U.S. Exchange Student Punished for Writing ‘Democracy is cool for kids!’ in China

The People's Republic of China flag clashes with the Stars and Stripes. (Iecs/Wikimedia Commons)
The People's Republic of China flag clashes with the Stars and Stripes. (Iecs/Wikimedia Commons)

A Massachusetts senior student was barred from his prom last week when news spread that he had written pro-democracy statements in a Chinese classmate’s notebook while in the mainland.

Henry DeGroot, 18, was on an exchange program at a Beijing high school when he jokingly wrote this in a Chinese student’s notebook: “Democracy is for cool kids. Don’t believe the lies your school and government tell you. It’s right to rebel,” according to the Boston Globe.

These comments would be harmless if written in the United States, but in China making statements like this can catch the authorities’ attention and bring trouble. The Chinese student reported the incident to the headmaster, who gave DeGroot a detention.

When the Chinese program heads found out, they called for an immediate apology, so DeGroot’s school made him write one.

DeGroot explained his behavior to the Globe: “It was definitely stupid, but I hoped the kids would read it and think about why this foreigner was writing this. And hopefully they would be critical, or at least think about how their school and government interacts with them.”

The Chinese side claimed this one student’s immaturity had jeopardized 30 years of work between the two schools. But what is immature about free speech?

DeGroot’s U.S. school is saying this isn’t about free speech, but about violating codes of conduct set up between exchange programs.

Here’s the real issue though: What’s the point of an exchange program if not to swap ideas? Isn’t the whole idea to experience different cultures and attitudes? Aren’t America’s freedom of speech and press a beacon of hope in many corners of the world? It seems DeGroot’s Chinese friend was too brainwashed to realize the truth, and sadly we know he can’t learn about it on the Internet.

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