Shuping Yang delivers a commencement address about free speech and democracy in the US at the University of Maryland on May 21. Photo: Shanghaiist
Shuping Yang delivers a commencement address about free speech and democracy in the US at the University of Maryland on May 21. Photo: Shanghaiist
2017 Spring Commencement Student Speaker Shuping Yang

On May 21, graduating senior Shuping Yang, a Chinese international student, gave a commencement address about free speech and democracy in the US at her now alma mater, the University of Maryland. Her speech sparked an uproar within Chinese communities both domestically and internationally. In her speech, Yang started with how she was amazed by the fresh air in Dallas and followed by explaining how she was encouraged to voice her opinions during her time at the University of Maryland. In the end, she encouraged her graduating class to participate in civil engagement and promote social justice.

After the speech, Chinese nationalist netizens accused Yang of flattering the United States and belittling China

After the speech, Chinese nationalist netizens accused Yang of flattering the United States and belittling China. Following the speech, Yang’s social media network, particularly her Weibo account, was filled with hate speech and personal attacks. On Monday, Yang apologized on Weibo: “The speech was just sharing a part of my experience studying in the United States. There was no intention to belittle my country and my hometown. I apologize if my speech was at any point misleading. I sincerely hope I can be understood and forgiven by the public.”

Based on this incident, I have outlined three important points regarding Yang’s speech:

  1. Overanalyzing: The lack of professionalism among Chinese media, which mistranslated and misquoted Yang’s speech to attract more readers.

When College Daily (《北美留学生日报》) broke the story online, the article was titled A Chinese Student Humiliated China in Her Commencement Address at University of Maryland: the Air I Breath in the US is Sweet. In this article, College Daily directly labeled Yang’s behavior as “insulting China.” However, there are ways in which Yang’s criticisms were accurate. By certain metrics and in certain regions, it is a fact that China does have worse air quality than the United States. Hence, Yang has every right to criticize Chinese air pollution in public. As Chinese citizens, we should accept her criticism rather than accusing or even attacking her.

In addition, College Daily said:

“Yang’s speech is surrounded by the two below points: Chinese air is dirty, but American air is ‘fresh and sweet.’ She was surprised by it.

  • Chinese air is dirty, but American air is ‘fresh and sweet.’ She was surprised by it.
  • China does not have democracy. Only in the US, she truly embraced democracy and freedom. She can speak and do whatever she wants.

However, these are all the points which American street tabloids use to describe China. Yang said similar things in front of everyone at the University of Maryland. She helped perpetuate the existing American stereotypes towards China. Yes, China has air pollution problems, but is American air quality really good? Then please fully embrace yourself in the smell of urine in the air of New York.”

College Daily’s reporting towards Yang’s speech is highly biased and even misleading. Her speech was taken out of context. For example, College Daily claimed that Yang “helped perpetuate the existing American stereotypes towards China.” Is the statement that China has bad air quality a stereotype or fact? Are College Daily’s claims misleading or not? You can make your own judgment after watching the speech.

Similar behavior can also be observed at the Global Times (《环球时报》). Global Times quoted Yang as saying “American air is fresh and sweet.” However, the way they translated this sentence in Chinese is in a tone which is normally used to satirize people who worship everything foreign. Yang said, “The air was so sweet and fresh, and oddly luxurious. I was surprised by this.” What Yang described is a similar feeling to what I had when I was shocked by how blue the sky is in Tibet when I first visited there. Therefore, the way the Global Times quoted Yang is inappropriate and lacks professionalism.

  1. Cyber violence: Netizen assumed the worst intention and launched personal attacks

 Some of the most popular comments under the Global Times’s posting on Weibo (translated from Chinese):

  • “Shit is also sweet. Take your time eating,”
  • “I just hope people like you all immigrate to the US and never come back to China. China does not need traitors like you.”
  • “Never come back! Enjoy the damn fresh air in the US”
  • “She was helping Americans to dehumanize China. She is from Kunming. There was no fog in Kunming!”

As a foreign student, I understand why so many people disliked and were even hurt by Yang’s speech. But we should not assume the worst possible intention of a student who just graduated from university and is addressing her graduating class in earnest.

Many netizens argued that because Yang was from Kunming, a city with far better air quality than most in China, she had no right to criticize the air quality. But people have different levels of sensitivity to air quality. Ginger Gao, a 2016 graduate of Colorado College, was Yang’s high school classmate. Gao said, “Shuping wore masks in China every day. She has severe rhinitis… Kungming’s air quality is also getting worse and worse now. I don’t understand how can people be so proud of it.”

Initially, I had hoped Gao could help me set up an interview with Yang. However, Gao realized that Yang’s Facebook account has been switched to “inactive” and no longer accepts messaging requests. In addition, Yang also turned off her WeChat account. Due to a speech which did not break any laws or moral standards, Yang, fresh out of college, has been forced to close all her social media accounts. This level of cyber harassment is uncalled for and terrifying.

  1. My Personal Reflections:

First of all, it is an undeniable fact is that Yang is a good student. She is a double major in theater and psychology with a minor in German. The University of Maryland was impressed enough to select her to speak at its commencement ceremony this year. As an international student, Yang has worked diligently to achieve what she has today.

Content-wise, Yang’s speech showed a relatively superficial understanding of freedom of speech and democracy in the US. She also lacks a more critical or holistic view of American society. However, everyone has a different experience in college. As an international student, I have never personally felt the level of freedom in the US Yang spoke of, but she may legitimately believe that. In addition, Yang, as a theater and psychology major, sees American society through a different lens than I do as a political science student. Regardless of what she said in her speech, the ways Chinese media reported the speech, and the cyber harassment directed toward her by Chinese netizens, are unacceptable.

At the end of the speech, the president of the University of Maryland, Dr Wallance Loh, invited Yang’s mother to stand up in front of everyone in the auditorium. I could feel that she was extremely proud of Yang.

My mother said to me, “the love parents give their children is unconditional. No matter what mistakes their children make, parents will forgive them.” This sentiment may not apply to all families in the world, but it is an important reminder in the wake of this controversy. I do believe that, despite whether Yang’s comments about Mother China are accurate or not, Mother China will not condemn her to the extent many have, and will not say something like “never come back home!”

Shiying Cheng

Shiying Cheng is a current student at Columbia Journalism School. Before that, she was an undergraduate student at Colorado College, majoring in Political Science, with minors in Computer Science and History. She was the former Website Editor and a News Reporter for her college's independent newspaper, The Catalyst. She is passionate about data, coding, and story-telling, and wants to impact the surrounding communities through the power of journalism.

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