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Student presidency first, global advocacy second

An international Chinese UTSC student reviews Chemi Lhamo’s election

Student presidency first, global advocacy second

During and after the 2019 Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) election, President-elect Chemi Lhamo was attacked by an online harassment campaign due to her pro-Tibetan independence activism. The backlash included questioning her integrity and viability as SCSU president-elect and a petition that called for the nullification of her election.

There is no question that Lhamo’s election is legitimate and that harassment of this kind is abhorrent and unacceptable. However, the firestorm raises an important question about the extent to which advocates and activists who exert pressure on political systems from the outside to advance a particular cause can subsequently become holders of political power on the inside. This is especially the case when that particular cause is divisive for the electorate.

Student union executives are expected to represent all students. They may also participate in advocacy, but only so long as the issue in question is in the ‘student interest,’ defined by overwhelming student support. For example, most can back the movement for more affordable tuition. But publicly embracing advocacy on a highly contentious and global issue is both unnecessary since the president is only mandated to address local student issues, and risky, as it might serve to polarize the campus and alienate certain groups on campus.

This is why, for example, student unions tend to stay away from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Picking a side will inevitably alienate some students.

Take also, for example, former University of Toronto Students’ Union Vice-President University Affairs Cassandra Williams, who was criticized for actively taking a stand against Professor Jordan Peterson and Students in Support of Free Speech in fall 2016, even though the campus was clearly split over the free speech issue.

The issue with Lhamo is not her Tibetan identity in and of itself. It is the fact that a significant pro-Tibetan advocacy role preceded and continued to be a talking point in her presidential campaign. Through the campaign period, she has made clear how her identity as a stateless Tibetan refugee informs her pro-representation platform policy. In an interview with The Underground, she said that the “skills that she had learned from her Tibetan community in Toronto could transfer to her professional positions at the union.”

Lhamo had also chosen to conspicuously wear traditional Tibetan cultural clothing at The Underground’s debate, in which she had also discussed her past as a refugee. In effect, she chose to unnecessarily conflate her identity with her bid for the presidency.

Lhamo of course has a right to speak about and express her Tibetan identity in her personal life and advocacy work. But being a public figure and running for public office requires that she frame her campaign in a way that appeals to the sensitivities of as many students as possible. She is required to have widespread trust and support from UTSC students as SCSU president-elect.

Hence her decision to campaign as a Tibetan refugee and advocate, rather than on strictly her qualifications and ideas as a UTSC student or as the current VP Equity, reflects an intentional political calculation: that the significant international Chinese population at UTSC is not a relevant constituency for her presidency.

Tibetan independence activism is particularly offensive to international Chinese students because preserving China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is of immense importance to their national identity — just as separatist movements are for any nation-state. These students may also have a legitimately different view of the Tibetan situation compared to Lhamo. Her advocacy for independence is too radical even for the Dalai Lama, who only supports autonomy.

Such students may just want to complete their studies on a campus where the president does not unnecessarily take a stand on a contentious global issue that is so close to home. In sum, given her record, it can be difficult to believe that Lhamo will simply set aside her past advocacy work and fulfil the presidency impartially.

Some therefore fear that Lhamo’s activism will inform her presidential decisions. She may very well use the SCSU platform to advocate for Tibetan independence. This raises the question of whether her ability to represent and serve the needs of all students, including international Chinese students, will be compromised.

It must be clarified, however, that the harassment campaign against Lhamo is not entirely the product of students from UTSC. My understanding is that many international Chinese students, like me, accept the diversity of this campus and are not staunchly opposed to her presidency. It is offensive that all international Chinese students at U of T are now being negatively framed and associated with the harassment campaign.

Some accuse us of being incompatible with Canadian values of democracy or free speech and collectively advancing the political agenda of the Chinese government. Lhamo herself has also accused the Chinese government of being responsible for the harassment without any evidence. Such rhetoric only reinforces anti-Chinese hate and exacerbates division.

While Lhamo has responded that she does not plan to make Tibet a focus in her presidency, she must take action to redress her choices and statements as a candidate and now president-elect. Lhamo must make sure that she reaches out to and engages with international Chinese students — as a part of the general international student community — to reassure them that their feelings and needs are no less important to her than any other students’. Following an extremely dramatic and divisive election, the president-elect must first and foremost unite all students at UTSC.

At the same time, the international Chinese students at UTSC who do oppose Lhamo’s presidency should understand that Lhamo’s election is legitimate and that they should correspondingly voice their outrage through legitimate means. This means engagement with the SCSU electoral process — not through harassment or groundless petitions to reverse her election victory. They should vote or run for leadership to ensure that their interests and needs are reflected in the SCSU.

Unfortunately, international students are currently not able to hold executive office, which requires a restricted course load, because their student visas require a full course load. The SCSU under Lhamo could take an important step for inclusion by reforming this policy, as was suggested by the SCSYou slate in this year’s election.

A diverse campus like UTSC is likely to yield diverse leaders who are passionate and advocate for their communities. But advocacy complicates the role of the presidency: the latter requires representing and uniting all students for a common interest, which may inevitably conflict with particular interest of the former.

