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Why the endangerment of the Tibetan language bolsters Chinese expansionism

In light of the recent trial of Tashi Wangchuk--who has been unfairly detained for Tibetan language advocacy—China’s attempt to forcefully incorporate Tibet into the PRC is once again rearing its ugly head. It is but indubitable that China’s policies have been designed to browbeat the Tibetans into submission and at the same time, dilute their culture by settling droves of mainland Chinese into Tibet. However, what is remarkably insidious about these measures to dominate Tibet politically, economically, and culturally is that their enforcement of Mandarin upon the Tibetan population might actually be a means to an end—the end being the consolidation of a regional Chinese empire.

Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist and author posits that China emerged as “the first modern state in history” during the Qin dynasty, where a unified political system, hugely informed by Legalism, was implemented. Like its predecessors, the Qin dynasty eventually met its demise, however, the Legalist system that it created and perpetuated in order to forge a homogenized national state has since been replicated in varying degrees in successive eras.

Legalism is essentially a Chinese political theory which firmly asserts that since man is innately selfish, he ought to be reined in by the state through harsh punishments and laws. At the same time, however, it believes that individuals can pursue their own selfish interests as long as the sovereignty of the state is not compromised or threatened. Hence, self-serving behaviour that serves the state’s objectives and aids in its prosperity is encouraged while oppressive laws are firmly put in place to ensure that that very same behaviour does not get out of hand and end up being detrimental to the state and its rulers. In short, the legalist world is a paradoxical one, where laws are put in place not to stamp out immoral behaviour but to direct it towards the benefit of the state.

Now one may be wondering what this has to do with China’s assault on Tibet’s language and culture. It is but undeniable that the Tibetan language and culture, both of which are inextricably and intimately intertwined, are far removed from China’s. Despite this all-too-obvious fact, China continues to persist in its delusional belief that Tibet is an integral part of it, thus condemning the Tibetans’ fight for their language and culture as “self-interested” behaviour that threatens to dismantle the new Chinese empire. Also, as China believes that linguistic standardization is necessary for national unity, it has embarked on a momentous task to homogenize the Tibetan populace in a bid to wrench their loyalty away from their social institutions to the Chinese state. And should this finally come to fruition, Tibet’s identity and its hope for an autonomous political existence will be erased forever.

Throughout my travels in Tibet, I could not help but notice that the ubiquitous presence of Chinese colonialism was but stark: street signs are either in Mandarin or in both Mandarin and Tibetan, with the former taking precedence over the latter; Tibetans towns are designated Chinese names; and major Tibetan cities such as Lhasa, Dartsedo, and Xining have been turned into full-fledged Chinese cities complete with glitzy malls and clusters of apartments. Worryingly, this has somehow pressured many local Tibetans into conformity, driving many of them to use Mandarin as the lingua franca. At first sight, this might appear as a survival-driven response and for the most part, it probably is; however, such responses over time have inevitably led to thought and behaviour modification, so much so that the urge to learn Tibetan has dissipated and the need to assimilate increased.12764676_940684662705152_8712916298705401282_o

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese language has also become a viable tool via which state-sponsored propaganda is disseminated. The effects such carefully manipulated language could have on a person is well illustrated by George Orwell: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”.  And this makes me recall an anecdote I heard from an old Tibetan man in Labrang: On one occasion, his grand-niece has come back from school filled with rage against the Japanese for having ravaged China during World War 2; and quite evidently, her school had conveniently ignored the fact that historically, the Tibetans have had no enmity with the Japanese. Indeed, it is a frightening phenomenon that can only be best described as the gradual formation of a uniform national identity that is required for China’s expansionist dream.

Nevertheless, it is reassuring to see that the spirit of advocacy is being kept alive by the likes of Tashi Wangchuk, for if it weren’t for them, Sinocentric ideology would have long taken root in the Tibetan region. Thus, I believe that our fight for Tibetan autonomy is not only a moral duty but a political necessity as well.

By Vithya Segar


Ed Fast Goes to China

by Carole Samdup

As the number of self-immolation protests continues to rise in Tibet, this week reaching a heart-breaking 115, China has responded by launching a police crackdown, increasing electronic surveillance, and interrupting the flow of information between Tibetans and monitoring groups in India and elsewhere. Their actions come as no surprise to anyone.

What did come as a surprise was an announcement by the Government of Canada that Trade Minister Ed Fast is headed to China this week to promote Canadian exports of sophisticated information and communications technology – the very same technology that enables the security apparatus of a single-party state to identify and arrest human rights defenders, pro-democracy campaigners, trade union organizers and political dissidents.

While not weaponry in the conventional sense, advanced information and communications technology is derived from, or mirrors, military and police “command and control” communications systems technology. These systems include a wide range of components, sub-systems, products and software required for monitoring and controlling telephone and Internet communication, collecting and storing data, and analysing intelligence. While they certainly do have legitimate civilian and security objectives, they can also be the instruments of human rights violations in countries without the democratic checks and balances we take for granted here in Canada. China is one of those countries.

This is not an argument against trade with China. But it is a reminder that international trade does not operate in a silo. The Government of Canada has an obligation to ensure that it does not unwittingly undermine human rights when it conducts business abroad. Minister Fast’s own Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade oversees export control regulations that prohibit the export of goods “…used to commit human rights violations”. Compliance with such regulations should require demonstrated efforts to conduct due diligence before the transfer of sensitive technology, not after evidence of abuse is reported.

Already, there are plenty of concrete examples to illustrate how information and communications technology has been used to undermine rather than promote human rights in Tibet. In a 2009 University of Toronto study entitled Tracking GhostNet, it was revealed that electronic surveillance originating from China had infiltrated the communications systems of several western governments (including Canada) as well as the exiled Tibetan government, based in India. The report linked the subsequent detention of a Tibetan rights activist at the Nepal-Tibet border to the intrusion.

Last year, as the number of self-immolation protests in Tibet skyrocketed, Chinese authorities seized hundreds of satellite dishes and receivers in eastern Tibet, destroyed them and replaced them with smaller versions that receive only state-controlled programs. Some Tibetans have since voiced concerns that the new equipment is equipped with cameras and recording devices to provide authorities with real-time surveillance.

Only last month, researchers reported that Tibetan activists had been targeted by a form of Android malware that was able to record their contacts, call logs, SMS messages, geo-location, and phone data. And at the same time, Human Rights Watch issued a lengthy report describing China’s plan for a new “security grid” in Tibet that “significantly increases surveillance and monitoring, particularly of “special groups” in the region – former prisoners and those who have returned from the exile community in India, among others”. The new grid is expected to include advanced controls over the use of cell phones, the Internet, and micro-blogs often used to send information to monitoring organizations outside of Tibet.

While there is no evidence that Canadian technology played a part in any of these examples, it is impossible to say that it did not, particularly without any monitoring or evaluation processes in place. More importantly, the examples raise a reasonable expectation that future exports of information and communications technology to China might contribute to future violations of the human rights to free expression, to privacy, and to security of the person in restive Tibet.

Even if Canada has little power to influence Chinese policy in Tibet, at the minimum it should adopt a “do no harm” approach when establishing sector priorities for Canadian exports. We cannot argue that we didn’t know.

Carole Samdup is the Executive Director of the Canada Tibet Committee. She can be reached at