Should Tibetan Flag Appear in Rhythm Nations?

Jiaying Xu '17

Contributing Writer

The display of the Tibetan flag on the stage of Rhythm Nations – an annual cultural event hosted by Smith International Student Organization (ISO) that presents international diversity on campus – aroused strong antipathy among a group of Chinese students. Because flags convey not only cultural but also political meaning, many Chinese students declared the existence of the Tibetan flag symbolized Tibetan independence. The Chinese students declared that by pairing the Tibetan flag with the Chinese flag, ISO implied agreement with a political stance that threatens the integrity of Chinese territory.

The patriotic feeling ran so high that two Chinese students even wrote letters to demand an apology from ISO. The Chinese students deplored the atrocities committed by separationists during the Tibetan Independence Movement, expressing their sympathy for the innocent Tibetan civilians. They argued that the Tibetan flag inevitably manifests a political stance that distorts the historical truth and consequently offends a majority of Chinese students. Therefore, by issuing an official apology, ISO could make up for its mistake and prevent similar controversies from happening again. The two Chinese students gained wide support from the Chinese student body, who praised them for “doing the right thing.”

Nevertheless, these letters also received opposition from a smaller number of Chinese students, who claimed that suppressing minority opinions for the sake of the majority is a fundamental violation of democratic principles. ISO’s policy allows anyone to display their self-chosen flag. The Tibetan flag was the choice of a first-year Smith student who self-identifies as Tibetan rather than Chinese.

The Chinese students explained that no one has the right to deprive these students of their individual freedom. Withdrawing the Tibetan flag from the stage by force is no different from enforcing one’s will on others, a behavior that marks the regression of civilization.

Yet, when asked about the root of their anti-Tibetan-independence sentiment, most Chinese students couldn’t clearly rationalize their propensity to maintain the unity and solidarity of China. China, they explained, was naturally an inseparable part of their identity, the consciousness of which was reinforced after they came to the United States. The attachment to the national identity, Benedict Anderson explains in his “Imagined Community,” is a result of a deep, horizontal comradeship that became possible because of “Print Capitalism,” a common language and discourse that is generated from the use of the printing press. Thus, nationalism is created only as means to political and economic ends. To avoid being embroiled in a political ploy, some Chinese students argued that one’s national interests shouldn’t impede others from freely expressing their self-determined identity.  Freedom and equality should serve as the foundation of ISO’s polices.

Admittedly, freedom and equality, due to their limitations, are not the optimal solutions to the problem of the Tibetan flag: they instill pride and self-righteousness in people, arousing conflicts and controversies and are fraught with insurmountable difficulty. Nevertheless, freedom and equality are the better solutions in this scenario. They ensure that people are not left without hope in bettering their lives by giving them autonomy and control. Despite the controversial behavior of the Tibetan student, what is more important is that she retain the opportunity to decide for herself and express her own opinions.