China's “Bilingual Education” Policy in Tibet
Poster issued by China in primary schools in Tibet.
“Love the national flag, Sing the national anthem
Mandarin is the working language in schools
Please speak the common language (Mandarin) and write the characters correctly”.
So this is bilingual education: In theory, it means you can do both [languages]. It sounds beautiful. But in practice, the working language [in schools and offices] even at the township [rural] level is becoming Chinese.
—Tibetan university professor interviewed by Human Rights Watch, 2018
China’s education policy in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is significantly reducing the access of ethnic Tibetans to education in their mother tongue. The government policy, though called “bilingual education,” is in practice leading to the gradual replacement of Tibetan by Chinese as the medium of instruction in primary schools throughout the region, except for classes studying Tibetan as a language. Since the 1960s, Chinese has been the language of instruction in nearly all middle and high schools in the TAR, where just under half of Tibetans in China live, but new educational practices introduced by the government in the TAR are now leading more primary schools and even kindergartens to use Chinese as the teaching language for Tibetan students.
The trend towards increased use of Chinese in primary schools in Tibetan urban areas has been noted for several years, but as detailed below, there are indications that it is now becoming the norm there and is spreading to rural areas as well. In interviews that Human Rights Watch conducted in September 2019, parents with children at rural primary schools in six different townships in northern TAR said that a Chinese-medium teaching system had been introduced in their local primary schools the previous March. There have been no public announcements of a government policy in the TAR requiring rural primary schools to teach their classes in Chinese, but an official working on educational issues in the TAR told Human Rights Watch that he expects the government to introduce a policy requiring all primary schools in the TAR to shift to Chinese-medium education.
China formally introduced a policy of “bilingual education” in 2010 for schools in all minority areas in China, an approach to minority education considered appropriate internationally when it promotes competency in both the local and the national language. The official position of the TAR authorities is that both Tibetan and Chinese languages should be “promoted,” leaving individual schools to decide which language to prioritize as the teaching medium. However, Human Rights Watch’s research suggests that TAR authorities are using a strategy of cultivated ambiguity in their public statements while using indirect pressure to push primary schools, where an increasing number of ethnic Chinese teachers are teaching, to adopt Chinese-medium instruction at the expense of Tibetan, such as allocating increasing numbers of ethnic Chinese teachers who do not speak Tibetan to positions in Tibetan schools.
Chinese-Medium Instruction in Primary Schools and Kindergartens
There is almost no publicly available data about the medium of instruction currently used in primary schools or kindergartens in the TAR or other Tibetan areas. But Human Rights Watch’s research found that local authorities in the TAR began preparations from about the year 2000 to encourage and facilitate a gradual shift to Chinese-medium teaching in primary schools in the region. These preparations started with instructions by the central authorities in Beijing that required local administrations throughout China to prepare to introduce bilingual education for communities that are not ethnic Chinese.
What form that policy should take has varied significantly from province to province, but in 2001, all primary schools in urban areas of Tibet began to teach Tibetan pupils Chinese language from Grade 1, instead of Grade 3 as had been the case previously. However, there was no mention by officials as to which language should be used as the medium of instruction in Tibetan pre-schools or primary schools.
In 2010, all provincial-level administrations throughout China introduced formal programs for the implementation of “bilingual education.” Chinese analysts distinguish between “Model 1” bilingualism, which emphasizes the use of the local or minority language in classrooms, and “Model 2” bilingualism, which emphasizes the national language, Chinese. But in its 2010 announcement on implementation, the TAR authorities once again did not specify whether Chinese or Tibetan was to be the medium of instruction in primary schools and have continued to use the term “bilingual education” ambiguously, without specifying its meaning. In public reports they imply that the only requirement is extra classes for Tibetans to learn Chinese and that individual schools can choose the medium of instruction. In practice, however, there appears to be considerable pressure to shift to Chinese and Model 2.
This pressure is strongly reflected in official Chinese media reports on the benefits of “bilingual education” in the TAR. In early 2015, a report by China’s official news agency, Xinhua, said that Chinese-medium instruction had already been introduced, not just into secondary schools, as was well-known, but also into urban primary schools in the TAR: “Different from the model widely implemented in pastoral regions, elementary schools in each of Tibet’s prefectures (and municipalities), some junior middle schools, senior middle schools, and Tibet classes in the interior adopt a teaching model that uses Chinese as the teaching language with Tibetan as an addition.” In January 2016, an article on Tibetan schools by China’s state-run Global Times confirmed that “increasingly schools, especially in urban areas, are using Putonghua [standard Chinese] as the primary language of instruction, with Tibetan being used only in classes where the Tibetan language is the topic of the class, if it is taught at all.”
Then, in June 2016, the Lhasa Education Bureau announced that Chinese was being used as the medium of instruction to teach mathematics in a majority of primary schools in the counties around Lhasa, including rural areas outside the region’s capital city. This was the first known direct admission by the government of a shift to Chinese-medium teaching in some classes within rural TAR primary schools.
Outside the TAR, the Chinese authorities have already imposed Chinese-medium instruction in primary schools in at least one Tibetan area. In the Golok Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, the prefectural government ordered primary schools to introduce primarily Chinese-medium instruction in the 2019-2020 school year. A similar plan to introduce Chinese-medium education was reported from Tsolho prefecture in Qinghai province in April 2017. Teaching in all schools in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai is already conducted in Chinese. There are unconfirmed reports that similar policies will soon be introduced in other Tibetan prefectures in Qinghai.
Governmental pressure on Tibetan schools to use Chinese is also evident in the pre-school sector. According to China’s official media, the TAR government plans to ensure that by 2020, 80 percent of children in the TAR attend two to three years of kindergarten before entering primary school. In 2016, TAR authorities announced that all kindergarten programs have to become “bilingual.” According to an academic paper published in Xizang Jiaoyu (“Tibetan Education”), an educational journal in the TAR, “bilingual education” was “basically universalized at preschool level” by 2017, which means that all of the 81,000 Tibetan children in pre-schools and kindergartens in the TAR above the age of 3 are already experiencing “bilingual education.”
In its January 2016 article on the Tibetan language, the Global Times explicitly linked the critical decline in the use of Tibetan language to the decrease in the use of Tibetan in schools: “urbanization and the increasing amount of the school day spent speaking Putonghua has left the Tibetan language in a precarious situation.” It added that “many Tibetan parents have found that their kids are not learning how to speak their mother-tongue.”
Human Rights Watch found that among ordinary Tibetans, there is widespread concern about the increasing loss of fluency in Tibetan among the younger generation as a result of changing school policies and other factors. As a former part-time teacher from Lhasa told Human Rights Watch:
In primary school, the Tibetan teachers are very united and have a strong urgency to teach Tibetan, but the biggest problem is that they lack method and materials, and a lot of the kids in a way don’t like Tibetan because they think it will be quite useless.... [Older] people always complain about the lack of Tibetan, [and] the fact that their grandkids cannot speak proper Tibetan at home.
Pressures on Tibetan Schools to Switch to Chinese-Medium Teaching
While public policy statements by the TAR authorities remain ambiguous, there are increasing signs that they are using a range of indirect mechanisms to pressure schools in the TAR to switch to Chinese-medium teaching. These measures require Tibetan schools to increase Tibetan children’s immersion in Chinese culture and language. They include “mixed classes,” “concentrated schooling,” the transfer of large numbers of Chinese teachers to Tibetan schools, sending Tibetan teachers for training to provinces where Chinese is the dominant language, and requiring all Tibetan teachers to be fluent in Chinese. The measures have indirectly increased pressure on schools in the TAR to reduce the availability of mother-tongue education for Tibetan children over the last decade and are accelerating the gradual shift to Chinese-medium teaching in TAR primary schools.
The number of non-Tibetan-speaking teachers working in Tibetan schools tripled between 1988 and 2005, and under the current program, 30,000 will be sent to Tibet and the Xinjiang region, in the northwest, by 2020. None of the non-Tibetan teachers are required to know Tibetan and they presumably teach in Chinese. While many of them teach in middle schools and high schools in the TAR, there has been an impact even at the pre-school level, especially in urban areas: according to a Chinese study in 2017, 30 percent of teachers in one Lhasa county did not know Tibetan.
In addition, from at least 2016, hundreds of Tibetan teachers have been sent for further training in other provinces, and since 2017, all Tibetan teachers have been required to know Chinese. As early as 2003 the number of primary school teachers using Chinese for instruction in the TAR had increased threefold over the previous 12 years, from 1,698 in 1991 – then 20 percent of total teachers – to 4,228 or 33 percent of total teachers by 2003. We have not been able to find data showing the change since then.
Another measure that has contributed to the switch to Chinese-medium instruction has been the creation of “mixed classes,” the inclusion of non-Tibetan pupils in classes with Tibetan ones. Another measure, known as “concentrated schooling,” involves closing local schools in rural areas and consolidating them in a nearby town, where rural students usually have to board. While this brings benefits in terms of facilities and standards, it also reduces children’s contact with their family and with a Tibetan-speaking environment. These measures all improve Tibetan children’s exposure to Chinese but can weaken children’s access to and familiarity with their own language.
The imposition of teaching practices that encourage the switch to Chinese-medium instruction in the TAR is the result of increasing moves by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP or the “Party”) since 2014 to shift away from encouragement of cultural diversity, which had been the official policy towards minorities since the early 1980s, including respect for the distinctive cultures and languages of minorities. As detailed in section III of this report, the new policy aims to increase the assimilation of minorities in China and requires officials to prioritize “ethnic mingling” (minzu jiaorong) of China’s nationalities and “identification” (rentong) by the minority nationalities with “Chinese culture” (Zhonghua wenhua). The government contends that these measures are necessary to achieve not just economic development for minorities but also “nationality unity” and “national stability” within China.
Global evidence shows that children’s educational development is adversely affected, particularly in the case of minority and indigenous children, when they are not taught in their mother-tongue in the early years of education. Mother-tongue policy experts agree that children who have grasped foundational skills and literacy in their own mother-tongue are better placed to learn in a second or foreign language.
Human Rights Watch supports policies that promote genuine bilingual education, in particular through the use of mother-tongue instruction in the early years of education and through curricula sensitive to indigenous and ethnic minority customs and practices. China’s policies for Tibetan children in the TAR, however, show decreasing respect for their right to use their mother-tongue or learn about and freely express Tibetan cultural identity and values in schools. Rather, they embody an approach to schools and schoolchildren that appears to be eroding the Tibetan language skills of children and forcing them to consume political ideology and ideas contrary to those of their parents and community.
Justifications for Shifting to Chinese-Medium Instruction
Chinese officials usually justify the switch to Chinese-medium instruction in Tibetan schools by arguing that improved knowledge of Chinese will help Tibetans gain employment in later life, a claim that is widely acknowledged in Tibet. However, the justification for imposing Chinese-language teaching in Tibetan kindergartens is quite different, at least according to a 2014 report by the Chinese scholar Yao Jijun, who said the aim of bilingual education at the pre-school level is to “better integrate the Chinese language” into Tibetan kindergarten children as “a means of eliminating elements of instability in Tibetan regions” (“instability” is a term used in China to refer to political unrest). According to Yao, “Tibet’s stability” depends on the full development of “bilingual education” at the kindergarten level.
Concern with eliminating the risk of future political dissent or unrest is also explicit in Party justifications for its “ethnic mingling” and “cultural identification” policies, which were endorsed by the central leadership as the new direction of minority policy in 2014. Children of minorities in kindergartens and primary schools undergo intensive political indoctrination that asserts the unquestioned benefits of the Party’s policies of ethnic mingling and its other political objectives. The children have little access to alternative ideas, since the media reinforce the necessity of prioritizing the use of Chinese language in education, with little or no discussion of educational alternatives.
There are no signs of significant popular involvement in the decision-making process that leads to these policies, particularly when they involve the minority regions; the policies are designed and imposed by the Communist Party.
School Closures and Protests
Human Rights Watch has reported on protests in a number of Tibetan areas since 2010 against earlier attempts to introduce Chinese-medium education in Tibetan schools. It has also reported on the closure of privately-run schools in Tibetan areas and has received reports that three monastery-run schools were closed in Tibetan parts of Sichuan province in or around June 2018. It notes also an unconfirmed report of the forced closure of a private kindergarten in the TAR in 2008 for giving priority to Tibetan language teaching.
Tibetans in China already suffer extensive restrictions on rights to free speech and opinion, peaceful assembly, movement, and religion that are more severe than in ethnic Chinese-majority areas of China. Chinese laws preclude them from open discussion of their history, allow them little say in policymaking in their own areas, and place extreme restrictions on their religious practice, access to information, and foreign travel.
In January 2016, a Tibetan campaigner on language rights, Tashi Wangchuk, was detained by the authorities and charged with “jeopardizing state security” after giving interviews to the New York Times stating that there was no longer any provision for Tibetan to be taught as a language, let alone Tibetan-medium education, in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai. In May 2018, a court sentenced him to five years in prison for “incitement to split the country” by “distorting the state of education and cultural development in Tibetan areas, slandering the government by saying it restricts the development of minority cultures and eliminates minority language and culture, undermining ethnic unity, social stability in Tibetan areas, and national unity,” according to court documents.
Despite the risks of speaking out, Tibetan intellectuals continue to express concerns about China’s education policies in Tibetan areas. In response to the April 2017 announcement of a plan by the Party committee in Tsolho Prefecture in Qinghai to reduce or replace Tibetan-medium education in local schools, leading Tibetan scholar and lama Alak Dorzhi posted this comment online:
In recent years in Tibetan areas, self-deluding and arbitrary policy documents in violation of the national constitution and nationality laws, which do not fully respect the Party’s nationality policies or consult expert or public opinion have upset the public time and again. When this happens, the authorities resort to the use of force, those in authority go after the public and use the convenient brutality of stability maintenance measures to try and solve the problem.…
Alak Dorzhi added that this issue “has not been considered carefully enough by the authorities.” Despite his cautious tone, his comment was quickly deleted from the internet, signaling the increasing limitations on public debate among Tibetans about language policies in their schools.
