Chinese students protest peace icon Dalai Lama's commencement speech
His Holiness called for a happier world with less violence. Pic: Reuters/Mike Blake.

In his speech at the University of California at San Diego’s (UCSD) graduation last weekend, the Dalai Lama called on the graduating class to build a world with less violence and division.

But not everyone was on board with the peace icon and his views.

The San Diego Union Tribune (SDUT) reports half a dozen Chinese students walked out of the ceremony as the Dalai Lama was introduced, despite UCSD’s formal announcement the speech would be sharing messages of “global compassion”.

Class of 2017 listening to Dalai Lama’s speech. Source: Reuters/Mike Blake

“Now, you should think how to use your knowledge,” he said, after congratulating the students for earning their degrees.

“This knowledge should be a source of peace.”

Outraged Chinese students had protested immediately after UCSD confirmed the spiritual leader would be delivering the keynote address, alleging it contravened “the spirit of respect, tolerance, equality, and earnestness – the ethos upon which the university is built.”.

The Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) also vowed to firmly resist the school’s “unreasonable” action.

Two weeks ago, CSSA demonstrated at UCSD’s free-speech zone with signs explaining why they oppose the appearance of the spiritual leader of Tibet, who is also a 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Dalai Lama now stands as a symbol of the tension between China and Tibet, which is seeking greater autonomy from China. Chinese students argue he is a dangerous separatist threatening to divide Tibet from China, echoing the official line of the ruling Communist Party.

Tibetans, however, insist the autonomous region has been historically independent of China. They oppose Chinese rule, which they claim have denied them of basic human rights, including expression of their religion and culture.

Adding to the Chinese students’ protest on Saturday were rival Tibetan Buddhist groups – some in support and some opposing the Dalai Lama – with banners and placards.

“We want to ensure when he comes on campus that he sees us, and not them, and he doesn’t get disheartened by seeing people protesting his commencement speech,” Tenzing Dolma, a Tibetan refugee who came to the US when she was young told USA Today College. Dolma had joined a group of Tibetan students who drove to San Diego for the keynote.

“Our issue is not with Chinese students, our issue is not with Chinese people. It’s with the government, it’s with the institution.”

But one computer science student from Zhejiang province, who wanted to be identified only as “Max”, spoke about the spiritual leader personally, telling SDUT: “In Tibet, he had slaves.”

“Foreigners say China invaded Tibet, but we actually freed them and freed the slaves.”

Not all Chinese students – they make up 14 percent of UCSD’s student cohort, the biggest group of international students there – agree with the CSSA’s hardline stance.

Jesse Zhou, one of the graduates last weekend, said he thought the decision to host the Dalai Lama was a good one although he noted his understanding of the concerns of some students.

“It’s a bit of a slap to the face to the international students who paid four to five years of tuition money,” Zhou wrote in a message to USA TODAY College.

Students take selfies as the Dalai Lama spoke. Source: Reuters/Mike Blake

Such public show of politics by Chinese students stands out against the backdrop of the usually reserved cohort of international students in the United States.

Students who identify as “Asian” are least likely to be politically active on US campuses, according to a 2015 survey by the University of California, Los Angeles, as reported by Quartz

But this line of apathy is usually broken when students perceive there’s an attack on the ruling Communist Party in China. One recent example is the uproar raised when a University of Maryland student praised the US for its “fresh air of free speech”. Chinese students took that as an attack on China’s air quality and ruling government.

There wasn’t much politics in the Dalai Lama’s speech last Saturday, which had instead stressed on the importance of inner peace and compassion.

Calling the graduating class the “future of humanity”, he said they are able to change the world for the better, though he may not be able to see it in his lifetime.

He said, as quoted by Inc:

“We as [the older generation] might not see that kind of world, but you can see [it]. You can enjoy [it],”

Acknowledging not all UCSD students accept his views, the Dalai Lama urged them to look deeper into their culture’s dharma philosophies and reconsider their stance.

“[The] time [has] come [to] pay more attention, to promote deeper human values,” he said.

“That is compassion.”

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