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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Mandarin education plan riles Tibetans

November 5, 2010

Saransh Sehgal
Asia Times
November 4, 2010

DHARAMSALA, India -- The Chinese government's
plan to introduce Mandarin as the language of
education in Tibetan schools has prompted
protests by Tibetans at home and abroad, over
fears this will lead to the decline of the
Tibetan culture. However, there is also a belief
that only by learning the national language can
Tibetans in China improve their economic and social status.

Unlike in the past, when violence involving
protests in Tibet and ethnic Tibetan areas made
the news, this time peaceful protests highlight
the divergence between China and Tibet.

On October 19, hundreds of Tibetan student staged
a protest, chanting: "We want equality of
culture" in Tongren, also known as Rebkong, in
the northwestern Chinese province of Qinghai. The
protests were over a government overhaul of the
curriculum that reduced the use of the Tibetan
language in schools, making Chinese the language
of the classroom. Tongren, a heavily Tibetan area
and the birthplace of the Tibetan spiritual
leader in exile - the 14th Dalai Lama - is
considered a hotbed of anti-China sentiments and
is the region where many ethnic Tibetans
participated in the 2008 anti-China riots.

The protest was sparked by reported comments from
the Chinese Communist Party's Qinghai chief,
Qiang Wei, calling for the use of "a common
language" in schools and suggesting that the
province would introduce Mandarin as the teaching
language over the next decade. "The protest
resulted from a new education policy which
reduces Tibetan language teaching," said an
official identified only as Mr Wang, speaking for
the International Information Office of the
Qinghai government, as reported by CNN.

"The Chinese are enforcing reforms which remind
me of the Cultural Revolution," the United
Kingdom-based Free Tibet group quoted one unnamed
former Tongren teacher as saying. "This reform is
not only a threat to our mother tongue, but is in
direct violation of the Chinese constitution,
which is meant to protect our rights."

The group said about 3,000 to 4,000 school
students protested in the region. Citing
witnesses, however, China's state media said
about 800 students protested in western China.
The Global Times, a Chinese government-supported
English-language newspaper, said the protest by
"students, most wearing school uniforms", was
peaceful. "Social order was restored quickly on
the same day," a witness was quoted as saying.

The language row has spread. On October 22, about
500 students at the Beijing campus of Minzu
University of China, a leading institution for
ethnic minority students, protested for language
rights. Pictures posted on Twitter showed a group
of students carrying a banner saying "Protect
ethnic minority languages, carry forward Chinese civilization".

The Dalai Lama and his Tibetan supporters were
also fuming over the new policy by Beijing, and
rights groups have expressed serious concerns.

The Dalai Lama, in his first reaction to the
protest, said the Tibetan language was vital for
the survival of Tibetan Buddhist culture which
had a strong following in China. The Tibetan
leader, who is currently touring the United
States and Canada, said, "China is historically a
Buddhist country and the preservation of the
Tibetan Buddhist culture is also in the interest
of the millions of Chinese who are looking for
spiritual sustenance." He added that China might
want to learn from the Indian experience, where
the promotion of linguistic diversity is not seen as a divisive factor.

According to Free Tibet, the language policy has
already been implemented in schools in other
areas across the Tibet Autonomous Region,
including in primary schools. The rights group
said the new policy will eventually eliminate the
Tibetan language and culture, "The use of Tibetan
is being systematically wiped out as part of
China's strategy to cement its occupation of Tibet."

Tibetan is the official language in the Tibet
Autonomous Region and also in other Chinese
regions where Tibetans have traditionally been
the main ethnic group. Beijing has for decades
promoted standard Mandarin Chinese as a way of
unifying a culturally diverse country, and many
Tibetans say they have little choice but to learn
Mandarin if they want to get ahead in modern China.

The new education policy change has shocked many
Tibetan intellectuals. Tsering Woeser, a
Beijing-based Tibetan writer who recently won
this year's Courage in Journalism award from the
International Women's Media Foundation, has been
watching the language-policy row closely.
"According to the Law on the Autonomy of Ethnic
Minority Regions, ethnic language has been
heavily emphasized," she told Radio Free Asia.

"However, the autonomy laws are useless, as
ethnic languages are always ignored. For example,
if a person from an ethnic group cannot speak
Chinese but can speak his native language well,
he simply cannot find a job." Woeser, who is also
a blogger, circulated a mobile-phone text message
that said, "In order to save our mother tongue,
many Tibetan students are protesting in Tibetan
areas advocating for the Tibetan language. We need your attention."

The Qinghai provincial education department
director, Wang Yubo, was quoted over the weekend
as saying that change won't be forced in areas
where "conditions are not ripe". Wang also said,
"The new education policy is made according to relevant national regulations."

