US university will not back down on Dalai Lama invite

A university in California has said it will not back down over its decision to invite the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, to this year’s commencement ceremony, despite strenuous objections among mainland Chinese student groups. More than one in 10 of its students are Chinese.

The decision contrasts with that of a leading French university, Sciences Po, last year, which cancelled a conference with the Dalai Lama after pressure from China.

The University of California at San Diego, or UCSD, has said it extended the invitation to the Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace prize in 1989, to promote his message of “global responsibility and service to humanity”, and has said it will stand firm against criticism from Chinese student groups on campus.

The commencement ceremony is due to take place on 17 June according to the university’s formal announcement on 2 February.

The San Diego chapter of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, or CSSA, and other student groups have objected, saying “the Dalai Lama is not simply a religious person, but also a political exile who has long been engaged in splitting the motherland and destroying national unity”.

Academics say, however, that there is no evidence that the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India has been engaged in such activities against China.

The CSSA said in a webchat post earlier this month: “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 behaviour. Specific details of these measures will be outlined in our future statements.”

However, in a more even-handed tone, in an opinion piece for the UCSD student newspaper the UCSD Guardian, Ruixuan Wang said Chinese students were upset at the UCSD’s invitation when many parents would be flying in from China to attend their children’s graduation in June. The Dalai Lama’s presence “would ruin our joy”.

“We admire all his [the Dalai Lama’s] 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,” he said, noting the Dalai Lama “is viewed differently in our country”.

“What we are experiencing is disrespect as the university did not take our and our families’ feelings into consideration.”

Chinese students’ organisations

Robbie Barnett, founder and director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at New York’s Columbia University, said: “Every US university that has students from the Chinese mainland has a Chinese Students and Scholars Association.

"This is the main organisation of Chinese students in universities and they can sometimes be very large if there are a lot of Chinese students at the university, and it is widely believed that these CSSAs in each university are organised and supported by Chinese consulates or embassies. They are very close and they are closely coordinated.”

Opposition to the Dalai Lama by the Chinese authorities is nothing new with often significant political pressure put on Western politicians who seek to meet with the Tibetan leader.

However, Barnett said the event is significant in terms of university politics because of the potential that the university could lose significant numbers of students from China should the university go ahead and then be blacklisted by Chinese students. “It appears to be the first university to really face that risk and not back down under very strong pressure,” Barnett told University World News.

UCSD’s overseas Chinese student population in 2015 numbered 3,569, just over 10% of its total enrolment and 55.7% of the international student population, according to its own statistics.

Sciences Po in Paris last August caved in to pressure and cancelled a visit by the Dalai Lama to a planned two-hour event on its campus, during his six-day visit to France. The event was to be attended by some 500 students, although the university never officially admitted that it cancelled it because of Chinese pressure.

Sciences Po also has an outpost in China and offers dual masters degrees with Peking University in Beijing.

“Sciences Po got themselves into the position of inviting the Dalai Lama and then backing down at the last minute. Until then, I don’t think any university would have dared do that because they would have considered it too damaging to their reputation to be thought to be obviously giving way to pressure,” Barnett said.

Barnett said a key difference between the UCSD and Sciences Po invitations is that UCSD’s “is for a commencement, so it is a university occasion which all students normally attend. It’s not an optional speech. This is a graduation ceremony.”

Need for discussion

The university said it would not withdraw the invitation. A statement issued by its chancellor, Pradeep Khosla, said “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”.

It added: “As a public university dedicated to the civil exchange of views, the university believes commencement is one of the many events that provide an appropriate opportunity to present to graduates and their families a message of reflection and compassion.”

Sources said that during a meeting between Khosla and Chinese students on 15 February the students requested a statement from the university to clarify the content of the Dalai Lama speech to make sure it has “nothing to do with politics”. They also requested that the university stopped using words like ‘spiritual leader’ to describe him.

Some students had also argued that by inviting the Tibetan leader the university was not being ‘inclusive’ and that Chinese students were being discriminated against.

“People have ridiculed the students’ argument for very good reason – what they demand of the university is not what they demand of their own government,” Barnett said.

The International Campaign for Tibet, an NGO, said in a statement issued on 6 February: “The objections raised by the University of California, San Diego chapter of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association about the university’s invitation to the Dalai Lama to be its commencement speaker this year are without merit, and instead raise important issues of academic freedom in the United States.”

It added: “The Chinese embassy and consulates should not be allowed to interfere, directly or indirectly, in the academic decisions of American universities.”

It said that “over the years, China has been trying to influence American educational institutes, both through direct threats and financial incentives”, referring in particular to China’s Confucius Institutes for teaching Chinese language and culture, which are present on many US university campuses.

Carl Minzner of Fordham University and an expert on Chinese law and governance said: “The idea that Chinese students abroad are linked to the Chinese embassy is not entirely new. The Dalai Lama is someone that Chinese student groups have taken an interest in for a long time. The issue is, to what extent China’s own control over its higher education can bleed [into universities] abroad.”