How China can gain from clearing the air over freedom of speech
Audrey Jiajia Li says the backlash sparked by one young student’s graduation address cannot obscure China’s shortcomings on clean air or free speech, and airing such so-called dirty linen can only help society improve
Whenever a Chinese student gives a commencement speech at a major US college, it tends to draw tremendous interest back home, for the gratification of national pride it offers or simply as excellent English-learning material.
Unfortunately for Yang Shuping of the University of Maryland, the graduation speech she delivered, drawing a parallel between the air pollution in China and the country’s restrictions on free speech, became a nightmare for her.
Recalling her delightful first impression of America’s clean air, Yang expressed her appreciation for having the freedom to speak up. That saw China’s hawkish nationalist tabloid, the Global Times, label her an unpatriotic traitor who had belittled her homeland. Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily also weighed in, accusing her of “bolstering negative stereotypes about China” and thus setting off a storm of online backlash and abuse.
Watch: Yang Shuping on fresh air and freedom in the US
After all her private information, including even the home address of her family, was dug up and posted online, through ways the angry netizens proudly called “human flesh hunt”, Yang apologised, deleted all her posts, disabled both her Weibo and Facebook accounts and disappeared. No one knows just how traumatised she has been by such cruel cyberbullying.
To some, she was a liar grovelling before a biased Western audience, with her description of a smog-choked city where she had to put on a pollution mask whenever she ventured outside. Since she grew up in Kunming (昆明), a city that has a relatively acceptable air quality, her critics accused her of making things up, although her emphasis appeared to be on using air quality as a political metaphor.
When it comes to pollution, the majority of people in China are quite familiar with the life she described. In January, levels of hazardous sulphur dioxide in Linfen city, Shanxi (山西), a province known for its coal mines, surged to a peak of 1,303 micrograms per cubic metre.
The World Health Organisation warns that exposure to more than 500 micrograms per cubic metre for more than 10 minutes is hazardous to health. This paper has reported how air pollution has intensified across China, contributing to the deaths of about one million people each year (about 3,000 per day).
It is difficult to understand why those critics were so much more furious with Yang at her somewhat dramatised description than about the increasingly toxic air.
The answer may lie in the culture of “do not wash dirty linen in public (jia chou bu ke wai yang)”. Most of those who trolled her would admit that the US outscores China in environment protection and freedom of speech, but simply cannot tolerate watching a Chinese saying that in front of foreigners. This is similar to the scenario where a woman suffering domestic violence refuses to seek help until it is too late.
Two years ago, acclaimed Chinese director Jia Zhangke was shooting a public service message on combating pollution in Beijing’s hutong, when several old local residents suddenly showed up and yelled at bystanders: “They are filming our smog! Grab their cameras!” Make no mistake: the smog is “ours”. When dirty linen becomes something to be guarded no matter what, anyone willing to speak up is viewed as a troublemaker.
Thanks to the rise of government-led ultra-nationalism, fewer and fewer people are tolerated for “washing their dirty linen”. During the 2008 Olympic Games, several American cyclists had to apologise for wearing pollution masks as they arrived in Beijing, as this “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”.
Watch: ‘Smog refugees’ head south to escape Beijing’s pollution
Celebrity activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan who openly express political views not in line with those of the mainland ruling party are labelled separatists and boycotted.
More recently, ordinary people have started to find themselves at the centre of such controversies, such as the father in Shenzhen whose wife gave birth to quadruplets, and a mixed martial arts fighter who beat a tai chi master in just 10 seconds. Internet trolls quickly caused all their social media posts critical of the party to be censored and they both eventually fell silent.
There are those who deny the lack of freedom of speech in China, although the evidence is ample.
Just as Yang’s speech went viral, a Go match between Google’s AlphaGo and the world’s top player, seen as a measure of how far artificial intelligence has encroached on human endeavours, was censored. It was originally scheduled to be broadcast live on state TV but now can’t be found even on the popular streaming services. Media outlets were instructed to downplay any mentions of Google, as the company and its services are blocked in China over its earlier refusal to accede to the government’s request for censorship of search results.
Others questioned Yang’s moral ground as the US is by no means a paradise. Never mind the fact that Yang did mention the 1992 Los Angeles riots and America’s problem of racism, there is nothing wrong in praising the US for things it does better than China.
Society can benefit from honestly admitting that we lag behind in the areas of pollution control and freedom of expression, and having confidence in the ability to improve, just as the economic miracle in the last four decades has proven.
As sensitive as the topics of air pollution and freedom of speech may be, Yang merely expressed her personal views. She didn’t claim to speak on behalf of anyone else. The others are also entitled to their opinions. As proud citizens of the second largest economy in the world, shouldn’t we as a nation be more tolerant towards someone who dares to air society’s dirty laundry?
Audrey Jiajia Li is a filmmaker and columnist based in Guangzhou