The University of California, San Diego (UCSD) has decided to invite the Dalai Lama to be its graduation speaker, hurting the feelings of some of its Chinese students who consider him a dangerous separatist.
Writing for Quartz, Josh Horwitz notes a fascinating phenomenon in how some students are voicing their discontent by appropriating the rhetoric that has become popular for on-campus protests these days. Spicing up the tired, old debate over the Dalai Lama with new words like diversity, political correctness and safe space.
For example, here’s what the university’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association had to say only hours after UCSD announced its decision earlier this month:
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.
On Facebook, Quartz also found that Chinese students have protested the decision to invite the Nobel Peace Prize winner with comments like:
“While the campus and the whole UC schools are protesting against Donald Trump and his racism and sexism, UCSD invites the ethnic seccessionism. Is that supposed to be irony or UCSD really believes that it make sense.”
Or more simply, as another Facebook user commented: “#ChineseStudentsMatter”
In an editorial titled “Why I Won’t Accept the Dalai Lama As A Commencement Speaker” published in the main UCSD student newspaper, The Guardian, Ruixuan Wang writes that:
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.
John Li, a leading member of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, told Quartz that the group planned to meet with the university’s chancellor on Wednesday to demand that the Dalai Lama’s speech not mention politics and that the university not describe him with words like “spiritual leader” or “exile.” In its announcement the university had called the Dalai Lama “the exiled spiritual head and leader of the Tibetan people.”
However, The university appears unlikely to try to censor the Dalai Lama’s words, reaffirming its choice of speaker in a statement this week:
The University of California, San Diego, has always served as a forum for discussion and interaction on important public policy issues and respects the rights of individuals to agree or disagree as we consider issues of our complex world,” the university said. “Our 2017 speaker, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, carries a message that promotes global responsibility and service to humanity that is of great interest to the UC San Diego community and to our students as they enter their professional lives. As a public university dedicated to the civil exchange of views, the university believes commencement is one of many events that provide an appropriate opportunity to present to graduates and their families a message of reflection and compassion.
Of course, no matter what His Holiness says in his much-anticipated graduation speech, it’s not likely that China or nationalistic Chinese students are going to like it. Last year, Lady Gaga reportedly got herself banned from China for talking about kindness with the Dalai Lama on a Facebook live-stream.
While the Dalai Lama has maintained that he only wants genuine autonomy for Tibet, not outright independence, China believes that the 81-year-old is always up to no good, referring to him as a “splitist” and a “wolf in monk’s clothing” who “profanes” Buddhism and “dupes” his followers; likening him to Saddam Hussein.
In the past, China has also raised an uproar about the Dalai Lama making appearances at lunch with the Slovak president, at the Glastonbury Festival in Somerset, and most recently in Mongolia. After His Holiness visited last November, China quickly brought down the economic hammer on its impoverished neighbor, making Mongolia vow that the Dalai Lama would never visit the country again.
Its not clear if China will mete out any punishment against UCSD for its decision. For its part, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association denies that it is in contact with the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles over the matter.
“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,” Li told Quartz. “Lots of people believe that we are the consulate’s agent, but we are actually not. We are a 100% student-run organization.”
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