Domestic and International Law
The transition to Chinese-medium instruction in Tibetan primary schools is in tension with if not contradictory to some Chinese laws and policies. This includes the 2001 Law on Regional National Autonomy, which states that minority schools “should, if possible, use textbooks printed in their own languages, and lessons should be taught in those languages.” The law specifies that minority schools should teach Chinese language only from the early stages of primary education and does not direct that Chinese language be the language of instruction or even taught in kindergartens for minority children.
International human rights law obligates China to provide Tibetan-language instruction to the ethnic Tibetan population. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which China ratified in 1992, states that “a child belonging to a … minority … shall not be denied the right … to use his or her own language.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China has signed but not ratified, contains similar language. China also supported the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which both endorses rights to indigenous language education and the right of indigenous people to control their educational systems and institutions.
Three UN human rights expert committees have repeatedly expressed concern at China’s handling of mother-tongue instruction, and have called on the government to ensure Tibetan children are able to learn in their own language, and to protect those who advocate for mother-tongue education. In 1996, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the international expert body that monitors state compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, called on the Chinese authorities “to ensure that children in the Tibet Autonomous Region and other minority areas are guaranteed full opportunities to develop knowledge about their own language and culture as well as to learn the Chinese language.” In a subsequent statement in 2013, the committee called on the government to “effectively implement the bilingual language policy to ensure use and promotion of ethnic minority languages and ensure participation by ethnic minorities, including Tibetan and Uighur children … in the decision-making process of the education system.”
In 2014, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) expressed concern that ethnic minorities in China continue to face severe restrictions in the realization of their right to participate in cultural life, including the right to use and teach minority languages. The committee specifically noted the restrictions faced by Tibetans and Uighurs, “in particular regarding the restriction of education in the Tibetan and Uighur languages.” The committee called on China to “ensure the use and practice of their language and culture.”
China has failed to comply with several key requirements of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the recommendations of its committee. These include not providing adequate numbers of teachers trained to carry out bilingual education and enough textbooks in Tibetan, together with culturally appropriate teaching materials. In 2018, the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed concern that “Tibetan language teaching in schools in the [TAR] has not been placed on an equal footing in law, policy and practice with Chinese, and that it has been significantly restricted.” It called on the government of China to preserve the language by encouraging its use in education and other fields.
To Tibet Autonomous Region Officials:
- Ensure that all Tibetan children are able to learn and use Tibetan in schools.
- End the forced imposition of “ethnic mingling” measures in Tibetan education such as concentrated schooling and “mixed classes.”
- Unconditionally release Tashi Wangchuk and others prosecuted for peaceful opposition to state education policies.
- End the suppression of any activities or organizations calling for increased mother-tongue education and reverse the classification of such activities as “organized crime.” Allow all public discussion of education issues without threat of reprisal.
- Publish the regulations used to assess education in privately run kindergartens and primary and secondary schools in the TAR.
- Make it mandatory to provide clear reasons and the factual basis for closing such schools. Ensure that such regulations do not restrict or prohibit a school’s ability to choose the Tibetan language as a medium of instruction and that inspectors do not unfairly target or discriminate against Tibetan-run schools in their decisions to close schools.
To National Officials:
- Reaffirm the established rights of minorities to mother-tongue instruction in schools.
- Revise the bilingual education policy to ensure the use and promotion of ethnic minority languages in schools, allow mother-tongue instruction in pre-school and primary school, and ensure voluntary and consensual implementation of language policy in schools, including by consulting with and ensuring participation of ethnic minorities during the revision process.
- Ensure that educational objectives and not political objectives hold priority in the formulation of education policy in minority areas.
- Ensure that promotion of “nationality unity” does not violate basic civil and cultural rights and does not restrict public debate over issues such as education and migration in nationality areas.
- End Communist Party political control over schools and their educational decisions.
- Ensure that all teaching and learning materials for pre-school and primary levels are available in ethnic minority languages and as feasible for secondary levels, and reflect culturally appropriate content.
- Ensure teachers who are moved to teach in autonomous regions, including those enrolled in Aid Tibet programs, are provided with in-service training in the relevant and appropriate minority language for the region they are sent to.
- End the layoff of teachers from autonomous regions caused by the current “bilingual” policy, and ensure that all minority teachers are provided with in-service training to match requirements for public school teachers.
- Comply with all outstanding recommendations on education from UN treaty bodies.
Research into political and human rights conditions in Tibet faces severe limitations. The Chinese authorities do not permit access for foreign researchers to Tibet except in extremely rare cases, and then only on subjects that are not sensitive or likely to produce findings critical of the government. Foreigners are not allowed in Tibet even as tourists without special permits and guides. Tibetans face severe risks of repercussions including potential arrest and prosecution if they are known to talk or communicate with foreigners, whether in Tibet or abroad, about political issues or conditions in Tibet. Ethnic Chinese who are citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) also face risks if they work on politically sensitive topics, especially with an overseas human rights organization. Chinese officials and diplomats rarely make themselves available to researchers from human rights organizations, and if they do, almost always provide standardized responses that appear rehearsed or memorized.
As a result of these limitations, this report is based primarily on the study and translation of governmental publications in Chinese and Tibetan, such as newspapers, online news channels, and websites run by government offices. On some issues, we have also been able to draw on academic studies available in English or Chinese that feature extensive research carried out by ethnic Chinese scholars in Tibet or other minority areas, and a smaller number of studies in English by foreign scholars able to do research in Xinjiang, where similar issues arise. Only a handful of foreign scholars have ever been allowed to carry out educational or social research in the Tibet Autonomous Region itself.
The report is also based on interviews carried out between 2015 and 2019 with Tibetans from Tibet, detailed excerpts from six of which are in the appendices. We have not named these interviewees at their request and in relevant citations have also withheld details about the interviews that could compromise their identity and thus their safety. Six parents of current primary school pupils in rural areas or teachers in rural schools were briefly interviewed about language use in their schools in September 2019.
The term Tibet is used generally in this report to refer to areas within the People’s Republic of China that are traditionally inhabited by Tibetans. The eastern parts of the plateau have been organized since the 1950s into “Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures” within the western provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. The term Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), a province-level administration established by China in 1965, describes the western and central parts of the Tibetan plateau and is the only area designated by Chinese authorities as Tibet.
I. Erosion of Tibetan as Medium of Instruction in Primary Schools
When we entered the [Tibetan] elementary schools, everywhere they have these big signs saying “We have to use Mandarin,” “Speaking Mandarin is our responsibility,” “We are Chinese kids,” “We have to speak Mandarin, ” or something like this, or “I am a Chinese child; I like to speak Mandarin.” On the wall it says, “Mandarin is our medium for teaching.”
When the reform era began in China in the early 1980s, the Chinese constitution promised all minority nationalities in China “the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages” as well as the freedom “to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs.” In 2001, a law was passed aimed at ensuring that these freedoms applied to education, too; schools where most of the students come from minority nationalities, it stated, “shall, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use these languages as the media of instruction.”
These legal commitments applied to Tibetan schoolchildren, among others, but in the TAR and certain other areas they were never fully operationalized. Over the last two decades they have been steadily eroded by a series of education policies bracketed under the name of “bilingual education,” and targeted particularly at primary schools and kindergartens. For many Tibetans and residents of some other minority areas, these policies have become a source of growing concern about the future of their languages and cultures within China.
This chapter shows how language policies for Tibetan schools in the TAR have gradually changed over the last 20 years, shifting from direct support for Tibetan-language teaching in schools to greater emphasis on Chinese-language instruction, particularly in primary schools.
A Chronology of Language Policy in the TAR and Other Tibetan Areas
When the reform era began in China in the 1980s, almost all middle schools and high schools in the TAR were teaching Tibetan students through the medium of Chinese language, as they had been doing since the 1960s. However, buoyed by the promises of reform then current throughout China, including the provisions offered by the Law on Regional National Autonomy of 1984, local Tibetan leaders in the TAR drew up innovative legislation and policies that aimed to make Tibetan-medium education available at all levels. Their efforts led to a new language law in the TAR and had significant success in the primary school sector:
· 1982: An education policy was put in place in the TAR that stated that Tibetan was to be the primary language of instruction. This did not change in middle and high schools, where Chinese remained the language of instruction, but almost all Tibetan primary schools began to offer Tibetan-medium instruction for all classes except those teaching Chinese language (Putonghua) itself, which was taught as a single subject from the third or fourth grade onwards.
·1987: The TAR People’s Congress passed a provisional law that outlined plans to introduce Tibetan-medium education at all levels in the TAR.
·1987: The TAR established four pilot projects providing Tibetan-medium teaching in middle schools for the first time.
·1996: 98 percent of primary schools in the TAR were teaching most classes in Tibetan rather than in Chinese.
By the late 1990s, reformers had succeeded in introducing Tibetan-medium education to primary schools throughout the TAR. However, their efforts to Tibetanize education in middle schools and high schools in the TAR failed; students in those schools continued to receive almost all teaching in Chinese, and this remains the case today. By the end of the 1990s, official statements no longer referred to the earlier aim of creating a Tibetan-oriented education system at all levels in the TAR, and in 2002, the TAR issued amended regulations that removed earlier references to the primacy of Tibetan language in the TAR education system. There was, however, no mention at that stage of a Chinese-dominant teaching system being introduced. Instead, “equal weight” was to be given to both languages.
·1994: The TAR authorities dropped a previous legal requirement that Chinese students in Tibetan schools in the TAR had to learn Tibetan.
·1997: The TAR government closed down experimental Tibetan-medium classes in middle schools and abandoned plans to introduce middle-school education in Tibetan, supposedly because of insufficient resources, although a 1995 study of the experimental classes had reported outstanding results, with 80 percent of Tibetan students in those classes passing school graduation exams compared to 39 percent of Tibetan students in Chinese-medium secondary schools.
·2001: To improve students’ abilities in the Chinese language, urban schools in the TAR began teaching Chinese as a language from the first grade upwards instead of from the third grade.
·2002: The TAR issued regulations that ended the primacy given in local legislation to Tibetan-medium education and ordered that Tibetan and Chinese languages be given “equal weight” in TAR schools; the regulations also specified that some classes should be taught in Chinese, but did not say how many.
Although the 2002 regulations said that Chinese should be given the same degree of importance as Tibetan in schools, national-level legislation on minority affairs approved the previous year made no mention of giving equal treatment to both the local and national languages. At the same time, the number of non-Tibetan classes being taught in Chinese in primary schools in the TAR began to increase:
·2002: In July 2002, China’s State Council ordered officials to “vigorously promote ‘bilingual teaching’ in minority nationality primary and secondary schools,” but noted that schools should “correctly handle the relationship between usage of the minority nationality language as the teaching medium” and Chinese as teaching medium.
·2003: The percentage of primary school teachers using Chinese for instruction in the TAR increased from 20 percent in 1991 to 33 percent in 2003. Human Rights Watch has not been able to find data on the number of non-Tibetan teachers at primary level in the TAR.
The early 2000s saw increasing official calls throughout China for “bilingual education,” but these statements gave no indication as to what this meant in practice. Initially, national- and local-level ordinances and policy statements, using ambiguous terms such as “popularize Chinese language,” continued to imply that the term “bilingual education” referred only to introducing the study of Chinese language as an additional subject in minority schools. There was rarely any public indication that this policy might mean introducing Chinese-medium instruction at all levels, but also no indication of any preference for instruction in the local language:
·2005: China’s State Council issued suggestions for “minority nationality areas to gradually promote the ‘bilingual teaching’ of minority nationality languages and Chinese-language teaching.” It did not say what the balance should be between the two languages when used as mediums of instruction.
·2008: A law on compulsory education in the TAR required that all schools introduce “bilingual education.” It specified only that this meant these schools had to “popularize” Chinese-language “education.” It did not state whether this referred only to increasing the study of Chinese language, or whether it meant introducing Chinese-medium instruction.
·2010: China’s Ten-year Education Plan in 2010 announced that “no effort should be spared to advance bilingual teaching, open Chinese language classes in every school, and popularize the national common language and writing system … to ensure that minority students [have] basic grasp and use of the national common language [Chinese].” It said “minority people’s right to be educated in native languages shall be respected and ensured” and made no mention of using Chinese as the medium of instruction.
·2010: The TAR’s Ten-year Education Plan announced that “bilingual education” would be actively promoted, with the teaching of both languages. It did not specify which language should be used as the medium of instruction, saying only that schools should use “teaching models which are appropriate to the students’ abilities and for adapting to a bilingual education system.”
These documents implied that the term “bilingual education” referred primarily to providing students with knowledge of both languages. In Qinghai province, however, where over a million Tibetans live, the local authorities stated openly in 2010 that bilingual education refers to the introduction of Chinese-medium education. The Qinghai policy, which aimed to “forcefully promote the reform and development of ‘bilingual’ education,” included the instruction that schools should “maintain the focus on using the state’s common language and script at the same time as properly studying nationality languages and scripts [and] making the state’s common language and script the language of instruction.” This was a reversal of Qinghai’s previous policy regarding minority education which, unlike the TAR, had previously encouraged what is known in China as the Model 1 form of bilingual education, whereby teachers prioritized the use of the local language as the medium of instruction in minority schools or classes for Tibetans pupils from minorities. (The Model 2 form of bilingual education refers to the prioritization of the national language as the medium of instruction in classes with minority pupils.)
