Fresh air and free expression in America: Chinese student’s commencement speech stirs up Weibo

Society & Culture

A summary of the top news in Chinese society and culture for May 22, 2017. Part of the daily SupChina news roundup "Did China kill C.I.A. spies? Plus: Chinese views on Iran."

Chinese social media today woke up to an unsettling commencement speech by Yang Shuping 杨舒平, a new Chinese graduate from the University of Maryland, on May 21. Yang began her speech by recalling when she first landed in the U.S.: “I was ready to put on one of my five face masks, but when I took my first breath of American air, I put my mask away,” she said. “The air was so sweet and fresh and utterly luxurious.” She went on to talk about “the fresh air of free speech,” and how she was invited to express her opinions “on controversial issues” in Maryland. She concluded her speech by saying, “Freedom is oxygen. Freedom is passion. Freedom is love,” which drew a big round of applause.

The speech received a harsh backlash on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. Many internet users accused (in Chinese) Yang of courting the U.S. by belittling her home country, and some urged her not to return home. A popular comment reads, “For her, even shit in the U.S. smells good.” Some netizens questioned the authenticity of her speech, noting that Yang was born and grew up in Kunming, one of the least polluted cities in China. The Kunming government also weighed in by writing (in Chinese) on its official Weibo account that “up to May 8, the percentage of days with good air quality in Kunming is 100 percent,” and “in Kunming, air is very likely to be ‘sweet and fresh.’”

Finding herself at the center of an internet firestorm, Yang apologized (in Chinese) on her Weibo account on May 22: “I love my country and hometown. I am proud of its prosperity. The speech was just to share my personal experience of studying abroad and by no means did I mean to insult my home country,” Yang wrote. “I sincerely apologize for the speech and hope for forgiveness.”