How some Chinese students view 'fresh air'

It was supposed to be a joyful event for Ms. Yang Shuping, a student from China and newly minted graduate from the University of Maryland.  But her young life was turned upside-down when she gave a speech at U.M.'s graduation ceremony on May 21.

In her speech, she praised the fresh air and freedom of speech in the U.S. and contrasted it with her experiences growing up in China: wearing a mask to fight air pollution and passively accepting government-authenticated "truth."  After spending four years at UM, she learned that "[f]reedom is oxygen[.] ... Democracy and free speech should not be taken for granted. Democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for."

The video of her speech went viral in China and immediately caused a backlash.  Many Chinese netizens called her a "traitor" who was sucking up to Westerners at the expense of belittling her motherland.  Many demanded that she apologize.  Her home address was posted online, and some Chinese threatened her not to return to China.  Powerful state media such as Xinhua News did a special report about air pollution in Kunming, Ms. Yang's home town, trying to discredit her.  Even the Chinese government stepped in, with the spokesperson of China's foreign ministry stating that all Chinese should be responsible in their public statements.

Here in the U.S., the Chinese Students and Scholars' Association at U.M. quickly put out a "proud of China" video campaign.  Through media interviews and social media postings, many Chinese students in the U.S. shared their fellow citizens' views that Ms. Yang was unpatriotic and she embarrassed herself and her motherland by speaking ill of her country in front of a "biased western crowd."  Some Chinese students spoke out to support Ms. Yang, but it seems their rational reaction was drowned out by criticism.

While the cyber-bullying and harsh reaction from China actually proved Ms. Yang's point that there's a lack of freedom of speech in China, I found it more worrisome that some Chinese students in the U.S. joined their fellow citizens' condemnation.  Many Chinese students opted for studying in the U.S. for reasons similar to Ms. Yang: escaping air pollution, escaping the grueling gaokao – a three-day national college entrance exam that will determine one's fate forever – seeking academic freedom, or serving as their family's overseas guardian of their wealth that was transferred from China.  Many of them choose to live and work in the U.S. after graduation because they believe that the U.S. offers much better opportunities.  Many of them end up becoming legal immigrants or even naturalized U.S. citizens.

Yet, contrary to their own life choices, some Chinese students believe they're in the U.S. to represent China, and therefore, their uttermost patriotic duty is to defend China no matter what, even if any negative news about China is true.  Some Chinese Students and Scholars Associations on U.S. campuses almost become extensions of Chinese government propaganda.  A case in point: The Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) at the University of California, San Diego immediately denounced the university's choice of the Dalai Lama as this year's commencement speaker.  The CSSA even sought guidance from the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles.  Later, the CSSA issued a statement, saying it would be "firm in boycotting any action taking any form, with unclear motives, that denigrate and belittle Chinese history, that recklessly disseminate provocative and extremely politically hostile discourse, in turn affecting the international image of China."  What the CSSA at UCSD didn't realize is that contrary to their belief, it's their action, not the university's decision, that negatively affects China's image.  It shows that Chinese citizens do not have the freedom to choose even when they're 7,000 miles away from China.

It seems that some Chinese students fail to make the connection that Ms. Yang was able to make: that the things that attracted them to come and stay in the U.S. – the sweet fresh air they breathe, the academic freedom they enjoy, the better life choices they have, the protection of property they seek – all these, and, to a larger extent, America's enviable wealth and power, are not the result of any government mandate, but the result of the recognition and protection of human freedom and individual rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

China has made great strides in improving people's standard of living in the last thirty years.  But the measurement of the greatness of a nation is not how much money people have, but how free people are.  If some of these Chinese students were truly patriotic, they wouldn't shut down anyone, including their fellow student's free speech.  They wouldn't simply accept Chinese government-sanctioned "truth" without applying critical thinking.  They wouldn't self-censor their thoughts before they speak.  Instead, they would join in Ms. Yang's declaration that "democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for."