Mind your language when addressing foreign audiences

Two recent cases of Chinese nationals abroad highlights the need for people to think twice about what they say and do when in the public eye

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2017, 12:47am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2017, 12:47am

Those who are trying to impress or seek attention are bound to be over enthusiastic about what they say and do. Two Chinese women, one giving a graduation speech at a university in the United States, the other at the Cannes Film Festival draped in a bright red dress emblazoned with the stars of the national flag, have shown that truth. They have been widely criticised at home, prompting both to apologise. The incidents are textbook lessons of the importance of responsible behaviour when in the public spotlight.

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

University of Maryland psychology and theatre graduate Yang Shuping was understandably proud to be chosen to give the annual commencement speech. Such occasions require offering a measure of praise to the college and perhaps, for a foreign student, the host country.

Yang did that, using widely held American perceptions of China having poor air quality and suppressing freedoms to speak of the “freshness of the air” she felt living in the US. Her hometown of Kunming (昆明) was singled out, a questionable claim given its reputation for having relatively low pollution levels. The remarks, while winning applause from the mostly American audience, understandably caused a storm of disapproval on mainland microblogs, sparked a “proud of China” campaign among patriotic fellow mainland students and prompted the foreign ministry to remind Chinese that they should think first when making public statements.

Stop feeding the egos of China’s rabid cyber-nationalists

A similar fate befell Xu Dabao, an internet host whose popularity has won her film roles, after she walked the red carpet at Cannes. Her dress was explained away as being a display of pride in her nation, but such a show is more about getting attention. She certainly got that; there is great historic and symbolic meaning in the national flag and to treat it so flippantly shows ignorance of laws that make its desecration a crime. Hunger for fame is never an excuse for such behaviour. But nor is naivety or a desire to compliment. Yang did not deserve the overly harsh treatment she has been given by some Chinese. But the foreign ministry is right; people need to think twice about what they say and do when in the public eye.