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.
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