Chinese students in the US are using “inclusion” and “diversity” to oppose a Dalai Lama graduation speech

A great unifier, or divider?
A great unifier, or divider?
Image: Reuters/Abhishek Chinnapha
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Chinese students are joining their peers on American campuses and getting woke. Their cause? Defending the official line of the Communist Party.

On Feb. 2, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) formally announced that the Dalai Lama would make a keynote speech at the June commencement ceremony.

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.

Opposition to the Dalai Lama among Chinese authorities is nothing new, of course. Less recognized in the West is that many Chinese citizens feel the same way as the government. At UCSD, the Chinese-student opposition to the invitation came instantly. Just hours after the announcement, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) issued a lengthy, Chinese-language note on WeChat saying it had communicated with the Chinese consulate about the matter.

UCSD is a place for students to cultivate their minds and enrich their knowledge. Currently, the various actions undertaken by the university have contravened the spirit of respect, tolerance, equality, and earnestness—the ethos upon which the university is built. These actions have also dampened the academic enthusiasm of Chinese students and scholars. If the university insists on acting unilaterally and inviting the Dalai Lama to give a speech at the graduation ceremony, our association vows to take further measures to firmly resist the university’s unreasonable behavior. Specific details of these measures will be outlined in our future statements.

Comments from Chinese students on Facebook were also couched in rhetoric commonly used to rally for inclusivity on campus. One simply read #ChineseStudentsMatter. Some argued that the invitation goes against “diversity” and “political correctness.” Others contended the university was acting hypocritically by inviting an “oppressive” figure like the Dalai Lama while fostering a climate of anti-racism and anti-sexism.

Image for article titled Chinese students in the US are using “inclusion” and “diversity” to oppose a Dalai Lama graduation speech
Image for article titled Chinese students in the US are using “inclusion” and “diversity” to oppose a Dalai Lama graduation speech
Image for article titled Chinese students in the US are using “inclusion” and “diversity” to oppose a Dalai Lama graduation speech
Image for article titled Chinese students in the US are using “inclusion” and “diversity” to oppose a Dalai Lama graduation speech
Image for article titled Chinese students in the US are using “inclusion” and “diversity” to oppose a Dalai Lama graduation speech
Image for article titled Chinese students in the US are using “inclusion” and “diversity” to oppose a Dalai Lama graduation speech
Image for article titled Chinese students in the US are using “inclusion” and “diversity” to oppose a Dalai Lama graduation speech
Image for article titled Chinese students in the US are using “inclusion” and “diversity” to oppose a Dalai Lama graduation speech

In a letter addressed to the university’s chancellor, the UCSD Shanghai Alumni Group used similar rhetoric, invoking ”diversity” to justify its opposition.

As Chinese alumni, we are proud to be part of the growing UC community because of its diversity and inclusiveness. When addressing such a diverse community, there is a greater responsibility to spread a message that brings people together, rather than split them apart. During the campus commencement, there will be over a thousand Chinese students, families, and friends celebrating this precious moment with their loved ones. If Tenzin Gyatso expresses his political views under the guise of “spirituality and compassion,” the Chinese segment of this community will feel extremely offended and disrespected during this special occasion.

This is not the first time that overseas Chinese students 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 California, Irvine. “There is a borrowing of rhetorical strategies.”

Dr. Tsering Topgyal, a Tibetan native who received his master’s degree at UCSD and now lectures at the UK’s University of Birmingham, called diversity “an expedient notion to latch onto given its importance in both rhetoric and substance in the US and academia.” But he questions its appropriateness as a framing device for this specific grievance:

If the Chinese students wish to exploit diversity, they would come across as more convincing if they were more committed and supportive of this principle back home. If they are so committed to diversity, it behooves them to be more accepting of the Dalai Lama’s talk, especially since I am sure that many of the non-Chinese student community would wish to hear the Dalai Lama.

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.

None of professors Quartz contacted in the UCSD Chinese Studies program replied to requests for comments.

