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In Beijing, Living the Story

COM prof talks about teaching journalism in China


Anne Donohue and her daughter, Katie, at the orphanage from which Katie was adopted in 1998. The plaque acknowledges a playroom Donohue and her daughter helped build there in 2005. Photos courtesy of Anne Donohue

Anne Donohue, a College of Communication associate professor of journalism, recently spent six months in Beijing on a Fulbright award, teaching her craft at the People’s University of China. She was accompanied by her 11-year-old daughter, Katie, whom she had adopted from China. Now back at BU, Donohue shared with BU Today some of her thoughts on the unrest in Tibet this spring, on the catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan province, and on the 2008 Olympic Games.

This trip was my second chance to visit China on a Fulbright. I’d been awarded basically the same deal four years ago, and three weeks before I was set to leave — boxes shipped, kids set up for private schools — my father was diagnosed with cancer. The trip was off. My father died three months later.

In the summer of 2005, we visited the orphanage where we adopted Katie in a small city in China’s Hunan province. We went to help build a playroom for the kids there. It was like summer camp for Katie, and she had a blast. We visited the town of her birth again this summer, and we went into the villages and talked to pig farmers and rice farmers. And this time, being a little older, Katie was a bit more aware of herself and her story. It was more real for her. She had, in fact, hoped to try to trace some connection to her birth family. But that wasn’t possible. And, in the local dialect in my daughter’s town, they say that Americans come to buy children and that Chinese sell children. That was disturbing, but that’s the reality.

Most of my time, of course, was spent in Beijing, where we were living on the 17th floor of an 18-story graduate student dorm. We had a three-bedroom apartment with a hotplate and no oven, no hot water, and a toilet that successfully flushed maybe three times during our six-month stay. It was a step up from camping, but maybe just half a step. Still, it was a palace compared to the dorms where my undergraduate students lived. They were packed in, six girls to a room. They move into this room as freshmen, and they stay there until they leave as graduating seniors. The girls have their computers on a sort of hospital tray that swings over their bed. Their rooms have no closets, so the hallway is the closet for the entire floor.

The thing that was the most lovely to me about Beijing was the outdoor life. People are out from 6 a.m. to midnight, dancing, playing music, strolling, or exercising. It was very calming to walk around the campus. It just seemed like a much more socially cohesive place to live, as opposed to the very atomized suburban experience of our life in Belmont.

On the other hand, the idea of personal space is very different over there. I never got used to the pushing and shoving and line cutting. In fact, the thing that made me the most crazy was going to the grocery store. It was just so incredibly noisy, with hawkers everywhere and the onslaught of the pressure and the noise and 50 people all with their hands on the same cantaloupe, and who’s going to get it?

I taught an undergraduate course on writing and reporting American-style and a graduate course on issues in American journalism. The graduate course covered a lot of interesting stuff: journalism history and legal and ethical issues that I was aware of as a working journalist, but had never looked at in depth. In that class, I realized pretty early on that a lot of things didn’t quite translate. For instance, if I talked about the McCarthy era, with Edward R. Murrow as a hero — well, McCarthyism seems like such small potatoes compared to the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution in China.

Naively, I was hoping my students would be leftovers of the Tiananmen Square students — you know, dissidents simmering quietly beneath the surface. But, in fact, most of these kids think their government is doing a very good job and are pretty pleased with things in China today. I mean, 10 percent economic growth every year for 10-plus years means a lot in your everyday world, especially compared with the history of upheaval and struggle in China in the 20th century.

The students can read the New York Times and accounts in Western media of human rights abuses in China, but they say, “That’s just the West beating us up because they’re afraid of us.” And the fallout from the unrest in Tibet sharpened the edges of the West vs. China theory. I felt a little bit under siege at that time, as a Western journalist in China, when the headlines every day were about how Western journalists hate China. I’d never anticipated how heartfelt and right-on-the-surface the emotions would be.

A few weeks later, the earthquake happened in Sichuan. We could feel it here in Beijing. Our building swayed a bit. I’d never been in an earthquake, so I didn’t realize it at first. But everybody else got out and filed out onto the street. And then the death count just kept going up every day. I think the final tally was about 80,000 killed. It was just this slow drip of horrible news. It was a national period of mourning. A week after the quake, there was a three-minute moment of silence for the victims. It was extraordinary to see this city of 20 million people just stop. Everybody just stood still. Trains stopped. Cars stopped. It was really chilling.

