Beijing Normal University

This post is sponsored by the Beijing Normal University School of Social Development and Public Policy, an international program comprised of students and faculty from around the world. Visit to find out more.

Originally arriving in China via Nanjing in 1991, Olivier Ruelle left a career in public relations to pursue a master’s degree at Beijing Normal University’s School of Social Development and Public Policy. “This program changed my life” the 45-year-old Frenchman says. “I’ve found the discussions we have in class to be extremely attractive intellectually, sometimes even emotionally.” Through his classes at BNU, Ruelle developed his research topic on civil society and social media, which he is continuing to pursue in his current PhD program in Hong Kong. The Beijinger spoke with Olivier about his career change, academic research and the ups-and-downs of his past 24 years in China.

What was the topic of your Master’s thesis?
It was linked to civil society, which is a very complicated subject in Chinese because you’ve got different ways of translating it and different ways of understanding it. I picked up one movement which had been developing online. We had a really big movement online in early 2011. There is an academic called Yu Jianrong. The movement he launched in early 2011 was about abducted children, guaimai. Before that, there was a very famous journalist who launched a movement, ‘Weibo against abduction,’ (Weibodaguai) and that was the end of 2010. A few months later Yu Jianrong launched another movement called Shuishou Paizhao Jiejiu Qitao Ertong (which would translate into ‘Take Pictures to Save Begging Street Children’). [The movement’s aim was to] take pictures of children along the road who are begging so one might actually have a chance to save a child who has been abducted. There are thousands of cases of child abductions in China every year – the main goal of this [campaign] was to make the problem visible. 

A good recent example of a [similar campaign] is a film that premiers this March called Lost and Love (Shigu 失孤), with Andy Lau, which is exactly about this issue. [In the film] the [protagonists] lost their child after he gets abducted and they don’t see him for 15 years. 

My topic focused on how the authorities have reacted to this problem and the important role of [social media platforms like] Weibo in these [cases]. It has made me extremely interested in civil society issues – not [from the standpoint] of “versus” but rather [from the perspective of] cooperating with the state, especially with local governments. My research is currently focusing on the journalist, Deng Fei (邓飞), who launched ‘Weibo against abduction’ and is now involved in many other actions.

Why did you decide to leave the corporate world for academia?
Firstly, I don’t think most [people] would make such a change. In my case it was because I found attending classes and discussions to be intellectually and even emotionally [stimulating]. It was not just [about] the intellectual [side] – [but also] the exchanges taking place between students and the professor(s). At time we had really excellent discussions, and at times there was more traditional teaching with less discussion, but there was always a discussion. [It’s] very engaging intellectually to have these exchanges with people who have been in China longer, people who know China very well, like our professors, and students who have just arrived in China for the first time and know very little about the country.

You’ve been in China quite a long time – how does it compare with when you first arrived – what observations and experiences strike you the most?
The first time I came to China was to Nanjing in 1991. I really liked the slow pace, the quietness, and how people [took] their time. Now that is completely gone. Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai – all the big cities are not quiet and slow-paced anymore.    

I also really love the language, Chinese is just absolutely fascinating. I believe it’s an incredibly playful and flexible language. In some ways I would say this country is very playful and very flexible. These are the things I like a lot now about this country. 

Can you give any examples of playfulness and flexibleness?
The way Chinese people play on words is just incredible. It’s very difficult for us foreigners to understand because it requires a level of language that is really hard to reach. But you can make so much fun of things with this language. You can play with the homonyms, etc. – I think it’s fantastic.

As for flexibility, [consider my experience in the] corporate world. Say you have 24 hours before the event and you have the feeling that the stage of achievement of what is supposed to be ready in 24 hours is what should have been done two weeks ago. That’s China. In the last 24 hours maybe in the last minute, everything will be ready. As long as you’ve agreed with somebody to do it, even if it looks like a disaster 24 hours before the deadline, there is a way, there’s always a way. It would look as good as the best organized people would have wished. In China, you should not get too nervous because there is a very high probability that things are going to get fixed at some point. 

Do you have any advice for new students considering the program?
First of all I would tell them that if they would like to have a broad approach to developmental studies with many illustrations of how China is doing it, then this program is an excellent way of starting – especially when you know you will have even more involvement with China in the future. This program gives you a lot of knowledge and understanding about what’s going on in China, and it’s ideal for people who only want to spend two years here. 

The program will also give you the opportunity to talk with professors from different backgrounds. For example, the professor for public policy has thirty years of experience behind him so it was very interesting [to take his classes]. The Chinese politics professor was brilliant for the discussions, so the exchange made it really enriching.

[I really appreciated all of] the things we had to study in the program, not just China. Very often China is used as a reference, but it’s not just about China – we are able to take examples [and learn] from all the student and professors from around the world.

Read more stories about the people involved in Beijing Normal University's School of Social Development and Public Policy here.

Photos: Courtesy of Beijing Normal University

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