Can Free Speech on American Campuses Withstand Chinese Nationalism?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Earlier this week, Kunming native Yang Shuping, a student at the University of Maryland, gave a commencement speech extolling the “fresh air” and “free speech” she experienced while studying in the United States. Video of her speech spread on the Internet, and Yang and her family found themselves under attack by fellow Chinese students in the U.S. and a chorus of critics on Chinese social media, who argued—at times viciously—that she had betrayed her country. Yang then apologized for the speech and asked for “forgiveness from the public.” Why was she attacked? What do her speech and the reaction it engendered reveal (or obscure) about the experiences of Chinese students on American campuses, and what do they portend for the future of academic freedom in the U.S.? To what extent is Chinese nationalism reshaping university life in America? —The Editors


I’m not surprised that Yang Shuping had to apologize in the face of severe nationalistic backlash against her speech. The following is part of the speech I would have given at my graduation, if Yale was not so obviously anti-Chinese to let me freely express myself on the podium during its two-hour Class Day ceremony. I regret missing an opportunity to garner respect from like-minded Chinese netizens and set an example for all future Chinese students who are tasked with the sacred duty of nationalistic speech-giving in paper tiger imperialist regimes.

“I came to Yale College from Beijing so, naturally, I am a staunch opponent of your free speech business. I made it clear in my Yale application essay that as long as my right to freely express my support for garlic ice cream is respected at Yale, I am happy to kowtow to the Yale authorities and censor the word ‘Harvard’ from my vocabulary.

“Unfortunately, it turns out that Yale’s liberal arts education failed to nurture the belief that all ice cream flavors are created equal. You see, America and China are not much different after all. In the past four years, all I wondered was why I didn’t just remain in China and get easy A’s in my mandatory Maoist philosophy classes. . .

“I watched a performance of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 at Yale and thought it was utterly dumb: why did my fellow members of the audience spend the night thinking about bygone racial issues on the other side of the continent when they could have enjoyed Saturday Night: New Haven, 2015? I went to the performance only because I refuse to party with people who can’t recite basic Party texts like the Communist Manifesto. And I’d already spent that Friday night in the library.

“I chose not to go to college in China but I still love China more than the majority of Chinese students even if they never considered immigrating abroad with their family’s wealth and only thought about how to serve their fellow citizens in China.

“Why? Because I never put on a mask when Beijing’s sky is gray. In fact, I think all Chinese people should be proud when the sky is gray on a sunny day. After all, the concept of air pollution was created by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in order to make China’s sky color non-competitive.

“So, my dearest class of 2017, although my four years at Yale were kind of okay, I would love to return to Beijing to catch a breath. After my children spend their first 18 years in Beijing, I will have told them that all I did at Yale was think about how much I loved China and that the very thought of attending Yale or any American college is a severe anti-Chinese thought crime.

But wait a second. Going to Harvard is definitely still okay because the daughter of the Chinese president went there and she expressed envy of neither the fresh air nor the free speech at Harvard.”

I do not fully understand the to-do over Ms. Yang’s graduation talk.

She reported that back home she regularly wore a medical mask and that she is happy not to do so in Maryland. Why is this simple fact considered a slander of the fatherland (zuguo) by Chinese nativists? Why do these stupidly irrational Chinese feel a need to describe a well-known fact as treason?

I understand that many patriots in all countries can be upset when the dirty laundry of their country is put up for public viewing. But surely discussing air pollution in China is not a matter of revealing a secret. The pollution is a consequence of growth-at-any-cost policies.

Similar policies were still killing Londoners in the early 1950s. Such policies are now plaguing India. Surely the McCarthyite critics of Yang also want clean air for China. Doesn’t the most recent evidence of People’s Republic of China policy suggest that the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.), at long last, is actually moving in that direction, not least because really patriotic Chinese who care about Chinese lives complained publicly about the pollution? It is the chauvinists who prefer cover-ups who are the enemies the Chinese people.

And then there are the denunciations of Yang for describing how free speech allows the citizens of a country to confront the problems in society, such as murderous racism. Yang says she became aware of this on seeing the play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Do the ignorant, hate-filled critics of Yang have any idea what the play is about when they ignorantly complain that she should be attacking the racism in America? Look at racism in America is precisely what the play Twilight does in its focus on the Rodney King case and the racial violence in Los Angeles that followed the not guilty decision on the cops who beat up King.

These McCarthyite attacks on Yang reflect a racist chauvinism at the heart of the Chinese state, which is not only a threat to Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, et al., but which also actually informs and strengthens war-prone forces in the C.C.P. and the People’s Republic. Yang’s words were factual and on the side of justice. Those who attack her, in contrast, reflect the nastiest and most dangerous tendencies within the C.C.P. state system.

