Chinese Student Apologizes For 'Fresh Air' And 'Freedom' Comments During Graduation Speech

2017-05-23
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Chinese student Yang Shuping delivers a graduation speech at commencement exercises at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland, May 21, 2017.
Chinese student Yang Shuping delivers a graduation speech at commencement exercises at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland, May 21, 2017.
Screen grab from YouTube video of University of Maryland graduation

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.

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Anonymous Reader

Dear Chinese students studying abroad, please bear this in mind. You can enjoy Freedon in the Free World but nevertheless you've been watched by Chinese spies. Commies will always be commies. When you go back home you will find out that Freedom that you used to enjoy exists no more in China.

May 26, 2017 07:59 AM

Anonymous Reader

Dear Ms Yang, please watch out if you go back to China. They're not kidding there as you know - communism - . I hope your apology could help you avoid loads of problem there.

May 23, 2017 04:42 PM

Wangchuk

from NY

It seems even in America, Chinese people don't have free speech. A Chinese citizen studying abroad can't criticize her govt or point out problems in her country without the CCP lackeys and goons attacking her online & coercing her into an apology. For all we know the CCP threatened her family in China too. The CCP doesn't tolerate any criticism of it or public dissent.

May 23, 2017 03:26 PM

Anonymous Reader

CCP can definitely take any criticism from all over the world. Netizens in china is not arguing about the air pollution problem they have but Yang lied. All Chinese admit they have air problem, but they can't tolerate this Chinese girl grew up in a city where is no smog at all.
No excuse for the harassments that Ms. Young is subjected to. I don't like her speech, but it's certainly not a defamation of China, should be protected by freedom of speech.

But still, her speech, in essence, is to take advantage of some well-known negative facts about China, not as a sincere criticism, but as a mere means to please an mostly American audience. She does tell a small lie when she says that she needs to wear face mask in the city (Kunming) where she grew up, which is not true since Kunming is a beautiful city. This can be easily fixed by telling the truth that the polluted city is actually Xi'An she went for college. However, growing up in a polluted hometown is obviously a better story than once living in such a city for a few years.

If she really values clean air, how can she disregard the reputation of her hometown, one of the few major cities in China that has clean air? She should've feel grateful for her hometown given her clear gratitude for the clean air in US, right? But when that will make her story a little less appealing to her new friends, she ends up showing no gratitude for her hometown which is a place that provided her clean air for most of her life.

Ms. Young is a smart young lady who obviously understands the importance of pleasing the right people. Nothing wrong with that. But doing so with no gratitude for where she comes from reflects certain character that isn't popular in Chinese culture. Hopefully, neither in American culture.

May 23, 2017 10:10 PM

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