"Huangnan prefecture held a conference after the
protest happened and formed a working team headed
by a deputy director of the provincial education
department. The working team went to Huangnan and
explained the new education policy to the
students. The students ended the demonstration
shortly afterward. Right now, the provincial
government is communicating with the local
schools, and the working team is communicating
with local students as well." He added, "If the
suggestions of protesting students are
reasonable, it's likely that the government will consider them."

The language issue is a complex one and
intimately linked to Tibet's political struggle.
While many Tibetans feel that Beijing is eroding
the Tibetan culture, and are threatened by
development and the migration of China's ethnic
Han majority, they also hope their children can
learn Mandarin in order to get higher-income
jobs. Many Tibetans say they have little choice
but to learn Mandarin if they want to get ahead in modern China.

But many Tibetan students still fear that the
bilingual system will lead to the use of Chinese
alone, except in Tibetan-language classes. Modern
Chinese art expert Li Xianting learned of the
Tibetan language deficiency when he recently
helped organize an exhibition of contemporary
Tibetan art in Beijing. Li said he was very
surprised when one of the young Tibetan artists,
who was literate in Tibetan because his parents
were professors, told him that some of the other
Tibetan artists could not write Tibetan words
correctly. He said it was not fair to Tibetans
that they did not get enough instruction in their
own language. He thinks globalization should mean
multiculturalism, not the eradication of local cultures.

China defended its language policy, "The purpose
of the bilingual education-reform plan is to
strengthen whatever is weaker, not use one
language to weaken another," Xinhua news agency quoted Wang as saying.

The plan, Wang said, would boost both Putonghua
and minorities' native languages. Under the new
policy, bilingual lessons will be adopted in
primary schools by 2015, meaning Chinese language
will be the main medium, and ethnic languages will be a supplement.

Beijing said that promoting Mandarin among
minorities would help them catch up with the Han
majority in economic status, bridging the income
gap between Han Chinese and the country's 55 minority groups.

However, Stephanie Brigden with Free Tibet said
the public fear that the Tibetan language would
be cut from schools showed the gulf of
credibility between official rhetoric and what
Tibetans actually perceive. "I think this is a
good example of the difference between what is
promised and what is delivered. This is the case
whether we are talking about education rights,
whether we are talking about who is benefiting
from development in Tibet, or if we are talking
about whether torture takes place in Tibet."

Tibetans in exile joined the Dalai Lama in
slamming the language policy. Samphel Thupten,
spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile
based in Dharamsala, India, said the Tibetan
students were right to protest. "The Tibetan
language is disavowed and this will do huge
damage to the Tibetan identity. Here in
Dharamsala, the Tibetan language is compulsory
and Tibetan children have a firm grasp." Added
Thupten: "China should review its policy."

Speaking to Asia Times Online, Karma Gelek
Yuthok, secretary of the Department of Education
for the exiled Central Tibetan Administration,
said it looked like China was not abiding by its
constitution. "The Chinese say something and do
something else; they want everything Chinese,
which is not a thought of the 21st century.
Though I personally have a feeling that very
little of Tibetan culture will remain in Tibet,
we have planned accordingly. For we in exile need
extra energy to preserve the culture and language."

One student in the Tibetan school in Dharamsala
said, "Learning our language and culture comes
first. My parents fled from Tibet just to take sure I kept my identity."

At a press conference in Dharamsala, Dokru
Choedak - who heads a group working for the
preservation of the Tibetan language - said they
would send signed petitions to the United Nations
Children's Fund and other international
organizations. "Schools and language are the
fabric of national identity. Unfortunately the
Chinese authorities have reportedly identified
schools as 'base camps to fight against the Dalai
Clique and outside separatist forces'."

The Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), a radical
organization of Tibetans in exile, has planned
protest rallies from Dharamsala to New Delhi on
November 12. "The Tibetan language is
intrinsically linked to Tibetan culture and
identity. Denying Tibetans the right to learn in
their own language is denying them the right to
exist as a people" said Tenzin Choekyi, the TYC's general secretary.

TYC called China the biggest colonizer of modern
times and appealed to the international media
covering the Asian Games to highlight the Chinese
violation of the human rights of Tibetans.

Interestingly, support for Tibetans protesters
has even come from inside China. Ilham Tohti, an
outspoken Uyghur professor at Minzu University of
China and webmaster of, said Uyghur
students at his school had been eager to join in
protests with their Tibetan classmates. "From the
beginning of the Qinghai protests, Uyghur
students studying at my university were all
supportive. Some students came to my office and
said they want to protest with the Tibetan
students, but I advised them that we can support them without protesting."

A teacher in Xinjiang told news website the Tibet
Post, "Every Uyghur teacher and student is
supporting Tibet right now, because we have the same problems here."

* Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in
Dharamsala, India. He can be reached at
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