Exactly a week before the quake hit, I had been in Sichuan. And I signed up to be a volunteer there this summer, but I was never called. By the time I was available, they were looking for engineers and medical people. I think the initial feeling was huge support for China worldwide, and it kind of put all that Tibet stuff back in the box. But slowly this story about the schools emerged — thousands of the buildings that collapsed were schools, and thousands of parents around the province accused local officials and builders of having cut corners in school construction. This was getting front-page coverage in the New York Times but almost no coverage in the Chinese media. And so again, it was me talking to my students about what was right to cover and what wasn’t. It was their opinion that it wasn’t right to criticize the government during this period of mourning. Or they felt only Chinese could criticize China. They were very civil and polite all the time, but I do think they felt it was inappropriate for me to come to their country and criticize any aspect of it.

Meanwhile, Olympic mania was going full bore the entire time we were there. We went out to the westernmost province in China and those Fuwa mascots were still everywhere, on every corner, on billboards. In Beijing, it was building, building, building, and the day the games began, 8/8/08, was electric. The city was on pins and needles. Are they going to pull it off? And they did. They’ve been pretty much flawless games. From a journalist’s point of view, it’s a pretty dull story. They managed to pull everything off without any major drama.

I applaud the Chinese for a successful Olympic Games — not necessarily the government, which took draconian measures to make it happen, but average Chinese citizens who wanted to show off their country to the world with pride. I am glad that the world got to see some of what is wonderful about China, and I hope it will give the Chinese the confidence they need to continue to move forward and become accepted in the world community. But the veneer of the Olympic gloss needs to sink in deeper, and the Chinese government needs to do for its own people what it did for the Olympic tourists: clean up the air, improve living conditions, and treat its people with the respect, fairness, and dignity that every human being deserves, not just Western tourists.

In addition to teaching, Anne Donohue wrote articles about China for the Christian Science Monitor and contributed pieces on Olympics-related topics to WBUR and WGBH radio, including stories on the Olympic organizers’ claim that 90,000 taxi drivers in Beijing would be able to speak English; on the history and culture of sport in China; on the so-called wu shu schools, which groom very young children to be future Olympic superstars; and on whether the Olympics would be a democratizing force for China as it was for Korea after that country hosted the Olympics in 1988.

To read Donohue’s China travel blog, click here.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.


14 Comments on In Beijing, Living the Story

  • Anonymous on 08.27.2008 at 1:35 pm

    Thank you Anne. I can see that you try to view issues that are happening in China objectively. I am really appreciate that. I am a Chinese student and I do agree that there are lots of problems in China. That’s what I am here for. Also, I have disagreements with some of your points, something about your students’ opinions you comments. I think that’s ok. The different culture and different background induce that different understanding. We cannot compromise unless both of the two parts try to get knowledge of each other. That’s what we Chinese are doing. Hopefully, your story and your experience can do the other part. Spread understanding not hatred or rejection.

  • Anonymous on 08.27.2008 at 1:58 pm

    prof, Personally, I think


    Personally, I think your article is biased, very!

  • Michael Wurth on 08.27.2008 at 2:34 pm

    Couldn't Be More On Point

    I was just in China for a month before the Olympics and everything you have written here just seems like what I have been trying to say, only much more well written. China is such an amazing country, I really love it a lot and look forward to visiting it many times over but sometimes it is aggravating to see how much better the government treats foreigners as compared to its own citizens. Great article!

  • Anonymous on 08.27.2008 at 7:25 pm

    china needs care, needs criticism. your chinese students might be too young and too radical to understand the whole situation. i am 10 years older than them and i understand that criticism is essential for a government and country to improve…

    however, some media did go too far. the west need to understant that demonizing the chinese government is not helping at all.

    the chinese government has lots of problems but they definitely are NOT blood-thirsty vampires whose sole purpose is to suppress and torture and kill people. as we chinese see it, the government IS trying hard to run the country better to stay in power.

    i’ve been here for several years and was often suprised how hostile some media are towards the chinese government, and sometimes the chinese people. hope this will change over time, and just hope people here will gradually understand NOT only americans are entitled to love their country, SO are chinese people.

