23 April 2019
Yang Shuping says she was just trying to share her experience and had no intention to bad-mouth her own country. Photo: YouTube
Yang Shuping says she was just trying to share her experience and had no intention to bad-mouth her own country. Photo: YouTube

Chinese student praise of fresh air in US sparks uproar at home

Yang Shuping, a young woman from Kunming in Yunnan province who has been studying at the University of Maryland in the US in the past four years, recently delivered a speech at its graduation ceremony.

During the speech, she said in a soft and joyful tone that “I will be forever grateful — for the fresh air of free speech”.

While her speech received a lot of “likes” from lecturers, professors and fellow students, her remarks also, rather mind-bogglingly, drew anger and criticism from so-called “patriotic netizens” in China.

Some mainland netizens called her speech “a shameless act to kiss up to the American imperialists”, while others slammed her for publicly casting a negative light on her motherland in front of foreigners, thereby undermining the international image of China.

In fact, the hysterical tone of the mainland netizens, as well as the accusations and the words used by them against Yang on the internet were reminiscent of the way the Red Guards behaved in struggle sessions against “class enemies” during the Cultural Revolution.

The Daily World, an American newspaper based in Michigan, referred to the personal attacks and mud-slinging against Yang by her own compatriots as “intercontinental cyber-bullying”.

Completely dumbfounded by why her own people would be so outraged by what she said, Yang later published an apology over her “poor choice of words”, stressing that all she wanted to do was share her happy memories of studying in the US with the audience.

She said the speech was not intended to be offend anybody. Nor did she intend to belittle, bad-mouth or diminish her own country in front of foreigners.

What Yang said in her graduation speech was actually as gentle, mild and usual as it gets by western standards.

At the beginning of her speech, she said “I grew up in a mainland China city. Ever since I was a toddler, I have had to wear a surgical mask whenever I went out because of the smog.”

Then she recalled the moment when she first arrived at the Dallas airport four years ago as an overseas student. She threw away her mask immediately after she had taken the first breath of fresh air on US soil because it was no longer necessary to wear it. “When I took a deep breath outside the airport terminal, I felt freedom,” she said.

She went on to describe how stunned she was when she first watched a stage play called Sunset: Los Angeles at the university. She couldn’t imagine at that time that such sensitive issues as racism and politics, the two main themes of the play, could be discussed publicly and freely, something which is inconceivable in China.

She told the audience it wasn’t until she started studying in the US and got a first-hand experience of living in a free and democratic society that she began to truly realize that democracy and freedom are worth fighting for because “they are just as important and crucial to life as fresh air”.

I wasn’t surprised at all by how Yang’s values and outlook on life had been reshaped after she spent four years in the US.

In a society under one-party dictatorship like the mainland, people are often denied civil rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of access to information, as well as the freedom of the mind and discussion. These otherwise are taken for granted in the West.

Unlike totalitarian regimes, governments in free countries would never ban public discussions on any subject, no matter how provocative and controversial it might be. Nor would the authorities come after people who are speaking out against their own government.

The political establishment in democratic countries firmly believes in, and respect, civil rights. Above all, these countries have the utmost confidence and faith in their own democratic system.

In contrast, the communist regime in Beijing, which has been bragging about the success of the great “China model” through party propaganda, has continued to escalate its crackdown on civil society and against civil rights activists and lawyers ever since Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

The reason Beijing is guarding against its own people is that it doesn’t have confidence in the stability and sustainability of the political system it established in 1949.

As such, the only way it can hold on to power is by imposing terror and fear upon its own people as well as enforcing a nationwide information blackout.

And thanks to its intense ideological control, propaganda, information blackout and media censorship, many people in the mainland have become ignorant about universal values and various human rights to which every human being is supposed to be entitled, hence the hysterical reaction to Yang’s speech by mainland netizens.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 25

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ columnist

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