Holy man, or terrorist?

Tibet and the Dalai Lama remains one of a handful of topics where the Communist Party of China espouses a specific orthodoxy, inside and outside of China. It will counter or suppress opposing views in academia and the media, and retains control over Tibet’s depiction in history textbooks. Consequently, most native Chinese hold views that conform with the party’s preferred narrative.

Central to many objections in China toward the Dalai Lama is the perception that he advocates for separatism. He fled to India during the 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese forces. For decades, he advocated for Tibet’s full independence. He has since moderated his stance, advocating for a “high degree of autonomy” as a region that’s still part of the People’s Republic of China.

In China, the government and a majority of citizens view the Dalai Lama as a relic of the country’s feudal past. Says Dr. Topgyal:

The Chinese view is that before the Chinese ‘liberation’ of Tibet, Tibet used to be a backward feudal society where the Dalai Lama held most of the Tibetans as slaves. This is a blatant misrepresentation of Tibetan history. Tibet did practise a variant of a feudal system complete with serfs of different levels of social status and degrees of landownership. It was unequal and exploitative just like in any other feudal society, but it was definitely not a slavery system. No society, including China’s own by the way, is without a dark and abusive past.

Chinese critics call the Dalai Lama a “terrorist” (which explains the frequent comparisons to Osama bin Laden) and blame him for inciting the self-immolations that aggrieved Tibetans continue to commit. The Dalai Lama blames the Chinese government’s “cultural genocide” and oppressive rule over the region.

These views stand in stark contrast to how the Dalai Lama is portrayed in the West—primarily as an advocate for religious freedom and human rights.

Li, the CSSA member, says that he hasn’t engaged with any non-Chinese student in person regarding Tibetan history and the nature of the Dalai Lama’s politics. But he’s nevertheless frustrated by a lack of consideration toward the arguments his Chinese peers share on Facebook.

“They are basically rejecting every evidence we provide” of historical slavery in Tibet, says Li. “How can we argue about it if the other side refuses to listen to your points?”

A sizeable minority

The Chinese students’ objections to the Dalai Lama’s graduation speech sits at the junction of several trends taking place across American universities. Campus activism in the US has swelled in recent years, as students stage movements intended to provide more voice and representation to groups that have historically faced institutionalized or culturally entrenched discrimination.

Just this week, students at Yale successfully completed a campaign to change the name of Calhoun College, named after a 19th-century senator and strong advocate of slavery. It will now be named after Grace Hopper, a computer scientist who served in the US Navy. A similar campaign was defeated at Princeton last year.

Data suggests that Asian students have typically remained the least politically active of all student groups on US campuses. According to a survey by the University of California, Los Angeles of first-year students across nearly 200 universities, students who identify as “Asian” remain less likely to participate in protests compared to whites, blacks, and Latinos.

Yet several factors could cause Chinese overseas students to grow more vocal in expressing their opinions in matters of politics, which at times may or may not conform with views held by most Westerners.

For one thing, more overseas Chinese students are studying in the US than ever before. According to the Institute of International Education, more than 304,000 international students were attending university in the US during the 2014-2015 academic year, marking a nearly fivefold increase from a decade prior.

UCSD, along with other public universities in California and in the Midwest, has seen some of the highest uptake in admissions from Chinese international students. Data published in the fall of 2015 placed the school’s total overseas Chinese student population at 3,569—marking 10.6% of the total student population, and 55.7% of the international student population.

These students also tend to pay full tuition. Indeed, some of the complaints among Chinese students on Facebook center around how they find it unfair that that their monetary contributions to the school aren’t reflected in the choice of the speaker.

In addition, xenophobic sentiment that has increased since Trump’s victory has evidently affected at least some Chinese college students. In early February, Chinese students at Columbia University reported that their name tags were ripped off the doors of their dorm rooms. The news prompted Chinese overseas students to create a wildly successful viral video, in which they explained the meaning of their given Chinese names.

