Student Sparks Outrage in China For Praising U.S.’s Fresh Air, Free Speech in Commencement Address

A graduation speech delivered by a Chinese student at an American university has sparked some negative criticisms from Chinese netizens due to its focus on freedom and fresh air.

University of Maryland student Shuping Yang delivered the controversial address on Sunday after the school faculty and staff selected her for the honor.

According to Shanghaiist, Yang did not originally speak English five years ago when she first arrived in the United States, but she successfully finished her major in psychology and theater, plus a minor in German, through hard work. Here’s how she narrated her experience during her speech:

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“People always ask me why did you come to the University of Maryland? I always answer: fresh air. Five years ago, as I stepped off the plane from China and left the terminal at Dulles airport, I was ready to put on one of my five face masks, but when I took my first breath of American air, I put my mask away.

The air was so sweet and fresh and utterly luxurious. I was surprised by this. 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. However, the moment I inhaled and exhaled outside the airport, I felt free.

No more fog on my glasses, no more difficult breathing, no more suppression. Every breath was a delight as I stand here today I cannot help but recall that feeling of freedom.

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At the University of Maryland. I would soon feel another kind of fresh air for which I will be forever grateful. The fresh air of free speech.”

Yang was applauded multiple times during as speech, especially when she shared the feelings she remembered having after watching a play about the Rodney King riots. “I realized that here I have the opportunity to speak freely. My voice matters,” she said.

She ended her address, further highlighting the importance of freedom, again comparing it to fresh air:

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Our future is dependent on the choices we make, today and tomorrow. We are all playwrights of the next chapters of our lives. Together we write the human history. My friends, enjoy the fresh air and never ever let it go.”

After her speech, University of Maryland President Wallace Loh went to the podium and passionately responded to Yang’s speech:

“You have gotten a wonderful University of Maryland education. It was very inspiring and like you and your parents, I am also an American by choice and you have expressed some of the deepest feelings I feel for this country. What this is and what this will always be. A shining city on the hill, beckoning the most talented people of all backgrounds from all over the world to help us continue to form a more perfect union.”

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In response to Yang’s speech, other Chinese students who are studying at the University of Maryland also made a video to speak against what they refer to as “stereotypical comments” that Yang has spoken of.

Chinese netizens were also not impressed. Most of them took to the comments section of the YouTube video of Yang’s speech, and expressed outrage, accusing Yang of lying about the air pollution in the country. Many pointed out that she grew up in Kunming, one of China’s least polluted cities, and she should not have “made up” the claim.

Shanghaiist compiled some of the fiery comments directed at Yang and her school:

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“What a liar!! Shame for that girl. As a research and education institution, shouldn’t UMD pick a more valuable speech rather than this?”

“Shame on Miss Yang and Shame on UMD! Her narratives were full of exaggeration and deception. How can an education institution pick such irresponsible speech in its commencement?”

“She is lying! Shame on Miss Yang. It’s commencement for everyone, no matter where he or she is from . It’s a time to honor hard work, not a time to insult other country. She ruined it! We need APOLOGIES!”

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“How could UMD allows such a pathetic liar as student representative in commencement? Shuping You can’t represent any Chinese student or any Chinese. I’m very disappointed about UMD. I just graduated last year, but I wish I could turn back time and accept another offer 2 years ago. UMD you have broken all Chinese students’ heart!”

“The student remarks, things she described about China, don’t even base on facts. She grew up in Kunming, Yunnan where is proudly known as ‘Spring City’ and it’s fresh air. Air masks!!!??? she is definitely out of her mind. Such a huge shame.”

Commenting on the video posted in the UMD channel had since been disabled.

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The video of Yang’s speech has also been widely shared on Chinese social networking platforms and has since gone viral on Weibo, eliciting further rage among netizens. Some Weibo users even went as far as telling her not to ever return to her home country.

Yang eventually took to Weibo to apologize on Monday, following the massive backlash. She wrote:

“I love my country and hometown and I’m proud of its prosperity… I hope to make contributions to it using what I have learned overseas. The speech was just to share my experiences overseas and I had no intentions of belittling my country and hometown… I am deeply sorry and hope for forgiveness.”

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