A visit by the Dalai Lama is dividing a US campus where 14% of students are from China

Next stop: Gaborone.
Next stop: Gaborone.
Image: Reuters/Vincent Kessler
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This Saturday (June 17), the Dalai Lama will deliver a commencement address at the University of California San Diego, where a good portion of the student body will consider his very presence an affront to the peace and unity he preaches.

Many overseas Chinese students at UCSD view the Dalai Lama not as a messenger of world harmony, as many around the globe do, but as a separatist keen on splitting China and as a symbol of their country’s feudal past. It’s a view promoted by the Communist Party of China, which strictly controls within its borders what can and cannot be said about Tibet and the Dalai Lama, along with the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and relations with Taiwan, among other issues.

Which is why many of the students think the invitation was insensitive to them.

Two weeks ago, members of UCSD’s chapter of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), a collegiate organization with branches all over the world, staged a demonstration against the Dalai Lama’s planned appearance at the commencement ceremony, which will follow a public address delivered on campus on Friday (June 16), to an estimated audience of 25,000. The uproar began when the visit was publicly announced in February. The school has a sizable presence (pdf) of Chinese foreign students, nearly 14% of the student body.

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Posters disseminated at the protest (and viewable online) display quotes from Chinese students calling the Dalai Lama a “fraud, criminal, and power-obsesser.”

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This is not the first time Chinese organizations overseas have protested the Dalai Lama. But the events at UCSD are important because they sit at the junction of several trends. As Chinese students study in ever greater numbers at US colleges, they’re blending elements of US campus politics and party-backed worldviews into their own form of cross-border influence, demonstrated by a number of events this year.

At Durham University in the UK, Chinese students notified the local Chinese embassy about an appearance from Chinese-Canadian human rights activist Anastasia Lin. This prompted the local Chinese embassy to request her disinvitation. Later, in May, when University of Maryland graduate Shuping Yang spoke out in favor of “the fresh air” of free speech and democracy, at commencement, she was publicly shamed on Chinese social media.

These incidents have come as campus activism swells across the United States. Protesters at the University of California Berkeley and Middlebury have prevented guest lecturers they considered hateful from speaking to students, at times resorting to violence. Students at Yale have rechristened a college once named after an ardent proponent of slavery. And students at Evergreen State protested and called for the firing of a professor who spoke out against a diversity-related school tradition, with events there culminating in a phone threat that forced the campus to shut down for a day.

Are the Chinese students’ grievances comparable to those expressed on campus by American counterparts? Some will argue not at all. Many academics and experts believe that the students’ actions are prompted by the Chinese government, which uses CSSA and overseas students as proxies to export its own censorship regime (and perhaps, some argue, engage in espionage). It’s possible, some might say, that the students are merely pawns in a larger war of information. But that view puts the sincerity of the students’ motivations in doubt—which isn’t quite fair.

More strikingly, especially in the case of the Dalai Lama visit to UCSD, students are framing their grievances under the banners of “respect” and “diversity.” These sacred values are difficult for universities to abandon, and they’re the same values held up by protestors combating racism and sexism on campus.

As Chinese students continue to enroll in overseas universities, these clashes look set to continue.

For a glimpse at what might unfold, look to Australian National University, where about 60% of its international student population is from China. In October, in advance of a campus celebration of China’s National Day, CSSA students reportedly tore down posters about the Tiananmen Square massacre. At a related event, private, plainclothes security forces reportedly harassed a student journalist. These incidents and many others have prompted at least one Australian professor to call for the government to take action against CSSA.

Moving forward, universities and Chinese students both will be placed in difficult positions. The former will feel pressure to both accommodate the demands of its Chinese students, but also show they are standing up against unreasonable ones. If they don’t find a way to manage that balancing act well, administrations could appear as though they have betrayed their commitment to multiculturalism, risk losing swaths of students that pay full tuition, or face accusations of allowing excessive foreign influence.

The students, meanwhile, will face pressure to publicly prove that they are “not brainwashed”—a difficult task, when many times (but not always) their views do conform to the ones promoted by their government. Meanwhile, Chinese students like the University of Maryland’s Shuping Yang, who publicly express views that are not pro-party, risk alienation—or worse—when they return back home.

While the Dalai Lama will be ringing in graduation this year, when it comes to campus propaganda wars, we’re still in orientation.