In 2014, the central authorities announced a new policy for minorities that emphasized assimilationist objectives. This was followed by a major document issued by the Central Party Committee that appeared to call for the introduction of Model 2 bilingual education. A “Decision” on education policy from China’s State Council a year later, however, remained ambiguous about which model should be used:
·September 2014: At the Central Authorities’ National Conference on Ethnic Work, President Xi Jinping indirectly confirmed the moves towards Chinese-medium education in minority schools by announcing that overall ethnic policy would henceforth aim at promoting “ethnic mingling” and “cultural identification” with “Chinese culture.”
·October 2014: A major party document from the Central Party Committee instructed all schools in China, particularly those with minority nationality students, not just to “fully popularize the national language,” but also to “resolutely push forward education in the national language and script” as well as to “fully hold classes in the national language,” seemingly indicating a requirement to switch to Chinese-medium education at all levels.
·2015: China’s State Council issued its “Decision on Ethnic Education,” which required “bilingual education” to be “comprehensively popularized” in all schools in minority areas where use of Chinese is “weak,” but did not specify what this meant in practice.
The 2014 shift in the Communist Party’s policy towards minorities and in the Central Party Committee’s position on bilingual education was not reflected by public statements in the TAR, where the strategy of cultivated ambiguity continued. In their public statements, the TAR authorities remained largely silent about their aims. In 2017, they announced that they had achieved complete success with their introduction of “bilingual education” at all levels. But they continued to avoid stating in public what this involved:
·2015: The TAR announced that it had “basically completed the bulk of its mission of building a bilingual education system” and that 97 percent of all Tibetan students in the TAR were receiving “bilingual education.”
·2017: The TAR announced that “bilingual education” in primary and middle schools had achieved “100 percent coverage,” but did not specify what this meant in practice.
However, two articles in the official Chinese media and one announcement by a local government office on social media indicate that since 2014 a growing shift towards Model 2 bilingual education has taken place within schools in urban areas of the TAR, including primary schools:
·2015: Xinhua, China’s official news agency, said that Chinese was already being used as the language of instruction in primary schools in the TAR in urban areas: “Different from the model widely implemented in pastoral regions, elementary schools in each of Tibet’s prefectures (and municipalities), some junior middle schools, senior middle schools and Tibet classes in the interior have adopted a teaching model that uses Chinese as the teaching language with Tibetan as an addition.”
·2016: The Global Times, seen as representing official news and opinions in China, reported that “while in the past many schools in Tibetan areas taught all courses in Tibetan, increasingly schools, especially in urban areas, are using Putonghua as the primary language of instruction, with Tibetan being used only in classes where the Tibetan language is the topic of the class, if it is taught at all.”
·2016: the Lhasa Education Bureau posted a list on its WeChat portal showing that all primary schools in five of the eight county-level areas under Lhasa administration were using Chinese-language textbooks for teaching mathematics. It added that the main primary schools in the county seats of two of the other three counties were also using Chinese-language mathematics textbooks. It showed that only one county out of eight within the Lhasa area, plus some rural schools in two other counties, were still using Tibetan for teaching mathematics as of 2016. The list did not say whether other subjects in these schools were also being taught in Chinese.
The posting by the Lhasa Education Bureau caused an outcry among Tibetans on social media, who objected to the previously unannounced switch to Chinese-medium instruction in their primary schools. The day after the list was publicized, a Tibetan judicial official, Dekhang Jampa, wrote an open letter in her personal capacity to the Lhasa Education Bureau arguing that, under Chinese law, the decision to introduce non-Tibetan textbooks within Tibet was a violation of “a nationality’s right to use its own language” (see Appendix 3.1). Other Tibetans wrote messages expressing similar opinions.
The response by the local government was aggressive: the TAR Education Bureau issued a statement describing Dekhang’s accusation as “extremely irresponsible,” and as either “lacking common sense or a result of ulterior motives.” The latter term implied that Dekhang’s view was a form of political opposition to the state, an allegation that can result in serious consequences, including imprisonment. The bureau added that opposition to bilingual education – ignoring the fact that the opposition was to the Model 2 form of bilingual education, not to other forms of bilingual education, some of which are widely welcomed by Tibetans – was depriving minority children “of the right to further their education in the interior or overseas,” implying that only Chinese-medium education can lead to advanced studies, modernity, and progress. Although the main participants in the online debate were Tibetan, it was conducted mainly in Chinese.
In September 2019, Human Rights Watch was able to put questions to parents and teachers in six rural townships in Nagchu Municipality in the north of the TAR, asking what language was being used to teach their children in the local primary school for subjects other than the study of Tibetan language itself. All six replied that their local primary schools had switched as of March 2019 to using Chinese as the language of instruction.
The fact that six primary schools in remote rural areas were switching at the same time to Chinese-medium instruction suggests that they were following an instruction issued by the local authorities at county or prefectural level. In an additional interview conducted at the same time, an official involved in education policy implementation in the TAR, speaking on condition of anonymity, stated that a policy had been decided by the TAR government for a switch to Model 2 bilingual education. There is no public acknowledgment of the existence of such a policy, and if there is one, it may have been introduced only in certain counties or municipalities within the TAR so far.
Pressure on TAR Primary Schools to Shift to Chinese-Medium Education
The authorities in the TAR and some other Tibetan areas have used various means to pressure primary schools to shift to predominantly Chinese-medium education, despite elaborate efforts by officials to avoid saying this in public.
These methods include conveying the government’s preference for Chinese-medium teaching through media articles that heap lavish praise on Chinese-dominant education, and through linguistic pointers in regulations and policy directives that signal official preference for Chinese-medium teaching. China’s Education Law, for example, says that Chinese language “shall be” the basic language for education, while it says only that minority schools “may” use the local language for teaching. Other Chinese laws and policy documents, including the Constitution, the Chinese Language Law, the Regional National Autonomy Law, and the Ten-Year Education Plan of 2010, use similarly strong terms to mandate the use of Chinese language while using weaker terms or qualified statements to permit or tolerate the use of minority languages.
The principal work of persuasion appears to be carried out by Party officials. The tasks of Party operatives are rarely revealed in public documents, but China’s 2015 “Decision on Ethnic Education” ordered that “full play should be given to the central role of Party committee leadership” to “ensure the correct development of ethnic education” and ordered that Party-building must be strengthened in the educational system in minority areas as well as in each individual school.
A glimpse of Party influence on local language policy in schools emerged in April 2017 when a leaked internal document from Tsolho (Ch.: Hainan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai was briefly made available online. Although it was soon deleted, it is clear from netizens’ responses that it outlined a previously undeclared Party policy to impose Chinese-medium education in Tibetan schools in the prefecture.
In the leaked document, Zhang Wenkui, then-Party secretary of Tsolho, is said to have written, “We must push for a comprehensive transformation of the current bilingual education system and promote a reform of ethnic education.” According to online Tibetan commentators who saw the document before it was removed from the internet, and according to later comments attributed to Zhang that circulated on social media, this remark signaled that true bilingual education—the teaching of both Tibetan and Chinese equally, which had been instituted in certain Tibetan areas of Qinghai since about 2002—should be largely replaced in the prefecture by Chinese-medium education.
The leaked document from Tsolho led to impassioned online debate among Tibetan scholars and intellectuals, to whom Zhang reportedly responded: “I don’t know what the ‘experts’ and the ‘scholars’ are thinking.… Any minority nationality with the will and ability to develop should not sit complacently on their merits … and those Tibetan experts and scholars in particular should be more farsighted, raise their heads to the era, and correctly lead in the direction of development” (see Appendix 3.3).
This led to further responses from Tibetan scholars in China, including the leading linguistics expert, Yeshe Osal Atsok, who wrote: “it’s surprising that there is a wish to abandon our own advantage of having a mother-tongue education system, and … to consider this ‘transformation’ to be an ‘improvement in quality.’ This is as stupid as scaling a tree to catch a fish” (see Appendix 3.4).
The leaked Tsolho document suggests that local Party leaders put pressure on educators to switch to Chinese-medium teaching, even if public statements by the government are ambiguous or do not explicitly require it. This pressure is likely to have been even stronger in the TAR, where less space is allowed for public debate or criticism than in eastern Tibetan areas.
In daily life, the government’s preferences for Chinese-medium teaching is clear: it is made obvious through posters and slogans on the walls of primary schools.
A former part-time Tibetan teacher from Lhasa told Human Rights Watch about the new conditions in some primary schools in the city that she visited in mid-2018, where she said she saw large signs “everywhere” exhorting students to speak Chinese. She said:
My friends who are Tibetan language teachers … everywhere in school they have these signs, but they are the ones trying to teach the Tibetan kids not to lose their language, telling them that you have to speak Tibetan at home. But then they have these big signs. They are very uncomfortable.
Tibetans told Human Rights Watch that primary schools have also come under pressure to switch to Chinese-medium teaching because of the gradual decline in the quality of Tibetan-language textbooks. In line with their legal obligations, local authorities in the TAR have produced Tibetan-language textbooks for all subjects, and primary schools in the TAR can still opt to use these in their classes. But, according to a mid-ranking Tibetan official from Lhasa interviewed by Human Rights Watch, “starting from kindergarten there is almost no option but to do Chinese[-medium] teaching with Chinese textbooks. In the Tibetan-language class you could learn in Tibetan, but with other subjects, it is almost impossible.” He explained:
My kid is in primary school [in a town to the east of Lhasa], but I never saw a reasonably translated Tibetan textbook, even in the Tibetan language class. [The books have] many mistakes, with different translations [of the same word] – it was very preliminary kind of work, there were many problems. As a student, they naturally go for the far finer book, the Chinese one.
He added that the option of studying in Tibetan was becoming impossible because “most of the teachers come from mainland China; they don’t know Tibetan anyway.”
“Chinese is the priority, since with this language you should understand all your tasks. Many Tibetan students [are] feeling very bad about the Tibetan, because they see that it is not important at all with that environment. It’s just an extra task.”
A Tibetan university student from Ngawa in Sichuan province, who interviewed a number of local teachers on this issue in October 2018, told Human Rights Watch that Tibetan-language textbooks produced by some Tibetan schools in Qinghai and Ngawa had been “banned” by the authorities and that “none of the local Tibetan schools [in Tibetan areas] is allowed to select or edit their own textbooks.” He also reported concerns about the reduction of culturally appropriate content in the latest Tibetan-language textbooks, which were also outdated:
The last Tibetan textbook revision was made in 2005, during which they added many translated works (for example, stories from foreign languages, mainly from English and biographies of popular western figures) and old Indian stories from the Rig Veda. In contrast, they reduced a large number of works by Tibetan scholars. This is a big concern for Tibetan educationalists in Tibet.
The provision of culturally appropriate textbooks was defined as an obligation by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, in its 2013 statement on the condition of education in Tibet. It called on the government of China to “eliminate all restrictions … that severely restrict the ability of Tibetan children to learn and use the Tibetan language in schools,” and to ensure that “all the teaching and learning materials for the primary and secondary level are also available in ethnic minority languages and with culturally sensitive content, as guaranteed by the Constitution of China.”
Consequences of Shifting the Teaching Medium
Human Rights Watch is not aware of any studies that track the impact of primary-level Chinese-medium education on the cultural and linguistic abilities of Tibetan schoolchildren, and it is not clear that the Chinese government would allow any independent study of the situation in the TAR. However, anecdotal evidence and findings from studies in other areas suggest that the impact has been far-reaching.
For example, an academic survey of 172 Tibetans sent to study at special Chinese-medium boarding schools for Tibetan children in other parts of China between 1985 and 2005 noted “a diminished capacity to work with rural people using the Tibetan language.” The survey found that “their written Tibetan was less than would be expected,” and attributed this to the sharply reduced time allotted to the study of Tibetan language in the senior years of these schools. Another academic study noted that Tibetan students at a senior middle school for Tibetans situated in mainland China had staged a hunger strike to try to force their school to provide more Tibetan-language classes.
These studies were updated in a 2017 documentary film by a Chinese filmmaker about a high school in Shanghai that was entirely for Tibetans. It did not assess their competence in Tibetan language, but it documented current conditions at the school, which included draconian limits on their use of Tibetan: the students, the director of the film reported, “aren’t allowed to return home or speak their native language while on campus” during their three years at the school. The filmmaker Qingzi Fan also found that “at least 10 hours each week are spent on political thinking courses, which include lessons extolling the values of atheism and the backwardness of religion — including Tibetan Buddhism.”
There have been few published studies of language use among Tibetans from the general population, but one academic survey of 66 Tibetans of all ages in northeastern Amdo in Gansu province in 2011 found that, although all except one could speak and understand Chinese, 13 of the Tibetans could not speak Tibetan, 17 could not read Tibetan, and 18 could not write in Tibetan. A video news item by a Chinese website in April 2017 recorded apparently random interviews with six Tibetan children and young adults in the eastern Tibetan town of Dartsedo (Ch.: Kangding) in Sichuan province, all of whom said they could only speak basic Tibetan or none at all.
These reports are fragmentary and do not include the TAR. Nevertheless, they indicate the risks posed to Tibetan language and culture by immersion of Tibetan children in a teaching or social environment that from the earliest years is dominated by Chinese language. They also support concerns expressed by Tibetans about the risk of acute language loss within the Tibetan community, particularly in urban areas.