Indeed, some xenophobic sentiment has spilled out in online discussions about the speaking invitation. In addition to accusations that Chinese students are ”brainwashed,” others trumpeted the familiar “if you don’t like it, you can get out” refrain.

Image for article titled Chinese students in the US are using “inclusion” and “diversity” to oppose a Dalai Lama graduation speech

Topgyal, who lived and studied with mainland Chinese students at UCSD in the early 2000s, believes that inviting the Dalai Lama back then wouldn’t have stirred up such controversy. While many Chinese students would have felt discomfort privately, he says, “they were certainly not as organized as they are today, or [as emboldened] on account of their country’s rise in the global hierarchy.” He adds that social media has played a role in this empowerment, as it “enables even Chinese students in other universities and countries to join the conversation on a single platform.”

There’s also suspicion among some academics that CSSA, which represents students at UCSD and dozens of other US universities, sometimes serves as a conduit for Chinese consulates to promulgate Communist Party orthodoxy on overseas campuses. Last week, an official at the Chinese embassy in London reportedly phoned Durham University’s debate society, urging it to cancel an appearance by Anastasia Lin, a Chinese-Canadian beauty queen and vocal human rights activist. The school’s CSSA issued a statement also condemning Lin’s appearance.

In its initial statement opposing the Dalai Lama’s appearance, UCSD’s CSSA wrote that it had “been in contact with the People’s Republic of China Consulate General in Los Angeles at the earliest opportunity since the matter arose,” and “was waiting for the advice of the Consulate General.”

Li tells Quartz that this part of the letter is ”a mistake.”

“We only worked with the Chinese consulate on cultural events such as spring festival gala. Besides that, we don’t have any relationship with the consulate,” he says. “Lots of people believe that we are the consulate’s agent, but we are actually not. We are a 100% student-run organization.”

The need for nuance

While the CSSA and other Chinese students have expressed opposition to the Dalai Lama’s appearance at commencement, views on his invitation are not uniform among the Chinese student community.

Lisa Hou, a sophomore studying math and computer science, says that of her Chinese peer group, about 60% oppose the Dalai Lama’s invitation, and 30% support it, while 10% have no opinion. She says that when she first heard of the speaking invitation, she felt motivated to conduct her own research about him, which led to her view on him becoming more nuanced.

“We were kind of all taught to be against the Dalai Lama,” she notes. “And then I searched online, and I realized I didn’t know why I was against him. Although he is a political person, he did so many good things.” She says her schedule will determine whether or not she attends his commencement speech.

Hou and Li’s main objection to the Dalai Lama’s invitation stems primarily from the fact that the Dalai Lama remains a divisive figure, who will speak at the most important annual campus-wide event in front of thousands of Chinese people. Many attendees will be parents, who will travel thousands of miles to celebrate their child’s graduation.

“My focus is never who Dalai Lama is and the political philosophy that Dalai Lama stands for. As long as this decision upsets my Chinese peers and their parents, I believe there is probably something wrong,” Li says. “Since my parents and my grandparents are coming, I will not attend his speech under any circumstances.”

It’s not clear whether the Chinese students against the speech will take further action beyond meeting with the chancellor—say, staging a public protest, the kind ubiquitous across UC campuses. Li believes that a CSSA protest will be unlikely, and if it were to happen, he wouldn’t participate despite his objections to the Dalai Lama’s upcoming appearance, he says. “I don’t believe I have the obligation or capacity to challenge the mainstream belief of Western societies,” he says.

But Hou says that even though she might attend the Dalai Lama’s speech, she would also willingly participate in a protest if one were organized. “Chinese students have spoken out a lot but haven’t done anything. If we don’t do anything, that really makes us a minority,” she says. “China is kind of defined in Western culture as a brainwashed society: People are totally brainwashed, and we don’t have self-judgment. So we want to use this as an opportunity to clarify this.”