It is a mistake to interpret the Chinese voices that are scolding Yang Shuping as “anti-Western.” The underlying attitude is not negation; it is rivalry. Everyone wants things like clean air, free speech, material comfort, and national dignity. Western countries have had most of these things, but now “China is rising” and the outcry against Yang Shuping is saying, in effect, “we Chinese would like to compete for parity, or superiority, by as many measures as possible. Are we there yet? No, and underneath we know that, but we don’t like it when people come out and say so, especially at a conspicuous forum like a university commencement.”

One of the Chinese students at Maryland who was first to denounce Yang Shuping said that he loves his motherland but is staying in the U.S. after graduation. His decision falls into a longstanding pattern. In 1999, in the wake of the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the Beijing government bused students across the city in order to hurl insults and tomatoes at the U.S. embassy, but many, that same evening, returned to campus to study for TOEFL. Here in southern California, we have several neighborhoods where wealthy Chinese businessmen park their money and sometimes their mistresses or their family members. Chinese youngsters get free educations at U.S. public high schools, sometimes supervised only by hired caretakers. For a fee, pregnant women in China can join tours to California in order to give birth to infants who are automatically U.S. citizens for life, even if they go straight back to China. These are not the actions of people who hate Western values.

The animus against Yang Shuping stems not only from her embarrassing readiness to say what everyone knows to be true but also to be best left unsaid. The animus results also from the Communist Party’s active encouragement—through briefings before students leave for the West and by monitoring them after they arrive. As always, the Party’s top priority is its hold on power, and the hijacking of “patriotism” in that effort is hardly new. For decades, the “education” of Chinese youngsters has turned crucially on the ambiguity of the word guo. Guo is my hometown, my family, good Chinese food, pandas, a resplendent history, and so on; but guo is also the Party-state. Patriotism is love of guo—all of it—and of course patriotism is good. It is unquestionably good. It is, among other things, the bedrock upon which rivalry with the West is based.

The jury is still out, though. It is not clear how long the Party-state’s effort to prevent young Chinese from thinking for themselves can hold. Consider Yifu Dong.

The condemnation of Shuping Yang for expressing opinions that obliqiuely criticized some aspects of life in China was predictable. Precedents have established pretty clearly that no criticism, implied or explicit, of China is permitted, especially by Chinese who happen to be in the United States. In 2008, Grace Wang, while a student at Duke, had the temerity to suggest that protests in support of Tibetan cultural rights were not entirely wrong, and even added for good measure, “Just because I am Chinese does not mean that I can’t think for myself.” The result was the full measure of social media murder, with Chinese characteristics: publication of her personal contact information, mounting of early school photos with brutally defamatory comments, publication of real and concocted documents supposedly revealing unsavory things about her and her family, vandalism of the family home in China, and—when Wang did not apologize herself—the circulation of an apology from her father that her family later denied he had written. This is the template for treatment of Chinese who criticize China. If you are not willing or able to weather it, you should not venture into the stormy waters of free speech. If you see yourself apologizing when things get a bit heavy, don’t go there. The defensiveness of the Chinese government and those who deeply identify with it may be excessive, but the fact is that free speech has always been and will always be subject to painful reprisals wherever people try to practice it. Laws guaranteeing free speech as we have, and a political culture that hallows it as ours does, do not mean that frank talk in public will ever be a carefree experience. De Tocqueville marveled in 1835 that Americans could be completely sincere and deeply passionate about the principle of free speech on the one hand, and on the other be willing to socially and often physically chastise anybody expressing opinions that offended the local or national majority. You can’t yet be jailed in this country for expressing opinions, but you can certainly get called everything that Chinese “netizens” have called Shuping Yang or Grace Wang. And somebody or other elected us a president who from time to time talks quite seriously about crimping the First Amendment because the press and the public make too many criticisms of him. Attempts by the Chinese government and its puppet provocateurs in China to interfere with free thought and free speech in this country challenge us to get more serious about reaffirming our own commitment to these principles. Our campuses are at risks of speech inhibitions from China via several vectors, from Confucius Institutes to the threat of human search engines directed at students and scholars expressing the wrong opinions. But it is only a slice of the greater spectrum of threats to speech from an increasing number of sources, some of them right at home. Speech, by anybody in this country on any subject, must be exercised, protected, and not apologized for.

