Vice President Joe Biden addressed a crowd of graduating University of Pennsylvania students and their families and friends last week to deliver the keynote speech at the commencement ceremony. And though Biden may have a bit of a reputation for public verbal blunders, a group of Chinese students was surprised by some of the remarks the vice president made regarding their home country.
“Their problems are immense, and they lack much of what we have… (America has an) open and fair legal (system),” Biden said in his speech. “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,” he said.
He even expressed concern about China’s newly appointed president, Xi Jingping. “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.”
While the students understand that politics between China and the U.S. are quite complicated, they argue that a commencement ceremony is not the time to bring up such heavy political statements, and that Biden was “inappropriate and offensive” in some of his comments, made in front of hundreds of Chinese people.
“It was a humiliating experience,” Zhang Tianpu, a graduating senior from the university’s prestigious Wharton Business School and Chinese citizen, told the South China Morning Post. “How can a graduation speech be this political?”
Zhang decided to take action and drafted a letter demanding a public apology from Biden to all Chinese students at UPenn. In the letter Zhang explains why he (and about 343 other signees, as of May 22) thought Biden’s comments were not appropriate. He is still collecting signatures and plans to submit the letter to the UPenn administration.
“Not only did you choose to ignore the international community at Penn, you openly singled out and demeaned China in front of an audience of thousands,” Zhang wrote. “We ask that you save nationalistic criticisms of other countries for your campaigns.”
Commenters on China-focused news blogs argue that Zhang’s ability to vocally protest the vice president’s speech and demand an apology is precisely the point Biden was trying to make: that in China, a citizen couldn't likely do such a thing without receiving some kind of official backlash.
“They are pretty lucky to be able to criticize and demand an apology from the vice president. When they get back here, let them try that with Wen Jiabao and see how far they get,” one commenter on China news blog Beijing Cream wrote.
Zhang acknowledged China’s various political problems, including rampant official corruption and frequent censorship, noting there is truth to Biden’s statements. Still, he stands by his demand for an apology.
“Even if there is truth in your comments about China, commencement is not the time for such politically charged rhetoric. Instead of encouraging international cooperation and progress, you portrayed us as obstacles that our American classmates have to overcome,” he wrote in the drafted letter.
In a quote from Zhang the South China Morning Post, “After four years of sweat and toil… all of a sudden, the graduation speaker who is supposed to be there to congratulate you on your achievement says to you: you and your nation suck. Regardless of whether that statement is true, how would you feel?”