Hu, and sadly enough increasingly so for Bush.

February 5, 2005 @ 12:26 pm | Comment

The critical thinking skills of the young are still developing. Their view of the “world” is hampered by a brain mass that is still growing.
And living in China gives them the double whammy of the Chinese education system, like the Koreans, based on rote, which in turn is promulgated by the CCP.
(Peter Hessler’s Book; “River Town” is a nice primer on this)

February 5, 2005 @ 3:55 pm | Comment

The critical thinking skills of the young are still developing. Their view of the “world” is hampered by a brain mass that is still growing.

How true. One more example of the blight Mao and the CCP wrought on their people, a result of a non-stop campaign to discourage any sort of inquiry and to induce uniformity of thinking. The CCP has realized in recent years that if they are to play on the global stage, they need to teach their people at least a modicum of problem-solving skills, so we’re seeing some improvements, albeit at a tortoise pace. It’s hard for me to now congratulate the government for improving a terrible situation that they created in the first place.

February 5, 2005 @ 8:48 pm | Comment

Dear Richard,

Your support of WOW from its very beginning has been appreciated beyond measure. As for directing the students to The Peking Duck, please notice the very short blogroll on WOW–The Peking Duck is one of only six blogs there, and it has been from the first day we went online.

At the moment, my students are scattered all over China for Spring Festival and Chinese New Year. Although we had an editorial meeting the day before most of them left for home to discuss this series, and other articles they would need to produce on holiday if we were not going to go on hiatus during the long break, I do not know how much time they are spending monitoring WOW. My guess is that they are busy doing holiday things.

I have received some new articles other than the Zhao Yan series which I hope to have up quite soon.

But, I can promise you that this comment string and your posts sending readers to WOW will be read and discussed. In fact, I will be teaching a brand new course this next semester: Online Journalism! I am announcing it for the first time here.

In other words, Blogging is now officially a part of the curriculum at BFSU, a major Chinese university. We will study a number of blogs, as a charter member of the “friends of WOW,” The Peking Duck will indeed be well-read by the journalism majors of BFSU.

On a personal note: I will get an over-due e-mail to you today, sorry.

All the very best, my friend,


February 5, 2005 @ 10:01 pm | Comment

Thanks Joseph — I (stupidly) forgot I was on the WOW blogroll, even though I get hits from WOW every day.

The Peking Duck will indeed be
well-read by the journalism majors of BFSU.

I appreciate it, and only hope I don’t gain too many new enemies. Please make sure they know how much I love China (something that you know more than any other reader of this site).

February 6, 2005 @ 9:48 am | Comment

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