It’s commencement season in America again, and quite a few heavy hitters have already spoken. On Tuesday, the Guardian published its first speaker roundup, featuring Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, and former president Bill Clinton. Yet it was a speech by Vice President Joe Biden that seemed to draw the most attention among China’s netizens.
On May 13, at the commencement ceremony for the University of Pennsylvania, Biden began by cracking a few jokes about Penn’s skyrocketing tuition and received immediate laughter from the audience. It was “by far the funniest of the recent commencement addresses,” according to the Guardian. Biden’s speech touched on many subjects: climate change, gay marriage, immigration, and technological innovation, to name a few. He reassured the graduates that claims about America’s decline were unfounded. “The future is in your control,” he urged at the end, “Don’t listen to the cynics.” And the crowd roared.
Not all Penn graduates were happy about what they heard, however, especially those who were made very uncomfortable by Biden’s two references to China. On May 14, Zhang Tianpu, a graduating senior at Penn and a Chinese citizen, wrote an entry on renren.com, China’s Facebook, in protest against Biden’s speech. The post soon went viral and was shared and read by more than 30,000 Renren users.
What exactly did Biden say about China?
Zhang transcribed Biden’s two references to China for the benefit of those who weren’t present at the ceremony. In the middle of his speech, Biden touched on the American fear that “the Chinese are going to eat our lunch.” “But ladies and gentlemen,” the Vice President continued, “their problems are immense, and they lack much of what we have.” After listing Americans’ advantages in terms of its education system, legal system, venture capital markets, and technological innovation, Biden concluded that the key to all these is was the ability to “think different,” as Steve Jobs famously suggested. Then came Biden’s first China comment, which rubbed many Chinese students the wrong way:
“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.”
Biden’s second China reference came at the end of his speech. He spoke of his ten-day visit to China, at the end of which China’s then President-to-be Xi Jinping asked what the Vice President thought. Biden shared his response: “I said he’s a strong, bright man, but he has the look of a man who is about to take on a job he’s not at all sure is going to end well. I mean that seriously.”
Why were the Chinese students not happy?
“Vice President Biden’s speech made thousands of Chinese students and their parents who were present very disappointed,” Zhang wrote in his post.
Two things irked Zhang in particular. Firstly, when Biden said, “you cannot think different in a nation where you can’t breathe free,” he referred to China as a “nation,” not a “state.” So, Zhang observed, “We the Chinese people are slaves by birth, and can’t think independently…Isn’t this explicit racism? In-your-face racism, even!” [Update: This may have been the result of a misunderstanding, not an intentional jab. In colloquial American English, the distinction between "nation," which means a group of people of common descent, and "state," which means a governing entity, is not clearly made. In Chinese, the distinction is clearer. H/T to commenter Gray Hat.]
What added fuel to the fire, according to Zhang, was that Biden said all this during a commencement ceremony at which Zhang and all the other Chinese students were celebrating diplomas they had earned through four years of hard work.
“I don’t care if what he said about China is correct (I don’t dare to make the call either, or else this post would have been a goner—I’m sorry), but despite knowing the occasion—a commencement ceremony at an international university—and the presence of so many Chinese students, Biden didn’t give us even a bit of face,” Zhang wrote, “Having paid the same amount of money, studied equally hard, and even earned better grades than the Americans, why should we sit there and listen to his bullshit? This is not only a stain on the reputation of the University of Pennsylvania as an internationally reputed institution, but also makes America lose face as well. Only cowards praise themselves by attacking other countries.”
Chinese students react online
Reactions to Zhang’s post varied, and mainly came from Chinese college students, both in China and abroad. While some disagreed over whether Biden’s assessment of the U.S. was intentionally naive and optimistic, most found his remarks on China more or less true. Zhang initially transcribed Biden’s speech because the video of the speech, hosted on YouTube, wasn’t accessible from China due to the blocking of the site by the Great Fire Wall. One Renren user remarked, “I also want to roast Biden, but the author should perhaps ask the Party to unblock YouTube first.”
While many seemed confident in China’s future and mocked Zhang’s insecurity, some commented that they understood Zhang’s reaction, though they may not have shared his feelings. Lei Tao, a Chinese student at Penn who was also present during the commencement, wrote: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what he said, nor should it count as an [unreasonable] attack on China, because everything he said was true. It’s just that the occasion he chose to say this wasn’t very appropriate, and some Chinese students couldn’t accept it. Now, I was present [during the speech] and listened, but I didn’t think it was a big deal.”
Some didn’t think Zhang needed to make such a fuss over Biden’s comments. One of the more popular comments on Zhang’s article read, “What’s all this compared to what they said during election season!”
The controversy and the challenge
Among all the Ivy League schools, Penn has perhaps one of the largest Chinese student communities. It was therefore no surprise when many Chinese students at Penn who shared Zhang’s sentiment got together and penned an open letter addressed to the Vice President. On May 16, a signing session for the petition took place on campus. In his post, Zhang also shared the email address of Penn President Amy Gutmann’s, inviting more Chinese students to write her in protest. According to Zhang, Amy Gutmann should have taken into account the possible reactions Penn’s thousands of Chinese students might have to Biden’s China remarks and done something about it.
Were Biden’s China comments too nationalistic to be part of a commencement speech? Is the University of Pennsylvania, as a private, international institution, degrading itself or losing its autonomy, as Zhang suggested, by accepting Biden’s politically charged speech? Scores of politicians have done the same before Biden, using occasions such as commencement ceremonies to illustrate their political points. It’s not even evident that Biden meant to make his speech particularly political—his second China observation seemed as personal as it was political.
Zhang never expected his post to attract so much attention. It was meant as “a simple rant,” as the author stated in a later, revised version of his text. But one thing is certain: Biden’s speech annoyed many like Zhang, simply because they felt they deserved to end their college experiences on a happier note. As Zhang mentioned in his post, only 60-70% of Biden’s audience that day were American citizens. As American college campuses become more international, not to mention more Chinese, this incident may serve as a good lesson for both US colleges and politicians in their future speeches.