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  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 4:14am
NewsChina

Chinese students demand Biden apologise for 'insensitive' comments

'It was a humiliating experience. And how can a graduation speech be this political?' said a UPenn student, taking issue with Biden's comment that China cannot 'think different'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 May, 2013, 11:53am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 May, 2013, 2:53pm
 

Chinese students and parents are demanding an apology from US Vice-President Joe Biden for "insensitive" comments, weeks after he referred to China as the nation that cannot “think different” or “breathe free” during a commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I believe Biden should apologise over his inappropriate comments made at my commencement in the face of at least hundreds of Chinese people,” Zhang Tianpu, a graduating Wharton senior and Chinese citizen, told the South China Morning Post on Wednesday.

“It was a humiliating experience,” he said. “And how can a graduation speech be this political?”

Zhang and his peers have already drafted a letter to Biden demanding an official apology. The letter has 343 signatures as of Wednesday and will be sent to the university’s president before reaching Biden's desk.

Requests for comment from Biden's office have not been returned.

Biden’s comments, which were called "inappropriate", hugely disappointed the Chinese in his audience. They were delivered in the middle of his May 13 speech, reported by the Guardian as  “by far the funniest of the recent commencement addresses”.

But not everyone appreciated his jokes. Touching on the concern that “the Chinese are going to eat our lunch”, Biden assured his audience that they had nothing to fear.

“Their problems are immense, and they lack much of what we have,” he said, citing America’s universities, its “open and fair legal” system,  vibrant venture capital markets and innovative minds.

The key to all these, Biden argued, was the ability to “think different”, in a reference to Steve Jobs' slogan for Apple.

“You cannot think different in a nation where you cannot breathe free; you cannot think different in a nation where you aren’t able to challenge orthodoxy, because change only comes from challenging orthodoxy.”

To which Zhang argued: “Come on, my ancestors were challenging orthodoxy even before his ancestors got to America.”

Biden mentioned China a second time towards the end when he spoke of his 10-day visit to the Middle Kingdom. Of then president-to-be Xi Jinping, he said: 

“He’s a strong, bright man, but he has the look of a man who is about to take on a job he’s not at all sure is going to end well. I mean that seriously."

In a post that went viral on China’s social media, Zhang interpreted Biden’s message in the following words:

“So because China is ---- up, we are well-positioned. We are well-positioned to lead the world into the 21st century, ” he wrote. ”This is what I think he was saying.”

In an e-mail sent to The Post, Zhang dismissed criticism that he was overreacting.

“After four years of sweat and toil, after four years of spending Chinese New Year without your family, and after four years of eating tasteless food, you have finally earned this day when you can proudly graduate. But you know that all is worth it because you want to learn from an advanced developed country, something you can use to contribute to your hometown. So you decide to call up all of your friends and family to fly across the Pacific Ocean to celebrate with you on this special day. Then, on your graduation day, you get up super early, happily dress up in your academic regalia, and have your friends and relatives seated in the field, cameras ready, recorders turned on, all excited.”

“And then all of sudden, the graduation speaker, who is supposed to be there to congratulate you on your achievement, says to you: you and your nation suck. Regardless of whether that statement is true, how would you feel?”

Zhang had first ranted on China’s popular social media website Renren. His post has since drawn thousands of comments, from supporters and critics.

“Biden isn’t obligated to please China,” commented a reader. “And the right reaction is to catch up with America, instead of whining about it.”

“Don’t attribute to political agenda what can easily be explained by stupidity,” another wrote.

