Identity Politics and Foreign Students from China

UC San Diego has invited the Dalai Lama to be its commencement speaker this year, enraging the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the campus. CSSA is vigorously protesting, raising some interesting issues.

One tack taken by CSSA is rather novel, invoking “diversity” issues. Having the DL speak would be anti-diversity, they argue. CSSA’s Chinese-language statement seems to imply that UCSD’s action has even offended Chinese-Americans, not just Chinese foreign students. So far, though, invoking Diversity has not been the showstopper CSSA expected it to be.

Particularly interesting is this aspect:

In a statement it posted on WeChat, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at UCSD said it contacted the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles for guidance and engaged in negotiations with “relevant departments” at the university.

It is interesting in these days of Mike Flynn and related controversies, with the Trump administration accused by some in terms tantamount to treason, that a foreign government — one that all major presidential candidates exhibited some hostility to in 2016 — has close ties with the largest (by far) group of foreign students in the U.S.

Mind you, for the Chinese foreign students, the Chinese consulate is THEIR consulate, representing THEIR government. They have every right to “seek guidance” from the consulate.

But on the other hand, the vast majority of students from China do stay in the U.S. after graduation and become Americans. This has always been a point of ambiguity, ever since the first wave of Chinese students came to the U.S. in the 1980s.

For example, after the violent protests and quashing of same in Beijing in 1989, the Chinese students demanded that Congress give all Chinese foreign students in the U.S. green cards (though, curiously, not political asylum), on the grounds that the Chinese government was spying on them. Yet a few years later, green cards in hand, the Chinese protest a report on CBS News that claimed China was sending a lot of spies to the U.S., many of them students.

The other irony, of course, is that the Chinese students speak of the DL as “wanting to split our country” as if such a desire were evil, at the same time that in California, where these students are living, there is an active Calexit drive aimed at exactly such a split. Not to mention the fact that in the UK, such drives were on the official ballot, first for Scottish independence and then for Brexit.

UCSD may have underestimated the pressure the Chinese government can bring to bear on this issue. Granted, it didn’t work with Obama, but at a university things can be very different, especially with the large number of students and faculty at UCSD who are originally from China. The university’s chancellor will likely stick to his guns, but this will be interesting to watch.


10 thoughts on “Identity Politics and Foreign Students from China

  1. Really good to see this. Clearly these students have no interest in American issues, but are fully Chinese. The number of Chinese H-1Bs who have committed acts of industrial espionage must be in the hundreds by now, and there are doubtless 4-5 undetected for any of those who are detected. How much of the rise of China is due to theft of American intellectual property? Huge amounts, no doubt.


    • It’s all about the cost of doing business. You may recall that Cisco sued the Chinese router company Huawei. Allegedly some Chinese nationals who had worked at Cisco went back to China and used Cisco’s IP at Huawei. However, Cisco later withdrew the suit, because it wanted to do business in China. Similarly, U.S. firms have basically written off such incidents in the U.S., because they feel they gain so much from the H-1B program.


  2. If they do not want to listen to the commencement speaker, they should have their diplomas mailed to them. If faculty members who are expected to attend do not do so, they should be subject to disciplinary action by the university. I am sure many others would be thrilled to hear someone of such note address the graduates and their families.


  3. Professor Matloff,

    If you’re going to have incredible amounts of foreign money pouring in, do you not believe that it will translate directly into influence peddling?

    Have you never seen all those pro-palestine anti-semitic protestors on American campuses with Arafat scarves? Those are your Arab and Pakistani students.
    Indian students want more OPT and H-1B.

    That’s the price we all pay for university pensions and administrative profligacy. I am from Canada and I can assure you this type of stuff goes on there, too.


  4. I have no patience for foreign nationals that place any demands in the United States that limit Free Speech. These foreign nationals have the freedom to leave the United States and exercise their rights in their home country. In this case they have the right to skip the graduation ceremony. And if like my State University in Texas back in the 70’s, the graduation ceremony was a requirement to receive my Bachelors unless just cause was identified. If the foreign national has to forego their US degree as their form of protest against the DL, then so be it, And, we just wasted our precious treasure on these students as they did not learn the most important lesson that they could learn by attending University in the United States. What American citizen was not accepted?

    Freedom of Speech is the single most important right granted to us by our Creator and affirmed in the U.S. Constitution. All attempts to limit Free Speech must be resisted, because once Speech is controlled and limited, all other Rights given to us by the Creator are also limited and ultimately restricted by the powerful.


    • I would be pretty sure that attendance at the ceremony is not mandatory.

      One of the supposed benefits of having foreign students in the U.S. is that they mix in with U.S. culture and thus bring greater understanding of the U.S. if they return to their home countries. (Note the “if.”) I support that notion, but in practice, student groups with critical mass, such as the Chinese, tend NOT to mix, both socially and in the sense of observing how American society works. But in this case, the Chinese students are forced to face the nature of U.S. values, so it is a good thing in that sense.


  5. Hi, Professor Matloff. As an undergraduate student born and studying in China, I feel the need to explain why those Chinese students, and actually, a majority of Chinese, treat Dalai Lama’s desire to split the country as “evil”.
    Firstly, there are cultural reasons. In the history of China (at least 2 thousand years), seigniors fought against each other and people suffered from the violence of wars. They couldn’t settle down and make a living until one seignior beat the others and built a unified country. After some time (ranges from several years to several hundred years), the country split and the same thing happened again. The history always repeats itself. As a result, most Chinese who want a peaceful life tend to protect the unity of China.
    Secondly, propaganda helps. In a press conference held by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of PRC or a news broadcast from CCTV, words like “safeguarding the unity of the motherland and territorial integrity” are everywhere. Whether it’s brainwashing or not, due to my first point, most patriotic Chinese would think it makes sense.
    This a my personal view. Sorry if I don’t express myself clearly.


    • You expressed yourself quite clearly, and thanks for contributing to the discussion. I hope you contribute more in the future.

      I believe you agree that the history and status of Tibet are less clear-cut than the Chinese students at UCSD are claiming. Through history, Tibet has been basically a vassal state of China. Though all major countries have engaged in ignoble behavior at some points in their histories, the fact is that today, in 2017, we are considered enlightened, and vassal states are viewed as the imperialism that we all condemn today. So, although you are correct in saying that most people in China consider Tibet to be an integral part of China, most people have a rather different view.

      The Chinese students are guests in this country, and thus should honor the views of the American people, just like Americans should do when they go to China.


      • Thanks for your quick reply. I am pleased to join the discussion.

        I totally agree that in America one should honor the views of Americans and I’m trying hard to do so in this discussion. In fact, in China, even mentioning the possibility of the independence of Tibet will be considered to betray the country. Most Chinese don’t know at all the history of Tibet (like me, shamefully, though from top 2 universities in China), and just blindly follow the main stream to act like a patriot. And the Chinese students at UCSD are the same. Like what I read in your articles and heard from my friends aboard, maybe they never mix with American culture.

        We both said “most people”, actually I am very interested in the percentage of Tibetans who want an independent Tibet. However, chances are that I’ll never get the number.


        • I didn’t claim that most Tibetans want an independent Tibet; I have no idea whether that’s true. What I did say was the most of the world believes in self-determination, though of course the details may vary.


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