Variations in Practice
The lack of clarity in statements issued by the central government about its “bilingual education” policy for minorities is likely partly due to recognized variations in implementation at the provincial and lower levels. In 1992, when the Chinese government first announced a “bilingual education” policy for minorities, it stated that implementation and interpretation of the policy would vary widely across different administrative areas, each of which was expected to apply the policy in different ways. This has in fact happened, with the result that some areas in China have interpreted the bilingual policy in ways more consistent with uses of the term outside China, where bilingualism usually refers to learning two languages without loss of one’s mother-tongue. Areas that have taken that approach have been more open about their educational objectives.
Inner Mongolia’s 2010 Education Plan, for example, indicated that the region’s bilingual policy would focus on providing education through the medium of Mongolian language. In practice, officials there have actively encouraged Mongolian-medium teaching, as well as providing preferential access to government jobs for Mongolian-speakers.
Authorities in certain Tibetan areas outside the TAR have also taken that approach. In Yunnan province, for example, the local government declared that the right of ethnic minorities to use their language as the teaching medium should be respected and protected. In Sichuan province, at the local level, Tibetan is reportedly still used as the teaching language in most primary schools in the counties of Ngawa (Ch.: Aba), Khyungchu (Ch.: Hongyuan), and Dzorge (Ch.: Ruo’rgai), all within Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. In September 2018, Ngawa Prefecture passed regulations on Tibetan language use stating that the “national language [Chinese] and Tibetan are to be the basic languages of instruction” in primary and middle schools in Tibetan-populated areas, and that all other schools must teach Tibetan as a language.
Some of these efforts by lower-level administrations to promote mother-tongue education in their areas may be largely aspirational—the policy in Ngawa, one resident from the area told Human Rights Watch, is likely to face practical difficulties because there has been little or no training of teachers who can teach science, social sciences, mathematics, or information technology in the Tibetan language. As a result, these subjects are often taught and assessed in Ngawa in Chinese. In addition, according to the interviewee, the publication and updating of Tibetan-language textbooks in Ngawa is said to have slowed or stopped since 2005.
Furthermore, any local administration hoping to maintain minority-language instruction in its area is likely to be dependent on support from the larger administrative area within which it lies. Ngawa Prefecture is under Sichuan province, and provincial officials there appear to be emphasizing the Chinese-language dimension of bilingual education, judging from media coverage of the province’s first-ever conference on training bilingual teachers in the province. At that meeting, which took place in November 2018, all the leading speakers were Chinese, and photographs of the event showed that the Tibetan script on the bilingual banners in the conference room was so small that it would have been hardly visible to participants in the room.
Other areas have interpreted and applied the bilingual education policy in a more aggressive way, focusing on promoting Chinese-language instruction. Xinjiang declared as early as 2004 that all its schools were to use Chinese as the main language of instruction, and Qinghai and Xinjiang were the only provinces or regions in China to have explicitly stated in their 2010 Education Plans that “bilingual” teaching for minorities should chiefly focus on Chinese-medium education.
One Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai, Yushu, where Tibetan-medium education had been introduced in the 1980s, had already switched to Chinese-medium in the 1990s and by 2015 was teaching Tibetan only in a single class.
Qinghai faced some setbacks in implementation of its 2010 plan, which had specified that all schools in the province, including primary schools, should have Chinese-medium education by 2015. Its attempts in 2010 and again in 2012 to introduce Chinese-medium teaching in Tibetan schools—which included layoffs of Tibetan teachers with weak Chinese-language skills and the introduction of Chinese-language textbooks that lacked Tibet-specific content, according to the New York Times—had to be put on hold following a series of protests against the new teaching policies by Tibetan students in some areas of the province. This led officials in Qinghai to delay full introduction of the scheme, reportedly until 2019.
The first confirmation that this plan is now underway emerged in May 2019, when a leaked copy of an order issued by the Education Bureau in Golok, a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture within Qinghai, showed that Qinghai officials have started to roll out the new hardline policy in that area. The order requires primary schools in the prefecture to introduce Chinese-medium instruction for the 2019-2020 school year. The document, which was not intended for public distribution, calls for Chinese language to be used for teaching all subjects except Tibetan language. It states that the shift is necessary “in order to innovate more opportunities for students to deepen their studies, to unify our prefecture’s teaching model, and regulate teaching appraisal systems in secondary and elementary schools.”
The Golok document reflects the normal pattern of policy statements in China: those at the central level are relatively vague, in part to allow for regional and provincial variation, while those at the provincial and prefectural level are more specific, even though the details are usually not made public. This does not explain, however, why statements issued by the TAR about its education policy, the details of which must have been settled on long ago, remain as unclear and evasive as those from the central government.
Cultivated Ambiguity: Official Descriptions of Bilingual Education in the TAR
Almost all official documents, laws, and media reports have avoided giving any information about the main teaching language used in “bilingual education” classes in the TAR’s primary schools. Instead, they only say that these schools have greatly increased the teaching of Chinese language—a development that is not controversial and is welcomed by many members of minorities—and note that these schools also teach the local language as a subject.
Official documents that have been made available by the TAR authorities to the public have been ambiguous or obscure. The region’s 2010 Education Plan said schools should use “the Tibetan language and the national language as the basic teaching languages,” and implied that switching to Chinese-medium teaching would only be “promoted,” not required.
Apart from the leaked order from Golok prefecture and the single sentence in the Qinghai Education Plan, Human Rights Watch has so far found only two public documents from official sources that indicate what “bilingual education” has meant in practice in the Tibetan context. One is a 2016 media report on a “bilingual” elementary school in Sichuan noting that, except for Tibetan language and literature classes, “most classes are held in Mandarin, such as maths”—even though it said that 99 percent of the students at the school were Tibetan.
The other is a January 2016 article in the Global Times citing the famous Tibetan archivist and historian Derong Tsering Dondrub. The scholar, who is based in a Tibetan area of Sichuan, stated that “as the proportion of the school day spent speaking Tibetan gets smaller, children's ability to use Tibetan is waning.” Neither of these documents refers to the situation in the TAR.
What may be the only official statement intended for foreigners about the medium of instruction in TAR schools is in a White Paper issued by the central government in 2015. It states that the teaching language in all primary schools in rural areas of the TAR and some urban areas is “mostly Tibetan for the major courses.” This claim cannot be confirmed, since no academic or other studies of this issue are known to have been published since 2014, even within China. As detailed above, other evidence, such as the Lhasa Education Bureau announcement in 2016 and the accounts of Tibetan parents in rural areas of Nagchu with whom Human Rights Watch spoke in September 2019, suggests that this is no longer the case.
It is unclear why officials in China have so persistently avoided identifying the medium of instruction used in Tibetan primary schools, particularly in the TAR. Their reticence may reflect concerns that the shift to Chinese-language instruction conflicts with domestic laws in China requiring minority schools to use the local language “whenever possible.”
Stifling Debate Over Teaching Medium for TAR Primary Schools
Officials have responded to concerns over the diminished place of Tibetan language in schools by stating repeatedly that the bilingual policies are flexible rather than required and do not infringe on China’s constitutional undertakings because the schools continue to provide classes in which Tibetan and other minority children can be taught their own languages. They also note that existing laws protect the right of Tibetans and other minorities to use their own language in public meetings, courts, hospitals, public signage, and official publications in their areas. In addition, they almost always point to the fact that many Tibetan parents want their children to become fluent in Chinese because of the vastly improved job prospects that exist for fluent Chinese speakers.
These claims are broadly correct, but they avoid discussion about whether Tibetan-medium education is being reduced and whether it needs to be reduced, particularly in primary schools. Many Tibetans we spoke to and many who have spoken to others on the subject have expressed the view that acquiring fluency in Chinese language, while desirable, does not require learning all subjects through Chinese and is not incompatible with Tibetan-medium education at the primary level. Some Tibetans who hold this view cite international academic research that shows that students learn faster and better when taught in their mother-tongue. From around 2002 until the recent shifts in policy, bilingual teaching systems based roughly on this view were implemented in middle as well as primary schools in the counties of Trika (Ch.: Guide), Chabcha (Ch.: Gonghe), Chentsa (Ch.: Jianza) and Pema (Ch.: Baima) in Qinghai, and in the Tibetan township of Bindo (Ch.: Wendu), also in Qinghai.
In the TAR, however, it appears that officials have not presented parents or schools with the option of providing high-quality teaching of Chinese at the same time as using Tibetan-medium teaching for other subjects. It is also hard to find evidence of any public discussion of the option of a “true” or “balanced” bilingual education system in which Tibetan and the national language are given equal prominence. There also appears to have been no discussion in the TAR media of the benefits of Tibetan-medium education systems.
II. “Bilingual Kindergartens”
In 2005, Chinese authorities began a nationwide drive to increase the number of children in kindergartens. From around 2011, the TAR authorities began to organize the provision of kindergarten education across the region. Similar drives occurred in other Tibetan areas. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of state kindergartens in the TAR increased fourfold from 198 to 885, and by April 2017 there were 1,028 kindergartens in the TAR, with 4,736 trained staff providing teaching to more than 96,700 children, typically ages 3 to 6.
Human Rights Watch views the increasing availability of kindergartens as a positive step and recognizes the value of teaching children the national language alongside their mother-tongue. However, as detailed below, there are reasons to be concerned that training pre-school children in the Chinese language is unnecessarily coming at the expense of children’s fluency and ability to adequately speak Tibetan. And the pupils in the TAR kindergartens are still overwhelmingly Tibetan: according to official figures, 93.4 percent of the 87,000 children in kindergartens in the TAR in 2016 were Tibetans, with the proportion rising to 99.7 percent in the region’s 684 rural kindergartens.
The initial announcement in 2010 of the plan to introduce near-universal pre-school education in the TAR made no mention of the language to be used in those kindergartens, but references to the term “kindergarten” [幼儿园] in official publications about minority education since then almost always use the qualifier “bilingual” [双语].The Ten-Year Education Plan for Qinghai in 2010, for example, called for “kindergartens for pre-school bilingual education in nationality areas” and “combined ethnic and Han kindergarten classes,” and a 2015 State Council “Decision” described the 2020 goal for education in minority areas as “universal two-year bilingual education” for pre-school children. In 2016, the TAR announced that it would make “bilingual kindergartens” available throughout the region.
While the meaning of “bilingual” was left ambiguous, government statements and media reports suggest it means the kindergartens must emphasize the use and teaching of Chinese. Officials sometimes imply that this approach involves Tibetan-medium instruction in some unspecified measure, but emphasize the need to promote the national language and are typically silent on the importance of children also mastering their mother-tongue. And as indicated by the survey results summarized below, teachers, at least in the Lhasa area, see improving Chinese language ability as the main goal of bilingual kindergartens in the TAR. A 2016 central government directive on education policy in Tibetan areas, for example, states that the purpose of “bilingual education” at all levels including pre-school is to “effectively improve the ability of ethnic minority students to adapt to social development and employment,” meaning to improve their ability in Chinese language.
Kindergartens and Their Purpose: Survey Findings and Interviews
A 2017 survey of 50 kindergarten teachers in Chushul, near Lhasa, found that 67 percent of the teachers believed the “most important objective” of bilingual teaching is to improve children’s ability in Chinese. The designer of the survey concluded that the bilingual kindergartens were largely failing because “after school, among friends and in their families, [the Tibetan pre-school children] only use Tibetan in their exchanges.” This extraordinary remark demonstrates that the designer of the survey assumed from the start that the purpose of “bilingual kindergartens” in Tibet is the promotion of Chinese language, regardless of the cost in terms of Tibetan language ability among pre-school Tibetan children.
A 2016 article based on a survey by two Tibetan teachers of 11 kindergartens in Lhasa found that 14 percent of the teachers were ethnic Chinese, and noted that, “due to a lack of teacher resources,” very few of these or other teachers in the kindergartens had qualifications to teach at pre-school level or any other level, meaning that they were not qualified to teach in either language—another key shortcoming. This was contrary to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which has stressed the importance of having teachers in minority schools be appropriately trained to deliver a bilingual education.
The same article reported that smaller classes were mainly taught in Tibetan, but teachers consciously increased the use of Chinese in middle-sized and larger classes. It noted that “extremely few Chinese kindergarten teachers were proficient in daily Tibetan” and said that textbooks provided by donors from the mainland areas, as part of the “Aid Tibet” program, did not have “strong applicability” but that few others were available; the most widely used were in Chinese, with only the titles in each section translated into Tibetan. Citing inputs from Tibetan teachers who were surveyed, the authors of the article observed:
[Tibetan teachers said] they had no choice but to translate the books into Tibetan in order to use them for teaching, and integrate ordinary Tibetan people’s daily life routines to explain them, while other teachers expressed [the view] that the teaching materials lacked even the most basic Tibetan letters or Tibetan honorifics, and that such a lack of a basic Tibetan language foundation and of a Tibetan cultural foundation would directly impact upon the children’s future study of the Tibetan language.
Tibetans interviewed by Human Rights Watch have expressed concern that the increased focus on Chinese-language use in the new Tibetan kindergartens puts children of pre-school age at risk of losing their Tibetan-language ability. Several interviewees reported that, at least in urban areas, though their children now had excellent Chinese, their ability to speak, and especially to write, Tibetan had diminished significantly. A Tibetan university professor said that although Tibetan language is still used in rural kindergartens, this was not the case in the city:
I went several times with my friend to the kindergarten, it was near our compound, in the city. It was, in terms of facilities, quite modern, they have lunch there so that the children … don’t have to go back home, they have lots of pictures, like the English alphabet, on the walls. There is nothing in Tibetan.… My friend told me there is no Tibetan language in that kindergarten. On the wall there was a colorful picture for each letter in the English alphabet, but no Tibetan.… When we went to pick up his son, the son came out and said “bye bye” to the teacher, who is Chinese, laoshi zaijian…. [N]ow the small children do not have an accent when they speak Chinese. They speak just like [people in] Beijing.
