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Chinese Foreign Ministry Rebukes Student for Exalting Free Speech in Graduation Remarks

Screenshot from Yang Shuping's speech on Youtube.

“Democracy and free speech should not be taken for granted. Democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for.”

Just hours after she delivered an impassioned graduation speech reflecting on the value of free speech and civic engagement and concluding with the words above, University of Maryland student Yang Shuping triggered online uproar in China.

Netizens have called her a traitor and a “running dog of the West”. Party and state-affiliated media outlets and even foreign ministry officials are using Yang's speech to prove a recycled conspiracy about overseas Chinese students being contaminated by Western ideology.

The video of her 21 May speech, in which she spoke about fresh air and used this as a metaphor to exalt the free speech environment at the US university, was initially circulated by the WeChat public account of “North America Chinese Student Post”(@北美留學生日報 or @collegedaily). The post marks the speech with strong opinion, calling it “humiliating” for China.

With about 1 million subscribers, @collegedaily is notorious for spreading fake news about western countries,  which often reproduce gender and racial stereotypes as well as nationalistic sentiments. This, along with circulating a distorted translation of Yang's speech, is exactly what Yang has experienced since.

While the Chinese web censor has vowed to crackdown on rumors, media outlets that spread nationalistic sentiments are usually immune to censorship and can even help media outlets gain new followers. Yang's story seems to have done just that.

As the story about Yang “humiliating” China went viral online, her personal information — accounts on Instagram, Weibo, WeChat email, mobile phone number, family background, parents’ occupation and more, were identified and circulated on social media. On 22 May, Yang was forced to delete all the posts from her Weibo and issued an apology:

演讲只是分享自己的留学体验,完全没有对国家及家乡的否定或贬低之意,在此深表歉意,并衷心希望大家给予谅解,今后会吸取教训

The speech was only to share my own experience abroad and did not have any intention of denying or belittling my country and hometown. I deeply apologise and sincerely hope everyone can understand, have learned my lesson for the future…

Conspiracy theory spread by party-affiliated media

Her apology has not stopped the uproar. The next day, party-affiliated media outlets added fuel to the nationalist fire. China Youth Net, which is affiliated with the Communist Youth League, accused Yang of “betraying the country for personal honor.” People Daily’s affiliated commentator Xiake Island even associated overseas Chinese students espousing western values with spies.

In a 23 May WeChat post, he wrote:

有的人可能出于个人政治观点仇视现行社会制度,觉得他国‘空气都是甜的’,于是,便想通过间谍活动妄想颠覆现政权。

Some people, due to their own political belief, are resentful to the current social [political system] and they feel “the air is sweet” [a direct quote from Yang’s speech] outside the country. Hence, they want to subvert the state through spying activities.

Another comment from Cawang, a patriotic website promoting nationalistic scholars, further extended the “spy conspiracy” to the University of Maryland and its graduates in China:

(1)杨舒平在日常戏剧创作中也要从政治上抹黑中国;
(2)杨舒平背后的马里兰大学竟是与美国情报部门最紧密的大学,没有之一,甚至超过西点军校;
(3)马里兰大学竟然与xx事件幕后黑手之一李洁明关系密切,并设立对华培训项目;
(4)马里兰大学向中国培训、输送了仇和、张千帆,还有多少西化、推墙官员、学者在潜伏?

1. Yang Shuping also demonizes China in her theatrical activities;
2. Yang’s University of Maryland has the closest connection with US intelligence among all universities, the connection has surpassed Military Academy at West Point;
3. University of Maryland is connected to James Roderick Lilley [former US ambassador in China] who was one of the dark forces behind XX incident [1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement]. He organized training projects specifically for Chinese.
4. University of Maryland’s training has exported Qui He [a former Chinese politician who was sentenced to 14.5 years imprisonment in 2016 for corruption], Zhang Qianfan [a law professor at Peking University] and many westernized officials and scholars who wanted to change the political system.

While the first and second points in the Cawang post cannot be proven, the third and fourth merit some additional context. US diplomat and former CIA operative James Lilley was the founding director of the Institute for Global Chinese Affairs at the University of Maryland. He was openly critical of Chinese authorities’ suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests, but also opposed the US government altering relations with China in response to the crackdown. In regards to the fourth item, Qui He studied at the University of Maryland for several months. Zhang Qianfan attended University of Maryland from 1992-1994 for “advanced study in Laws.” Zhang has been very vocal in advocating constitutional reform.

On 25 of May, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang made a rare non-diplomatic comment on the incident:

Chinese citizens should be responsible for the remarks they make. This applies to not only China-related issues, but also other issues…When a citizen makes remarks on his or her own country, regardless of the occasion and the way, others can easily sense the feelings he or she shows towards the motherland.

