The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Chinese student praised the ‘fresh air of free speech’ at a U.S. college. Then came the backlash.

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

BEIJING — When Yang Shuping spoke Sunday of her eternal gratitude to the University of Maryland for teaching her about “free speech” and showing her that her “voice mattered,” she may not have realized just how much it mattered.

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.”

Accused by nationalist netizens of flattering the United States and belittling China, Yang was forced to make an apology Monday.

“People often ask me: Why did you come to the University of Maryland?” she said in her speech. “I always answer: Fresh air.”

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“I grew up in a city in China where I had to wear a face mask every time I went outside, otherwise I might get sick. However, the moment I inhaled and exhaled outside the airport, I felt free,” she said, referring to her arrival in the United States.

“I would soon feel another kind of fresh air for which I will be forever grateful. The fresh air of free speech. Democracy and free speech should not be taken for granted. Democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for.”

She spoke of the awakening of her “burning desire” to tell political stories after she first saw actors openly discussing racism, sexism and politics in “Twilight; Los Angeles,” a play by Anna Deavere Smith about the 1992 riots in that city. Before watching the play, Yang said, she was convinced that only authorities could define the truth.

Yang majored in psychology and theater, leaving China five years ago. But the country she left behind is one where the only permitted truth is that defined by the Communist Party and where dissenting voices are silenced. Online, leading liberal commentators have been largely cowed, and nationalists dominate the debate on social media, many actively encouraged by the authorities. They swiftly rounded on Yang.

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“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.

“Our motherland has done so much to make us stand up among Western countries, but what have you done? We have been working so hard to eliminate the stereotypes the West has put on us, but what are you doing? Don’t let me meet you in the United States; I am afraid I could not stop myself from going up and smacking you in the face.”

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The authorities’ delicate sensitivities also appeared to be hurt, with the Kunming city government posting Monday night on social media that the air in the city was “more than likely to be ‘sweet and fresh.’ ”

By Tuesday afternoon in China, the home address of Yang's family had been shared widely in the commentary sections of local media websites, on Chinese social media posts and even in replies to her social media posts. China’s normally hyperactive censors apparently found no need to suppress that information.

However, some Chinese said Yang was merely speaking the truth.

“You don't need to apologize. The meaning of studying abroad is to discover the differences and drawbacks of one’s own country. If you only believe your country is the greatest, then what is the point of going abroad? You are speaking about your true feelings, and this is normal. It is not normal to attack normal behavior like this,” wrote @Lijiayu in a reply that received 250 likes.

Others were critical not of Yang's comments but of the venue in which she chose to make them.

“This kid is too naive. How can you forget the Chinese rule about how to talk once you get to the United States? Just lie or make empty talk instead of telling the truth. Only this will be beneficial for you in China. Now you cannot come back to China,” @Labixiaoxin said.

The Chinese Student and Scholar Association (CSSA) at the University of Maryland, a student body loyal to the Communist Party, quickly produced a video posting pictures of blue skies in their home towns in China, titled “Proud of China UMD.”

An anonymous organizer of the campaign against Yang told the People’s Daily Online that the campaign was meant to show that overseas Chinese students “have never forgotten our motherland or who we are.”

“Insulting the motherland to grab attention is intolerable. The university’s support for such slandering speech is not only ill-considered, but also raises suspicion about other motives,” a former president of the CSSA, Zhu Lihan, told the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid.

According to the Institute of International Education, 328,547 Chinese students studied in U.S. universities in 2015-2016, a more than fivefold increase from a decade ago. Some argue that student bodies like the CSSA are manipulated by the Communist Party to put pressure on students not to criticize Chinese authorities.

In March, Chinese students and alumni at the University of California at San Diego opposed the school’s invitation to the Dalai Lama to speak at its commencement ceremony, threatening “tough measures to resolutely resist the school’s unreasonable behavior.”

But student groups have also tried to defend Chinese students against racially motivated attacks. In February, Chinese students at Columbia University made a video explaining the meaning of their Chinese names after an incident of vandalism.

The University of Maryland released a statement Monday saying it proudly supports Yang’s right to share her views and her unique perspectives.

“To be an informed global citizen, it is critical to hear different viewpoints,” it wrote, also including a link to Yang’s apology on her personal social media page.

“I love my country and home town and I'm proud of its prosperity,” she wrote in the apology, which has been reposted more than 60,000 times.

“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 home town. … I am deeply sorry and hope for forgiveness.”

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