UCSD Stands By Dalai Lama Invite Despite Protest

On February 2, the University of California San Diego announced confirmation of their invited commencement speaker for 2017: Tenzin Gyatso, also known as the 14th Dalai Lama. From UCSD:

Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th to Speak at UC San Diego Commencement

The exiled spiritual head and leader of the Tibetan people will address graduating students at commencement in June 2017. He will also speak at a second event on campus open to the public.

The University of California San Diego, one of the top 15 research universities in the world and recognized for its contributions to the public good, in partnership with The Friends of the Dalai Lama Foundation, founded by Ven. Lama Tenzin Dhonden the Personal Emissary for Peace to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, today announced that the exiled spiritual head and leader of the Tibetan people will offer the keynote address at the invitation-only UC San Diego All Campus Commencement June 17, 2017. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama will also speak June 16 at a second event, which will be open to the public. This will be his first 2017 U. S. tour stop.

“We are honored to host His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama at UC San Diego and thankful that he will share messages of global compassion with our graduates and their families, as well as with a broad public audience,” said Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “A man of peace, the Dalai Lama promotes global responsibility and service to humanity. These are the ideals we aim to convey and instill in our students and graduates at UC San Diego.” […] [Source]

While the Dalai Lama is perhaps known more widely among Western students as a spiritual leader who advocates compassion even in the most difficult of situations, a global ambassador for Buddhism, and a climate awareness spokesman, those were not the factors that came to mind for some members of the university’s growing population of Chinese students. Outraged that a man Beijing considers to be a separatist and fundamental enemy of Chinese sovereignty would be speaking at commencement, a group of Chinese UCSD students mobilized in opposition. On February 7, UCSD’s student paper ran an op-ed by Ruixian Wang, a Chinese student who opposes the Dalai Lama’s invite, making a case for why:

What I am writing cannot represent all Chinese students’ thoughts, but most of us share the same disappointment about the university’s invitation of the 14th Dalai Lama to speak at this year’s commencement. The main reason why many Chinese students are upset is that our university shows little consideration about cultural respect, as he is a politically sensitive person in China. We admire all his achievements in promoting education and raising awareness on environmental issues, and we admire the fact that he won the Nobel Peace Prize. We respect free speech no matter what he is going to say at the commencement. However, we also want to address our concerns.

Commencement is a landmark of our life. Our family members are coming all the way from China, flying for more than 10 hours to celebrate with us. The Dalai Lama, as a political icon, is viewed differently in our country. We want to spend a fantastic time with our family during the commencement, but his presence will ruin our joy. What we want to say is that objectively, he will be an excellent speaker for the commencement. Nonetheless, culturally speaking, his selection to be a presenter is inappropriate in such a situation, considering how many Chinese students and their families are going to attend this commencement. […] [Source]

Wang’s objection, that inviting the “politically sensitive” Dalai Lama lacks “cultural respect,” can be situated into a long tradition of controversial tactics for policing speech in the name of tolerance that have been increasingly used on college campuses in recent years. At Quartz, Josh Horwitz reports further on how the movement at UCSD has attempted to present the Dalai Lama invite as an assault on diversity and inclusiveness. While this isn’t the first time overseas Chinese students have gathered to oppose the Dalai Lama, the methods being used by those opposed to his UCSD speech are new:

The announcement triggered outrage among Chinese students who view the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader as an oppressive figure threatening to divide a unified China. A group of them now plans to meet with the university chancellor to discuss the content of the upcoming speech.

The awkwardness doesn’t end there. As the aggrieved students have trumpeted their opposition, their rhetoric has borrowed elements from larger campus activist movements across the United States. The upshot: What Westerners might perceive as Communist Party orthodoxy is mingling weirdly with academia’s commitment to diversity, political correctness, and other championed ideals.

[…] This is not the first time that at US colleges have voiced opposition to certain campus events perceived as disrespectful to China. In 2008, hundreds gathered at the University of Washington to rally against the Dalai Lama’s acceptance of an honorary degree. But typically, criticism is couched in familiar tropes like “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people,” rather than failing to account for diversity.

“If there were an objection to the Dalai Lama speaking on campus 10 years ago, you would not have seen the objection from Chinese students being framed within the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion,” says professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom, who researches modern Chinese history at the University of , Irvine. “There is a borrowing of rhetorical strategies.”

[…] John Li, a UCSD student and principal member of the CSSA who requested Quartz not use his real name, says the chancellor invited a group of overseas Chinese students for a meeting on Feb. 15. According to him, the group won’t ask the chancellor to disinvite the Dalai Lama. But it will request that he “send out statements that clarify the content of Dalai Lama’s speech,” “make sure his speech has nothing to do with politics,” and “stop using words like ‘spiritual leader’ or ‘exile’” to describe the Dalai Lama. […] [Source]

Quartz’ Horwitz has also translated segments of WeChat statements made by the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) and a UCSD Chinese alumni group, and archives Facebook comments from students offended by the invite. Horwitz also notes suspicion among some academics that Chinese consulates use the CSSA to spread Party propaganda on campuses abroad. On Twitter, another U.S.-based Chinese student who doesn’t agree with the CSSA on the Dalai Lama opposition posted a screenshot from an Initium article which claims that CSSA has admitted to taking Chinese government funds.

At Inside Higher Ed, Elizabeth Redden quotes a statement of support for UCSD’s invite from the International Campaign for , and also a warning from Tibet scholar Robert Barnett about the principles at stake and an encouragement for dialogue:

[From the Internation Campaign for Tibet’s statement:] “By objecting to the invitation to the Dalai Lama, the CSSA of UC San Diego is doing the work of the Chinese government,” the organization said. “The University of [California], San Diego’s invitation to the Dalai Lama is a reflection of the tremendous American public interest in and support for his thoughts and vision for the broader world; unfortunately, the CSSA is serving the shortsighted political agenda of the current Chinese leadership.”

