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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. He’s also a box office smash.

June 19, 2017

By Peter Rowe

San Diego Tribune, June 15, 2017 - Within hours of offering tickets to the Dalai Lama’s two talks at UC San Diego — Friday’s address to the public and Saturday’s commencement speech — all 50,000 were snapped up. More than 110 journalists from Brazil, France, Japan, China and other nations sought credentials to cover the event.

Colleges annually host cap-and-gown rites, but UC San Diego has never seen one like this.

“This is five times as many people as we’ve ever had,” said Steven Evans, who is supervising the event’s audio and video feeds.

By landing a world-renowned figure for its graduation ceremonies, UC San Diego intended to make a statement about its own world-class stature.

“The keynote speaker should be one who represents the values of UC San Diego,” said Chancellor Pradeep Khosla. “And it’s clear to me that His Holiness — his message of peace, his message of happiness, his message of love, spirituality — really reflects some of our own views on life.”

But on a campus with a growing Chinese student population, this visit is not without controversy. For decades, Beijing has denounced the Dalai Lama as a “separatist,” intent on Tibet seceding from China.

Since 3,500-plus Chinese citizens study on this campus, making up 12.5 percent of the student body, those charges resonate here. Some Chinese students have said they’ll protest the Dalai Lama’s visit.

“The Dalai Lama is a political figure who is not in accordance with the current government,” said Shihao Han, 24, a Shenzen resident who will receive a master’s degree in International politics Saturday.

While Han does not intend to protest, he knows others who do. “So I’m not that surprised that some Chinese students are upset,” he said. “I am astonished by this university making that decision.”

This is not the only American campus grappling with Chinese politics. Last month, a Chinese student at the University of Maryland was bashed in online Chinese forums after her graduation speech favorably compared some aspects of life in the U.S. with her experiences at home.

Not long ago, these cross-cultural clashes were unthinkable for one simple reason: Few Chinese were allowed to visit the West. In the 1964-65 school year, only five Chinese citizens studied on U.S. campuses. In the 2015-2016 school year, 328,547 did.

Eric Fish, a writer at the New York-based Asia Society, is researching a book on Chinese students on U.S. campuses. He’s unsure whether these visitors will return home with a new appreciation for democracy.

“There are kind of competing narratives about whether study in the United States makes Chinese more pro-American,” Fish said, “or more nationalistic, more anti-American.”

Person and message

Last summer, UC San Diego contacted the Dalai Lama’s home base in Dharamsala, India. Would he be interested in addressing the Class of 2017?

Six weeks later, while on a previously scheduled trip to India, Khosla detoured to Dharamsala to extend the invitation in person. The Dalai Lama quickly accepted.

Students like Ricky Flahive, a lifelong Chula Vista resident, were thrilled. He’s even more excited now. Graduating with degrees in political science and sociology, Flahive was selected to be a student speaker at commencement.

“I know that UC San Diego strives for high-profile speakers at graduation,” said the 23-year-old Flahive. “But I was kind of blown away that they got someone with such a high profile as the Dalai Lama, with such a geo-political impact.”

Even among the school’s Chinese population, some are eager to hear from this famous figure.

“I am excited about it,” said Moses Gao, 25, a computer science graduate student from Dalian, a seaport in northeastern China. “I want to listen to what he will talk about, his opinions and his ideas.

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