What Yang Shuping’s speech tells us about free speech
Whether it was former President Obama saying that liberal college students should not be “coddled” or President Trump criticizing UC Berkeley’s response to a controversial speaker, the 1st Amendment is presumably under attack by unwieldy college students. However, the recent speech by Chinese student Shuping Yang at the University of Maryland commencement ceremony about the “fresh air of free speech” is an important reminder that our finest academic institutions are still exemplars of what it means to believe in and uphold free speech.
Yang offers a perspective most Americans do not have: she is from an authoritarian country where there is no such thing as free speech. Criticism of China can mean being fired from work, public humiliation, or even jail-time. As Yang said to family, friends and classmates, her appreciation of the “fresh air of free speech” is something she saw every day in class discussion or as a theater major where she saw a play about the 1992 LA riots that discussed racism, sexism, and politics. The Chinese equivalent to a play about a riot would be “The Tiananmen Square Massacre.” If you haven’t seen it, it is because it doesn’t exist.
The American values that she was immersed in on a college campus inspired her to feel that “democracy and freedom are the fresh air worth fighting for.” Those commentators afraid the 1st Amendment is under attack on college campuses should be equally inspired that a foreign student can come to the United States, attend college, and feel the flame of liberty.
Most of the media response in the United States to her speech has been about the outcry it received on Chinese social media. Originally from Kunming, a Chinese city with (relatively) clean air, Yang would “never have to wear a face mask” wrote one netizen. “How dare she criticize the motherland” remarked another. All of this misses the point.
Despite the irony of the fact that many Chinese students at Maryland and other schools in the U.S. were using Facebook to comment on this (which is banned in China), the real significance of this episode isn’t what it says about Chinese attitudes towards censorship- it’s about what American universities continue to stand for and teach its students. As University of Maryland Chancellor Wallace D. Loh, who also grew up in an authoritarian country, said after Yang’s speech:
“This will and will always be a shining city on a hill beckoning the most talented people of all background of all people from all over the world to help form a more perfect union.”