Chinese college student Shuping Yang was chosen to give the student commencement address at the University of Maryland Sunday. She took the opportunity to praise the United States for the cleanness of its air compared to her hometown in China. Yang then praised the U.S. for the freedom of speech.
“I have learned the right to freely express oneself is sacred in America,” Yang said. She continued, “Each day at Maryland I was encouraged to express my opinions on controversial issues. I could challenge a statement made by my instructor.” She went on to say that seeing a play in which participants spoke about racism, sexism and politics opened her eyes. “I had always had a burning desire to tell these kinds of stories, but I was convinced that only authorities own the narrative. Only authorities could define the truth,” Yang said.
In case it wasn’t clear what Yang was talking about, she concluded her speech saying, “Democracy and free speech should not be taken for granted. Democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for. Freedom is oxygen.” While she never directly condemned the lack of freedom and democracy in China, her speech set off a firestorm back home. From the Washington Post:
A video of her eight-minute address at her commencement ceremony at the university went viral in China, attracting 50 million views and provoking hundreds of thousands of critical comments by Chinese netizens the following day. Even the People’s Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, weighed in, reporting on a crescendo of criticism of Yang for “bolstering negative Chinese stereotypes.”
“China does not need a traitor like you. Just stay in the US and breathe your fresh air. No matter how bad China is, and even though you are speaking of your personal opinion, as a student representative, it is irresponsible of you to paint an inadequate picture of China,” said @Mengmengadezhican.
Another popular comment expressed disappointment in U.S. universities, suggesting without any apparent irony that Yang should not have been allowed to make the remarks.
“Are speeches made there not examined for evaluation of their potential impact before being given to the public?” the commentator wrote.
By Tuesday Yang’s home address was being widely circulated and she was apparently receiving threats.
The Chinese Student and Scholar Association (CSSA) at the University of Maryland, which the Post describes as “loyal to the Communist Party,” created a seven-minute video in which Chinese students and alumni respond to Yang’s critique. You can view it here. What’s striking about the response is how many of the students focus on debunking Yang’s comments about the quality of China’s air. None of them directly address what was clearly the point of her analogy, i.e. freedom of speech is lacking in China.
The backlash against Yang was so intense that she issued an apology of sorts on Chinese social media. The Post translated this bit of it: “I hope to make contributions to it using what I have learned overseas. The speech was just to share my experiences overseas, and I had no intentions of belittling my country and hometown. … I am deeply sorry and hope for forgiveness.” It’s too bad she felt that was necessary, but perhaps it’s not surprising. She’ll soon be back home choking on the suffocating atmosphere of China’s one-party, communist state.