A Tibetan from Lhasa in his 40s, working in the tourism industry, told Human Rights Watch in 2017 that parents who want to improve their children’s future employment opportunities or want them to attend the best kindergartens may have no choice but to send them to kindergartens that teach in Chinese, because the remaining private kindergartens that still teach in Tibetan have inferior conditions:
All of those kindergartens with good conditions are teaching in Chinese, so some parents are sending kids there for safety …. So, the family is not taking much care about the language, they are deciding where to send them based on safety. There are some kindergartens that are private and maybe teach in Tibetan, but there are so many risks, and their conditions can’t compare to the fancy, modern ones.
In August 2017 a poem circulated on WeChat by a Tibetan from Gansu. Using the pen name Do-lho Drengbu, he explained his decision not to send his daughter to the local municipal kindergarten:
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
not because I do not see the value of pre-school education, but because I am not comfortable with a principal telling an audience ‘“A Tibetan-speaking child is not a good child.” …
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
not because I do not respect and admire the abilities of trained teachers, but because I call you by a true Tibetan clan name with a certain cultural background.
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
not because of any idea that it is all right not to learn the majority language, or any partiality at all, but because it scares me that the time will come when you cannot communicate with the elders in your own homeland, and can barely read or write our recorded history.…
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
especially because I want to take an interest in everything you are learning, and be in charge of what children are told in the classroom.
A Tibetan former part-time teacher from Lhasa said that some Tibetan parents in Lhasa wanted to find half-day kindergartens to lessen the impact of the Chinese-language teaching environment. “The hours are 8:30 to 4:30 – very long,” she said. “But you can’t find a half-day one.”
Interviewees from Lhasa told Human Rights Watch they believed the purpose of the program was in large part political. An interviewee working in the tourism industry said:
The government’s policy of teaching [very young] Tibetan children Chinese in kindergarten has not been clearly and widely announced, and it has nothing in common with the special provisions for autonomous nationality regions, and the constitutional guarantees of respect for nationality religion and culture.… Building kindergartens in the villages and teaching Chinese to the [very young children] is about changing the language environment for the next generation, or, to be blunt, it is an aggressive policy to disrupt the continuity of language transmission between generations of Tibetan society. If it succeeds, it is not difficult to foresee that Tibetan religion, culture, consciousness and identity will become Sinicized.
The university professor from Lhasa linked the policy to proposals by prominent Chinese academics to increase “stability” in minority areas like Tibet:
So [bilingual] kindergartens are something new, only over the past 10 years. Right from the beginning there were private Chinese ones where of course they hired Tibetan workers, but the owner was Chinese. It seems that the government indirectly encouraged it—they think that if these children are fluent in Chinese when they are 3 years old, it’s better for them because, like [the sociologist] Ma Rong says, they can get a better chance of jobs. And it’s better for the stability issue, that’s their thinking.
Use of Kindergartens for Ideological and Political Education
TAR authorities have specified, in line with recommendations by leading Chinese scholars, that the primary purpose of “bilingual kindergartens” is to instill political conformity. Chen Quanguo, then Party secretary of the TAR, while visiting a Lhasa kindergarten in 2015, “stressed the need to energetically nurture socialist constructors and heirs” and said that “the young must be taught both broadly and deeply in patriotism, socialism, and progressive unity of nationalities”, according to state media. He added that “we must establish awareness of the Chinese people, national awareness, and scientific view of the world, to consolidate the ideological foundations of antisplittism.”
Chen’s successor, Wu Yingjie, said in his annual report to the Party Congress in 2016 that political ideas should be disseminated in kindergartens: “Make sure to take a firm grasp at a young age and get a firm grasp on kindergartens, to be able to plant the unity of different nationalities straight into the hearts of all children.”
The use of kindergartens to inculcate political views among minorities was stressed by China’s leader Xi Jinping in a statement on minority policy at the annual meeting of China’s parliament in March 2018, where he said that, “core socialist values should set the tone of the common spiritual home of all ethnic groups, [and] should be nurtured among the people, particularly children and even in kindergartens.” An academic survey of 15 kindergartens in Chushul county near Lhasa in 2017 noted that “it can be seen that kindergarten teachers in Qiushui [Chushul county] strongly propagandize ‘bilingual’ teaching, with 20 percent of the county’s kindergarten teachers writing the phrase ‘bilingual education’ on their class noticeboards.” Pictures in official newspapers show kindergarten children in Lhasa performing dances in front of the portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong to celebrate political events such as “Serf Liberation Day,” and wearing military uniforms for “national defense training.”
In mid-2018, a Beijing-based Tibetan activist posted a number of videos on her social media accounts of kindergartens in Tibet where young children, apparently Tibetans, were performing as Red Army soldiers with toy weapons, reenacting a battle scene of Chinese soldiers fighting the Japanese, and singing a song in a local dialect of Chinese. One video showed a political song being broadcast over a kindergarten’s loudspeaker system, while another showed kindergarten teachers in Lhasa staging a parade demonstrating traditional Chinese dress. The celebration of Han Chinese culture in kindergartens and schools follows a call by Xi Jinping for China to “advance and enrich outstanding traditional Chinese culture (Zhonghua youxiu chuantong wenhua),” including in schools. The State Council accordingly requires teachers in minority schools to give “full play to education in Chinese traditional culture,” alongside the drive to create “identification” of minorities with Chinese culture.
Attendance at Kindergartens: Effectively Compulsory
Tibetan interviewees also expressed concern that attendance at “bilingual kindergartens” appears to be effectively compulsory. While kindergarten attendance is in itself a positive practice that is strongly encouraged internationally, compulsory attendance at these bilingual kindergartens in the TAR means that Tibetan children are likely to suffer from diminished linguistic ability in their mother-tongue. Their school readiness, linguistic development, and skills acquisition may also suffer as a result of not being allowed to learn in their mother-tongue. International evidence shows that early learning is most effective in the child’s mother-tongue, and that children who learn in their mother-tongue in the first years of education perform better, and build richer language and social skills.
From around 2011 until 2014, the TAR government had announced that kindergarten attendance was compulsory, as had the authorities in Tibetan areas of Sichuan and Qinghai. But, as noted by the former Tibetan lawyer Dolma Kyab, “there is no legal requirement for children under 6 to attend pre-school” and requiring attendance at kindergartens was in contravention of China’s Regional Nationality Autonomy Law. The Ministry of Education confirmed in March 2017 that only the central authorities can change the length of compulsory education in China, currently set at nine years, and that provinces are not allowed to declare pre-school attendance to be compulsory.
According to the former part-time teacher from Lhasa, however, by 2018 a new policy was in force in Lhasa that requires children to prove they have attended a kindergarten before they can be admitted to a primary school:
The kids have to go to kindergarten, it is kind of mandatory, by, I think, the age of 4.… There is a whole new system, they need to have a report book or credit report in order to enroll in the elementary school, and it carries in it all the details of your schooling years, which teachers need to sign, saying from which year you began in the kindergarten.… It is very difficult to enroll at the elementary school, you have to have kindergarten signatures in there to enroll, you must have a record from kindergarten, it should be two years or three years, at least in Lhasa city, I don’t know elsewhere.
The reason I know is that my cousin’s son just enrolled this year in the kindergarten, although they wanted to keep him at home another year. But in order to get enrolled later [in an elementary school] they had to do that, to get the record – it is called a xueji card. So, she didn’t want to, but she had to send him by the age of 3 to the kindergarten in order to get that xueji card.
By making kindergarten attendance a requirement for primary school enrolment, the authorities appear to have found a way to make attendance at “bilingual kindergartens” compulsory without explicitly declaring this.
The use of the term “bilingual” to describe pre-school education for minorities is particularly questionable, if it is supposed to imply equal use of both local and national languages, as kindergartens often have only one class for all the children in each year. Unlike primary or middle schools, there is no option in kindergartens to separate Tibetan-language and Chinese-language users into different classes or streams. In urban kindergartens, which are more likely to include Chinese children, this further reduces the chances of Tibetan being used much in the classroom. “In the kindergartens,” according to one interviewee from Lhasa, “there are no separate Tibetan or Chinese classes: they are mixed together, all with one language, and the teachers have to speak in Chinese.”
Overseeing Private Kindergartens and Schools
The Chinese government has recently taken steps to exercise stricter control of private kindergartens run by Tibetans, which typically use Tibetan in their classrooms. International law obligates governments to give parents the freedom to choose alternative forms of education, and, in the case of those from minority and indigenous communities, to establish their own educational institutions. International law expects governments to ensure that these schools conform to minimum education standards.
Private kindergartens existed in considerable numbers in the TAR before the “bilingual kindergarten” policy was introduced, and at the end of 2014, nearly half the kindergartens in Lhasa were “community-run.” These kindergartens are officially encouraged, with significant rewards and major bonuses if their teaching methods meet official preferences: in 2011 and 2012 the TAR allocated 10 million Yuan (US$1.4 million) and other resources to improve conditions at privately run kindergartens that were classified as “outstanding” or as “kindergartens with strengths.”
Little is known about the extensive checks that these private kindergartens now have to undergo, and the standards by which they are assessed do not appear to be publicly available. As a result, it is unclear if the authorities penalize or downgrade kindergartens that fail to make sufficient use of Chinese-language instruction. But it is clear that private kindergartens that have failed to meet government standards and have been declared “unauthorized” have been subjected to “vigorous inspection, one-by-one checking, admonition and rectification” and in some cases have faced serious disciplinary measures, including forced closure. The Tibetan university professor interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that “the government closed many kindergartens – Tibetan-run ones – and schools run by monks, they also closed them.”
A local parent reported that a privately-run Tibetan pre-school and primary school in a county near Lhasa was closed down by the government in early 2008. The interviewee said that this was because the children had been encouraged to make offerings of butter lamps and water bowls to the Buddha each morning. According to the report, which is unconfirmed, the school’s headmaster was fined 20,000 Yuan (US$3,000) and detained for three months for petitioning against the closure order.
Private Tibetan-run primary schools have also faced difficulties. Few if any exist in the TAR, and the small number that have been able to continue operating in Tibetan areas outside the TAR have faced restrictions. According to exile organizations and foreign media reports,authorities have closed down several unofficial or privately run Tibetan schools, and reportedly stopped Tibetan language classes at an informal school run by monks, at some local monasteries, and at a private school in Jyeku (Ch.: Yushu) in Qinghai in 2015. Officials also closed down two monastic schools in Sershul county, Sichuan province, in July 2018.
III. “Ethnic Mingling”
Efforts to introduce “bilingual education” for minorities in China began in the early 1990s, an era during which government policies toward minorities and its approach to social and civic rights was comparatively mild. But in 2014, shortly after the bilingual policy had been formally expanded to all areas of China, the government announced a major change in China’s overall approach to minorities. This shift in state ideology represented a historic transition from the 1950s ideal of China as a “multinational state” to a new conception of the nation in which the nationalities within China are fused together by a process of “ethnic mingling.”
This chapter outlines the main ideological features of China’s new policy for minority nationalities and shows how the underlying objectives of the “bilingual education” policy can now be seen as clear expressions of the new nationalities policy.
The Ideological Framework: Ethnic Mingling and National Security
Since at least the early 1980s, China has guaranteed ethnic minorities legal rights to use their own language, including in education, as part of what it calls its “regional ethnic autonomy” system. China’s current leader Xi Jinping said in 2014 that this system would remain in place, and China has continued to develop laws protecting local language use in courts, street signs, official documents, and certain other contexts.
However, in 2014 the basis of China’s policy towards minorities shifted from an approach based on concepts of diversity and rights towards a security-based approach. This change likely was driven primarily by unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang, particularly in 2008 and 2009, and was apparently further fueled by widespread popular resentment in China regarding preferential policies and benefits given to minorities by the state. These allow members of minorities lower pass-marks in some national Chinese-language examinations, on the basis that Chinese is not their mother-tongue, and until recently allowed them to have more children than members of the majority ethnic group.
In addition, a group of senior sociologists and political scientists in China who make major policy proposals directly to upper levels of the government had pushed for a major change in China’s nationality policies: they called for a reduction in the scope of official recognition given to ethnic identities and in the number of concessions given to minorities, which they argued had encouraged separatist ambitions. The government did not implement these proposals, but when leading Chinese scholars Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe presented them in 2011 in a less explicit form, they were soon incorporated into official policy.
The “two Hu’s,” as they became known, proposed that China’s nationality policies should aim to produce “ethnic mingling” (minzu jiaorong), along with “interethnic contact and exchange” (jiaqiang minzu jiaowang jiaoliu). They stopped short of calling for the existing system of concessions to be removed and did not call outright for the minority nationalities to be assimilated, but they clearly contemplated a strong move in that direction.
In May 2014, President Xi formally endorsed the concept of ethnic mingling. In September 2014, at a major meeting on China’s ethnic policy, Xi said that the new approach should also aim at ensuring “identification” by minority nationalities with the culture of the “Chinese nationality” or “China race” (Zhonghua minzu). This policy was confirmed at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, leading the sinologist Jessica Batke to write that “it appears that the PRC’s perceived security needs have finally trumped the CCP’s historical attachment to the idea that it supports and represents all the country’s ethnic groups equally.” She added that this “may signal the point at which even nominal support for protecting ethnic minority culture begins to fade away, being subsumed by the notion of the ‘Chinese race.’”
