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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Tibetan Students Reveal China's Identity Crisis

October 25, 2010

Rebecca Novick
Huffington Post
October 20, 2010

"Language shapes the way we think and determines
what we can think about." So said the late
American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf. China's
Communist Party seems well ahead of the game.

On October 19th, Tibetan students in Eastern
Tibet, many barely in their teens, took to the
streets to protest plans to force local schools
to adopt a Chinese-language only curriculum. The
protest took place in the town of Tongren (Tib.
Rebkong) in Qinghai (Tib. Amdo) province. The
rights group Free Tibet received reports from
local residents that between one and seven
thousand students from six different schools
marched while chanting slogans and raising
banners reading, "Equality of People" and "Freedom of Language".

The protest mirrored another in Guangzhou in
southern China this July, when 1,000 people
turned out to challenge a local politician's
proposal to force a local television network to
stop broadcasting in Cantonese and switch instead
to Mandarin, the country's official language.

Most of the Guangzhou protesters were in their
20's and 30's. Interestingly, it is not the
elderly that are at the vanguard of the language
rights movement in China and its occupied
territories--but the young. Reports creep in of
Tibetan youths engaged in a new kind of high brow
graffiti--correcting Tibetan grammar on shop
signs and changing Chinese signs into Tibetan.

It is worth noting that the students who
participated in Tuesday's protest were taking an
extraordinary risk. Political protest is not
legal in China except in rare circumstances. They
would all have been acutely aware that Tibetans
have been arrested and even shot for doing less.

Rights groups claim that Chinese authorities
inside Tibet are keeping Tibetans who aren't
fluent in Chinese economically marginalized, by
passing laws to minimize the teaching of Tibetan
in schools and by replacing Tibetan language with
Chinese in many spheres of public life.

"The Chinese are enforcing reforms which remind
me of the Cultural Revolution," Free Tibet 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."

This is technically right. But as many Chinese
citizens know, the law and its enforcement don't
always add up to the same thing. The 1984
Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law (REAL) entitles
minorities to use and develop their own spoken
and written languages. The law also states that
minorities should use textbooks written in their
own languages "whenever possible" and use these
languages as the medium of instruction. The
current plan to replace Tibetan language
textbooks with Chinese versions appears to openly contradict this provision.

A 2005 report by the US Congressional-Executive
Commission on China found that, "Upward social,
economic, and political mobility is increasingly
dependent upon one's ability to use Mandarin
Chinese." The report also notes that while many
minority groups welcome the opportunity to
develop their Mandarin skills, they also believe
it important to have the right to preserve their own languages.

The parallels between China's policies towards
its ethnic minorities and the "Americanization"
polices by US lawmakers towards Native Americans
that were in place until 1920, are starkly
obvious. But modern parallels to language issues
in today's America fall short, since these are
concerned with immigrants who came to settle in
America from other countries, not large indigenous populations.

The pressurizing of ethnic groups to speak
Mandarin is part of a wider policy that Beijing
has been pursuing for several decades, though its
efforts have intensified in recent years. The
Uighur language is also under threat in the
northwestern region of Xinjiang. In May 2002, the
Xinjiang government announced that Xinjiang
University would change the medium of its
instruction to Mandarin Chinese. This was
followed two years later by the forced merger of
minority schools with Chinese-language schools.
The then Secretary of the CCP Xinjiang Committee,
Wang Lequan, described the promotion of Mandarin
language use as "an extremely serious political issue."

The argument is that a common language helps to
unite the country. The CCP views language as a
"splittist" agent that could crack China along
linguistic lines during times of social upheaval.
However, China's one-language policy has been
pursued particularly vigorously of late. What the
policy-makers in China know is that just as it
was in Guangzhou, the recent protest of Tibetan
students is not just about language, but about
the larger issue of cultural and ethnic identity.

Sociologists have long observed the link between
language and group identity as well as how
language helps social groups resist encroachment
by other groups. Anything that encourages ethnic
identity is regarded as a problem for Beijing,
since it promotes a sense of cultural uniqueness
and pride that the state is trying hard to
dilute. But it could more easily be argued that
if the central government would allow for more
cultural autonomy in places like Tibet and
Xinjiang, these regions would have less reason to
resist the greater unity that Beijing craves.

The CCP seems to find it hard to understand that
a people can feel both distinct and loyal and are
more likely to feel loyal if given the freedom to express their uniqueness.

Examples of this can be seen all over the world
such as the Indian state of Arunachal
Pradesh--one of the most linguistically and
culturally diverse regions in Asia with an
ethnically distinct population--where the people
unequivocally view themselves as Indian citizens.

This September, a Beijing art exhibition
showcased the work of some 50 Tibetan artists. In
a poignant metaphor, one of the artists had
encased two foot tall wooden Tibetan letters in
glass coffins. But judging from this Tuesday's
protest in Rebkong and the support it has
inspired, the Tibetan language is not going to go down without a fight.

Rebecca Novick -- Writer and radio producer with
a special interest in Tibet and China
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