HONG KONG: Speaking at the University of Maryland, Yang Shuping, a graduating senior from China, sprinkled her upbeat commencement speech with observations that drew warm applause: The air was far cleaner in the United States than in China, she said, and she could openly discuss racism, sexism and politics in ways that she had never before dreamed possible.
Growing up in China, “I was convinced that only authorities owned the narrative,” Yang, a theater and psychology major from the southern city of Kunming, told the crowd in a basketball arena in College Park, Maryland. “Only authorities could define the truth.”
The speech Sunday drew harsh criticism, however, from some of Yang’s Chinese classmates in Maryland and from legions of social media users in China, many of whom accused her of selling out her homeland. Even the city of Kunming weighed in, saying in a message on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, that her comments about the city’s air pollution were “not related to us.”
On Monday, Yang said she hoped the speech would not result in any personal attacks against her.
“I apologize if my speech was at any points misleading,” she wrote on Weibo. “I sincerely hope I can be understood and forgiven by the public.”
“The speech was just sharing a part of my experience studying in the United States,” she added. “There was no intention to belittle my country and my hometown.”
The episode appeared to show how, as more Chinese study overseas, comments that they make about China or its one-party government can spread online and prompt taunts, even threats, from other students or social media users back home.
There were 328,547 students from China studying at US higher-education institutions during the academic year that ended in 2016, nearly one-third of all international students in the country, according to data published by the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit organization based in Washington. That figure was about double the number of students in the United States from India, which ranked second on the institute’s list.
In a separate study that cited data from China’s Education Ministry, the consultancy ICEF Monitor said that 523,700 Chinese students had gone abroad to study in 2015, up from fewer than 300,000 in 2010. The study said that as many as 80 percent of the Chinese students who went abroad typically returned to China to work.
The Maryland episode is hardly the first time that a student or professor at an overseas university has provoked complaints back in China. Earlier this month, for example, a lecturer from Monash University in Australia was suspended after a Chinese student complained on Weibo of a classroom quiz that had appeared to insult Chinese officials.
In 2010, the University of Calgary announced that China’s Education Ministry had removed it from its list of accredited overseas institutions. The decision came weeks after the Canadian university had awarded an honorary degree to the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese government accuses of promoting Tibetan independence from China.
A planned speech next month by the Dalai Lama at the University of California, San Diego, has already prompted the local chapter of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association to threaten “tough measures to resolutely resist the school’s unreasonable behavior.”
In her speech Sunday, Yang said she had been relieved to find that she did not need to wear any of her five pollution masks in the United States. She also discovered, she said, that the freedoms enshrined in the Declaration of Independence were not the abstractions she had once imagined.