The significance of this shift in ideology regarding nationalities was reflected in the metaphors used by leaders to describe them. Since the 1980s, China’s leaders had generally referred to the principle of “nationality unity” in terms that implied that nationalities should retain their individual identities within the Chinese system. Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao had referred to nationalities as strands of hemp that are woven together to form a rope, and Xi stated in March 2017 and again in March 2018 that China’s nationalities should cluster together as “tightly as pomegranate seeds.” But in March 2017, addressing the TAR delegates at the annual meeting of China’s national parliament, Prime Minister Li Keqiang had used a new analogy to describe ethnic unity, referring to “sticky rice” or “qingke [tsampa, roasted barley flour] dough”:
Qingke is the staple Tibetan food, which is squeezed together with butter and tea to make dough. I am from Anhui, and grew up eating sticky rice. These two foods have different composition but are prepared in a similar way. The unity of nationalities should also be like kneading qingke dough or squeezing sticky rice into a firm ball.
The following month an editorial in Tibet Daily, the official Party paper in the TAR, repeated Premier Li’s analogy by describing nationality unity work as the kneading of qingke dough. The editorial said that the “sticky rice” approach to “nationality unity” is for “building the strongest castle for the defense of the nation’s south-west border, and making the finest contribution to the safeguarding of national sovereignty and security.”
The analogy suggested that some top Party leaders had come to see nationality unity as a process of fusing nationalities into a single entity without the components retaining their distinctive identities. This metaphor has not been widely used since then, but its underlying implication has become a key part of mainstream thinking on minorities: allowing minorities to develop overly distinctive cultural or political identities is now seen as a risk to national security.
The basis for the reframing of minorities policy as a security issue was explained in a widely circulated 2017 essay by the influential Chinese sociologist Ma Rong, in which he argued that education in a local minority language leads to “promoting separation” because it “constructed a cultural divide between the nationalities” and “was deleterious to minority nationality youths establishing a ‘China culture’ (Zhonghua wenhua) sense of cultural identity.” According to Ma, “it is only when the entire nation’s peoples establish a national-level cultural identity that a modern nationality state’s ‘nation-building’ (minzu goujian) can be successful, and that a national political identification with the state can have an enduring emotional basis.”
This articulated the national security thinking behind the new policy of ensuring “identification” by minority nationalities with the overall China nation. It also explained an important aspect of education policy for minorities. From at least 2010, policy papers explaining the new “bilingual” model for minority education policy had stated, in line with Chinese academic research at the time, that “studying the national language is beneficial to minority nationalities’ employment, access to modern science, culture and knowledge, and their inclusion in society.” They typically argued in addition that study of Chinese was also needed to help minority nationalities “catch up” with mainland Chinese. But, as explained by Ma in his essay, since the Tibetan and Uighur protests of 2008 and 2009, officials have argued that knowledge of Chinese language among minorities is needed not only to improve their access to employment, but also to improve the nation’s security.
The influence of this new view of minorities education is apparent in the “Decision on Ethnic Education,” a key policy document issued by the State Council in 2015. It requires minority schools to provide “nationality unity education” and calls on them to:
guide students of all nationalities to strengthen their belief in the path of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, their belief in its theory and their belief in the system, establishing the correct national outlook, ethnic outlook, religion outlook, history outlook and culture outlook, deeply appreciating that China is a nation jointly created by all of the country’s nationalities, that Chinese culture includes the culture of the 56 nationalities, that Chinese civilization is the civilization jointly created by all nationalities, and that the Chinese nationality is a great family of all nationalities together.
The growing perception among Chinese scholars and officials of minority distinctiveness in culture, thinking, and language as a security threat has led to extreme examples of extra-legal or forced education of minorities, such as the unannounced and undocumented detention of several thousand Tibetans for three to four months of political re-education in January 2012, and the detention since 2016 of an estimated one million Uighurs and other Muslims in re-education centers in Xinjiang.
The economic rationale for bilingual education is supported by the fact, often pointed out by Chinese politicians and scholars, that many Tibetans actively seek to enroll their children in Chinese-medium schools, since most salaried jobs in China require advanced knowledge of Chinese. One interviewee argued that this reflects structural features of the Chinese employment system, particularly in government offices:
Ma Rong wrote an article in which he said Uighurs [and Tibetans] need to learn Chinese to be competitive in the job market. This is totally right. But the question is why did they have this problem in the first place? … The reason that they cannot get jobs is because only the translation and broadcasting bureau require Tibetan or Uighur language. The others all use Chinese language as a requirement. So, I want to ask Ma Rong about this. Of course, I cannot ask this openly.
Although the theory behind bilingual education assumes Chinese-speaking Tibetans will have greater access to employment, interviewees told Human Rights Watch that job opportunities for educated Tibetans with fluency in Chinese have become scarcer. This is because the effort to promote such employment coexists with “ethnic mingling” measures that largely contradict it: governmental recruitment drives and other initiatives, carried out at the same time as the bilingual programs, give preference to non-Tibetans from the mainland areas for government and professional positions in the TAR. These measures, known collectively as rencaiyinjing or “importing human resources,” include preferential recruiting of non-Tibetans for high-value jobs in the TAR; yuanzang (“Aid Tibet”) programs for cadres (Party and government officials in managerial positions) who are delegated by mainland provinces to work in the TAR; schemes for volunteer graduates from the mainland who get preference for a government job in their home area if they work for a year in the TAR after graduation; and teachers imported to the TAR as part of bilingual education drives, where they receive much higher salaries and bonuses than elsewhere in China.
These “mingling” measures are seen as helping the government’s economic and development goals in Tibetan areas, and are probably motivated by security concerns as well. But their effects on educational outcomes for Tibetans are seen locally as negative. “There are plenty of very qualified Tibetan graduates – even from Beijing Normal University – who are finding it very difficult to get Tibet jobs” in urban areas, the part-time teacher from Lhasa told Human Rights Watch. “People are really very mad at this program.”
Combining Chinese-Language Study with “Ethnic Mingling”
The “Decision on Ethnic Education,” issued by the State Council in 2015, lists multiple ways in which officials are required to achieve “ethnic mingling,” “ethnic exchange,” and “cultural identification,” the main objectives of China’s new policy for minorities. The measures require schools to arrange for minority students to interact and study with ethnic Chinese students, to live in “mixed accommodation,” to go on joint study tours, and to engage in community and “mutual learning” activities together, as well as other forms of organized inter-ethnic integration.
Such activities do not in themselves infringe on the rights of minorities and may have positive educational aspects. In addition, international human rights law expects state school systems to include material about the nation’s culture, values, and language as part of the curriculum, as well as about a child’s own cultural identity, language and values. However, these measures further reduce the likelihood of school time being dedicated to Tibetan-medium teaching or teaching Tibetan values and customs in school, and are explicitly part of Chinese government efforts to impose political orthodoxy on national minorities. Indeed, school officials are strictly required to complement efforts at social and cultural integration with special courses in political education.
According to the 2015 “Decision,” these courses are required to provide minority students with “unremitting propaganda and education on socialism with Chinese characteristics and the China dream” and “ideological and political courses to strengthen nationality unity education content,” using special teaching materials taught by specially trained “nationality unity education teachers.” The purpose is to subject students to “patriotism education and nationality unity education,” and to guide all ethnic students to firmly establish “three cannot-do-withouts” (Ch.: sange libukai) thinking (“the Han cannot do without the minorities, the minorities cannot do without the Han, and neither can do without the other”). A nationalities school in Gabde (Ch.:Gande) in Qinghai, for example, described “many study projects on the theme of nationality unity” and “two to three sessions a week on exchanging ideas about nationality unity” so that “nationalities and school classes are linked in a ring of unity.” Human Rights Watch found no evidence that Tibetan or other minority students could opt out of such programs, and assumes that anyone trying to do so would come under suspicion and be at risk of persecution.
Besides these integrationist activities, which are required by national directives, TAR authorities have implemented additional “mingling” measures. These are explicitly political in their objectives, since they follow the TAR’s declared policy for the education of minority nationalities, which is to “strengthen education in accord with the General Secretary’s important guidance on exchange, movement and mingling” and “to promote the exchange, movement and mingling of nationalities.”
These measures include a program for 100 kindergartens and schools in Tibet to form a “heart to heart, hand in hand” relationship with counterpart kindergartens and schools in the mainland. The Tibetan students in these partnerships are to carry out exchanges by mail, email, and texting with ethnic Chinese students in other areas of the country who are connected to them via real-time computer video feeds and microblogs. These activities too have primarily political objectives: they are designed to show “that both sets of students understand each other [and] broaden their horizons, [thus] enhancing mutual affection and creating an atmosphere of ‘the Motherland is a family.’” Similar “pairing” programs for Tibetans have been set up by the Sichuan government in order to help Tibetan schools “change their educational philosophies,” while Qinghai province’s government has ordered minority schools to hold joint activities with Han students in order to create “a social atmosphere of studying and applying ‘bilingual’-ism.”
“Mingling” in Practice: Relocating Teachers from Elsewhere in China
The most prominent “mingling” measure has been a major drive by the government to send large numbers of Chinese-speaking teachers from outside Tibet to work in the TAR and other minority areas. They are part of a program that aims to send 30,000 teachers from predominantly Chinese-speaking provinces to the TAR and Xinjiang by 2020, with 4,000 going as a “first cohort” in 2017 and early 2018. Once there, they replace a similar number of local teachers who are sent to mainland China for further training. Similarly, 700 teachers from mainland areas are to be sent every two years to work in Tibetan areas of Sichuan from 2016 to 2025, with hardship and border area bonus payments, living expenses, travel expenses, and accident insurance covered. A further 500 teachers from eastern China were sent to Tibetan schools in Qinghai in 2018.
The effect on local teaching numbers appears to have been significant, judging from an academic survey of 15 kindergartens in a rural area outside Lhasa in 2017, which found that 30 percent of the teachers there were ethnic Chinese. The proportion of ethnic Chinese or non-Tibetan teachers in urban areas of the TAR is likely to be higher.
A retired schoolteacher told Human Rights Watch in 2016 that this is a result of government policy regarding the allocation of resources. He said that despite the rights described in China’s nationality autonomy laws:
The actual reality is quite different. The crucial point in this is that it depends on deciding in which language the 18 [main school] courses are taught, which [in turn] is up to government policy and [depends on] resources for teacher allocation and training – and so far the TAR has not trained [enough] Tibetan teachers to teach all these 18 courses in Tibetan, while there is a fully trained corps of teachers capable of teaching them in Chinese. The corps of Tibetan teachers is small, poorly resourced, neglected by the school directors, and so on. So although the teaching materials are in both languages, the actual teaching of the classes will often be Chinese.
From the outset, the “importing teachers” drive was described in political and ideological terms rather than academic terms. In 2017, when 800 teachers were sent from the mainland areas of China to teach for three years each in the TAR, the stated purpose was not just to improve teaching quality but also “to clearly develop the train of thought.”  Official recruiting notices indicate that in many cases these non-Tibetan teachers are not employed primarily to teach Chinese language, but to teach other subjects using Chinese as medium of instruction, such as mathematics, physics, or politics. Although most government job notices calling for teachers from outside Tibet to work in the TAR say only that the teachers must be from outside the TAR, without specifying their ethnicity, an interviewee from Lhasa told Human Rights Watch that in recent years only non-Tibetans are being hired for these positions, and that even Tibetans from outside the TAR who are fluent in Chinese are not hired.
Employing more monolingual Chinese-speaking teachers in Tibetan schools means that fewer students will have Tibetan-medium teaching in their classes.
The importing of non-Tibetan teachers has led to difficulties in the classroom, including “an inevitable emotional distance and major cultural barriers,” according to Zhong Qiuming, a high-school teacher from Hunan in eastern China who was sent to teach in a high school in southern Tibet in 2017. Zhong, writing in an official education journal, described the visiting Chinese teachers as excellent and blamed the problem entirely on the “poor” quality and “weak foundations” of the Tibetan students, a view found in much Chinese writing about Tibetans:
The [Tibetan] students’ ability to express themselves in Chinese is poor. Teachers express themselves very well and in a lively manner, but the students are indifferent. Not only is communication poor, the teachers are also frustrated. Bilingual education in Tibet is now basically universalized at pre-school, and for a high-school student, daily communication in Chinese should not be a problem.... Individual Aid Tibet teachers consider that the main reason for this is that the student base is poor. Compared to students in the mainland, Tibetan students’ educational foundations … are generally weak, but the children themselves don’t consider this to be so because they are surrounded by classmates who are also like this.
Zhong recommended that the authorities should “expand the scope of bilingual education” to improve the students’ skills in Chinese. At the same time, Zhong advised, “Aid Tibet” teachers should carry out such means as “home visits” and “joint school-home education efforts” in order to “cultivate strong nationality sentiments” and “heart-to-heart dialog” with the students.
“The county middle schools and township primary schools in particular are the foundations of Tibetan education and the breeding ground of the next generation. Earlier, a lot of school principals were Tibetan, at least in the county and township schools. This has changed – now you hardly see Tibetan principals in county schools, and it’s the same in township primary schools. The government sends a lot of teacher training graduates from China to work in Tibet, who are more qualified then Tibetans to become school principals, and automatically meet the political qualification of nationality unity, I have noticed. School principals have to be Party members, and they control all the school activities and teachers, and have full powers to decide what is good.”;
In December 2016 the central government announced a program to increase the number of Chinese teachers in the TAR by recruiting Chinese graduates straight out of college. Part of a high-profile measure called the “Ten-Thousand Teachers Education Program in Tibet,” the “Non-Tibet Students Tibet-employment-oriented Enrollment Plan” will train non-Tibetan Chinese-speaking students already in the TAR or other Tibetan areas and then employ them in schools in Tibetan areas directly after graduating.
