China Power

What a University of Maryland Commencement Speech Reveals About China

And it’s not what you think.

What a University of Maryland Commencement Speech Reveals About China
Credit: Pixabay

Seeing is believing. However, when watching the same video clip, people can have quite different interpretations and arrive at different conclusions.

On May 21, an international student from China, Yang Shuping, gave a speech at her commencement ceremony at the University of Maryland. This was of course a great honor for an international student; however, the content of her speech immediately generated heated discussion, and a strong backlash online. Her speech caused a media storm, drawing attention from major new outlets, and even garnering comments from the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs. This small incident provides a larger example the complexity of China and the challenges in understanding Chinese thinking and China’s new nationalism.

If one happened to read both English and Chinese reports about this issue, especially on social media, one will find the same video sparks two different stories. In the English-language world, this is a very simple story about Chinese nationalism: A Chinese student who praised American air quality and freedom of speech in her commencement address received a strong reaction and personal attacks from Chinese nationalists, even from the Chinese government. Under this pressure, she made a statement of apology. Many comments on the story discuss the ugliness of Chinese nationalism, and the importance of defending the freedom of speech in U.S. universities.

But in the Chinese-speaking world, this story is quite different. This story became one of lies, and a young woman’s sophisticated motivations. In Chinese social media, the discussion focuses on the hometown of Yang Shuping – Kunming, China. Yang mentioned in the beginning of her speech: “I grew up in a city in China where I had to wear a face mask every time I went outside, otherwise I might get sick.” And when she arrived at the University of Maryland, she was so happy to find that “the air was so sweet and fresh and utterly luxurious.”

Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan Province, in the southwestern part of China, is a city famous for its good weather and natural beauty. It is called a “spring city” in China, and its air quality is among the best of major Chinese cities. After learning Yang is from Kunming, many Chinese made the quick conclusion that Yang was lying. In many parts of China, it is true people must wear medical masks to avoid illness, but for the city of Kunming this is an exaggeration. Further discussion went on to ask what the motivation would be for this young woman to lie, and why she would praise the United States while slandering her own hometown.

Some comments went even further, analyzing Yang not just as an individual, but also as a representative of her generation. In China there is popular term used to describe the generation born at the beginning of the 1990s: “the sophisticated selfish.”

This generation is also China’s one-child generation. Being the only child in their family, these children have been the entire focus of their family since the time they were born. These children carry the family’s hopes and expectations. These factors often lead to these children to focus on personal success over social responsibilities and ethical principles. As such, some Chinese commentators saw Yang’s words as said only for her own benefit. They interpret the one-child generation as taking an opportunity like this to become famous by exaggerating the real situation to please the people where they are now, not caring if they lie about something such as air quality in their hometown. Instead of taking Yang’s words as those of one person, they are instead seen as the behavior of a generation.

More interestingly, whenever a story pits the United States against China, conspiracy theories emerge. This story gained even another layer focused on the president of the University of Maryland, Wallace Loh. Loh is an American Chinese who was born in China, grew up in Peru, and earned his degrees in the United States, later becoming the president of the University of Maryland. The conspiracy theory is that Loh has a strong anti-Beijing sentiment. A few years ago he invited the Dalai Lama to give a speech at the University of Maryland, which received strong opposition from the Chinese Student Association and the Chinese Embassy. But Loh still made the decision to bring in the Dali Lama. So the conspiracy theory is that Yang’s speech was selected because the beliefs and preferences of the president played a significant role.

I don’t believe we can draw any definite conclusion from the Yang Shuping case. She is an individual, and she is only a college student. When one gives a commencement speech they receive different opinions and suggestions. This is not a big deal. Every comment thus is an overinterpretation and oversimplification. However, the most interesting thing about this case is how people interpret it and the sources of information that people rely on to make interpretation. For many people overseas, if they only read the English reports, they definitely miss the facts about Kunming. And they also miss the rich discussion in China about the generational characteristics and sophistication of the younger generation. Their comments and conclusions are based on simplified facts, and they need to be cautious, as the Chinese response on this case is not as simple a story as they think.

Many Chinese comments focus on Kunming; the air quality of Kunming gave many people an attacking point to devalue Yang’s entire speech. People therefore conclude that she was lying, and her speech was a case of selling out for her own gain. But on the other hand, China is indeed experiencing a very bad environmental catastrophe, and the country still has a lack of freedom of speech even compared to 20 or 30 years ago. Moreover, whether the air quality of Kunming is actually that good is also debatable. Some statistics indicate that even though Kunming’s air quality is one of the best for Chinese cities, compared with U.S. cities, it is not good at all.

Some may say the nationalists will find an attacking point anyway, whether it’s Kunming or something else. Behind this strong reaction there is a special “confident nationalism” in China; along with China’s rising, the Chinese have become more confident about themselves, and more sensitive to any criticism. Yang happened to unwisely touch this sensitive issue by using China as a negative example.

I recently read an article about Chinese nationalism published at a leading academic journal. Through a series of experiments based on public opinion polls in Beijing over a period of time, the author drew several conclusions on Chinese nationalism. The article used quantitative analysis and impressive tables and data to reach its findings. However, if even the story of Yang Shuping has such a complicated background and context, with many different stories and interpretations, can we really draw a conclusion on Chinese nationalism based on several experiments?

Understanding China has become one of the most important questions for today’s world. China is emerging as a new superpower, and the country is experiencing a very profound social transformation. Therefore, understanding China has become a global challenge. As Yang’s case indicates, there are multiple levels of facts, and the same video clip can give people completely different interpretations through their own frames and perspectives. We really need to be cautions before drawing any conclusion. And we should try our best to avoid oversimplification and overinterpretation.

Zheng Wang is the Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies and a Professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He is currently a Carnegie Fellow at New America and also a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.