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Chinese students show support for Chinese President Xi Jinping as he arrives to tour the National Graphene Institute at Manchester University in English in October 2015. Photo: AFP

Caught between two worlds: the dilemma of the overseas Chinese student

University of Maryland graduate’s controversial speech highlights predicament of China’s 800,000 overseas students, torn between admitting the country’s shortcomings and defending it against Western rhetoric

It began with a graduation speech praising democracy and fresh air. But once Chinese internet users caught wind of it, the eight-minute speech brewed into a nationalistic storm.

Internet users on the Chinese microblogging platform Sina Weibo slammed Chinese-born University of Maryland student Yang Shuping as a “liar” and a “foreigner worshipper” after her commencement address on May 21, in which she applauded the fresh air and freedom in the United States.

For an international audience, it was a shocking display of cyberbullying for a seemingly uncontroversial speech. But for long-time China-watchers, the reactionary jingoism was nothing new.

In 2008, Chinese internet users erupted in similar fury when Duke University student Grace Wang tried to mediate between protesters on either side of the Tibet independence issue. Earlier this year, they were indignant when the University of California at San Diego announced exiled the Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, as its graduation speaker.

Now, the anger is being directed at Yang.

“[Yang was] saying what the American audience wanted to hear” about China, said Lin Hanjing, a master’s student at New York University.

“Her words caused all the Chinese people who were present to feel embarrassed. Even though everyone knows China has lots of aspects that are not good, they refuse to be mocked by foreigners.”

Zhang Qian, a Dartmouth College graduate, said: “We complain about this country a lot when we’re back home in China. That’s just what you do – it’s like your family. When you’re with your family you argue, but when you’re with other people you defend your family.”

Lin and Zhang’s view on the Maryland saga is shared by many of China’s growing number of students studying abroad.

Almost 800,000 Chinese students studied overseas in 2015, with almost half opting to go to the US, according to Unesco estimates.

China was the leading country of origin for American international students for the sixth year in a row, accounting for 31.5 per cent of them during the 2015-16 academic year, data from American non-profit Institute of International Education showed.

Beijinger Lucy Gao, a student at Washington University in St Louis, said the incident confirmed to Chinese people back home their perception that international students “don’t love their country”.

“[Yang was] talking from a very distant perspective; it makes me feel pretty sad,” she said. “She shouldn’t [say] bad things about China in front of so many people who probably have some bias against China.”

Many overseas students also complained that Yang's description of having to wear a face mask every day as a child was misrepresentative of her hometown, Kunming, one of China’s least polluted cities.

It was the wrong speech to give on that particular occasion, according to Columbia University electrical engineering graduate Michelle Zhang, who left China for the US four years ago.

“Calling her a liar might be too much. But she definitely belittled China in front of the world,” she said.

Chinese graduates of Columbia University at its commencement ceremony in New York in May 2015. Photo: Xinhua

A sense of bewilderment at the way Americans openly discuss China’s flaws was enough to foster intense nationalism in Chinese students studying in the US, said Professor Susan Blum, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame.

“She is being treated as a traitor, she’s speaking ill of her family to outsiders. And so the family is kind of disciplining her,” Blum said. “In the last 10 or 20 years, there’s been a sense that it’s time to redeem China’s century of humiliation by celebrating all of its wonderful accomplishments – which are genuine.”

She said nationalist rhetoric from the US could make people think showing any weakness was dangerous, leading Chinese students to often feel they were “the representative of their country and some of them feel that it’s their duty to defend China”.

Eric Fish, author of China’s Millennials: The Want Generation, agreed there was a “lingering insecurity” in China towards the US, and “the West” more broadly.

“The anger seems to stem from Yang breathlessly praising the US at China’s expense,” he said.

When challenged about their country’s political and human rights situation, Chinese international students felt a natural impulse to defend China, Fish said.

It did not help that years abroad could make it difficult to relate to friends back home, who might perceive them to be “arrogant” if they said anything negative about China, particularly since only the more well-off could afford to head overseas.

Perry Link, a professor at the University of California at Riverside and one of the editors of The Tiananmen Papers, said it would be “a mistake to see the reaction of nationalistic voices in China as ‘anti-Western’”.

“The attitude is not opposition; it is rivalry,” he said. “They scold Yang Shuping but also know that she is right.”

Chinese students wave their national flags as they gather in support of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during his visit at Downing Street in London in June 2014. Photo: AP

The nationalistic reaction to Yang’s speech could be in part related to the Chinese government’s concerted effort to cultivate patriotism among its citizens around the world, including through the 150-odd Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) chapters.

In February last year, the Chinese Ministry of Education released a directive aimed at ensuring “positive patriotic energy” among overseas Chinese students. A “multidimensional contact network” should be built between the “motherland”, embassies and consulates, overseas students’ groups, and students abroad, it said.

CSSA chapters, officially meant to serve overseas Chinese students, reportedly have ties to Chinese consulates and are seen to promote a pro-China agenda, including by leading protests against the Dalai Lama as a graduation speaker this year.

In the wake of Yang’s speech, the organisation encouraged students to take part in a “proud of China” video campaign, in which University of Maryland students from China expressed pride in their home country.

State media also chimed in to comment on Yang’s speech – the state-run People’s Daily calling it “biased”, the tabloid Global Times ordering her to apologise, and the official Xinhua news agency doing an hour-long lives stream to “fact check” Yang’s remarks about the air quality in Kunming.

Amid all this, young online zealots known as xiaofenhong (little pink) started attacking Yang on Sina Weibo and even extended their online criticism to Facebook, which is blocked on the mainland. Yang has since disabled both her Weibo and Facebook accounts.

Su Zhiliang, head of the college of humanities and communities at Shanghai Normal University, said the government had kept a tight grip on patriotism through classes and textbooks, but he doubted embassies and consulates had much influence on the patriotism of the large numbers of overseas students.

“The best way for patriotic education, I think, is to focus on our problems and get things done,” he said. “For instance, if the smog issue remains the same, all Chinese would be unhappy, whether they stay or leave.”

Wang Huiyao, deputy head of the Western Returned Scholars Association, said he had not received any instructions on “patriotic education”.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular press briefing on Wednesday that the government had not issued any guidance for overseas students on what they should or should not say.

China’s embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment, and neither did CSSA chapters at Columbia, Harvard and Maryland universities.

Chinese graduates throw their caps into the air after the commencement ceremony at Columbia University in New York in May last year. Photo: Xinhua

While there is no conclusive evidence that Chinese students become more patriotic when studying overseas, a survey of 960 Chinese students at Purdue University – which enrols the third largest number of Chinese students in the US – found that 44 per cent saw China more positively after studying abroad, while 17 per cent viewed it more negatively.

Dai Simeng, a former exchange student at the University of Oklahoma, remembered feeling embarrassed when new classmates asked her why Facebook was blocked in China.

“After four years in the states, I recognised the issues and problems China has while being more proud of being a Chinese,” said Dai, who is now a data analyst in New York.

The furore over Yang’s speech may lead to greater self-censorship among Chinese students, Fish said, after they watched “this whole system [that] quickly sprang into effect to destroy this young woman”.

Leila Li, a Chinese student at Tufts University, said: “It is a pity that the spread of sensitive topics online is a phenomenon even more global than air. Before you speak, you have to be prepared to be a target.”

Zhang, the Dartmouth graduate, added: “In some sense, this is proving her point [that we don’t have freedom of speech in China]. You give a speech in a whole different country, 7,000 miles away and have a reaction back home like this and your life will be ruined. It’s ironic.”

Additional reporting by Sidney Leng

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Hitting too close to home