On May 21st, at the University of Maryland (UMD) campus-wide graduation ceremony, Shuping Yang, an international student from China, gave a commencement address. Controversy erupted. Her speech, extolling democracy and freedom of speech in the United States, depicted China as a literally and figuratively stifling, heavily polluted country with no political liberty. Many Chinese found her speech offensive, propagating exaggerations and stereotypes about China. Though the incident has swirled primarily on Chinese social media, it is instructive for everyone.
The young speaker received the most pushback for details that many fellow Chinese students considered embellishments. For example, she recounted wearing a face mask every day in her home city of Kunming because of severe air pollution. In fact, Kunming is one of China’s cleanest cities, and many long-time residents were baffled by her assertion.
Shuping also said that the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” had no meaning to her in China, and that even to debate or question teachers in school was politically dangerous. But some of my Chinese classmates have recounted debates with their teachers, even on issues as sensitive as the Cultural Revolution and the one-child policy. While publishing and Internet access are restricted in China, Chinese people generally do have the freedom to read, discuss, and comment on literature regarding democracy, politics, racism, sexism, and other topics. Although Chinese students aren’t as free as U.S. students, they have explained on social media and in my class that they do have academic freedom to express opinions and conduct academic research.
Not even Shuping’s critics argue that China is freer than the United States. What so offended many Chinese, however, was the use of such a public platform and such exaggerations to paint a selectively negative view of China to a mostly foreign audience. Many critics view Shuping as a dramatic attention-seeker who defamed her own country with untruths.
This reaction may be a bit overwrought and even tinged with malice, but it is instructive for Americans. Many young Americans might actually applaud a fellow American in the reverse scenario, who gave a speech at, say, Stockholm University focused on America’s flaws. China, unlike large swaths of America, is generally not a society that sees virtue in the denigration of its own culture. If maintaining one’s pride requires a bit of nationalism, so be it. Indeed, is that worse than losing one’s culture to the airy bromides of globalism? Americans may have something to learn from their ostensible rival. Every country has its faults, but there is propriety in not gleefully airing them among foreigners. Americans once understood this.
Beyond that, is such a speech appropriate? It is surely not new for political figures and activists to give commencement addresses, but customarily they have been airy, inspirational, even anodyne affairs, touching on subjects such as “war and peace” and “how to live a good life.” Now even this hallowed American tradition has become politicized, a trend reflected in the Maryland incident.
Perhaps the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America constituted something of a turning point. In 2003 at Rockford College, journalist Chris Hedges was supposed to give a commencement address. Instead, he gave a speech decrying America’s just-launched war in Iraq, for which he was booed off the stage. And John Kerry, in his recent Harvard Kennedy School address, went on an extended tirade about the evils of the Trump administration.
It is now common for commencement speakers to casually take sides on contentious political debates—LGBT rights, health care, welfare, race relations—with no apparent regard for the guests who did not come to hear their beliefs scorned and dismissed. In fact, a separate University of Maryland commencement that I attended featured both an angry dismissal of populism and nationalism (which have supposedly had “devastating consequences,” even when voted for by democratic electorates), and a gratuitous swipe at men, who are apparently responsible for all the world’s problems.
Whether right or wrong, whether tongue-in-cheek or serious, such remarks degrade the integrity of higher education’s mission. Thus the far more deserving target of scorn is not the speakers, who are after all free to express themselves, but the universities, for allowing partisan rancor to infect what should be a moment of togetherness and unity. The Atlantic notes this unfortunate trend: “The commencement speaker’s public profile is not only a statement of a university’s prestige, but also, increasingly, the embodiment of a university’s political ideology.”
There is a time and place for critiques of the Chinese socio-political system; of the American way of making war; and of everything else. That place is in the classroom, and in forums around campus, where academic freedom should ensure that it can take place. But a commencement address likely to offend a large percentage of those in attendance—and in some cases crafted to offend them—is almost always ill-advised. Our universities should take note.
Addison Del Mastro is Assistant Editor for The American Conservative. He is a Master of Public Policy graduate from the University of Maryland.