Chemi Lhamo and The Chinese-Tibetan Conspiracies of Toronto
University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus’ (UTSC) new President-elect, Chemi Lhamo, has been at the centre of an ongoing controversy involving freedom of speech and Chinese influence in Canadian universities. A 22-year old Tibetan-Canadian, Lhamo publicly advocates Tibetan independence from the People’s Republic of China. Though not in her campaign platform, she has come under attack from Chinese students who have bombarded her Instagram profile with criticisms—anything from simply reiterating that Tibet is a part of China (followed by a string of Chinese flag emojis) to labelling her a “racist,” a “separatist,” and a series of expletives. Plenty of these comments were written in Chinese. Up to the point when this article was written on March 16, 2019, disrespectful comments are still being posted, either against her, China, Tibet, or other commenters.
An individual named Kennedy L. wrote up a petition to remove Lhamo as the President-elect. The website notes that Chinese students “strongly disagree with Lhamo’s political statements and her participation in political campaigns that were clearly against Chinese history, Chinese laws and Chinese students’ rights.” It also states their firm belief in the One-China policy and Chinese sovereignty, “as most governments in the world recognized (Wikipedia) and would not tolerate any attempt to impinge upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Among their concerns or complaints include: Lhamo’s political belief for a Tibet that is free from the People’s Republic of China—a belief which she publicly espouses on her Instagram account; posting pictures of her making obscene hand gestures toward China; making statements indicating her support for an independent Taiwan; and approaching Chinese students to support her in her campaign without informing them of her political beliefs regarding Tibet.
Interestingly, this petition also stated that Lhamo allegedly used Mandarin when conversing with the students, when in fact she does not speak Mandarin. This petition successfully garnered more than 11,000 signatures, though it is now closed.
Lhamo’s platform runs on student representation and engagement, and she has advocated for free, universal education, expansion of the Global Citizenship project, and a career fair for senior year students. She decided to use the skills she gained and learned from her Tibetan community to help engage students on campus. Though she believes in a Tibet that is free from the People’s Republic of China—a belief which she publicly espouses on her Instagram account—she did not make this position a part of her political campaign at UTSC. Writer Meera Ulysses commented that Lhamo’s views on Tibet were never even really a platform during her election campaign. “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.”
This story runs parallel to a development at McMaster university, where Chinese students interrupted a speech on the poor treatment and internment of Uyghur Muslims in Western China. There have been allegations that the Chinese government was involved in these events. While the Chinese Embassy and Consulate General in Ottawa support the “just and patriotic actions of Chinese students,” they have officially denied any involvement in their activities.
Investigations are currently being made by Toronto Police to see if the thousands of comments (among around 15,000 comments in various languages) directed at Lhamo on her Instagram posts constitute criminal threats.