What began as a graduation speech at the University of Maryland has turned into an international social media storm.
Graduating student Yang Shuping gave a commencement speech in which she praised America’s support of critical thinking and freedom of expression.
Ms Shuping recalled the first day she stepped off a plane in America and was surprised by how clean the air was, something she said she was not used to in her home city of Kunming in China’s south.
In her speech she used fresh air as a metaphor for the way she felt about America’s focus on personal liberty and freedom, contrasting her experience in the US to the oppression she felt growing up in China’s stifling political climate.
“I used to believe that one individual’s participation could not make a difference,” Ms Shuping said.
“I have the opportunity to speak freely here, my voice matters, your voice matters – our voices matter.”
“Democracy and free speech should not be taken for granted, democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for.”
“Together we can push our society to be more just, open and peaceful.”
The speech drew applause and cheers from the packed university hall, but also triggered a swift backlash from mainland China and other Chinese students at the university.
Social media users criticised Ms Shuping’s assessment of Chinese air quality, calling her a “liar” and “devious”.
I can’t understand Yang Shuping’s words about the air of KunMing.Kun Ming is one of the cleanest cities in china. pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/5UDDZSDQj0
— 王夕兮 (@bu1fIX41Jt6AlyJ) May 22, 2017
Her home town of Kunming, which is known as one of China’s least polluted cities, also posted on Weibo upholding their “fresh and sweet” air.
The University of Maryland said in a statement that they “proudly support” Ms Shuping’s speech.
“Listening to and respectfully engaging with those whom we disagree are essential skills, both within university walls and beyond,” the institution said.
But Ms Shuping herself has publicly apologised on social media, saying she didn’t aim to insult her country and was “sincerely sorry for the speech” and hoped to be “forgiven”.Related:
This incident comes after concerns in Australia over Chinese influence in higher education institutions.
Just this month, Monash University came under fire when it suspended a lecturer after a Chinese student complained that a quiz implied China’s officials only told the truth while drunk.
After seeing the post on Wechat the Chinese consulate became involved, encouraging Monash to investigate.
Earlier this year, Professor Chongyi Feng from the University of Technology Sydney, an Australian permanent travelling on a Chinese passport, was blocked from leaving China following his research on human rights issues.
Professor Feng was a known critic of the Chinese Communist Party, but was released several days later with little explanation.
The incidents have raised questions about how educational institutions deal with Chinese political sensitivities while relying on the country’s students for international student fees.
More than a quarter of Australia’s 480,000 international students are Chinese.