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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Chinese Students in U.S. Fight View of Their Home

April 30, 2008

By SHAILA DEWAN
The New York Times
April 29, 2008

LOS ANGELES — When the time came for the smiling Tibetan monk at the
front of the University of Southern California lecture hall to answer
questions, the Chinese students who packed the audience for the talk
last Tuesday had plenty to lob at their guest:

If Tibet was not part of China, why had the Chinese emperor been the one
to give the Dalai Lama his title? How did the tenets of Buddhism jibe
with the "slavery system" in Tibet before China's modernization efforts?
What about the Dalai Lama's connection to Hitler?

As the monk tried to rebut the students, they grew more hostile. They
brandished photographs and statistics to support their claims. "Stop
lying! Stop lying!" one young man said. A plastic bottle of water hit
the wall behind the monk, and campus police officers hustled the person
who threw it out of the room.

Scenes like this, ranging from civil to aggressive, have played out at
colleges across the country over the past month, as Chinese students in
the United States have been forced to confront an image of their
homeland that they neither recognize nor appreciate. Since the riots
last month in Tibet, the disrupted Olympic torch relays and calls to
boycott the opening ceremony of the Games in Beijing, Chinese students,
traditionally silent on political issues, have begun to lash out at what
they perceive as a pervasive anti-Chinese bias.

Last year, there were more than 42,000 students from mainland China
studying in the United States, an increase from fewer than 20,000 in
2003, according to the State Department.

Campuses including Cornell, the University of Washington in Seattle and
the University of California, Irvine, have seen a wave of
counterdemonstrations using tactics that seem jarring in the American
academic context. At the University of Washington, students fought to
limit the Dalai Lama's address to nonpolitical topics. At Duke,
pro-China students surrounded and drowned out a pro-Tibet vigil; a
Chinese freshman who tried to mediate received death threats, and her
family was forced into hiding.

And last Saturday, students from as far as Florida and Tennessee
traveled to Atlanta to picket CNN after a commentator, Jack Cafferty,
referred to the Chinese as "goons and thugs." (CNN said he was referring
to the government, not the people.)

The student anger, stoked through e-mail messages sent to large campus
mailing lists, stems not so much from satisfaction with the Chinese
government but from shock at the portrayal of its actions, as well as
frustration over the West's long-standing love affair with Tibet — a
love these students see as willfully blind.

By and large, they do not acknowledge the cultural and religious
crackdown in Tibet, insisting that ordinary Tibetans have prospered
under China's economic development, and that only a small minority are
unhappy.

"Before I came here, I'm very liberal," said Minna Jia, a graduate
student in political science at U.S.C. who encouraged fellow students to
attend the monk's lecture. "But after I come here, my professor told me
that I'm nationalist."

"I believe in democracy," Ms. Jia added, "but I can't stand for someone
to criticize my country using biased ways. You are wearing Chinese
clothes and you are using Chinese goods."

Students interviewed for this article deplored the more extreme
expressions of anger, like death threats against the Duke freshman and
the tossing of the water bottle, and pointed out that Chinese students
had little experience in the art of protest. But, they said, they could
also understand them.

"We've been smothered for too long time," said Jasmine Dong, another
graduate student who attended the U.S.C. lecture.

By that, Ms. Dong did not mean that Chinese students had been repressed
or censored by their own government. She meant that the Western news
media had not acknowledged the strides China had made or the voices of
overseas Chinese. "We are still neglected or misunderstood as either
brainwashed or manipulated by the government," she said.

No matter what China does, these students say, it cannot win in the
arena of world opinion. "When we have a billion people, you said we were
destroying the planet./ When we tried limiting our numbers, you said it
is human rights abuse," reads a poem posted on the Internet by "a
silent, silent Chinese" and cited by some students as an accurate
expression of their feelings. "When we were poor, you thought we were
dogs./ When we loan you cash, you blame us for your debts./ When we
build our industries, you called us polluters./ When we sell you goods,
you blame us for global warming."

Rather than blend in to the prevailing campus ethos of free debate, the
more strident Chinese students seem to replicate the authoritarian
framework of their homeland, photographing demonstration participants
and sometimes drowning out dissent.

