The uproar in China over comments made during a university commencement speech shows no signs of slowing down. At the center of the hubbub is graduate Yang Shuping, who is drawing fire for an address in which she repeatedly used the idea of "fresh air" to contrast her life in China with that of her experiences while studying in the United States.
The backlash began on May 21 shortly after Yang made her remarks as she addressed students, faculty and families at the University of Maryland (UM). Yang was chosen to speak after earning dual degrees in psychology and theater, as well a for being a "top student", according to a university statement.
She opened the speech by saying she chose to study in the United States because of the "fresh air". Yang first used the metaphor to contrast the literal air in her hometown of Kunming versus that she found in the US. She then broadened the idea to include the "fresh air of free speech" she says she experienced while studying at UM, then extending her metaphor further to include the concepts of democracy and freedom. Yang ended by saying, "My friends, enjoy the fresh air and never let it go."
Reaction across Chinese social media was swift and often acrimonious. Yang has been labeled a US "lap-dog", someone who "insults the motherland" and far worse. Many anonymous posters on Weibo have also called for a "human flesh hunt" (人肉搜索) — the practice of scouring online and paper records of a person or family in order to discredit them publicly. Commenters took special issue with Yang's statement that "every time I went outside [in Kunming...], I might get sick," characterizing it as a disingenuous and exaggerated comment about a city often receiving high praise in the Chinese media for its air standards.
Perceived hyperbole led to more of the same, as government news outlet Global Times countered Yang, claiming that Kunming "enjoys high-quality air, with the PM2.5 always staying below 50". The administration of UM weighed in by supporting Yang, issuing a statement that read in part, "The University proudly supports Shuping's right to share her views and her unique perspectives and we commend her on lending her voice on this joyous occasion."
Other UM organizations were not so charitable, and the university's Chinese Students and Scholars Association asked other mainland students studying in the US to create videos supporting and introducing their home towns. Those who do are encouraged to use the tagline "I have different views from Shuping Yang. I am proud of China."
As for Yang, she issued a public apology in Chinese one day after the uproar began. As of this writing, an online statement purportedly made by Yang is making the rounds on social media. It reads, in full:
I love my country and my hometown, and I am proud of the prosperity and development there. I also hope that in the future, with my time spent abroad, I can promote the Chinese people, the country, and make a positive contribution. The [Maryland] speech was just sharing a part of my experience studying in the United States. There was no intention to belittle my country and my hometown. I apologize if my speech was misleading at any point. I sincerely hope I can be understood and forgiven by the public, and hope there are no more interpretations of my speech, or more personal attacks. Thank you!
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