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International Student Faces Criticism in China Over U.S. Commencement Speech

Blue skies in Tianjin. Sunny conditions in Hubei. Smog-free air in Kunming.

Photos of the great outdoors all across China poured in on Chinese social media this week after an international student angered netizens in her home country with a college commencement speech she gave at the University of Maryland on Sunday.

In that address, Shuping Yang recalled stepping off an airplane five years ago when she arrived in the United States, and how she was about to put on one of her five facemasks she used in China to filter out pollution in the city where she grew up.

“But when I took my first breath of American air, I put my mask away,” the double-major in psychology and theater said. “The air was so sweet and fresh and utterly luxurious. I was surprised by this.”

Yang extended the anecdote to what she called the “fresh air of free speech.”

“I have learned the right to freely express oneself is sacred in America,” she later said.

While audience members attending graduation greeted Yang’s speech with applause, the reception thousands of miles away in China was not as positive.

Comments ridiculing Yang’s remarks quickly made the rounds on Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging website.

In one posting, a user said that while China has its bad points, Yang exaggerated them too much.

“To suit the tastes of the American audience, you gained their applause, but lost the respect of others,” the post said in Chinese.

Another user said if Yang was making insinuations about China’s “political atmosphere,” then that explains that she’s been “successfully brainwashed by the American education system.”

“America doesn’t have any ‘dark history’?” the commenter asked.

But one Weibo user felt that parts of Yang’s message were misunderstood, especially about the five face masks and the air being sweet.

“(They) were blown up amid nationalistic sentiment,” the user wrote.

Questions Yang raised about free speech, China’s air quality, and the environment are topics repeatedly discussed on Chinese-language social media, the post added.

Yang later apologized on Weibo, saying she deeply loves China and her hometown.

“The speech was only to share my own experiences studying abroad,” the post reads. “I completely had no intention of demeaning or (saying something) negative about my country or hometown.”

The University of Maryland said in a statement Monday that it supports Yang’s right to share her views, and that she was chosen as a top student to address the graduating class.

“The University believes that to be an informed global citizen it is critical to hear different viewpoints, to embrace diversity, and demonstrate tolerance when faced with views with which we may disagree,” the statement reads. “Listening to and respectfully engaging with those whom we disagree are essential skills, both within university walls and beyond.”

Yang could not immediately be reached for comment.

Even four days after Sunday’s commencement, criticism of Yang’s speech hasn’t died down on Chinese social media.

Taking aim at Yang’s mention of poor air quality in China, Weibo users answered a call to post photos of blue skies and white clouds all across China.

A YouTube video also appeared earlier in the week featuring students of Chinese descent discussing what makes them proud of China. Text at the end calls for Yang and the school to apologize.

China sends the largest number of international students to the U.S. to study at colleges and universities, according to the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit. During the 2015-2016 year, 31.5 percent (328,547) were from China, with India coming in second at 15.9 percent (165,918), the group reported.

In her commencement address, Yang said immersing herself in the University of Maryland’s diverse community exposed her to different perspectives on truth. She said she used to think that only “authorities owned the narrative.”

“I soon realized that here, I have the opportunity to speak freely,” she said. “My voice matters. Your voice matters. Our voices matter.”

Yang said in her Weibo message that she felt deep pride over China’s prosperous growth, and that she hopes to use what she’s learned abroad to promote Chinese culture.

“I will draw a lesson from this going forward,” she added. “At the same time, I also hope there won’t be anymore reading into this and personal attacks.”

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