The University of Maryland has supported a controversial commencement speech by a Chinese student, which has been met with outrage from Chinese people in the video’s YouTube comments section and across Chinese social media. The speech also sparked debate among mainstream Chinese media outlets.

In her speech on Sunday, Shuping Yang, who arrived in the United States five years ago, discussed fresh air and freedom. She was selected by a committee of staff and students to speak at the ceremony.

Using the fresh air of America as an analogy, she praised free speech and the lack of government censorship in the United States. She claimed that she had to wear face masks “every time” she went outside in her home city in China, and how she learned to express her opinions at the university. “[In China] I was convinced that only authorities owned the narrative, only authorities could define the truth.”

Shuping Yang
Shuping Yang. Photo: YouTube screenshot, via University of Maryland.
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“I soon realised that here, I have the opportunity to speak freely. My voice matters, your voice matters, our voices matter.”

“Democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for… enjoy the fresh air and never, ever, let it go,” she ended her speech by saying.


But her speech met with indignation from Chinese social media users, who called her a liar, said her portrayal of China was inaccurate, and accused her of humiliating the country.

The University backed her up despite the controversy and Yang’s own apology. “The University of Maryland… is a place founded on academic freedom, the freedom of expression, and the right of every individual to share their thoughts and views in a welcoming and nurturing academic environment,” it said in a statement on Monday.

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“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. Listening to and respectfully engaging with those whom we disagree are essential skills, both within university walls and beyond.

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Students applauding after Yang’s speech. Photo: Screenshot.

The University proudly supports Shuping’s right to share her views and her unique perspectives and we commend her on lending her voice on this joyous occasion.”

Following the backlash, Yang released a statement on Weibo apologising for the speech.

“The reaction from this speech was a great surprise to me, and I am deeply disturbed,” she wrote.

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“I deeply love my motherland and home, and feel deeply proud of my country’s prosperous development, and I also hope I can use what I have learned overseas to carry forward Chinese culture, and make positive contributions to my country. My speech was only to share my experience studying abroad, without any intention to deny or belittle my country or home, here I apologise, and sincerely hope everyone can forgive me, I have learned my lesson.”

She added that she hoped there would not be further interpretations and personal attacks.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.