Yang Shuping’s University of Maryland commencement address and its attendant furor is nothing new, as Pamela Kyle Crossley points out. In 1999, my classmates and I—in the Yale college courtyard from which Yifu Dong just graduated—woke up to find the entryways plastered with posters condemning the American attack on the Belgrade embassy. Words are powerful, and unfettered words still more so; the freedom of speech that is cherished by patriots is denounced by nationalists.

But though the case of Yang Shuping is a reprise of familiar repertoire, it is worth reflecting on. I’d like to draw attention away from commencement podiums and the like-minded netizens of Yifu Dong’s spoof, and focus instead on three kinds of people who occupied the margins of the graduation video: Yang’s parents, her unseen teachers, and the administrator who made comments afterwards, University of Maryland President Wallace Loh.

What does it mean for the parents of Chinese students studying at American universities to send their children abroad? The answer may seem obvious: American higher education remains highly acclaimed, English is still the foreign language to acquire, and it is perceived that overseas, one can learn how to be creative and independent. As anthropologist Vanessa Fong has argued, getting a foreign education has been seen as a prerequisite to global citizenship, whether the student makes his life in China or abroad. But as I watched Yang’s parents wave from the crowd, I wonder what they think of educating their child for a country that may not accommodate the person she has become.

The second kind of person is the one that didn’t appear in the video clip—Yang’s teachers over her years at the University of Maryland. As someone who has taught students from China—including Yifu Dong—I worry about how my class might influence them. Echoing Maryland’s defense of Yang Shuping, Yale’s mission statement highlights the “free exchange of ideas.” But with Chinese students in particular, I face a unique concern: Will they speak up in class and have their answer recorded by a member of the fifty-cent party? Will they write a seminar paper or a senior thesis that will somehow endanger their future? If they think so much differently than their peers, how will they fare if and when they return to China?

As has been well documented, President Loh, like his counterparts—especially at public universities—has faced a boom in enrollment by Chinese students in recent years. Much of the commentary on Chinese students has focused on how to best prepare them to be successful in the American university system, rightly so, as the vast majority of them concentrate on their coursework and are not Yang Shupings. But some of them are and will be, so we should also think about their fate as well.

In President Loh’s remarks he agreed with Yang Shuping’s sentiments. Born in Shanghai in 1946, he spoke of being an “American by choice,” and suggested that the United States will “always be a shining city on the hill.” To this I respectfully disagree: America can be a beacon when such ideals as freedom of speech are upheld, but they are not to be taken as given. Yang Shuping’s experience is not only a Chinese story. To our Chinese students, as to all of our students, we owe an education not for the world as it is, but as we hope it to be.

This is truly a sad and disturbing incident. It only takes a few seconds of watching Yang Shuping’s commencement speech to appreciate the youth, exuberance, and innocence that she embodies. But instead of celebrating her accomplishments and wishing her all the best in life, the Chinese authorities felt that the appropriate response was to publicly shame her.

I mentioned in a tweet that this coordinated and intense propaganda effort being staged by the authorities was “a colossal waste of time and money.” But upon reflection, this attack is part of the authorities’ master plan to entirely eliminate the need for censorship.

The authorities know that once Chinese are outside of China they are free of the country’s online censorship infrastructure. Those freedoms are currently being exploited by Guo Wengui, who is amassing Twitter followers and YouTube views at an astonishing rate. While the authorities are trying to take those websites offline, they would prefer to silence Guo in another way.

That other way is encouraging Chinese to self-censor themselves. This already works extremely well inside China. While our FreeWeibo and FreeWeChat websites resurrect messages that have been censored by the authorities, we cannot bring back to life those messages that Chinese felt like sending but in the end decided not to.

However, encouraging Chinese to self-censor outside of China is much more difficult. As Yang recounted, all it took for her was watching a play about Rodney King to realize that the authorities do not “own the narrative” and do not “define truth.” And with that, Yang set off to write her own stories and create her own truths, eventually getting a chance to see her own play performed at The Kennedy Center.

Perhaps if the authorities had been keeping closer tabs on Yang, they would have made an effort to discourage her from following her dreams at an earlier stage. Regardless, with this brute force propaganda effort, they are making sure that she, and other Chinese who live overseas, think twice before expressing themselves.

It is sad to think that after seeing how the authorities reacted to Yang’s speech, some Chinese students may have hit “delete” on their own projects. Yang’s play highlights the “struggles between traditional Confucian values and Western notions of individuality.” Her play is not about democracy or Tiananmen or corruption or the thousands of other taboo subjects on the authorities’ censorship list. Will other Chinese students now reconsider making their voices heard? Is the silencing of creative Chinese voices really the Chinese Dream? Does this propaganda effort really help to create “a big family of harmonious coexistence”?