  • Anonymous on 08.27.2008 at 8:45 pm

    I am a BU alum who lived in China for six years. During that time, I’ve definitely had a chance to see the power of the media in shaping how we think. It is true that the Chinese media avoid covering bad news about the government. It is also true, however, that the US media tend to make broad generalizations about the Chinese government. As in all of life, nothing is that simple. This is even more true in a country as vast and diverse as China. Friends of mine, Americans, who work in government agencies in China will tell you that there really are government officials who care about the people and want to see change. But once a decision is made at a national level it must pass through many hands before it reaches the people in a small village–one corrupt official along the way and a plan meant for good can be ruined. This is only one of the many complexities China faces. So while China should by all means be criticized, those criticisms should avoid those broad generalizations that irk so many of my Chinese friends.

  • Marsha K. on 08.27.2008 at 10:24 pm


    Hi Professor! I got to spend some time studying abroad in China earlier this year- in Beijing actually so I loved reading your article.

    I applaud you for applauding the Chinese people and their optimism and excitement about the Olympics, which was really inspiring and touching for me when I saw it. I think that the government definitely has some issues to work out as far as the way that it relates to its own people (dissemination of information, various freedoms, etc) and to the international community- but I certainly hope, as you said, that the Olympics will catalyze change in a positive direction!

    I also encountered viewpoints similar to those of your Chinese students when I was in Beijing and I think that it’s rooted in respect for authority- elders, teachers, officials. In America many people openly criticize, and even ridicule their leaders and that’s accepted here but I didn’t see too much of that in China even when people did disagree with the government. Perhaps it’s solidarity or national pride but as an outsider I’m proud of the Chinese people and what they have managed to pull off- quite well, as you said- and I wish them all the best of luck in moving into an exciting new future!


  • Anonymous on 08.27.2008 at 10:43 pm

    After a decade in Beijing...

    Hi Ms Donohue,
    As a foreigner who has lived in Beijing for a decade now and traveled all around China, I have to say that you’re thoughts and observations are spot on. I was there in China during the Tibetan incident; I was there during the Sichuan earthquake, and I was definitely there during the inconvenient times of Olympics when traffic was tightly controlled. I was also there in Beijing when SARS hit, and it’s yet another example of the Chinese media concealing negative news from their countrymen. However, even though I am not was not born on China Mainland, I am a Chinese. So I can understand your frustrations because I can understand with both the Chinese side and the more liberal and Western perspective. With the Chinese, they are so used to being shielded from such news that they are too oblivious and don’t mind not having complete coverage of news. I love Beijing and I love China, but I also think you were spot on about the way the government treats their own people as an inferior level of citizens. There was one particular road that was connected to the airport that people involved in the Olympics had to pass, and all of a sudden before July 20th, the date set that all construction had to stop to improve air quality, and that road underwent construction without any prior notifications to the local residents who relied on that one road to get them into the city. Also, the new national exhibition hall was built under such a rush for the car exhibition because the local officials procrastinated until the last possible minute, the traffic and roads nearby were paralyzed whenever an exhibition was on due to the lack of preparation on the part of the government. But I’ve sidetracked…anyway, I agree with Ms. Donohue and overall she has an excellent understanding and perception of the workings of China.

  • Anonymous on 08.28.2008 at 9:26 am

    I am Chinese, and have lived in China and the U.S. for equal numbers of years and I agree that on the surface, these observations are true – the government controls a lot in China, and the people don’t seem to know or care about a lot of the corruption in today’s China. However, after talking to numerous Chinese students and workers this summer, I realized that the average citizen understands a lot more about it all than we do, than we think they do. Western media tend to portray Chinese citizens as unaware and fooled under an oppressive government. Honestly, to foreigners, Chinese citizens will always feel defensive about their country and express their pride in China first, which is very understandable that they want to show their love for their home to a visitor. The thing is, amongst themselves, however, there is a lot of very insightful complaints and debates over China’s politics, economy, media, etc. I’ve lived in Renmin University (People’s University) this summer, and have talked to students there. I went with the mentality of “oh, let me tell you what you DON’T know about our country because I’ve been living in the West, whose media is objective!” and I was immediately humbled after a few discussions. After opening up, the students express a lot of dissatisfaction about China’s education system, government, media country, etc. and they KNOW about how Western media portrays them, they KNOW that the West always loves to use Tiananmen as an example. What I found was that among students, they exchange many intelligent ideas about how China needs to improve. So what’s the real problem? The observations listed in this article are mere observations. It’s not like Chinese people don’t know that the things listed here are happening, including government controlled media, the Tibetan protests, the special treatments to foreigners, the poorly constructed buildings, the people cutting corners, government being corrupt etc. etc. In this day and age, information is passed around pretty quickly, even when censored by the government. Of course the people know, they live and work their whole lives there! So, no, China needs no more such superficial criticisms; the Chinese people are not ignorant, they know more than we’ll ever do about China itself. So we don’t need to say “China needs to change into what we think is a better country”, we really just need to say “we believe that the people of China are able to deal with their problems themselves”, even though the current Chinese government may not believe in its own people.

