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Fresh Air and the Air of Free Speech: Shuping Yang’s Speech Brings Controversy, Criticism

A commencement speech given at University of Maryland by an exchange student has gone internationally viral in just a matter of days, but with viral fame came backlash. Folks from Shuping Yang’s homeland, China, disagreed with a number of political references and points that she made during her speech about freedom of expression and differences between America and China. Below is an article translated from, one of the first Chinese articles to come up in a quick search about Shuping Yang’s speech, as well as some trending comments about her from the popular site Weibo.

Female Chinese Foreign Exchange Student Discusses “Freedom” at Commencement, Caught in a Cross fire. Public Full Speech Text (Video)

“The air here is very fresh and sweet

A female exchange student studying in America said at her commencement ceremony: “The moment I got to the airport and took a breath, I experienced freedom.” This young lady was studying abroad at the University of Maryland, and also discussed her college experiences with another type of fresh, sweet air: the air of freedom of speech 

On May 21st in America, Chinese exchange student Shuping Yang graduated from the University of Maryland. During the commencement ceremony, she wrote a letter filled with intense emotion, narrating her feelings towards the fresh and sweet American air and the profound influence of freedom of speech.
During her speech, Shuping Yang said “People often ask me ‘Why did you come to the University of Maryland?’. I always answer, ‘Because of the fresh air.'”.

“Every day at University of Maryland, I was encouraged to express my own thoughts on controversial topics, question the professor’s opinions, and could also go online and give my professors a score.”

She also mentioned participating in a rehearsal of a student play Twilights: Los Angeles, (1992). The student actors during the rehearsal process openly discuss the Los Angeles race riots that occurred in 1992 that revealed emerging issues of racial and gender discrimination. This made her feel something completely unexpected and fresh.

Shuping Yang said: “I was very surprised, I had never thought that I could discuss topics like these openly before. This was also my first time experiencing a political play that inspired an audience to critique their thoughts. I had a strong desire to discuss these stories all along, but I once thought only the government had the ability to tell those stories, the ability to define what was true.

She expressed that from this she came to understand a truth: democracy and freedom of speech were really not naturally just coexisting, freedom and fresh air were both things worth trying hard to pursue for everyone.
Shuping Yang has a major concentration in theater and philosophy, and minors in German. At her commencement ceremony presentation, she gained zealous applause from professors and students for her position. However, in mainland China after the video of her speech was put online, she unexpectedly suffered the outright condemnation of Chinese internet users.

A group of some students allied with the Chinese government who study abroad in America spread a message criticizing the speech, saying that she “put Chinese students in an incredibly awkward position”. Additionally, many mainland Chinese internet users have used a very similar style to criticize Shuping, advocating that “the moonlight overseas is more round than in China” (an idiom basically meaning “the grass is greener on the other side”).

However, there are also friendlier people on the internet who have put forward that Shuping Yang’s speech unintentionally stung at the self-respecting beliefs of the Chinese people who believe “family quarrels cannot be solved outside the home” (a metaphor for not critiquing your own country with people who aren’t from there). People therefore develop some disgust, yet can be understanding. But, the fresh air that Shuping Yang’s commencement speech expressed as well as the ideas about freedom and freedom of speech that she looked forward to are not only her authentic feelings, but actually many Chinese people share those ideas as well. Only because the way she delivered her speech and the venue were considered inappropriate, do they deny her overall message. This fear attitude of not doing something because of the risk is evidently not sensible enough.

As noted in the translation of the above article, there have been some folks who are sympathetic to her views, and understand where she was coming from. But on the whole, response in mainland China has been largely negative. What exactly was meant by “sweet air” has also been up for debate, because while it could be viewed as just a metaphor for freedom of speech, some people are taking her comment about air quality literally and comparing pollution between the two countries. On both home computers and mobile phones, the search for Shuping Yang has soared an incredible amount in the past few days, as shown by the Weibo data analysis below. The people most likely to search for her name or mention her on Weibo in mainland China are those who are male and 25-34 years of age: 

Graph of search popularity of "Shuping Yang" on Chinese media sites
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Demographic information of the participants represented in the above graph
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Most of those searching for her and are engaging in this topic are young mainland Chinese adults, and the sheer volume of searches demonstrates the extraordinary amount of press her speech has gotten, as well as the amount of conversations topics like free speech and nationalism have sparked.

Below is a small translated excerpt of one of the most popular comments about Shuping Yang on Weibo by Vivi莹莹, with over 12,000 likes, 5,000+ comments, and almost 2,000 reposts.

“China has some bad aspects, but you exaggerate in order to meet the tastes of Americans. You receive their applause but you have lost the respect of others”

Other comments from other Weibo users also show more indignance: “”How can a Chinese make such comments on her motherland while speaking to a bunch of foreigners, we overseas students always pay attention to protecting our country,” and have even looked into information about her family as part of a “human flesh hunt” (人肉搜索), a discrediting practice that consists of putting revealing personal information online, known colloquially in English as “doxing”. Posts by people who are trying to find out her family’s income, her personality, and more are becoming increasingly popular.

This online Weibo statement was supposedly made by Yang Shuping, and in it there is an apology for potentially offending people and asking for the personal attacks to cease.

This issue raises larger questions about nationalism in both countries, as well as what freedom of speech and censorship really mean in a digital age.

Any potential errors deviating from the quoted content of Shuping Yang’s speech reflect differences created in translation rather than transcription errors. All hyperlinks in the translated text are those taken from the original article. 

(Featured image credit: Youtube)


Gretchen Trupp is a Summer 2017 intern at The Carter Center China Program.