All teachers are required to prioritize political objectives in their work. The 2015 “Decision on Ethnic Education” expressly aims to “deepen the promotion of nationality unity education in the school, in the classroom, [and] in the brain” and requires schools to use these measures to “constantly enhance the great motherland, the Chinese nation, Chinese culture, the Chinese Communist Party, socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which are known as the “four identifications.”
At the same time, Tibetan teachers are being retrained to improve both their Chinese and their political reliability, and at least 400 Tibetan teachers from the TAR as well as 300 teachers from Tibetan areas of Sichuan have been sent annually to the mainland since 2016 to improve their ability at “nurturing bilingual education.” The TAR authorities have stated that the purpose of training Tibetan teachers through exchanges with the mainland is again largely ideological: they are sent for training in order to “establish the correct national standpoint, the minority nationality standpoint, the culture standpoint and the religion standpoint, thus strengthening the student teachers’ ideological understanding of the ‘five identifications’ and the ‘three cannot-do-withouts.’” Training in the “three lessons on national unification” was added for TAR teachers in 2018, and similar training began in 2016 in Gannan, a Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Gansu province, to turn minority teachers in Chinese language into “politically reliable” teachers who will be “facilitators of socialism in Tibetan areas.”
The surge in the hiring of non-Tibetan teachers to work in Tibetan schools comes amid increasing pressures on the provision of Tibetan-language teaching and on Tibetan teachers. Tibetan teachers already had reason to fear being replaced by non-Tibetan teachers, and increasingly strict laws and policies in China now require all teachers to be proficient in Chinese. In April 2017, China’s Ministry of Education and State Language Commission announced that all new teachers “must meet national Mandarin-speaking standards before being hired by schools.” The statement listed methods specifically designed “to ensure all ethnic teachers speak standard Mandarin.” These policies will make it illegal for Tibetan schools to employ teachers who only speak Tibetan.
There have been reports in mainstream foreign media of a downturn in the hiring of Tibetan-speaking teachers, and in 2014 a number of Tibetan teachers in Qinghai staged a protest saying they had been marginalized and underpaid, a trend that could increase as requirements for their jobs are raised and as increasing numbers of Chinese teachers are brought in from mainland areas. In June 2018, a group of Tibetan students in Qinghai sent a letter to local authorities complaining that there were not enough qualified teachers of Tibetan in their area, claiming that, out of 359 newly hired teachers, none could teach in Tibetan.
Restrictions on the employment of monolingual Tibetan-language teachers and their replacement in some cases by Chinese teachers have been matched in some areas by official attempts to restrict unofficial Tibetan-language teaching taking place outside schools. A number of local Tibetan organizations and university student groups, notably in some areas of Qinghai, have sought to compensate for the reduction in school classes in Tibetan by holding informal workshops teaching Tibetan language to the public. In some cases, however, these have been shut down by local officials, apparently because of the perception among officials that they might generate political dissent or increase the risk of unrest.
In December 2018, for example, officials in Qinghai’s Nangchen county issued an order banning informal classes in Tibetan that were run by monks during the school holidays. The order described the unofficial classes in Tibetan language as by their very nature “ideological infiltration among the young,” “dangerous,” and “harmful.”
Mixed Classes, Concentrated Schooling
Another measure that is increasing Chinese-medium teaching in Tibetan schools is known as “mixed classes,” which can reduce the chances for Tibetan pupils to learn in their mother-tongue if Chinese speakers are present in a given class. The education law is ambiguous as to which language should be used in such circumstances.
As of 2006, 95.6 percent of all primary school students and 94.5 percent of junior-middle school students in the TAR were Tibetans, meaning that few classes in the Tibetan stream would normally have had non-Tibetan students in them. However, since 2010, the Chinese authorities have stepped up moves to encourage or require schools and kindergartens to arrange “mixed classes,” where ethnic Chinese students are placed in classes of Tibetan students in order to promote “nationality unity.”
The policy of promoting mixed classes in minority schools first emerged at local level in 2010. It has since been endorsed by the central authorities as part of national-level policy for minority schools and is now being implemented in the TAR:
· 2010: In Qinghai, the provincial government announced a plan to institute “combined ethnic and Han kindergarten classes” and “to actively promote ethnic and Han joint campuses,” and to have “ethnics and Han co-education” in schools.
·2014: The National Conference on Ethnic Work in 2014 ordered all officials to “actively promote nationality-Han integrated schools and mixed classes” in order to promote “joint study and joint progress.”
·2015: China’s State Council issued a “Decision on Ethnic Education,” which required officials “to promote the teaching of mixed classes.”
·2016: In his annual report to the TAR Party Congress, TAR Party Secretary Wu Yingjie noted the “manifest results” of “blending students in Tibet classes” and prioritized the plan for “students of different nationalities to study together in the same school and same class” in order to “make them complementary social components and to enlarge the neighborhood environment.” He also stressed the need to have “students of different nationalities study together in the same school and same class.”
A retired school teacher told Human Rights Watch that “in practice, mixed classrooms have been set up, and Tibetan students have not only a daily language class but classes on Chinese history and political study mostly alongside the Chinese students, a new system which both students and parents find very disturbing.” The Tibetan university teacher interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that creating mixed classes appears to be a way of “forcing Tibetans into studying in the Chinese language.”
Another education measure that has increased the likelihood of Chinese being used as the teaching language is the practice of combining rural schools into centralized units in nearby towns. This too leads to an increase in mixed classes and effectively compels schools to switch to Chinese-medium education without the state directly forcing them to do so.
The policy, known as “merged” or “concentrated schooling” (slob grwa mnyam bsres in Tibetan), was introduced in 2001, and led to the closure of village primary schools in place of enlarged township- or county-level primary schools, which usually required children to board. In its 10-year Education Plan, issued in 2011, the TAR announced that “it is necessary to … focus on promoting the concentration of schools in the pastoral areas and remote areas.” The plan said it was necessary to “speed up boarding school construction” because of “changes in school-age population and the construction of the new socialist countryside,” which is probably a shorthand reference to urbanization, although in fact, as of 2015, 72 percent of the TAR population was still living in rural areas.
The “concentrated schools” policy may, as it claims, improve teaching standards and resources, but by leading to more mixed classes, it also results in more teaching being exclusively conducted in Chinese. At the same time, it dramatically reduces the time that children spend with their families and thus their exposure to their mother-tongue and culture.
In September 2012, China’s State Council checked the trend towards merged primary schools in China as whole by ordering that primary schools in the first three grades should in principle be non-residential throughout the country. It ordered local administrations to “resolutely stop the blind withdrawal of rural compulsory education schools,” required them to hold hearings with the public before closing any rural school, and pointed out the legal responsibility of local administrations to provide school facilities within reach of children’s homes.
However, this ruling seems not to have been applied to minority nationalities. The 2015 “Decision on Ethnic Education,” which was also issued by the State Council, required officials to do exactly the opposite: it called on them to “strengthen boarding school construction” in minority areas and ordered them “to achieve the goal that students of all ethnic minorities will study in a school, live in a school, and grow up in a school.” This is reflected in the current policy in the TAR for school construction, which is described as needed to “perfect rational distribution” and “optimize resources” – it aims for kindergartens to be in villages, primary schools to be in towns and townships, junior middle schools to be in county towns, and senior middle schools in cities. This policy would appear to impose disproportionate harm on Tibetan communities that are already struggling to ensure access to schools that provide mother-tongue education.
Because of their location in towns or cities, most classes in these “concentrated schools” are likely to include non-Tibetan students, and therefore will likely use Chinese-language textbooks for all classes except for Tibetan language classes.
An extreme variant of concentrated schooling has also been developed in the TAR: known as the “education city” concept, it refers to relocating a number of schools within a single compound or area. In September 2014, the TAR authorities completed the construction of the first Tibetan “Education City.” Situated in a single compound on the southeast outskirts of Lhasa, it cost approximately 3.7 billion Yuan ($533 million), and was due to include some 17 kindergartens, elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. It also comprises schools for vocational training, special education, and teacher training, together with a staff dormitory area. The compound, which also includes “an original village with Tibetan nationality characteristics left as it was,” was expected to have a population of over 50,000. When the “city” opened, some 300 “Aid Tibet” teachers from Beijing, Jiangsu, and other mainland areas were brought there to establish “a Tibetan-Chinese integrated progressive “bilingual” education model and a teaching model that will put deep roots down in Lhasa.”
According to unconfirmed reports from local residents, children enrolled in any of the schools within the Lhasa Education City are required to board even if their homes are in the local Tibetan community in Lhasa. Some Tibetans have alleged that this practice is intended to diminish the cultural or linguistic influence of Tibetan families on their children during home visits.
Migration Policy and the Impact of Demographic Change
The number of mixed classes in Tibetan schools also reflects the size of the non-Tibetan population in Tibet. Officially, the non-Tibetan population of the TAR is around 8 percent, and in the past, while Chinese officials have encouraged Chinese migrants to go to Tibet to work or trade, they have not publicly suggested long-term settlement by non-Tibetans there. But in November 2016, the TAR Party secretary, Wu Yingjie, told the annual Party Congress that “masses from the region should be encouraged to go to the mainland for employment, and masses from the mainland should be encouraged to come to the region to work and to live.” The statement implied that non-Tibetans should move to Tibet not just to work, but also to live there with their families. As with the “sticky rice” or “qingke dough” analogy, this change in official language appears to reflect the current nationality policy of promoting “ethnic mingling, contact and exchange.”
Tibetan interviewees also anecdotally referred to a sharp increase in Chinese families moving to Tibet:
Maybe 10 years ago, the Chinese who came to do construction in Tibet, or professionals and skilled workers sent by “Aid Tibet” tie-ups or mainland cities, they didn’t used to bring their whole families, and when their term of employment was over, they went straight back. But …the fact is that things have changed a lot since the 18th Party Congress.
These days, mainland Chinese like construction workers and skilled workers bring their whole families with them to Tibet at the outset. If either the husband or the wife is unemployed, the employer or company provides income support for the unemployed spouse, their kids go to school in the town where their parent is employed, and they are equally entitled to the school fees and welfare policies [designed] for Tibetan students.
Around 40 percent of the students qualifying for Tibet-adjusted education policies [preferential policies for TAR students, such as lower pass marks in Chinese language exams at national level] are Chinese migrants.… Most of the Chinese who settled in and around Chushul county are those who came to do construction work.… Since they don’t have separate schools for their kids, they send them to the existing county primary and middle schools.
To encourage migration by families to Tibet, the TAR government has introduced new measures designed to facilitate the incorporation of non-Tibetan migrants into Tibetan society. These measures will increase the incidence of mixed classes in Tibetan schools and thus the use of Chinese-medium teaching. They are part of a China-wide program known as the “management and service of floating population,” which provides migrant workers with full access to social services and facilities, as well as a simplified registration process for residence permits. This includes giving the migrant children access to local government-run schools, which until recently was almost impossible anywhere in China. In the TAR, this is designed not just to improve conditions for migrants, as with such measures elsewhere in China, but also to attract more to move to the area. For example, in February 2016, Cheng Zhejiang, an official in Shigatse, Tibet’s second city, wrote:
conditions for the floating population of different nationalities to participate in the municipality’s economic, social and cultural life must be gradually put in place … so that people of various nationalities coming into the municipality can progress from temporary to permanent employment, and from seasonal to permanent residence.… The municipality should perfect arrangements with respect to employment, school attendance, and social security, etc., in order to attract a floating population of various nationalities.
Since 2010, Chinese authorities have stopped releasing population figures that show breakdowns of ethnic populations below provincial level, but figures for the period 2000-2010 show significant increases in the ethnic Chinese or Han population. In that decade, the number of Tibetans increased by about 12 percent in the TAR, by about 11 percent in Lhasa municipality as a whole, by about 17 percent in Lhasa’s inner city district (Chengguanqu), by about 16 percent in Toelung Dechen, a county adjoining Lhasa that is now incorporated within the urban area of the capital. In the same decade, the ethnic Chinese population increased by about 55 percent in the TAR, by around 50 percent in Lhasa municipality, by about 40 percent in the Lhasa inner city district, and by about 269 percent in Toelung Dechen county.
Although more recent figures are not available for the Lhasa urban area or surrounding counties, figures given on a local government website indicate that between 2000 and 2014 the total population of Nyingtri (Ch.: Linzhi), one of the seven prefectures of the TAR, went up by 28 percent (44,000) while the Tibetan population remained almost the same, pointing to a significant rise in the non-Tibetan population.
Even at the time of the 2000 census, nearly 25 percent of children in the Lhasa urban areas were already non-Tibetans, according to figures in the 2000 census. The number of children accompanying migrants and attending local schools is likely to have significantly increased since that time. This has led to growing concerns among some Tibetans that it will contribute to more mixed classes and further weakening of Tibetan-language instruction. One interviewee, a retired teacher from a middle school in a county adjoining Lhasa, explained in 2015 how this process, together with increases in administrative and political control, had changed the ethnic composition of classes:
There are 345 students at Toelung Dechen county middle school which
has classes 6-12. Classes 6-9 are middle school and classes 9-12 upper middle school. About 10 years ago, we used to have about 50 to 60 Chinese students in our school, but the number has gone up a lot since then. Today, we have 112 Chinese students. It is because of the increase in migrant workers all over the county, and the number of Chinese government employees in townships and villages. For example, since the authorities removed seven Tibetan cadres from their posts for political reasons, we no longer have Tibetan Party secretaries in the townships, they are all Chinese. There are at least five Chinese cadres in each administrative village, and there are many Chinese cadres among the work-teams stationed in each village as well.
