The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why China is so afraid of Chinese students in the United States

Video of a commencement speech that sparked criticism in China and prompted the speaker to issue an apology. (Video: University of Maryland)

In 1944, amidst a crackdown on liberal dissent at home, the government of China launched a program to ensure the ideological purity of Chinese students studying in the United States. The government ordered that all students planning to go to the United States be first checked for political reliability and authorized Chinese officials in the United States to monitor the students and report back to China on their thoughts.

In the spring of 1944, American reporters got wind of the story, and the outcry was swift. The New York Times editorialized that the program appeared “totalitarian.” When a Chinese government spokesman defended the program, he only made matters worse. The Chinese government was not indoctrinating its people, he claimed — it was just teaching them table manners. The U.S. press howled in disbelief.

Here we are 73 years later, and it seems that not much has changed. Recent events involving Chinese students in the United States highlight that American ideas remain a source of anxiety to authorities in China. While China has obviously changed governments since World War II, free speech in the United States continues to be viewed with alarm by those in charge back home.

On Sunday, one Chinese student, Yang Shuping, spoke at the graduation ceremonies at the University of Maryland. A double major in psychology and theater with a minor in German, Yang did publicly what many Chinese students I’ve met in the United States have done privately: She praised America’s clean air and America’s freedoms. The United States may not be as exciting as China, my Chinese friends say, but what it lacks in buzz in makes up for in liberty.

“The moment I inhaled and exhaled outside the airport, I felt free,” Yang told the crowd, which interrupted her speech with applause. “I have learned the right to freely express oneself is sacred in America,” she continued. “I could challenge a statement made by instructors. I could even rate my professors online.” For her, seeing a play on campus about the 1992 riots in Los Angeles was a turning point. In it, she recalled, the actors spoke openly about racism, sexism and political issues. “I was shocked. I never thought such topics could be discussed openly,” she said.

Yang’s observations touched off a firestorm in China and even in the United States. More than 50 million people viewed her speech online. Chinese students associated with the government-backed Chinese Student and Scholar Association accused her of not loving China. More significantly, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, called her speech “biased” and quoted one observer as telling Yang: “What you gave is not free speech, but rumor-mongering and currying favor.”

Yang’s speech follows other attempts by Chinese-government backed organizations to push an agenda among Chinese students in the United States. In March, the Chinese Student and Scholar Association also criticized the University of California at San Diego’s decision to invite the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet, to speak at its commencement ceremony, threatening “tough measures to resolutely resist the school’s unreasonable behavior.”

The fact that the apex of China’s media — or other Chinese-government organizations – should concern themselves with the opinions of one of the 350,000 Chinese students studying in the United States or the invitation list for commencement speakers at a California university speaks to a deep-seated fear in China of American ideas. While there’s a lot of talk these days about China’s irresistible rise and the United States’ unstoppable fall, China’s government remains paranoid about the pull of American ideology on its people. Indeed, the past few years in China have seen an intensification of a crackdown on this ideology. Spooked in part by the “color revolutions” in the Middle East, the government is seeking to repress “Western thought” on college campuses and purge “Western thought” from college textbooks. “Historical nihilism,” code for anything critical of the Chinese Communist Party, has been banned, as has any praise of constitutional democracy or an independent judiciary. Chinese organizations that receive foreign funding, particularly nongovernmental ones, face increasing scrutiny as well.

To me, the interesting part of this story is how much it resonates in history, even farther back than World War II. China’s first diplomatic mission to the West set sail in 1872 and involved an educational mission to send boys to Hartford, Conn., to study military science, after which the graduates were expected to return home to help China fight against the depredations of imperialists from Europe and Japan. The problem, however, was that the boys soon became Americanized, shedding their Confucian robes for jackets and ties and cutting off their pigtails so that they could play baseball. Some even found Christianity. China’s mandarins accused the boys of becoming “foreign ghosts” and shut the mission down. In 1881, the New York Times bemoaned the end of the mission and predicted that “China cannot borrow our learning, our science, and our material forms of industry without importing with them the virus of political rebellion.” More than a century later, China is still trying to prove that it can.