  • Anonymous on 08.28.2008 at 11:38 am

    I’d like to chime in and say to the first commenter that I agree with everything said there.

    I’m Chinese-American, born in China, raised in the US, and went back to China three years ago where I lived until now. I worked in Beijing in the English teaching industry, as a manager because I’m fluent in both Mandarin and English. As such, I came to realize that many foreigners — even those who’d lived in China for a few years — don’t get the full picture of how Chinese citizens themselves view their government. As Americans, we tend to vocalize our criticisms of our government quite loudly, and I think for the most part, we value transparency. But to many Chinese, there’s a strong sense of “our business” versus “public business”. My Chinese co-workers all knew a lot more about the behind-the-scenes workings of the government than Western media would lead us to believe. And they would share those observations with me, because they viewed me as one of them. They would not, however, share them with other foreigners who worked in the company, because they were outsiders, not part of the “family”. Of course, this isn’t always true, but it’s definitely something that I think the Western media doesn’t realize.

  • mega-baller on 08.28.2008 at 3:35 pm

    yes, chinese people do require government nanny to censor them, in america, we do all the self-censoring on our own,

    i wonder how many “important, hard hitting” articles donohue or berdik has had to bury on page Q6 of their publications at the behest of some fascist editor or at the behest of readership.

    newsflash, western media isn’t anymore “objective” than another type of media. knowledge is power. information is the currency of knowledge. the corporations that own news outlets enjoy the power controlling news gives them. the writers, the tiny little well oiled cogs do as their told, report on what is likely to increase readership.

    perhaps not since the “good ol’ days” of woody and berny and watergate, have journalist ever been accountable to anyone/thing other than a) the bottom line b) misplaced self righteousness [which invariably increases readership because doesn’t love living vicariously through the well spoken, self-righteous]

    as the comments reveal, cultural superiority manages to taint all concepts of the truth and -as if there weren’t enough problems with this notion of objectivity to begin with- the news is meant to be understood by sixth graders, which invariably means the level of public discourse never aspires to be anything better than middle school drivel. good job america.

    good news sells, and fear sells. the truth is boring. the victors write history, the losers are war criminals. today’s freedom fighter is tomorrow’s terrorist,

    journalists weild the pen, which is mightier than the sword, yet none of them are rigorous vanguards of “truth”- the power to mold public opinion should be given to the public, not a few mere mortals.

    bloggers of the world unite.

  • Lenin Martell on 09.12.2008 at 10:47 am

    Great profile on China

    I really appreciate Anne Donohue for her compelling story. I learned very much about China through her narrative. What happens to China regarding self-criticism also happens in other developing countries. We don’t like to hear from foreigners what we—as citizens or government—do wrong. This is true even when these foreign observations may help citizens grow and put pressure in the government to do things better.
    I am sure Chinese students were very lucky to have Anne Donohue as a professor. She definitely knows how to teach to tell stories.

  • Michael on 11.03.2009 at 9:44 am

    Your students have better critical thinking skills

    After reading several your articles, I’m sorry to say that Prof. ‘s Chinese students have better critical thinking skills than the prof. herself! Her point is: if her students question her viewpoints on China, they don’t have critical thinking skills and they’re brainwashed. If they agree with her viewpoints, they are as smart as her American students. I found something wrong here. On one hand, an American prof. with very limited language skills and no in-depth knowledge of China claims that she knows what China should do better than Chinese. On the other hand, Chinese college students who have been living through Chinese culture since they were born and living through and experiening over 2 decades of China’s transformation, the college students who’s parents have taught them a lot about China’s history, have their clear own ideas about Chinese history, including the Tienanmen incident AND Opium war, looting of China’s royal palace, burning of China’s royal gardens and many many horrible bullish crimes conducted by west powere when China WAS NOT ruled by a communist government. Chinese students obviously have a better historic perspective, perhaps due to their long history? They’re not naive, or as this professor thinks, easily been brainwashed. With her biased viewpoints, can we say that HER students are being brainwahsed about another country?

