Mandarin education plan riles Tibetans
By Saransh Sehgal
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
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
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 Uighurbiz.net, 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
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
Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.