Thursday, June 15, 2017

The University of Maryland and freedom of speech

An aerial view of the University of Maryland

Recently Chinese nationalism seems to have found a new target for its wrath: a young Chinese girl, originally from Kunming, who studies at the University of Maryland. Her talk on the clean air and free speech of the US during her graduation ceremony didn't go down well with the Chinese public. It is no exaggeration to say that if she had any ideas of going back to China to work she will have to put them aside, at least for the time being. You can find a good description of what happened here, and of the public reactions of some of Maryland's other Chinese students here.

Before I rush to defend her, I will concede that perhaps the phrase about "not being able to go out without a face-mask because she risked getting ill" is a tad over the top. Kunming is indeed one of the Chinese cities with the best air quality. But that is a bit like talking about the safest city in South Africa, or the most lively city in Norway: it is only an accolade in very relative terms. The truth is that, while nowhere near as bad as Beijing or any city up North, Kunming's air quality is by no means good by global standards. While a healthy person won't get ill in the immediate by not wearing a face-mask, I am sure the air in Kunming is noticeably more polluted than it is in Maryland.

More importantly, the girl's over the top description of the air pollution in Kunming has served to take the focus away from everything else she said, for instance the stuff about freedom of speech. While Chinese television actually went and interviewed people in the streets of Kunming to ask whether they wear face-masks (of course, none do), it would be unthinkable for them to go to the streets of any Chinese city and ask people whether they perceive a lack of freedom of speech in their country.

I am sure there are many other Chinese students in Maryland and the US who either agree with the girl, or at least are unhappy with the rather hysterical backlash to her speech (and back in China somebody wrote this sarcastic reaction to the whole drama, showing that they still have some critical thinking faculties left. Translation here at the bottom). Given all the criticism and public attacks that their peer has been subjected to back home, however, they are probably steering clear of any public pronouncements that don't toe the accepted line in China. At the same time, it is probable that the reactions against the speech by some of the university's other Chinese students were not in any way organized by the official Chinese student organizations linked to the government, but just a result of their sincere nationalism (and a certain naiveness about their home country). Of course people everywhere do tend to get defensive when their country is criticised abroad, but the strength of feeling directed against the "traitorous" girl coupled with the complete lack of genuine anger about China's dreadful air pollution and lack of freedom of speech is what leaves outsiders astounded.

Another thought strikes me: in the age before the internet, there was almost no way that a graduation talk by an anonymous Chinese student in Maryland could have become well known and attracted so much fury half way around the world. A world where any girl's graduation speech can be filmed with a mobile and then go viral across the globe produces these situations. But rather than allowing China's young people a greater freedom to express themselves, the internet seems to have backfired for them - it has now taken away their right to express themselves freely even when they are studying abroad. Any Chinese anywhere who steps out of line and publicly criticizes their country outside the bounds of acceptable public discourse within China is risking a public backlash, and even more so if they do it in front of a foreign audience.

The idea that a world where information could flow across borders in a micro-second would make people more informed, tolerant and wise is turning out to have been an illusion everywhere, and China is no exception. 


Dave said...

I actually studied at the University of Maryland in College Park, many years ago. At that time, I knew many students who had come from Mainland China to study there. If my experience with them was typical, I think many of the Chinese community would support the Chinese government line. Most of the ones I spoke to supported the Party Line on the issues that were happening at the time. This should be no surprise...most of them had come over on Chinese government scholarships, and tended to be supportive of the regime and its positions. They probably would not have been sponsored by the government to go to College Park unless they did so. I helped many of them to practice English conversation at that time...we had many interesting discussions!

Gilman Grundy said...

Yeah, I think you're right to say that the way the internet is working here is to actually take her freedom of speech away from her. Far from having to stop to question themselves as to whether she has a point (and she f'ing does, or were those people in face-masks in Chengdu, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and even Nanjing just my imagination?) people just cut straight into a knee-jerk response about how nice Kunming is, possibly without even having listened to and understood her speech.

Ji Xiang said...

@Dave: I think you are misunderstanding things, the Chinese government simply gives out scholarships to the best students, and they are not asked about their positions. None of them are involved in anti-government activities, but that's simply to be taken for granted in post-89 China, and they've all attended the obligatory political classes for all students, but that's also just taken for granted. Their genuine political positions are simply not discussed or taken into consideration. This isn't the USSR.

If they support the government it's just because most young Chinese from good backgrounds do, and their nationalism becomes much more pronounced when talking to foreigners.

@Gilman: I agree.