One of the most hotly discussed topics among Chinese netizens in the past week was a graduation speech given by a Chinese student at the University of Maryland. In her address, Yang Shuping, a native of the southwestern city of Kunming, praised the “clean and sweet air” and “freedom of speech” of the US in comparison with her home country. Her speech was quickly picked up by China’s social media and spread rapidly once somebody had inserted “insulting China” into the subject line. The topic has attracted millions of comments on Sina Weibo alone, most of them critical or abusive, such as “she is a traitor to her country and brings shame to her family” or “she was bad-mouthing China to ingratiate herself with the Americans”.
While reading through Yang’s speech, I couldn’t help remembering my own experience when I landed in Baton Rouge for my graduate studies at Louisiana State University in 1991. My first impression was indeed that the sky was bluer, the air fresher and above all that I could speak truthfully about my views without worrying about enraging the authorities and bringing harm to myself and my family.
Of course, that was over a quarter of a century ago. During those years, China has been transformed into a global economic and technological powerhouse. The Chinese have become richer and more vocal about problems in their own society (mainly via popular social media platforms). Therefore, many Chinese, including my mother, are quite happy with the direction the country is going in and pretty appreciative of the government’s efforts to improve livelihoods.
On the two issues that Yang raised in her speech, netizens don’t deny that air quality in many Chinese cities has deteriorated and that government censorship has tightened. However, many treat the former as an unavoidable price to pay for development and regard the latter as necessary to maintain social stability.
In my opinion, the “national outcry” over an otherwise unremarkable speech really reveals the state of China’s national psyche today: on the one hand, there is deep-rooted pride in the nation’s recent economic gains, as well as a superiority complex derived from the country’s 5,000 year-old civilisation; on the other hand, a sense of inferiority still lurks, the residue of the “hundred years of humiliation by the Western imperialists,” when China lost full control of its sovereignty in the treaty port period. This ‘shameful era’ has been hammered home in our schoolbooks. As a result, many Chinese are super sensitive about what others say about their country and suspicious of other peoples’ motives, especially the Americans who they see as China’s number one rival and long-term foe. That may explain the popularity of an article that circulated in relation to Yang with the headline “Yang Shuping’s Alma Mater has long been involved in anti-China espionage and subversive activities with close ties to the CIA”. Fortunately, not all netizens agree. I was glad to read an online survey on Tuesday that showed 70% of people were supportive of Yang’s speech. However, when I wanted to check the latest result, the article was deleted by the internet censors which had put up the standard notice: “This content has violated the law and therefore cannot be seen”. Ironically, this just proves Yang’s speech wasn’t that far from the truth.
A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]
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