Raising Tibetan and Chinese flags as well as their voices, some 200 members of the UCSB community – and even the Dalai Lama’s nephew – flooded Storke Plaza yesterday.
Some came to support Tibetan independence. Others came to support China’s administration of the small region. Everyone had the upcoming 2008 Beijing Olympic games on their minds.
The event’s focal point was the bicyclists who carried a torch through UCSB as part of the California leg of the Tibetan Freedom Torch tour, which will travel to 50 cities worldwide in opposition to the Olympic games being held in Beijing. The protest occurred at a time when such groups as Free Tibet and Falun Gong have interfered with the Olympic torch relay worldwide.
The rally at UCSB, organized by Santa Barbara Friends of Tibet and the Tibetan Association of Southern California and co-sponsored by the Religious Studies Dept., was to feature an hour-long presentation from Tibet’s supporters, who had a permit for the event. However, at the rally, pro-China attendees were also allotted half the time to explain their side.
Jigme Norbu, nephew of the Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was among the cyclists who came to UCSB. He expressed concern over restrictions of freedom for the Tibetan people and said the mass migration of Tibetans into other countries, as well as the many protests within Tibet, demonstrate the mistreatment of its people at the hands of the Chinese government.
“Since 1950, 1.2 million Tibetans have died because of the occupation,” Young said. “They are still torturing monks and nuns in Chinese prisons for simply practicing their religious beliefs.”
On the other hand, many supporters of the Chinese government in Tibet, including Haiping Wu, a second-year graduate student and Chinese linguistics major, said the communist nation is bolstering Tibet’s economy through such policies as exempting the region’s citizens from taxation and the “one child” law that applies in mainland China.
“Any government is not perfect, including the Chinese government,” Wu said. “What I see is that they are trying to improve the situation in Tibet.”
Meanwhile, Tibetan supporters expressed concern over discrimination and said Tibetans were being treated as second-class citizens in their own country. Kevin Young, president of the Santa Barbara Friends of Tibet, said he hoped the rally would stir up student support for the group’s cause.
“All the schools now are taught in Chinese instead of Tibetan and the Chinese school system charges high fees that they cannot afford, so they are lacking in education,” Young said. “They have a very low literacy rate, because they do not have equal rights to education.”
The rally featured a petition fielded by the Tibetan Freedom Torch tour that suggests politicians boycott the opening ceremonies of Olympic games and prevent the Olympic torch from going through the region, as its citizens are not allowed to compete in the Olympic games this year, representing an independent Tibet.
In response, Xiao Che, a fifth-year theater major who moved from China in 2003, accused the West of using the Beijing Olympics to work against China.
“Western politicians use the Dalai Lama and the Tibet issue as a political tool to suppress the Chinese government in order to serve their self interest,” Wu said.
In spite of the heated passions and differing opinions of the two sides, dialogue was traded rather than blows. According to UC Police Dept. Spokesman Matt Bowman, the event, which had a security detail consisting of five UCPD officers and two CSOs, was very peaceable.
“The event went very well, and both sides got to express their views,” Bowman said.
Following the speeches, the event featured a question and answer period, where both sides took turns asking questions about issues including whether China deserved to host the Olympics, whether human rights have improved in Tibet and why the Chinese government will not speak with the Dalai Lama.
“We want to just sit down and have a dialogue with the Chinese government, but they have just been pushing us away,” cyclist Tashi Dorjee said.
The Tibetan Freedom Torch relay began on March 10 in Greece and will finish on the Tibetan border on August 8, the day of the Olympics. The cyclists will continue the relay down Highway 1, on to UCLA, where they will deliver petitions for Tibetan Freedom and Justice to the Los Angeles Chinese consulate.