Earlier this month, the dramatic 2019 Scarborough Campus Students’ Union elections finally came to an end — only to . centres on the current Vice-President Equity and President-elect Chemi Lhamo, a Canadian woman of Tibetan heritage.
Lhamo openly and proudly supports the Tibetan independence movement, which asserts the region’s historical independence from China and seeks Tibet’s freedom from the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights abuses. Because of her identity and politics, Lhamo was targeted by a hate campaign on her Instagram photos soon after winning the presidential election.
Comments ranged from banal Chinese nationalist sentiments to threats of violence, some of which were misogynistic and sexual. A change.org petition calling for her election to be blocked amassed over 11,000 signatures before recently closing. Her opponents defined her politics as either irrational or stemming from anti-Chinese prejudice. This supposedly justifies her disqualification from leadership on a campus where Chinese international students make up a significant portion of the student body.
The aggressive and vitriolic backlash in both of these cases reveals how free speech does not apply equally to anti-colonial voices and perspectives on university campuses. This is not unusual — another high-profile example of suppression, silencing, and intimidation that plays out on campus pertains to Whether in the context of Tibet, Xinjiang, or Palestine, making space for colonized communities to voice dissent through advocacy is integral to protecting free speech — especially if powerful foreign governments like China and Israel are allegedly complicit adversaries.
The intertwining of campus and global politics, especially in the case of Tibet, should concern all Torontonians and Canadians. Since the 1959 Tibetan uprising, thousands have been forced to leave their homes. Starting in the 1970s, Canada was one of the first countries to actively work to resettle Tibetan refugees. Today,of Canada’s Tibetan population lives in Toronto.
Lhamo has nonetheless made it clear that Tibet will not be a focus of her presidency. Rather, her experiences will positively affect her ability to fulfil her position and represent the campus. Through her activism, she has worked with various communities, done outreach projects, and remained socially and politically engaged.
Even if she were to make the issue a focus of her presidency, it should not be easily dismissed. University campuses are venues for the free exchange of ideas, and for a student politician to use their position to raise awareness and do advocacy work is perfectly acceptable. Exposure to novel perspectives, especially those that are suppressed, is key to student life. In turn, students have a right to disagree if they so choose.
Some may argue that allowing student politicians to continue advocating for their causes while in office would alienate certain groups of students on campus. The reality is that Lhamo’s position was never a secret, and she was still elected. Furthermore, silence and neutrality do not always represent all students. Not taking a side on this issue is equivalent to siding with Chinese nationalists and undermining the Tibetan right to self-determination, which Canadians should care about given our Tibetan refugee community.
The attack on Lhamo also speaks to a broader force that has existed ever since minority communities began pushing for increased representation. Political leaders of minority or disempowered backgrounds are frequently scrutinized for their identities and how they might influence their politics. They are thought to be unable to represent the ‘majority’ unless they prove that they can assimilate.
But no one — even a white Canadian who might define themselves as being part of the majority — navigates the world from a place of neutrality to begin with. We are all informed by our identities and experiences. It is only when the person in question is a minority that this is seen as an issue.
The fact of the matter is that Lhamo was not elected to mediate relations between China and Tibet or to facilitate discussions on the question of Tibetan autonomy. She was elected to preside over student issues at UTSC. Her pride in her heritage and community work on the issue of Tibetan autonomy bear scant relation to her position, and no UTSC students should feel threatened or alienated by it.
At the same time, criticism of the treatment of Lhamo should not slip into simplistic and prejudicial narratives. Namely, observers should not fall back on xenophobically generalizing Chinese people as foreign, anti-free speech threats, especially when Sino-Canadian relations are already strained by the current Huawei tensions.
Specifically, the media must do better than present a simplistic binary where Chinese nationalists clash with those who voice dissent against the Communist Party. There have always been Chinese people who stand in solidarity with the suppressed in Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as scholars and activists who critique the government. However, instead of recognizing the complexity of the conflict, irrelevantly remarks upon the “less-than-perfect English” used in the petition against Lhamo.
Lhamo’s case stimulates important discussions about free speech, minority leadership, and the complicated connections between student, national, and global politics. Although universities are supposed to host a free exchange of ideas, the power dynamics at play means that colonized communities are too often left voiceless. Lhamo’s election should inspire us to work harder to ensure that these perspectives have the space to exist and resist on our campuses.
Meera Ulysses is a second-year Equity Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations student at New College. She is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.