University of California-San Diego’s decision to invite Dalai Lama for commencement is troubling, while the Chinese protesters opposed Free Speech and branded their blind patriotism

On Feb. 2, UC-San Diego made the official announcement that His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, a well-known advocate of Tibetan independence from the People’s Republic of China, will be speaking at the commencement ceremony. Waves of shock and anger swept through the Chinese international student communities in UCSD, and soon, Chinese international student communities across the US. A fierce debate ensued between the supporters and critics of the Dalai Lama, with much vitriol. As a Chinese international student myself, I feel obliged to share some of my thoughts on the controversy. But before that, I want to clarify that this article does not concern itself with the historical aspects of the legitimacy of People’s Republic of China’s territorial claim in Tibet, the complexity of which is only to be resolved through collective efforts.

The Dalai Lama has been a well-respected person across the political spectrum in the west, though he is not without critics. Christopher Hichens, in his 1998 article on the Dalai Lama “His Material Holiness”, wrote “China’s foul conduct in an occupied land, combined with a Hollywood cult that almost exceeds the power of Scientology, has fused with weightless Maharishi and Bhagwan-type babble to create an image of an idealized Tibet and of a saintly god-king.” Indeed, the Dalai Lama, and the people who met with him and praise him, have been in a decades-long, cynical and opportunistic symbiosis of realpolitik, with a distinctive flavor of orientalism.

The Dalai Lama has been supportive of the assembling of thermonuclear arsenal by India in the 1990s, he has made the remark that any women successor to him has to be attractive, and he has not only stayed silent on former President Bush’s illegitimate invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but said that he loved Bush. Countless incidents have lead people who had faith in liberal principles to doubt the Dalai Lama’s commitment to his ideals, let alone his recent statement that he “had no worries” about then President-elect Donald Trump.

Maybe it’s my poor grasp of the Buddhist doctrine of inner peace, but I am very worried, as a foreigner in the US, about Trump (though that is another story). That is why the decision of UCSD to invite the Dalai Lama for a commencement speech is troubling. As a renowned institution in public education, UCSD should cherish genuine secular and liberal values, inviting people who are sincerely devoted to making the world a better place rather than shrewd political opportunists.

Even though UCSD’s decision raised questions, the reaction by Chinese international student communities is a shameful one. One day after the announcement by UCSD, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at UCSD published a statement on WeChat denouncing the decision, and on its thumbnail it reads “Whoever tries to sever my motherland must be destroyed regardless of propinquity” (the original is in Chinese, and the translation is literal). The article tells the Chinese international students at UCSD to remain calm, and wait for and listen to “the unified directives issued by the Chinese Embassy”. The article also described the Dalai Lama as “devoted to sabotaging the territorial integrity and ethnic solidarity of our mother country”. In the end, the article expresses the determination of CSSA to take “strong measures” to protest the speech by the Dalai Lama.

This incident is just an add-on to a series of anti-free speech outbursts on UC campuses. Two years ago, students at Berkeley tried to remove the political polemicist Bill Maher from the commencement speech, and in early February prevented right-wing political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos from giving a speech. However, this time the protesters are motivated by a far more invidious sentiment than political correctness—blind patriotism.

The claim of the Dalai Lama’s intention to “sabotage racial harmony” is highly dubious. It makes the strong assumption that there is an already established racial harmony, which requires strong evidence. But this is irrelevant here, as what is at stake is the core of liberal democracy: free speech. Free speech, in its broad sense, consists of both the tolerance for the right of others to speak, and the independence with which we think and speak. The whims of the Chinese Embassy and government should not dictate what Chinese international students think, and what Chinese international students think should not interfere with whether or not the Dalai Lama speaks at commencement.

Philosopher Karl Popper wrote in his famous The Open Society and its Enemies “… the conflict between rationalism and irrationalism has become the most important intellectual, and perhaps even moral, issue of our time.” Unfortunately, what Popper has said during the carnage of the Second World War is still true, if not truer, today. The most efficient way to promote rational thinking is by exchanging ideas, and the best way to expose lies is by having people utter them. To my fellow Chinese students: think independently whether you agree with the Dalai Lama or not, and most importantly, let him talk!

Fact is that to which there is no alternative. And facts can only be respected if we continue to champion secular and liberal values in university campuses, be open to new ideas, and dare to be challenged.