Gaffe-happy Biden offends Chinese students at Penn


US Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese (then) Vice President Xi Jinping shake hands after receiving gifts and answering students questions in a Mandarin language class at International Studies Learning Center Feb. 16, 2012 in South Gate, California.


Jay L. Clendenin-Pool

HONG KONG — While jokey and inspiring to some, Vice President Joe Biden's recent graduation speech at the University of Pennsylvania went over among Chinese students like a lead balloon. 

In his wide-ranging remarks at the Ivy League university's commencement on May 13, Biden said that while many say that "China is going to eat our lunch," he noted that "their problems are immense, and they lack much of what we have." America's universities, legal system and innovation lead the world, he continued.  

In China, however, "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." 

One graduating Penn student from China, Zhang Tianpu, was so outraged by Biden's remarks that he posted a long attack on the speech on Renren, China's Facebook clone, that subsequently went viral. 

"Imagine you study abroad — say in England — and then you’ve worked very hard for four years, spent so much sweat and toil to get that degree and you wake up one morning in your academic regalia and suddenly there’s this old guy standing on the podium saying, ‘You guys suck," Zhang wrote

Much of his criticism focused on Biden's use of the word "nation," which can be translated in Chinese to mean something akin to "race" or "ethnicity." Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese at Penn, suggested that this may have lead Zhang's "confusion" over the meaning of Biden's speech. 

Nevertheless, several Chinese students at Penn started a petition to demand that Biden apologize, which had roughly 350 signatures as of late Wednesday.

Online, others criticized the effort, with one Chinese Penn student saying he "didn't think it was a big deal" because "everything [Biden] said was true." 

Roughly 5 percent of the University of Pennsylvania's graduate and undergraduate student body hails from China, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian, the school's campus newspaper.