American Exchange Student Punished for Pro-Democracy Note in China
Henry DeGroot, an 18-year-old senior at Newton North High School in Massachusetts, experienced at a personal level what he described as American appeasement of Chinese officials.
“Yeah, there’s definitely somewhat of an appeasement of Chinese officials, like a sacrifice of people’s values and ideologies …” He expected his school to support his freedom of expression, but it did not.
DeGroot recently returned from an exchange program at the Beijing-Jingshan School where he expressed his pro-democracy viewpoint by writing a note in English in a Chinese student’s notebook.
He recalled writing “Democracy is for cool kids,” and “Don’t believe the lies your school and government tell you.” Jingshan school officials saw his note and sent him to detention, but allowed him to stay and finish the semester abroad.
The Newton North High School administration banned him from attending his senior prom. He had hoped his American school would support freedom of speech.
DeGroot explained that his family promotes individualism and intellectual conversation. “When my family gets together, to an outsider it may seem like we’re always arguing … it’s not disrespectful, it’s a healthy conversation and what we care about is the idea.”
DeGroot said his school counselor and housemaster first banned him from the prom. He appealed to the principal. He was surprised when Principal Jennifer Price did not overturn the decision.
He had believed that she shared his values about the situation. “Before, I thought of her as a really passionate principal who really stuck to her ideals, and in the conversation that I had with her she was very critical of the Jingshan administration when we talked. And she basically had the same criticisms that I had, because when she went there she felt that Principal Fan basically ignored her because she’s a woman.”
DeGroot speculated that because Price must maintain a relationship with the Chinese school administration, she had to show that she didn’t support his actions.
‘Study Those Tremendously’
He also said he has “learned about the way which the two schools interact, and I’ve learned not really to trust my administration … there are certain values that this country was founded on and they’re held here in society such as freedom of expression and in school we study those tremendously.” The school’s motto is “Learning sustains the human spirit.”
Before leaving for the program, DeGroot signed an agreement promising to be on his best behavior. He said he believes that what he did was not disrespectful, by American standards. He thought the program coordinators and school administration violated their part of the agreement.
“We signed onto this program in understanding that we would receive all of these classes, and we just weren’t receiving them. The school is supposed to be an elite school, and my education from there wasn’t elite in any sense. And so I felt that the program had failed me first honestly, so I didn’t really feel any loyalty to that contract, because it had already been broken.”
To be specific, “it felt like we were more like show pieces. And they weren’t able to provide a very good education; they didn’t have qualified teachers to teach us.”
Living in Beijing for four months, DeGroot witnessed several aspects of political corruption. Many times the pollution index was above the limit at which the school should have been closed. However, the government reported falsified numbers that were under the acceptable limit. For example, “Right, so for a week they were reporting 480, and the cutoff to close off schools is at 500 and the American Embassy was reporting 540.” The school stayed open.
DeGroot spoke about how Chinese people he met were not at all reserved in their criticism of the Chinese regime. “They definitely didn’t appreciate their Internet being censored, they didn’t appreciate these certain laws, and harsh laws, and they didn’t appreciate the corruption.”
His peers had polarized opinions about the situation. Most supported him, but others disagreed with how he handled things. “First of all I definitely support people criticizing me, I think that what I did was stupid, like I could’ve done it in a better way.” Degroot wrote an apology, at his school’s request.
However, some criticisms were personal attacks, such as one from one of his Chinese classmates, who he described as a “Maoist apologist,” who recently emigrated from China. DeGroot said he did not understand how the portrait of Mao, “a mass murderer” could still hang in Tiananmen Square.
Friend Requests From China
Since the incident and news coverage, he has gotten many friend requests from people in China, as well as surprising criticisms: “People either love me or hate me. There was one guy who was a total Maoist apologist, and he was criticizing me and basically said that “tank man” deserved to be run over. It was pretty crazy.”
A call to Newton North High School has not yet been returned.