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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

The Question of Linguistic Autonomy for Tibetans

October 29, 2010

By Tenzin Dickyi
Huffington Post
October 27, 2010

Some summers ago when I was in Lhasa, I noticed
that the sun rose surprisingly late and daylight
diffused quite a long while into the evening.
This was because Beijing dictates that every one
of its subjects from the outer reaches of East
Turkestan and Inner Mongolia to the whole of the
Tibetan plateau run on Beijing time. Even though
Lhasa is as far away from Beijing as San
Francisco is from Washington DC, the Tibetans in
Lhasa must rise and sleep in harmonious lockstep
with the Party chiefs at Zhongnanhai.

Not content with temporal conformity, Chinese
leaders in Qinghai Province have now targeted
linguistic autonomy. The Qinghai Provincial
Government has issued orders that, by 2015, all
lessons and textbooks in Tibetan schools should
be in Chinese language instead of Tibetan. This
will mean that Tibetan children growing up in the
region (the historical Amdo region of Tibet famed
for producing scholars and intellectuals) will be
taught in Chinese instead of Tibetan. Tibetan
students will have to learn history, science,
social studies etc. in a second language instead
of their native language. In fact, in most other
parts of the Tibetan plateau, Chinese language
instruction has already replaced Tibetan. This
latest attempt to promote Chinese language at the
expense of Tibetan has sparked the largest and
most significant Tibetan protests since the seismic protests of 2008.

On Tuesday, October 19, over a thousand students
from six different schools in Rebkong (called
Tongren in Chinese) marched in non-violent
demonstration against the planned language change
carrying a banner that read: "Equality of
Peoples, Freedom of Language." Over the following
days, the protests spread to Chabcha and other
areas of Qinghai, as well as to Minzu Daxue, the
Minorities University in Beijing where four
hundred students participated. Their banner read,
"Preserve Nationality Language and Expand National Education."

These wide-ranging student protests come at the
heels of a highly significant letter signed by at
least 133 teachers from different schools and
submitted to the Qinghai Provincial Government on
October 15th. The letter was obtained and
published by the popular Tibetan blog Khabdha. In
the letter, submitted in both Tibetan and Chinese, the teachers wrote,

"The plan of leaving one's language aside and
prioritizing another's language, teaching all
classes except Tibetan language class in the
Chinese language, is a dangerous one that
violates the current Constitution of the People's
Republic of China; violates the Law of the PRC on
Regional National Autonomy; violates the
principle of pedagogy; and violates science-based development."

The letter goes on to say, "If both the spoken
and written language of a people die, then it is
as if the entire population of that people has
died and the people have been decimated." The
teachers referred to the 4th Article in the PRC
Constitution: "All ethnic groups have the freedom
to use and develop their own spoken and written
languages and to preserve or reform their own
folkways and customs." They were careful to note
that their appeal is in lawful alignment with the
Chinese Constitution as well as the PRC's Law on Regional National Autonomy.

Policy makers from the Qinghai Provincial
Government, as well as Beijing, should take a
note from Newton and notice: For every action,
there is an equal and opposite reaction. They
should also carefully note the deep-seated
concern about language and culture apparent in
these courageous appeals by the teachers and
students. And then they should consider, at
length, the fact dictated by common sense, and
upheld by education experts: Children learn better in their mother tongue.

The medium of academic scholarship is language,
as the medium of music is sound. Forcing students
who grow up speaking Tibetan to study the
concepts of science, social science and
mathematics in a second language is to
disadvantage them from the start: a handicap that
will place certain stumbling blocks in their educational development.

Unlike the 2008 protests, which were attributed
to social and economic causes as well as
political ones, these protests and appeals are
clearly in reaction to the education policies of
the local Qinghai Government. If Chinese leaders
want to give any impression to the Tibetans, and
to their own growing number of
politically-conscious middle class citizenry,
that they care about the wishes of the Tibetan
people, they should for once listen to the voice
of the Tibetan people, and yes the voice of
conscience, and at least allow the Tibetans this
small zone of linguistic autonomy.
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