On the 28th March, UWA Guild Council voted in favour of a motion acknowledging the impact that hosting the Dalai Lama has on Chinese students at UWA. Here’s how it all went down.

At the start of the meeting, the motion read as follows:

10.1 That the 105th Guild Council:

a)   Recognises the cultural sensitivities of all groups within the UWA Community should be taken into consideration when inviting guests to the University;
b)   Encourages the University to liaise with the Guild to ensure all guests of the university do not unnecessarily offend or upset groups within the UWA student community.
c)   Recognises the negative impact that hosting the Dalai Lama at the University has on the UWA Chinese Student Community, and therefore
d)   Does not support the decision to host the Dalai Lama or his representatives at UWA.

A quick explainer of Part C – what negative impact would the Dalai Lama have?

The Dalai Lama is the name given to the spiritual leader of Tibetan people, with the current one being the 14th Dalai Lama. He talks about Buddhism and a bunch of other things, but the main gripe is his connection to the move for Tibetan independence. Tibet is an autonomous region of China, meaning it is still a part of China but is allowed to exercise a greater degree of autonomy in how they do things. The Dalai Lama, as the cultural and spiritual representative of Tibet and Tibetan culture, has therefore become synonymous with the push for Tibetan independence. The conflict here is between whether the Dalai Lama is a cultural and spiritual leader or a dangerous separatist.

Now, the motion was proposed by Yanjia Song and seconded by Kristel Li, with Yan moving straight away to to remove part (d) from the motion. Both then argued that the Dalai Lama’s presence at UWA would negatively affect Chinese students due to his advocacy for Tibetan independence. When pressed on how this would impact students, Kristel responded that it was “hard to predict” the tangible impact, but that this was something that many Chinese international students at UWA were concerned about. While no formal evidence was produced of this, it was mentioned that they had been in contact and engaged in consultation with many Chinese students on campus who felt strongly about the issue.

Following these two initial speeches in favour of the motion, it was thrown open to the rest of Council for comments. Friendly amendments softening the language of the motion were adopted, with less inflammatory wording approved but the essence of the motion remaining. These amendments swapped in “may have” for “has” in part (c), as well as adding “however, reaffirms freedom of political and religious thought and expression on campus” to the end of the clause.

Guild President Megan Lee commended both Song and Li for their advocacy on behalf of international students, noting their openness to collaboration and amendments. Jacob Colangelo then spoke to summarise the logic of the motion and why it was worth voting for. Jim Leipold, the only speaker against the motion, questioned whether or not it was truly representative of the views of all Chinese students on campus. Lastly, Launch Presidential Candi- I mean, Ordinary Guild Councillor Kate Fletcher expressed support for the motion and emphasised the importance of listening to international students. She made it clear however that she would abstain.

We go to a vote and the amendment passes with quite a few abstentions. For those keeping track, the motion now looks as follows:

a)   Recognises the cultural sensitivities of all groups within the UWA Community should be taken into consideration when inviting guests to the University;

b)   Encourages the University to liaise with the Guild to ensure all guests of the university do not unnecessarily offend or upset groups within the UWA student community;

c)   Recognises the negative impact that hosting the Dalai Lama at the University may have on the UWA Chinese Student Community, however, reaffirms freedom of political and religious thought and expression on campus.

While the Guild has always concerned itself with matters of national politics, especially those matters pertinent to university fees and other education-based policies, this is a strange turn. The motion passed is largely symbolic, but taps into a rising tension in universities across Australia between freedom of political speech and the rising opposition to that speech when it concerns China. This motion comes mere days after two UWA lecturers signed an open letter calling on the government to recognise the severity of Chinese interference in Australian freedom of speech.

Let’s also be extremely clear – Chinese international students are not and should not be seen as representatives of their government. It’s an unfair standard to hold and smacks of xenophobia. While the motion seems to imply it, it is extremely hard to imagine the Guild acknowledging the ‘negative impact’ of guests related to any other issue as politically charged as this, were it in a different setting. A quick thought experiment – should an Indian speaker be invited to UWA to speak about Kashmir, would the Guild move to recognise the negative impact on Pakistani students? Would British students have their concerns noted should an Irish speaker give a lecture on The Troubles?

The Guild consistently stands in solidarity with various groups who have been offended by genuinely hurtful acts at the university. This is great! I love that! But are we happy to essentially stand in solidarity with the view that hearing about some human rights abuses make us angry? Regardless of your views on Tibetan autonomy or Chinese sovereignty, it seems odd for the Guild to stand in opposition to the spreading of news about human rights in Tibet – not that that was ever going to be the theme of the Dalai Lama’s talk. This motion seems to pre-empt offence to a pretty ridiculous degree. While some would characterise it as a harmless, innocent motion that merely recognises an impact on a given group, it implicitly stands on the wrong side of the fence.

Beyond that, it seems to be a sharp U-turn for a Guild that hosted the Dalai Lama with fanfare in 2015. Then Guild President Lizzy O’Shea described the Dalai Lama as a “man of peace” who has “consistently advocated policies of nonviolence”, with two large UWA Student Guild banners flanking their discussion. Clause (b) implies that if the University had talked to the Guild they could avoid the impact that inviting the Dalai Lama would surely bring. Yet as recently as three years ago, Guild Office Bearers were posting openly on social media about the amazing experience of hearing the Dalai Lama speak and what an exciting moment it was for UWA. How did the Dalai Lama go from being the big talking point of 2015 successes to an avoidable cultural mishap in 2018?

It seems odd to move first to recognise the impact of human rights abuses on those who don’t like hearing about them, rather than those abuses themselves. While the motion changes nothing tangible, it sets a strange standard for how we manage political sensitivities with other groups on campus. It either sets a precedent or it doesn’t, with neither being a good option. If it does, it raises many questions about how the Guild manages its stance on complex and difficult political issues and to what extent it will go to keep everyone happy. If it doesn’t set a precedent, what is so different about this situation that warrants involvement that others don’t? Maybe His Holiness has the answer.

Cormac Power | @cormac_power
Cormac still loves tea.