by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Rédacteur Tibet/Flickr

THE INVOKING OF campus activist discourse by Chinese students at the University of California, San Diego, to try and prevent the Dalai Lama from giving a speech on campus should not be particularly surprising. Namely, the discourse about diversity and inclusivity which one often sees on college campuses–with blow-ups about campus events supposedly exclusive or insensitive to the views of a marginalized people or another–have become hegemonic in the cultural landscape of America.

As such, this discourse has come to be taken up by right-wing political actors and others. One can observe this in the rise of the so-called Alt Right, for example, the contemporary neo-Nazi movement which has absorbed much of the critical theory used by the Left. The easy appropriation of cultural politics discourse to a right-wing political stance points to that much of this discourse is far from radical but remains firmly liberal in outlook.

Likewise, with the co-optation of cultural appropriation discourse by elements of the Alt Right, this points to that how much of contemporary discourse about cultural appropriation is in fact wedded to essentialist views of identity. These essentialist views of identity are not necessarily incommensurable with forms of ethno-nationalism as the Alt Right’s contemporary white ethno-nationalism.

Dalai Lama. Photo credit: Rédacteur Tibet/Flickr

But in the case of Chinese students using the discourse of “diversity” and “inclusivity” to try and cancel planned talks by the Dalai Lama, this is likely because Chinese students on college campuses across the US had seen campus events shut down using such claims before. So, imitating such tactics seemed effective.

Of course, it is highly ironic to use the language of diversity in order to prevent a member of an oppressed minority in China as the Dalai Lama from speaking. In some of the complaints made by Chinese students, this was the familiar refrain of “hurting China’s feelings” merged with the complaints about cultural insensitivity which one often sees on college campuses in America.

Obviously, there is a large a gaping contradiction one observes here, in which it is the oppressor that attempts to seize the language of the oppressed, given the oppression of Tibetans and other ethnic minorities within China by the Han majority population. In China, the actions of the state are racist in nature, with wide-sweeping actions by the Chinese government such as unilaterally seizing the passports of all residents of Xinjiang, a Uighur majority region. One can go so far as to suggest that Chinese subsidies for intermarriages between Han and ethnic minorities are a mild form of ethnic cleansing, aimed at eliminating the differences between ethnic minorities and Han in order to provide for their integration into Han rule.

But comparison to the Alt Right is again an apt one here, in the sense that the white nationalists of the Alt Right claim to be victimized and have appropriated a form of discourse used by minority groups in the US to call attention to their marginalization for their own purposes. In the case of the Alt Right, this is claiming that whites are becoming minorities in their own nation, and facing such spectral threats as ‘white genocide” at the hands of blacks, Mexicans, or immigrants. So, too, with Han Chinese students in America lashing out at Tibetans and attempting to silence them in the name of diversity and inclusivity, perhaps.

Photo credit: 张瑜/WikiCommons

Chinese students at the University of California, San Diego have claimed that they are not acting on behalf of state actors. One wonders. It is not inconceivable that such students may be acting on their own out of patriotic motives, after all, although Chinese student groups on American campuses are sometimes mobilized to silence campus events critical of China, and the hand of the CCP from afar is sometimes visible in their actions.

But this may not be important. Either way, these events demonstrate something about the shifts in contemporary cultural politics in the United States, in which in the lead-up to the election of Donald Trump, we saw the appropriation of racial discourse normally used by minority groups by some unexpected actors. No doubt, such events will only be on the rise. Yet it remains to be seen whether nationalistic Chinese students will continue to employ the language of “diversity” and “inclusivity” as a new weapon in their toolkit to dampen criticism of China.