Robert Barnett, the director of the modern Tibetan studies program at Columbia University, said there are major principles at stake. “Does the university accept to be bullied by the foreign government in terms of who it selects as a speaker, especially when that subject of that foreign government’s bullying is almost certainly, without any serious question of all, not deserving of that bullying and is certainly being misrepresented and indeed demonized by the Chinese government?” he asked. “Do we allow the Chinese government’s propaganda to dictate major cultural decisions in other countries?”

“What’s interesting is San Diego hasn’t backed down; that’s an important position,” said Barnett. “But the way to move forward is dialogue, not grandstanding.” […] [Source]

Previous incidents have shown how complicated such dialogue can be. In 2008, Grace Wang, a Chinese student at Duke University, attempted to mediate an on campus conflict between pro-Tibetan and pro-Beijing protesters. Her laudable efforts attracted herself and her family harassment from nationalists who saw her as a traitor.

Politics was likely not what the Dalai Lama planned on preaching in San Diego: climate scientists are scheduled to share the stage with him in June, and he has in recent years been known to sideline political issues—especially ones concerning the Tibet question—in favor of environmental ones. Nevertheless, the students’ talk with the UCSD administration did result in a promise that he wouldn’t brush upon the political at the June commencement. The state-affiliated tabloid Global Times reports, using language that very much reflects the official CCP line on the Dalai Lama:

Pradeep K. Khosla, the UCSD chancellor, met with three groups of Chinese overseas students, namely the Chinese Union, Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) and the Chinese Business Society, Fan Da (pseudonym), a member of the Chinese Union, told the Global Times on Thursday.

“The university said that they would not disinvite the Dalai Lama but will stop using words like ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘spiritual head and leader of the Tibetan people’ to describe him,” Fan said.

Fan added that the chancellor promised that the Dalai Lama would not include any political content in his speech and the university would soon publish a notice about the issue.

“When we asked the chancellor if he knew that the university’s invitation to the Dalai Lama hurt Chinese people’s feelings, the chancellor said he only knew that the Dalai Lama is a ‘religious activist’ but had no idea about what he did,” noted Fan. […] [Source]

At the Taiwan Sentinel, editor-in-chief J. Michael Cole puts the UCSD/Dalai Lama case in the context of other recent Chinese “student movements” at overseas campuses, describing this trend as in line with Beijing’s efforts to “condition” the West on controversial political issues long settled by the CCP:

The most recent example occurred at Durham University in the U.K., where the PRC Embassy in London was reportedly in contact with a student debating society at the university to raise concerns about Anastasia Lin, a former Miss World Canada and a fierce critic of the CCP. An embassy official is said to have told the student group that inviting Lin could “harm” relations between China and the UK. […]

[…] In 2015, the Chinese embassy in Canada reportedly mobilized protesters against a talk at the University of Ottawa (UO) by Andrew Yang, a former minister of national defense and adviser to president Ma Ying-jeou at the time. The university was bombarded by e-mails and phone calls “at all levels of the UO administration,” according to a source at the university. Chinese officials ostensibly feared that Yang’s talk, which focused on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, was a veiled attempt to promote the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name.

Though we cannot conclude from those isolated incidents that the tens of thousands of PRC students abroad agree with this type of activism in foreign lands, there nevertheless are worrying indications that such behavior is becoming more frequent, at least among those whose exposure to Western liberal democracy hasn’t, as had been hoped, subdued their nationalistic fervor and attachment to the PRC’s territorial claims. […]

[…] By dint of repetition, nationalistic Chinese students could accomplish what the PRC’s diplomatic missions have done at the political level: condition Western authorities to adopt a policy of risk-avoidance on issues that are regarded as “controversial” by the CCP — Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, human rights … and Taiwan. [Source]

In the diplomatic sphere, some of this conditioning—especially concerning the Tibet question and the Dalai Lama—has already successfully occurred. Despite the Dalai Lama’s decades of advocating not for Tibetan independence but for genuine cultural autonomy within China, Beijing continues to consider him a separatist. Regular protest from the Foreign Ministry over foreign leaders’ meetings with the aging Tibetan spiritual leader has resulted in less diplomatic engagement with leaders keen to avoid problems with Beijing over recent years. Last October, The Guardian ran an editorial calling for resistance to Beijing’s anti-Dalai Lama diplomatic efforts on the world stage.

Meanwhile, as some of UCSD’s Chinese students prepare for inevitable anti-Dalai Lama in June, Sixth Tone’s David Paulk reports on another, far less politically charged campaign to defend diversity by Chinese students at Columbia University:

Around the end of January, several East Asian students who used Romanized or pinyin versions of their given names returned to their rooms to find that their name cards had been ripped off, while those bearing Western names remained intact. According to Columbia’s student news website, the attacks on Asian name cards began earlier in the semester at one dorm and spread to others during the holiday.

An investigation has been launched into whether the incidents were racially motivated, and [associate dean of multicultural affairs] Aquino has called for any information on the parties responsible while expressing concerns about the “growing climate of xenophobia” and its effects on the university community.

Less than a week after the initial reports, Columbia undergraduate Yan Huhe published a video he made on Facebook of himself and fellow Chinese international students talking about the meaning of their names, as well as the hopes and dreams their parents had when they chose them. The video, titled “Say My Name,” had been viewed over 253,000 times as of Tuesday afternoon. […] [Source]