Friday, May 26, 2017

Yang Shuping’s speech

Yang Shuping is a Chinese student who graduated from the University of Maryland and gave a commencement address on May 21, 2017.  Numerous Chinese students have given such speeches lately, but only hers generates much attention.  The core issue is that she hailed American air is “sweet”, compared to the polluted air in China, and also the US is freer.  This attracts a lot of criticisms and attacks, as well as a lot of defense.

What to make of her speech, and more importantly, the reactions?

Yang Shuping, in fact, could make her main points, objectively.  Few people could say the air pollution in China isn't worse than the US, and certainly freedom of expression in general, etc.  Thus she is certainly not wrong factually on those fronts.  That much is the argument of her defenders, and even her critics acknowledge it.  So why the fuss?

First an interesting detail.  She used her own experience of wearing a mask to counter bad air in China, a personal story and tiny sample size.  It was soon pointed out she came from Kunming, a city far from the worst air in China.  It is nonetheless debatable that Kunming is still worse than most American cities.  And she had a sinus in China which disappears in America.  Now, a lot of people have sinus in one place but not in another, and sinus is a common health problem with known and unknown causes.  I also have sinus in China that mostly goes away in the US, and I was from a place with likely no worse air than Kunming, and I left in early 1990s, at a time when air was supposedly better than now.   This suggests that many factors besides air dictate whether one has sinus or not.  I have further found that wearing a mask alleviates my sinus in China in the winter.  The mask is not of any specialty kind, so the main mechanism is likely to maintain a warm environment for the nose and face, not to filter out bad air.  This leads me to conclude that in China room temperature is usually not well controlled, too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, causing all kinds of problems for many Chinese, whereas in the US you pretty much live in a constant, comfortable environment (houses, offices, shops, cars), which is good for your body.  Why is it the case in China?  Well, mostly economic reasons, and simply old ways die hard.  So based on other people’s experience, Yang’s sinus and story is not convincing.  It could even be due to allergy to pollens unique in China, for example, hardly a valid good US-vs-bad China example.  But this point is minor.

Then, the freedom of expression in general.  It needs a long book and many more, but in essence, one can say whatever he wants (not exactly true), but he should also be ready to face any reactions and consequences from other people’s freedom of expression as well.  In Yang Shuping’s case, a few people went overboard with personal attacks in the digital space, and some defenders also erred by casually dismissing critics’ freedom of expression.  Indeed, so often her defenders are calling her critics doing "cultural revolution".  This is despite the fact that the quickest and strongest criticism came from Yang's fellow Chinese students at UMD and elsewhere in the US, who are typically only in their late 10s to early 20s, whereas the "cultural revolution", as commonly known, occurred over 40-50 years ago in China, when many Yang's defenders were actually born or even active at the time.  The phrase "cultural revolution" has become so politically charged among Chinese, almost like holocaust or Hitler or genocide in the West, that it is devoid of any actual meaning or value for dialogs.  If one wants to see any fresh evidence of "cultural revolution", plenty can be found in any online forums about sports, fashions, cell phones, and any political issues, etc, everyday, everywhere, on the globe.  Those heated arguments rival or exceed criticisms or counter-criticisms of Yang Shuping.  Are those people, most having never been in or known of the Cultural Revolution, defined as a particular historic event, also doing "cultural revolution"?  If so, the significance of "cultural revolution" is greatly diminished.

In reality, Yang Shuping later apologized, not for her facts, but for what she implied in her speech.  Implication, THAT is the main issue.   

Suppose you are an African-American, and you talk about black crimes and disparage Black Lives Matter in your commencement address, what do you expect the reactions, even if you cite all the correct statistics?   Or you are from India, and you gush about fresh and sweet air in the US, even though Indian cities do have the world’s worst air pollution?

We can all objectively debate whether the US is the best in the world.  Yet even if so, does it mean everybody elsewhere is a less deserving country or person?  Is the glee and moral superiority, exemplified by so many, including Yang’s speech, really justified?  Here lies the focus and motivation for her critics, which is conveniently ignored by her defenders.

When you are young, you tend to say, write, or do things you swear you will never, ever do it again when you look back a while later.  This can take years, or just a few months later.  While at a middle school I once wrote a composition assignment whose content I regretted very soon, and it didn’t even offend anyone.  Experience and learning needs a lot of time in life, no one is the same from 20- to 60-years old, genius included.

In a sense, such an occasion invariably reflects just the thinking of a young person at a time of her biggest achievement thus far in life.  Its significance is akin to that of a drizzle on a sunny day.  The attention, no matter what she says and whether positive or negative, should have never reached this high a level.  And now it will blow away in a few days.

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