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impala
The very fact that Zhang, and so many with him, are studying in the US proves Biden's point.
VicSexton
"To which Zhang argued: “Come on, my ancestors were challenging orthodoxy even before his ancestors got to America.”" Ah yes, the classic Chinese retort to any criticism - 'but we have 5000 years of culture!'. I don't blame Zhang for feeling a little put out given the occasion but only the most brainwashed would dismiss Bidens words out of hand. As for Chinese challenging orthodoxy - not all that long ago the challenger & the rest of his/her family would be severley punished much like the DPRK today.
mcheung
Both sides are not without their merits. China does have a lot of catching up to do - otherwise, why is Zhang studying in America and not in China? In his own words, Zhang "wants to learn from an advanced developed country". And if China really allowed people to think differently, why are the Internet, media and even Hollywood films censored? Why are dissidents punished? It is understandable that Zhang is upset about Biden making such commments at his graduation, but are such comments really invalid? Everyone has different opinions - and who said American food is "tasteless"?
pokfulamphil
Why should the Vice-President of the United States apologize to a bunch of wealthy cadre kids who have the privlege to attend Wharton? He's speaking the truth. If you would survey the Mainland Chinese in the audience and if they would reply truthfully (doubtful), most of them are staying in the U.S.A. after graduation rather than go home to the "Mutherland".
rsallen
"“You cannot think different in a nation where you cannot breathe free; you cannot think different in a nation where you aren’t able to challenge orthodoxy, because change only comes from challenging orthodoxy.”"
Er...he's dead right. Instead of grandstanding and seeking apologies these students should be working for true democracy and freedom of expression in China.
caractacus
Free speech hurts liars the most. The reaction of the Chinese chauvinists who attack Joe Biden and America demonstrates amazingly ignorant double standards. Their resentment of Joe Biden is in proportion to his honesty. Through its amoral propaganda machine China makes the most outrageously unfair statements and tells unprincipled lies all the time, yet we never see these people finding the slightest fault with it. They cannot tolerate criticism of China's governing system which is essentially brutal and unjust, stifles free speech, punishes dissent and enforces universal abjection to a rotten ruling elite who abuse their power like medieval potentates and stash away billions in secret offshore accounts in the name of incognito companies every year. Yet they send their spoiled children to be educated in countries they hate while teaching their babes at the knee to hate foreigners. Perhaps this is not a modern abberation but the hallmark of an entire culture.
They sound more like the gangsters of German and Japanese imperialism of the 1930's and 1940's all the time.
caractacus
Zhang says "After four years of sweat and toil, after four years of spending Chinese New Year without your family, and after four years of eating tasteless food, you have finally earned this day when you can proudly graduate." Clearly, he does not think much of America, its food or people and probably hasn't bothered getting to know anyone except other Chinese. He obviously thinks he and the other Chinese are the only ones who count. America has news for them: they are not special.
It is doubtful if many Chinese students suffer any real hardship except some of those born in America of families with modest or low incomes, where merit and hard work, not connections, count for something. How many from the PRC are the spoiled brats of corrupt cadres? 80% of them are estimated to have cheated to gain entry to overseas universities with false education certificates and references.
How are foreigners treated in China? Not nearly as well as Chinese are treated in America. If they want to be respected they need to take a good hard look in the mirror, recognise the historical arrogance, conceit and endemic corruption of their own culture and try to change, but that is almost impossible for a mindset which cannot bear to face unpleasant truths about itself. If they don't like America they don't have to study there, they are free to leave.
newgalileo
While Biden might be somehow correct in his remarks, I blame him for putting it in a very undiplomatic way, hurting the feeling of the Chinese audience. He could have said the same things in a different way without offending the people. I often explain the need for the Chinese education – and legal system – to allow more opening up, creativity, innovation, independent thinking. But in a such a way that nobody feels hurt in its pride. I think he should indeed apologize.
thung01
I'm no admirer of Biden's, but to be fair, basically all that he said about China was "You cannot think different in a nation where you cannot breathe free; you cannot think different in a nation where you aren’t able to challenge orthodoxy". Of all people, the Chinese should be the first to acknowledge this. Maybe people were so offended because they knew deep down inside that this is true. If Biden had said something totally false (like "women are second-class citizens in China where they are not even allowed to go to college"), people would just have laughed.
pgb
At a commencement speech, it is hardly appropriate, if it ever is appropriate, to cast aspersions on the intellectual capability of an entire group of people. Not only is it rude and condescending but also borders on racism. On the other hand, it is prefectly acceptable to challenge an approach to national governance that is based on a lack of freedom of expression, limited rule of law and basic freedoms highly valued in the US and elsewhere, although it certainly seems like an unusual and insensitive thing to do at a very important celebration of achievement for the students, their families and friends from many countries.

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