  • real fairness on 11.03.2009 at 10:07 am

    A Chinese article on Ms. Dononue's article

    I found an article written in Chinese in a Singapore newspaper. This article analyzes Ms. Dononue’s viewpoints and her mentality. I wish Ms. Dononue can understand it, or she can get it translated into a good English article. It’s always good and fair to know different opinions that it lacks in U.S. media when it comes to China. Below is the article titled “When An American Professor Meet Her Chinese Students”:


    美国波士顿大学新闻学教授多诺休(Anne Donohue)在中国人民大学执教半年后,发现学生们对1989年天安门事件的看法竟然和政府如出一辙,对“自由女神”火炬也没有任何兴趣。她为此感到不解,遂于5月12日在《基督教科学箴言报》发表了一番颇为有趣的议论。   


    对于学生们的这些看法,多诺休感到很失望,并且批评说,中国大学生缺乏批判性思维,喜欢听政府的话,盲目相信国家的发展进程,“我希望他们能和美国学生一样,也有机会自由表达、投票、在没有政府干预的新闻领域工作”。可是,“他们不知道的事情永远也不会知道”。而他们对国家的自豪感、对政府的拥护,正使他们危险地滑向民族主义。“我同情和钦佩这些真诚、聪明和善良的孩子,即使他们的国家想蒙骗他们,他们依然为自己所生长的国家感到骄傲”。 新一代大学生的自信   





    而这些学生的成长过程,正好遇到国力大幅提升、民族自信心空前增强。虽然他们不可避免地也会盲目或轻信,但却不大可能像中国开放初期那样,对任何外来的东西都是集体地盲目、集体地轻信、集体地拥抱。 中国和西方关系的缩影   


    不可否认,中国新一代大学生对外部世界的看法,在相当程度上塑造于国民教育和媒体影响,这在任何国家都是一样。但是,他们之所以和二十年前的大学生不同,是因为拥有属于自己这一代人的记忆。二十年前的大学生,碰上了中美关系的蜜月时代,因而对西方世界有着相当积极的看法和期待。而对当前这一代人而言,从90年代末至今发生的一些国内外重大事件,例如中美军机相撞、台海动荡与美台军售、九一一事件、伊拉克战争、拉萨骚乱、奥运会火炬风波、四川大地震以及中美舰船对峙等等,都是塑造他们对自己国家、对外部世界看法的关键记忆。   可是,在看待当代中国时,很多西方人依然生活在二十年前的陈旧记忆中,误以为青年学生对某些现状表达不满和愤怒,就是要和政府进行对抗、乃至与之势不两立。带着这种固定的思维模式去认识一个崭新的社会,结果必定会以沮丧和失望而归。   




  • snow on 11.04.2009 at 9:39 am

    Donohue's views are very biased

    All Donohue’s articles on China and Chinese are full of self righteouness and arrogance. It is so sad that perhaps she herself does not realize how seviouly she has been brainwashed by her own education and media for a long long time! Just think about major sources of her education about China: her schools (textbooks, teachers’ views about China and their non-understanding of that country, church and its attitude toward a non-christian nation/people, media (its extreme bias, dislikes, and very often almost hatred toward China). It is too bad people who have been misled about another country are also continuing to mislead other people, in this case, Ms. Donohue is misleading and brainwashing her students who will go into the profession of journalism.

    It is also so sad that while Chinese people have moved on, Ms. Donohue and her colleagues of American journalists are still living in the past , and they wish Chinese (young and old) to live in the past forever . However, Ms. Donohue does not understand that Chinese have great historic perspectives and they fully understand how hard for any government to manage a huge country with 1.3 billion population, 56 ethnic groups, limited natural resources, and 12 time zones. Though they critize their government for many things and wish the government can do better, they are also happy and satisfied with the government for making their lives much better in such a short period of time. They don’t hate their government if you really know Chinese people, including young generation.

    Another thing Ms. Donohue does not understand is (I wish journalists in U.S. and mainstream west media understand): their moral credibility in China has sinked to a very very low level.

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