‘Fresh air’ speech and Cannes red-flag frock fire up Chinese nationalist backlash

Chinese graduate apologises after storm of criticism over her praise of fresh air and freedom, while actress says her red carpet look was patriotic

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 6:16pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 9:25pm

A graduate from Yunnan who praised the fresh air and freedom of the United States and a Chinese actress who wore a “flag” dress to the Cannes Film Festival have found themselves at the centre of a nationalist backlash.

Yang Shuping, who studied at the University of Maryland, apologised via social media after saying in her graduation speech over the weekend that she had been drawn to study in the US by its good air and democracy.

She was accused of belittling her country by angry Chinese internet users who saw a video of the speech.

Meanwhile actress Xu Dabao turned heads on the red carpet last week in a bright red dress featuring the five stars of the national flag, prompting accusations from internet users that she had desecrated the flag. Xu also apologised.

In Yang’s speech on Sunday, she began: “People often ask me, why did you come to the University of Maryland? I always answer: fresh air.”

She went on to say that she would be forever grateful for “another kind of fresh air”, meaning free speech.

It provoked the ire of internet users, who accused her of “humiliating” China. Some suggested that Yang – who graduated in psychology and theatre studies, with a minor in German – shouldn’t bother returning to China.

Others couldn’t understand why Yang was complaining about air quality given that she’s from Kunming in southwestern Yunnan province, which is considered less polluted than other parts of the country.

Even the Kunming government weighed in, posting on social media that, for the year “up to May 8, the percentage of days with good air quality in Kunming was 100 per cent”. It added that “in Kunming, the air is likely to be ‘sweet and fresh’.”

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In response, Yang wrote on Weibo that the reaction to her speech was “totally unexpected” and “deeply disturbing”.

“The speech was only to share my experience abroad. I didn’t have any intention of denying or belittling my country and hometown,” she wrote.

In the other case, actress Xu also took to Weibo to explain that she had chosen to wear the dress in response to Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, with the idea of bringing China to the world.

Xu, who is known for hosting web broadcasts, said she did not mean to cause any offence but instead wanted to present a confident and patriotic image.

Chinese internet users said she just wanted to get noticed by “wearing the national flag on an international occasion”.

Her action was seen by many of those who commented online as a desecration of the flag. Chinese are taught as children that the colour of the national flag represents the blood PLA soldiers shed in the struggle to found the People’s Republic of China.

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