Biden’s UPenn commencement speech divides Chinese netizens in the US and back home

Alia | May 24th, 2013 - 6:29 pm

The relationship between the US and China has never been an easy one. Just two weeks before the coming meeting between Obama and Xi Jinping, US Vice President Biden created another stir among Chinese netizens over his “insensitive” and potentially “in-your-face racist” commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania.

On May 13 at UPenn’s commencement ceremony, Biden assured its audience that there is no need to worry about China “eating our lunch”, because “their problems are immense, and they lack much of what we have. We have the best universities in the world. We have a legal system that is open and fair. We have the most agile venture capital system in the world. We lead the world in innovation and technology.” All is for a very simple reason, that is to “think differently:

“You cannot think different in a nation where you cannot breathe free. You cannot think different in a nation where you aren’t able to challenge orthodoxy, because change only comes from challenging orthodoxy.”

Zhang Tianpu

While Biden’s words received applause and cheers, not all were happy, and definitely not some of the Chinese students sitting in the audience. One of them, Zhang Tianpu, a Wharton graduate, was especially annoyed. In an open letter demanding Biden’s apology to all Chinese students at UPenn, he argued that Biden’s “politically-charged” words on China was “extremely inappropriate and offensive”:

“[Biden] singled out and demeaned China in front of an audience of thousands. It was a humiliating experience.”

But the anger is less on Biden’s exact words: “Even if there is truth in your comments about China, commencement is not the time for such politically-charged rhetoric.” Zhang went on: “We ask that you save your nationalistic criticisms of other countries for your campaigns, not for an international audience.”

In the 2011-2012 academic year, there were more than 194,000 Chinese students studying in the US, representing the largest group of international students. And UPenn has one of the country’s largest Chinese student bodies. It’s not surprising that some of them got upset by Biden’s unfriendly reference to their home country. In fact, 343 Chinese students at UPenn signed Zhang’s open letter, calling for an apology from the vice president.

Back home, however, it’s another story.

Biden spoke the truth

Zhang’s protesting letter, together with Biden’s commencement speech, hit headlines in various media in China and soon went viral. For example, a post that translated Biden’s speech into Chinese got more than 42,000 shares. But Chinese netizens back home reacted to the story very differently from Zhang and his fellow students at UPenn. To the mainlanders, Biden spoke the truth.

The reason is simple, as one netizen 地卷云涛 pointed out: “In the US, you can write an letter asking the vice president to apologize. That’s freedom of speech in itself. If you do the same in China, you will disappear the next day.” Such sentiment was overwhelming. “You [Zhang] were enjoying America’s freedom of speech, which China doesn’t have, while you were writing the letter,” commented another netizen 水菓篮.

Love the country from aboard

More interesting reactions came from questions about who Zhang and his supporters are, and whether it makes sense for oversea Chinese to be a patriot.

Chinese netizens are known for being cynical, and the case isn’t an exception. Not soon after the story went viral, questions arose about whether Zhang and his supporters at UPenn are kids of the rich and privileged or corrupt officials. One netizen 段郎说事 asked: “Among those UPenn students who signed the protesting letter, how many are children of ordinary people in China and how many are children of officials?” Another netizen 朵依LL shared the same doubt: “These students’ background is indeed worth digging. What kind of life they lived when in China? If they are kids of officials, no wonder they feel good about the country.”

Some other netizens went one step further to discuss the complex feeling of patriotism among oversea Chinese. Most thought that it’s hypocritical to love one’s home country while living in another. One netizen 灰驴zl commented: “Oversea Chinese and those who now study or work overseas and don’t plan to go back have the cheapest patriotism. They love their home country as long as their home country can keep their ‘face.’ They don’t give a damn about whether the people back home have ‘face’ or any dignity at all.” Another netizen PeterSun孙少 asked: “What I don’t understand is why these ‘patriots’ move to live on foreign lands.”

Despite opposite opinions from Chinese netizens in China, oversea Chinese students, with their ever growing numbers, is a group that the US, or any other country, cannot afford to ignore. We already talked about why oversea Chinese students may not bring back home the freedom and openness they enjoy on foreign lands because of the careless China-bashing not uncommon to see in western media. Their patriotism may seem out of place in the eyes of mainlanders, but it’s true and sincere by any means. 

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One Response to “Biden’s UPenn commencement speech divides Chinese netizens in the US and back home”

  1. KalanStar says:

    Message to Zhang Tianpu, “grow up!”

    “extremely inappropriate and offensive” Hahaha! China is“extremely inappropriate and offensive”, to say the least.

    Though not a fan of Biden, he didn’t say anything remotely offensive and certainly nothing that was inappropriate.

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