A Tibetan student who declined to be identified for fear of harassment
said he decided not to attend a vigil for Tibet on his campus, which he
also did not want identified because there are so few Tibetans there.
"It's not that I didn't want to, I really did want to go — it's our
cause," he said. "At the same time, I have to consider that my family's
back there, and I'm going back there in May."

Another factor fueling the zeal of many Chinese demonstrators could be
that they, too, intend to return home; the Chinese government is widely
believed to be monitoring large e-mail lists.

Universities have often tried to accommodate the anger of their Chinese
students. Before the Dalai Lama's visit to the University of Washington,
the campus Chinese Students and Scholars Association wrote to the
university president expressing hopes that the visit would focus only on
nonpolitical issues and not arouse anti-China sentiments. According to a
posting on the group's Web site, the university president, Mark A.
Emmert, told them in a meeting that no political questions would be
raised at the Dalai Lama's speech. A spokesman said the university,
which opened an office in Beijing last fall, had prescreened student
questions before the Chinese students voiced their concerns.

Some experts say that colleges feel constrained from reining in the more
extreme protests through a combination of concerns about cultural
sensitivity and a desire to expand their own ties with China.

"I think there tends to be a great deal of self-censorship," said Peter
Gries, director of the Institute for U.S.-China Issues at the University
of Oklahoma, "and not just among American China scholars but among the
whole web of people who do business with China, including school
administrators."

At the U.S.C. lecture, the Chinese students arrived early to distribute
handouts on Tibet and China that contained a jumble of abbreviated
history, slogans and maps with little context. A chart showing that
infant mortality in Tibet had plummeted since 1951, when the Communist
Chinese government asserted control, did not provide any means for
comparison with mortality rates in China or other countries.

One photograph showed the Dalai Lama with Heinrich Harrer, author of
"Seven Years in Tibet" and a one-time member of the Nazi Party — hence
the question about the Dalai Lama's connection to Hitler, who died when
the Dalai Lama was nine. The question about slavery referred to the
feudal system in place in Tibet until the mid-20th century. Another
photograph purported to show a Tibetan drum that, according to the
caption, was covered with "a virgin girl's skin."

The students said they were frustrated by a sense that many accounts of
the recent riots did not reflect the violence and destruction by the
Tibetan protesters, who vandalized shops owned by Han Chinese (the
ethnic majority in China). According to official Chinese news sources,
22 died in the rioting.

Much of the anger has the tenor of disillusionment. During the Tiananmen
Square protests in 1989, the Western news media was seen as a source of
otherwise elusive truth.

"We thought Western media is very objective," said Chou Wu, a
28-year-old working on his doctorate in material science, "and what it
turned out is that Western media is even more biased than Chinese media.
They're no better, and even more, they're against us."

Students argue that China has spent billions on Tibet, building schools,
roads and other infrastructure. Asked if the Tibetans wanted such
development, they looked blankly incredulous. "They don't ask that
question," said Lionel Jensen, a China scholar at Notre Dame. "They've
accepted the basic premise of aggressive modernization."

That may be, some experts suggest, because the students whose families
can afford to send them abroad are the ones who have benefited the most
from China's economic liberalization.

Spring Zheng, 27, another graduate student at U.S.C., dismissed the
notion that her patriotism stemmed from the government's efforts to use
the schools to instill national pride, particularly after Tiananmen Square.

Rather, Ms. Zheng said, "We have witnessed with our own eyes about the
rapid change of China. China is developing fast, and Chinese people's
lives" are "becoming better and better, fast."

As the U.S.C. session wound to a close, the organizer, Lisa Leeman, a
documentary film instructor, pleaded for a change in tone. "My hope for
this event, which I don't totally see happening here, is for people on
both, quote, sides to really hear each other and maybe learn from each
other," Ms. Leeman said. "Are there any genuine questions that don't
stem from a political point of view, that are really not here to be on a
soap box?"

At that moment, the bottle hit the wall.

Michael Anti contributed reporting from Cambridge, Mass.
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