I also notice that the above-mentioned student has made a statement or, so to speak, an apology later on. She said that she loved her motherland and wished to come back to make contribution to it after graduation. If this is true, I should say that, many young Chinese students are now studying overseas, whose views and perceptions of some things may change and evolve after going abroad. But as long as they love their country deep down in their heart and stand ready to contribute to it, I believe the Chinese government will encourage, support and welcome them.

In 2015, there were about 523,700 overseas Chinese students studying abroad and approximately 80% of the students would return home. The message of foreign ministry can be interpreted as a sign that the Chinese government will only welcome the patriotic students back home. In this case, it appears that “patriotism” is best expressed by making only positive comments about China.

Patriotic version of Yang's speech

How should Yang’s speech be rewritten to show that she loves the country? Many netizens are asking in Chinese Question and Answer platform Zhihu. Qin Xiaoming, a popular Zhihu rewrote the speech with sarcasm. Below is a partial translation:

很荣幸能代表2017届学生发表演讲。
请允许我先感谢我伟大的祖国,感谢党和政府,感谢国家,感谢人民。
没有党、国家和人民的支持,我绝无可能踏出国门,走上美利坚的土地,到此求学。…
人们常常问我:为什么要不远万里,来到马里兰大学求学?
我的答案只有四个字:消除误解。
西方国家,包括美国,对我的祖国存在较大,较多,较深的误解。我来美国求学的唯一目的,就是让各位看清一个真实的中国,而非你们印象当中的那样。
比如说,中国的空气。很多美国人都认为,中国的空气质量糟糕,各大城市都蔓延着有毒的不能呼吸的空气。
这一说法严重歪曲事实。
实际上,除了像北京、石家庄、济南、郑州、成都、杭州、上海、武汉、西安等在冬季存在少量雾霾,人们出行不得不佩戴专门防霾口罩的城市之外,我们也有昆明、拉萨等常年空气质量优异的城市。
谁说中国没有言论自由?如果我在此次演讲当中顺应了你们的误解,批判中国缺少自由,大洋彼岸在三小时之内,网络的言论即可随意对我进行辱骂,甚至对我的家人和朋友,进行辱骂。
不仅如此,一些媒体,甚至是看似专业的媒体,也会加入到批判我的阵营当中来,这样的言论自由,在全球都是少见的。
在历史长河当中,有很多我这样的远渡重洋求学的人,他们接受完西方的教育,归国之后,高呼西方国家的制度更为先进。
例如晚清留洋的那批人,例如离我们尚且不远的宣扬「德先生」和「赛先生」的那批人。
这些留学生一边宣扬着西方的好,一边指责中国的差。他们不但指责,他们还批判:批判中国的制度,批判中国的国民教育,批判中国的传统文化。
他们不但批判,他们竟然还推翻了自己的国家,搞出了流血革命。
你认为鲁迅爱国吗?胡适爱国吗?陈独秀李大钊爱国吗?
我认为他们统统不爱。…
真正的爱国者,绝对不会觉得西方的制度更好,绝对不会认为美国的民主和自由比中国更好,更绝对不会在中国去鼓吹什么德先生和赛先生。
真正爱国的留学生,是像我今天这样,向大家展示中国的发展,中国的好,而绝非和大家探讨中国的问题。

I am truly honored and grateful to speak at the commencement for the University of Maryland, Class of 2017.
Please allow me to thank my great mother country, party and government. I am deeply grateful to the State and to the people.
Without the support of the party, the state and the people, I could never step out of the country and come to America for study…
People keep asking me why did you travel thousands of miles to study in University of Maryland?

My answer only has four words: clearing up misunderstanding.
Western countries, including the US have many and deep misunderstandings about my motherland. My only objective to study in the US is to help you see a real China, a China different from your impression.

For example, the air in China. Many Americans believe that China’s air quality is very poor and all the cities are surrounded by toxic smog that cannot be inhaled.
Such depiction has seriously distort the fact.

In reality, only Beijing, Shijiazhuang, Jinan, Zhengzhou, Chengdu, Hanzhou, Shanghai, Wuhan, Xian and etc. are slightly suffered from smog during winter time when people have to wear masks that specially designed for smog, we have cities like Kunming and Lhasa with good quality all over the year […]
Who say China does not have freedom of speech. If I follow your misunderstanding in this speech and criticize China for lacking freedom, within three hours across the Pacific ocean, online speech can insult me without any restraint, even my family and friends will be insulted.
Moreover, some media which look professional would join in to criticize me. Such kind of speech freedom can rarely be seen worldwide. […]

In history, many had traveled abroad to receive western education. Apart they return, they claimed that western political system was more advance.
For example, those who studied abroad during late Qing period and those who advocated for Mr. Democracy and Mr. Science in contemporary time.
They not only criticized but had overthrown their state with violent revolution.
Do you consider Lu Xun, Hu Shi, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao patriots?
I don’t think so…

Real patriots would never think western system is better, would never think the democracy and freedom in the U.S is better than China. They would never advocate for Mr. Democracy and Mr. Science. […]

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