Sadly, it appears that Yang has deleted her social media profiles and her own personal website. Yang Shuping, if you are reading this please know that everybody wants you to achieve every one of your dreams, even those Chinese who may be saying otherwise (except for maybe a few bitter, mean-spirited, white-haired censors). Do not get dissuaded by this propaganda effort. Everybody hopes that you succeed in everything you set out to do. And for every Chinese student trying to explore life’s many questions, continue striving towards your dreams. Take inspiration from this episode and redouble your efforts because the world needs to hear from you. And sooner or later, the Chinese authorities will understand that they need this, too.

Like Yang, I’m also a Kunming native. I spent the first 18 years of my life living in Kunming, and like the majority of Kunming residents, I didn’t once wear or even own a medical mask to protect myself from air pollution. Just to shed a little light on Kunming’s air quality for those who don’t fully understand the air pollution problems in China–not every city has as much smog as Beijing on a highly-polluted day. Kunming, along with a few other cities in southern China, Haikou, Xiamen, Zhuhai, to name a few, have been ranked as some of the cleanest cities in China for their air quality for over a decade. That’s not to say that Kunming residents are free from the consequences of air pollution mostly concentrated in northern China, but I do think “carrying five masks” around is completely unnecessary if one lives in Kunming. It is an unsophisticated rhetorical device for Yang to adopt just to make a point of how fresh and sweet air smelled in the U.S.

When I first came to the U.S., I was inexperienced, fearless, and full of hope. I was eager to live my romanticized American dream and enjoy my rights to freedom of speech. As time goes by, I realized studying abroad, living abroad, and eventually becoming an “immigrant” in this diverse country with complicated political and social issues is not as simple as getting away from air pollution in China or being able to express some opinions in my like-minded friends’ circle. I keep asking myself after listening to Yang’s speech, if I had the opportunity to give a commencement speech, what would I say? How did I, as an international student, an immigrant, someone who grew up in significantly different cultural settings, internalize the experience living abroad? And how can I explain my background and culture in a way that’s not being perceived or described accurately in mainstream U.S. media? I certainly wouldn’t over-simply my complex experience and feelings as “America is better than China.”

Having said that, some of the overly jingoistic nationalist reactions provoked by Yang’s speech are beyond my comprehension. The hot-headed, easily manipulated Chinese nationalists who attack Yang for not being able to think independently and critically should take a look at themselves before criticizing her. It makes me extremely sad that Chinese citizens are still using propaganda slogans from the Cultural Revolution to crucify a 20-something-year-old college graduate whose only mistake was failing to deliver a more complex and sophisticated speech, and doing so behind the façade of “patriotism.”

I want to return to a theme discussed by Pamela Kyle Crossley and Denise Ho: the need to defend American campuses—or, for that matter, campuses outside China in general—from pressures to inhibit speech.

Such pressures are neither new nor rare. Examples include pressure on universities with Confucius Institutes to self-censor, attempts to scupper appearances by speakers such as beauty pageant contestant Anastasia Lin or the Dalai Lama, and even direct attacks on faculty members. What is new, however, is that arguments in favor of censorship appear to be finding an increasingly receptive audience within American universities.

Such calls for censorship are often cloaked in the garb of avoiding causing discomfort or giving offence. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warned in their 2015 article “The Coddling of the American Mind”:

“A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

Subsequent events bear out this thesis, with students on campuses across the country defending censorship, or even violence, as a response to hate speech. What is much more alarming, however, is the apparent willingness of some university administrators to censor. In an op-ed published in the New York Times, NYU Vice-Provost Ulrich Baer suggests that “[t]he idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks.” Rather, he suggests, campus censorship is necessary to “[maintain] particularly high standards of what is worthy of debate.” Not surprisingly, Baer offers little guidance on what speech ought to be suppressed, using what standards, and by whom—a recipe for confusion and abuse. Although NYU’s Provost took pains to state that Baer’s op-ed did not reflect NYU’s position on campus expression, one must wonder how widely Baer’s views are shared by administrators at other universities.

Predictably, China and its cheerleaders have co-opted such arguments to silence “insults to the Chinese people” in universities. In demanding that UCSD withdraw its invitation to the Dalai Lama to speak, for instance, the UCSD Chinese Students and Scholars Association drew on the language previously used against “hate speech”:

“UCSD is a place for students to cultivate their minds and enrich their knowledge. Currently, the various actions undertaken by the university have contravened the spirit of respect, tolerance, equality, and earnestness—the ethos upon which the university is built. These actions have also dampened the academic enthusiasm of Chinese students and scholars. If the university insists on acting unilaterally and inviting the Dalai Lama to give a speech at the graduation ceremony, our association vows to take further measures to firmly resist the university’s unreasonable behavior.”

