A Chinese student has apologized after she referred in public to breathing "the fresh air" of free speech after arriving to study in the United States, sparking a storm of online criticism and abuse.
Yang Shuping said in a graduation speech at the University of Maryland that she had initially left China in search of less polluted air, but then had enjoyed breathing another kind of fresh air on her arrival.
"The air was so sweet and fresh and utterly luxurious," she said, according to a video of her speech posted on YouTube.
"The moment I inhaled and exhaled outside the airport, I felt free," she said. "I grew up in a city in China where I had to wear face masks every time I went outside, otherwise I might get sick."
By Tuesday afternoon, the video had been viewed more than 56 million times by users of the Sina Weibo social media platform and prompted a storm of negative comments.
"People like this, with biased opinions and broken English, should never be allowed to speak publicly as a commencement speaker," read one comment under the YouTube video.
Yang later issued a solemn apology on the Sina Weibo social media platform, asking Chinese internet users for forgiveness, official media reported.
"I love my country and hometown and am proud of its prosperity … I also hope to make contributions to it with what I have learned overseas," Yang wrote in comments reported by the tabloid Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the state-run mouthpiece People's Daily.
"In my speech, I just wanted to share my overseas experience," she wrote. "I had no intention of belittling my country and hometown ... I'm deeply sorry and hope for forgiveness."
Support for Yang
U.S.-based Yi Sulaiman Gu, a Chinese Muslim studying at the University of Georgia, said he supports Yang's comments.
"Yang Shuping's comments were in fact a comment on the necessity of freedom of expression and citizen participation in politics," Gu told RFA. "She was considered to be insulting China according to the received consensus of patriotic Chinese students overseas."
"But in actual fact, the China they are protecting is the Communist Party regime, which has seriously damaged the health of its own people with heavy pollution," he said. "The spirit of the Chinese people has been crippled by this regime, so I don't think Yang Shuping was insulting her country at all."
"It's the regime behind the patriotic students that is really insulting our country," he said.
Xia Ming, a political science professor at the College of Staten Island in New York, said the entire state propaganda machine, including the official media, has a distorted view of reality.
"They are obsessed with projecting the image of a rising superpower, which is really pretty empty," Xia said. "So, when you hit them on a sore point, such as shoddy building construction, they get very, very angry."
"And yet the highest echelons of leadership have already made their choices very clear, as their children and property and households have already been relocated somewhere else, somewhere safe," he said.
"So the elite is really cheating the ordinary people of China," he said.
Call for tolerance
Meanwhile, the University of Maryland called for tolerance: "It is critical to hear different viewpoints, to embrace diversity, and demonstrate tolerance when faced with views with which we may disagree."
"Listening to and respectfully engaging with those whom we disagree are essential skills, both within university walls and beyond," the school said in a statement.
The Global Times, which cited official government air quality figures, said many comments on China's tightly controlled internet hit out at Yang for "degrading China."
"How can a Chinese make such comments on her motherland while speaking to a bunch of foreigners?" it quoted one user as saying.
The paper also quoted a former president of the government-backed Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) as saying that Yang had "insulted the motherland."
The group, which is known to keep close tabs on Chinese students overseas to check for ideological aberration, is now calling on more patriotic members to make videos praising their hometowns to counter Yang's view.
The People's Daily website showed a story about criticism of Yang's speech as its most-viewed news item on Tuesday.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.