The sense of alienation that international Chinese students feel is real. Given our significant population at U of T, it is important that student leaders behave and speak in such a way that shows regard for us. Hopefully for Lhamo, global advocacy comes second to student presidency.

Michael Phoon is a second-year Journalism student at UTSC. He is The Varsity’s UTSC Affairs Columnist.

Op-ed: In support and solidarity with Chemi Lhamo

SFT-UTSG reflects on anti-Tibetan harassment against the SCSU president-elect

Op-ed: In support and solidarity with Chemi Lhamo

If you’re a student at U of T, you know that toward the middle of every winter semester comes an exciting election period in which student leaders promise change on campus for the better. This election cycle was especially of interest for me due to the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) presidential candidacy and successful election of Chemi Lhamo — a fellow Tibetan and student activist.

This year, however, the SCSU elections became a national headline that drew much-needed attention to how global forces can threaten campus life. What should have been a celebratory occasion for Lhamo’s Shine Bright UTSC slate and the larger student community was instead overshadowed by a harassment campaign by a large group of international Chinese students.

The students involved left thousands of hateful online comments against Lhamo, and individually attacked her identity as an exiled Tibetan. They even went as far as starting a petition against her presidency on change.org. In light of what she has had to endure, we, the Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) chapter members at UTSG, UTM, Ryerson University, and York University, declare our support for and solidarity with Lhamo as both our fellow Tibetan and as the SCSU president-elect.

As a Canadian with a deep connection to and understanding of her Tibetan identity, Lhamo’s rise to a position of leadership and power seems to be an irritant for China. This is likely because her advocacy for human rights and Tibetan independence challenges the Chinese government and its harsh policies toward Tibetans and other oppressed peoples under their rule.

China’s forceful occupation of Tibet is nearly six decades old now. Despite its iron-fisted clamp down against the Tibetan people’s freedom, resistance to China has continued to grow from within Tibet as well as outside of it in its diaspora communities. Outside Tibet, the rise of younger generations of Tibetans in exile who are strongly committed to the politics of their identity demonstrates that the Chinese government has not succeeded in its oppression.

This is especially the case for SFT, which has been at the forefront of advocating for human rights and freedom in Tibet for over 20 years. Our organization serves as an amplifier for Tibetan voices that are banned back home. We have branches all over the world, including one based here in Toronto and a student-led chapter at UTSG.

Unfortunately, the harassment and slander directed at Lhamo is not surprising for us at SFTUTSG. Our members have been a constant target of ire from certain sections of the international Chinese student community at our events on campus. It is not uncommon for Chinese students to show up at our tables to mock, question, and demean our displays and our objective of spreading awareness about the ongoing Tibetan struggle.

An example of this is Dr. Lobsang Sangay’s visit to UTSG last November. Sangay is the President of the Central Tibetan Administration, Tibet’s government-in-exile based in India. SFTUTSG and three other SFT chapters, led by Lhamo as the main coordinator, organized a Hart House talk, entitled “Party-less and Global — A Case of Tibetan Democracy in Exile.”

At this event too, a number of international Chinese students showed up to protest. Clearly, these protest groups are well-coordinated, but their participants seem to be relatively unaware of the issues at hand — few of the comments made against Lhamo, for instance, had anything to do with her platform.

Such well-planned attempts to divert and disrupt Tibetan-focused events forces one to ask, who is behind it all? It would not be entirely surprising if the international Chinese students campaigning against Lhamo were receiving direct support from the Chinese government. It would not be the first time that questions over the Chinese government’s interference through student groups have surfaced.

The university is committed to the principles of academic freedom and the right to freedom of speech, as well as to equity and justice. Accordingly, students have a right to express their disagreement and opposition to their elected representatives, but they also have a right to express their identity without fear of retribution.

The attitude of some international Chinese students toward Tibetan identity exceeds the reasonable limit for free speech and should be regarded as hate speech. We need to be able to speak up against such organized campaigns that target people on the basis of national and ethnic identities.

Canada is known to be a country that places high value on and has respect for human rights, including freedom of expression. It is incumbent upon us to be aware of infiltrating forces seeking to destroy our very culture of respect for human rights. U of T can play a huge role in ensuring that Canadian values are upheld. The administration should investigate the possibility of external Chinese influence in a campaign of online vitriol against Lhamo.

March 10 this year will mark the 60th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan National Uprising Day that took place in Lhasa, Tibet. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army crushed the uprising, which triggered the flight of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans into exile. It has also been more than 10 years since mass uprisings took place across Tibet and other regions in response to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Tibetans around the world continue to remember the spirit of Tibetan National Uprising Day, to actively resist the forceful occupation of Tibet, and to seek the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet. We call on the U of T community to join SFT-UTSG and the Tibetan diaspora in Toronto in a collective march on March 10, as we pursue justice, human rights, and a free Tibet.

Dechen Tenzin is a fourth-year International Relations and Political Science student at Woodsworth College. She is a member of SFT Canada and President of the SFTUTSG.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to conclude with a call to attend an upcoming march.