Can free speech on American campuses withstand Chinese nationalism? Only if American universities get serious about protecting it.

To me, Yang Shuping’s case felt like an extreme illustration of the tightrope Chinese students often must walk when they start to develop new outlooks and opinions influenced by their time in the United States. As someone who’s been on the other side as an American student in China, it’s something I can sympathize with. After becoming heavily influenced by two cultures, you can start to feel alienated by both.

For Chinese students, on one side, there are some American peers who can be quite dogmatic and un-nuanced in challenging them on China’s sociopolitical issues. Rise in defense of China, and risk being viewed as a brainwashed drone regurgitating communist propaganda. On the other side, develop an appreciation for the way some things are done in America and say a critical word about China in the presence of fellow Chinese back home, and risk being viewed as a pretentious foreign-worshipping defector...even if that same criticism would be ok if uttered by Chinese who haven’t lived abroad. You have to straddle two worlds and two identities, and will inevitably step on toes when you try to reconcile them.

There are competing narratives as to whether studying in America makes Chinese students more pro-American or more nationalistic. This incident illustrates what a false dichotomy that is. Yang Shuping gave breathless remarks praising America at China’s expense, followed immediately by Chinese classmates on the very same campus denouncing Yang and stressing how proud they are of China. Then there were others who fell somewhere in between—sympathizing with Yang’s opinions, if not so much the way she delivered them. The study abroad experience in general is a messy nonlinear process of identity and belief self-interrogation, and nobody is going to come out of it shaped in exactly the same way.

Those navigating between the U.S. and China have some unique dynamics to contend with. Perry Link alluded to China’s lingering insecurities in relation to “the West” and longing to have the world respect its progress since the so-called “Century of Humiliation.” Then in the States, there remains a lingering sense of American exceptionalism and belief in the supremacy of American values. These two mindsets are a recipe for routine collision. The scary systemic backlash against Yang—egged on by Chinese state media—highlights another unique danger. And as others in this conversation have noted, China’s Communist Party is going to greater lengths to get eyes and ears on American campuses and remind Chinese students that being abroad doesn’t mean it has forfeited domain over them.

This all presents unique challenges for American universities and professors, and the particularly rapid influx of Chinese students on campuses in the span of just a few years has made it that much harder to adapt.

Yang’s speech reminds me another Chinese student, Jiang He, a doctoral biochemistry student, who spoke at the Harvard commencement in 2016. Being about to become a medical scientist right after graduation, Jiang started his speech with a childhood anecdote about his mother burning his hand to cure a spider bite. Jiang explained that an education from Harvard would help him deploy medical treatment where it was needed most. Jiang’s speech drew considerable praise online. Both Jiang and Yang addressed China’s social issues. Why were the reactions so dichotomized? Because Yang merely exposed “family ugliness” to the public, whereas Jiang gave the ugliness a bit of plastic surgery by tapping knowledge he gained at Harvard. To Chinese Netizens, Yang’s speech is akin to calling China dull and the United States resplendent. Jiang pointed out a need for medical development in China and how he’d put his knowledge to work, but when Yang mentioned air pollution and censorship, all she did was throw shade on her homeland, setting it up as a foil to the fresh air and freedom of the United States. It is not hard to understand why Netizens regard Jiang as a role model and Yang as a renegade.

Yet Yang does not deserve such harsh denunciation for illustrating facts. I was embarrassed when I heard Chinese students in the U.S. accusing Yang of “giving false statement and rumor about multiple China-related issues” on YouTube, thus demonstrating their ignorance, not their nationalism, by saying blindly “I am proud of China.” (Proud of air pollution? Of the Great Firewall?) Their actions show me that years of living and studying in America have failed to cultivate in them a desire to dig for their own truth without a textbook. To be sure, we were not taught enough about the Red Guards when we studied in China.

I, too, understand Yang’s critics’ sentiments. As Chinese in the United States0 we often encounter aggressive American peers who judge China’s sociopolitical issues in a condescending manner. It is not easy to take a stand without being a radical partisan when illustrating to my American friends a sophisticated but interesting China in a modest way. Before we call anybody a turncoat or an enemy we should question ourselves: do we enjoy the air pollution where they’re from? Do we know the history of his or her region? What can we learn from them? For us Chinese it will take some time to truly support the American principle of disapproving of another person’s speech but defending to the death their right to speak their mind.