Chinese student who praised US fresh air and freedom apologises after backlash in China

Yang Shuping’s graduate speech at the University of Maryland drew vitriol from Chinese internet users

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 12:26pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 3:15pm

A Chinese student in the US who praised America’s fresh air and freedom of speech in her graduation speech has apologized after Chinese internet users accused her of belittling her own country and told her never to return to China.

Yang Shuping studied at the University of Maryland and delivered her speech on Sunday celebrating the freedom of speech and democracy she enjoyed in the United States.

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“People often ask me, why did you come to the University of Maryland. I always answer, fresh air,” she began, prompting laughter.

“I grew up in a city in China where I had to wear a face mask every time I went outside, otherwise I might get sick. However the moment I inhaled and exhaled outside the airport, I felt free … at the University of Maryland.”

Yang, who graduated with dual degrees in psychology and theatre studies with a minor in German, continued: “I would soon feel another kind of fresh air for which I will be forever grateful. The fresh air of free speech. Democracy and free speech should not be taken for granted. Democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for.

“Freedom is oxygen. Freedom is passion. Freedom is love. And as a French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, ‘freedom is a choice.’ Our future is dependent on the choices we make, today and tomorrow. We are all playwrights of the next chapters of our lives. Together we write the human history. My friends, enjoy the fresh air and never ever let it go.”

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Yang’s speech sparked a backlash in China as internet users accused her of “belittling” and “discrediting” China in the US.

“I feel so ashamed of her humiliating our country in front of the whole university. China is such a great developing country and I’ve always been proud of being a Chinese. I don’t understand why the hell she’s doing this. What a loser,” wrote one Chinese commenter on YouTube, which is blocked in China.

Another commenter wrote: “She deserves a green card and [to] stay in US forever.”

Others said she was lying about China’s air quality as her home town of Kunming in southwestern Yunnan province is known for its fresh air compared with other regions in the country.

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

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Others denied China had a problem with freedom of speech.

Jiang Xinliang, a fellow Chinese student at the University of Maryland, posted on social media: “I would be so pissed off if anyone disgraced my country with deceptions. Eighty per cent of what Shuping said were deceptions and lies.”

Yang responded on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, describing the response to her speech as “beyond my expectations” and “deeply disturbing”.

“The speech was only to share my own experience abroad and did not have any intention of denying or belittling my country and home town. I deeply apologise and sincerely hope everyone can understand, have learned my lesson for the future,” she wrote.

“I deeply love my country and my home town, I feel extremely proud of my country’s prosperous development and I hope in the future to use my time abroad to promote Chinese culture, contributing positively for my country.”

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The University of Maryland released a statement on Monday standing by Yang, saying it was important for an “informed global citizen” to hear different viewpoints, embrace diversity, and demonstrate tolerance when faced with views they disagreed with.

“The university proudly supports Shuping’s right to share her views and her unique perspectives and we commend her on lending her voice on this joyous occasion.”