Another retired schoolteacher interviewed by Human Rights Watch in October 2016 claimed that the number of non-Tibetan children in Tibetan schools has increased, leading to changes in classroom priorities:
The number of Chinese workers and officials in the counties has increased many times over, and their children are attending the schools … With the increase in numbers, many education systems follow the example of mainland schools in prioritizing Chinese students, and this is becoming more evident. Tibetan students are not the focus, they are ignored, courses based on Tibetan language get neglected, and education and school organization are geared to the Chinese students.
Other measures to promote “ethnic mingling” and “cultural identification” have also been introduced since 2014, including “actively encouraging the intermarriage of the various fraternal nationalities throughout our region” in order to “promote the great unity and fusion of all ethnic groups in the TAR,” and requiring all religions to be “Sinicized.”
Taken together, these “mingling” measures serve to increase the number of primary schools in the TAR that have to switch all or some classes to Chinese-medium instruction, and at the same time promote the ideological objectives of China’s new policy for ensuring “mingling” and “cultural identification” by minority nationalities with the larger Chinese nation.
IV. Protests and Resistance
If the Chinese put all the articles in the regional autonomy law and the constitution into practice, then many Tibetans would be perfectly happy. We would not need extra laws and would not need to make a change. The problem is you promised many things, but now you didn’t keep them. Then there’s a problem – and it’s not our problem, it’s your problem.
—Tibetan university professor, interviewed by Human Rights Watch, 2018
Since China’s “bilingual education” policies were formally introduced in 2010, Tibetans have staged a number of protests against them. These took place mostly in Qinghai province in 2010 and again in 2012 when officials tried to introduce new textbooks or exam requirements in particular schools or colleges overnight. Since then, officials in Qinghai and other Tibetan areas have pursued more gradual methods for introducing the new policies and have so far avoided triggering major unrest. Nevertheless, written documents by students, scholars, and others attest to continuing concern about the direction of China’s education policies for Tibetans.
Student Protests Over Language Policies in Qinghai
Until recently, Qinghai had by far the strongest record among Tibetan areas for allowing Tibetan-medium education at all levels of schooling, but in 2010 the Qinghai authorities tried to reverse their education approach. Alone among the provinces and regions in China with large minority communities, Qinghai declared a specific intention to switch minority schools to Chinese-medium teaching. This led to a protest by about 1,000 Tibetan high-school students in Rebkong (Ch.: Tongren), Malho (Ch.: Huangnan) prefecture in Qinghai in October 2010, which ended with the arrests of some students. About 200 to 300 Tibetan students staged sympathy protests in Beijing to show support for the Rebkong protesters, and several hundred Tibetan teachers and students signed a joint letter appealing for the government to continue to provide Tibetan-medium education in Qinghai:
Using the mother-tongue as the language of instruction for nationality elementary and middle school students does not imply a weakening of the Chinese language.… But we cannot sacrifice the study of other subjects for the sake of properly studying the Chinese language and text and the English language. We should understand the difference between teaching a language and the language of instruction….
In order to raise the quality of teaching and education and to amply reveal a person’s intelligence, we should use a language of instruction most easily understood by the students, at the same time as strengthening the teaching of language itself. Therefore, all trainees [the signatories to this letter] maintain that it is scientific to continue using the mother-tongue as the language of instruction.
A group of retired Tibetan officials submitted a much more detailed petition on the same topic to the Qinghai government in the same month. Qinghai authorities did not go through with the intended switch to Chinese-medium teaching in 2010.
Two years later, officials in Qinghai and neighboring Gansu province again tried to introduce Chinese-medium teaching and Chinese-language textbooks in Tibetan schools, leading to protest marches in March 2012 by Tibetan students in Rebkong, Tsekhok (Ch.: Zeku), and Kangtsa (Ch.: Gangcha) counties in Qinghai. In the same month a Tibetan student in Gansu, Tsering Kyi, 20, set fire to herself and died after her high school changed its main language to Chinese, according to her relatives. In November of that year, about 1,000 students staged a protest after being made to study a government booklet promoting “bilingual education” in Chabcha (Ch.: Gonghe), in Tsolho (Ch.: Hainan) prefecture, Qinghai province. The authorities responded with force to these protests, and eight participants in the November 2012 protests later received sentences of up to four years in prison. Authorities again postponed the plan to switch to Chinese-medium instruction.
Further incidents occurred from 2014 onwards. One involved “hundreds of high school students” from Tsekhok and Rebkong counties in Malho Prefecture who, “without seeking permission from their teachers or listening to their teachers’ advice against doing so, rushed madly into the streets shouting slogans, making trouble, disrupting traffic, etc.,” according to a local government announcement. The protest appears to have been against another proposed change to their teaching system. The announcement said that all the participants were punished, without giving further details. Another protest by Tibetan students took place in November 2014 in Dzorge (Ch.: Ruo’ergai), a Tibetan area of Sichuan province, after a Chinese education official said Tibetan students and teaching should focus on Chinese language and Chinese-medium teaching rather than Tibetan.
Petitions and Letter-Writing
More recent actions have involved posting letters online or writing petitions. In May 2015 and again that September, the Tibetan language-rights campaigner Tashi Wangchuk tried to file petitions in Beijing about the absence of Tibetan-language teaching in Yushu, Qinghai, and a court later sentenced him to five years in prison for interviews with the New York Times about these actions. In November 2015 and again in January 2016, Tibetans published petitions or open letters on WeChat, the Chinese messaging app, calling on officials to open a Tibetan-language primary school in Qinghai’s provincial capital, Xining, which has 30,000 Tibetan children but no public schools that teach in Tibetan.
In January 2016, a group of Tibetans and Muslims from Yadzi (Hualong) county in Qinghai staged a small protest against lack of support for Tibetan-language teaching in their area. In July 2016 students at both the Nationality Middle schools in Chentsa (Ch.: Jianza) county, in Malho (Ch.: Huangnan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai province, presented a petition to their school saying that the number of Chinese teachers in their schools was increasing, with the school at risk of “becoming a nationality school in name only.” The petitioners cited constitutional guarantees about the use of the nationality language in autonomous areas and called for Chinese teachers working there to be studying Tibetan. A similar letter was sent by students from Tshoshar (Ch.: Haidong) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai in early 2018.
Criminalization of Support for Mother-Tongue Education
Some local governments, particularly in Qinghai and some parts of Sichuan provinces, encourage activities that promote the use of the Tibetan language, such as displays of Tibetan calligraphic art. However, in other areas, activities promoting Tibetan culture have become politically sensitive, since they can be defined as challenges to “nationality unity” and national security. A Tibetan scholar cited by the official paper Global Times explained that “some local officials have politicized bilingual education” by treating support for Chinese-language study as “patriotic” and support for Tibetan-language study as “narrow nationalism,” potentially putting those who call for more Tibetan-language teaching at risk of serious punishment.
The risks for those who criticize Tibetan language policies escalated significantly in Malho prefecture in Qinghai in 2015 when the local authorities issued an edict that banned “organizing illegal groups and illegal movements in the name of ‘language rights’ [and] ‘literacy classes.’”The situation for any critics of language policy in the TAR became more acute in February 2018, when TAR police issued a public notice that declared organizations campaigning on “mother-tongue” issues not just illegal, but a form of “underworld gang crime.”
Since that time, the Chinese authorities have launched a nationwide campaign against “underworld gang crime” that in Tibetan areas appears to have been used to detain and imprison local Tibetan social and cultural activists. Significant numbers of arrests and prosecutions under the campaign have been reported in official media, but as these reports admit no distinction between political and criminal offenses, the extent of political arrests is unclear.
Two recently publicized cases appear to have involved the framing of community activists with criminal charges: on April 14, 2019, a court in Rebkong (Ch.: Tongren) sentenced a group of nine elders to up to seven years in prison for forming an “illegal organization” to “take control of grassroots administration,” apparently because they had led community opposition to a case of village land acquisition by the government. Twenty-one Tibetans from a village in Nangchen (Ch.: Nangqin), also in Qinghai, said to be members of an environmental protection group, were sentenced in June 2019 for up to six years. They had refused government compensation payments for confiscated grassland and urged others to do the same, and were similarly charged with “taking control of local affairs and disrupting social order,” as well as illegal sand mining and land excavation.
So far, Human Rights Watch does not know of actual arrests or harassment as a result of the February 2018 classification of support for “mother-tongue education” as a form of gang crime. However, as the politicization of education and the securitization of minority policy increases throughout China, it may be only a matter of time before more Tibetan language activists are detained for questioning China’s new educational policies in the TAR and other Tibetan areas.
This report was researched and written by members of the China team at Human Rights Watch. The report was edited by Sophie Richardson, China director. James Ross, legal and policy director, provided legal review. Joseph Saunders, deputy program director, provided program review. Colleagues in our Children’s Rights Division provided review. Seashia Vang, senior associate in the Asia Division, provided editing and production assistance. The report was prepared for publication by Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager.
Human Rights Watch is deeply grateful to all those who shared their stories with us.
Appendix 1: Extracts from Interviews
Names and identifying details of the interviewees and the interview locations have been withheld at their request. The interviews were all conducted by Human Rights Watch researchers.
1. Interview with Lhasa Resident A (Former Part-Time Teacher)
Part 1: October 2015
Language at the schools includes Tibetan – but no longer as a medium. These days I would say every Tibetan is very sensitive about new language policies, they are paying a lot of attention to this. Language is a big concern – the fact that Tibetan is becoming a minority language. Even for those who are not so strongly interested in that, they will think the policy is getting worse for Tibetans, and that too many Chinese are coming in. Also, relations of Chinese and Tibetan colleagues in work units have got much worse. Before 2008 everyone tended to live in the same place, and hang out together, for a picnic or wedding, or going to a karaoke bar and so forth. But since then, that has changed. Now they don’t mingle together, unless it is for work.
There are a lot of young Chinese working in a government office, more than young Tibetans in that office. There are some gongyuan positions not open to TAR residents (for example, now there are some positions at Tibet University for Tibetan language and literature that you can only apply for if you are from outside the TAR, such as from Sichuan or Qinghai, and local Tibetans cannot. So Amdo scholars are coming there in greater numbers, there’s quite a lot of tension there, they are seen as more rude and ambitious). So, there is some tension about this. And they get 45 days holiday in their first year, and transfer costs and so on each year.
They [the authorities] are not supporting Tibetan language anymore, that is very obvious. They are opening lots of kindergartens where the language medium is required to be Chinese, if it is government owned (there are very few private ones [where this requirement doesn't apply], and those are often very small or part-time). There will be a Tibetan language class, of course. But mathematics and so on will be in Chinese. There are only three subjects, Tibetan, Chinese, and maths. The last two will be taught in Chinese. This is very new, the past couple of years.
The private kindergartens still have to follow the government rules, though there are some that are not properly registered, they might function for just a couple of hours a day, they would be exceptions. But for example, “X’s” private kindergarten, which is registered and has a full-time program, is promoted as trilingual, with teaching in Tibetan, Chinese, and English. It is not government owned. But [I know] that most teachers there except in the Tibetan class are using Chinese, even in his school.
“X” gave a talk to parents and teachers, [about] how to keep using the mother-tongue in the home instead of mixing it with Chinese – so the talk was done without using Chinese terms, but just showing that complex issues as well as personal ones can be talked about easily just by using Tibetan on its own – because the parents of the children in the school are not doing that, they have lost that habit, they don't realize it’s possible, and they even complain sometimes that they want to learn more Chinese, it’s not enough.
In the event, the parents were so happy that someone gave a speech just in Tibetan. They probably speak Tibetan at home, but heavily mixed with Chinese, and they don’t expect Tibetan to be used at the school. These are mainly local residents, we’re not talking about wealthier people, where we might expect this. This kind of thinking has spread everywhere. So, the children would only understand Tibetan until they got to the kindergarten; then they’d start to think Chinese is more important.
In primary school, the Tibetan teachers are very united and have a strong urgency to teach Tibetan, but the biggest problem is that they lack method and materials, and a lot of the kids in a way don’t like Tibetan because they think it will be quite useless, it’s only a small percentage of the overall score in exams, and the teaching methods are outdated. The Tibetan language teachers are very worried about the grades their pupils will get and that the kids cannot speak Tibetan, and so they put a lot of pressure them, and are often quite mean to them, and use old methods. They feel they are the ones who have to save [the language] but don’t think about the methods. They are trained in that way; it is very difficult to change. Even if they are trained in new methods, they will go back and say that these new methods only work in an ideal situation, they wouldn’t work for our kids. They work very hard, they feel the urgency, and have a strong nationality feeling about Tibetan language and culture, they worry a lot.
There are several different informal friends’ groups made by teachers from different schools, they are very united, they have their own little gatherings, and they take some of this material very seriously. They give really detailed feedback if you send even a simple story in Tibetan for them to use for teaching. On WeChat they will discuss in Tibetan. In Tibetan class they are very strict about only using Tibetan, they make their own rules like that. So, they are very dedicated and concerned.
In the rest of the school program, it depends on the social level of the children and their families, and their locations – if they are lower income, the children will mainly use Tibetan to talk to each other. In the other classes besides Tibetan they will use Chinese as the medium. So, the primary schools are no longer Tibetan medium, it changed a while ago. Maybe more than ten years ago. It happened gradually – first they did like the two languages together as a model, or pilot, but then it shifted.
When I was in school in the early 1980s, it was a Tibetan medium, when my husband was teaching, there was a bilingual model, a pure Tibetan-medium model, during the Panchen Lama’s time, but by the 2000s the medium was Chinese, There are still some projects going on in rural areas for Tibetan medium in minority areas. It also depends on different areas.…
Yes, “education villages” – jiaoyucun – are being set up. These are boarding schools, sometimes primary and almost always middle schools. There are xianxiao or county primary schools now, and they will have the kids with most confidence in Chinese. But some, especially xiang schools, will have terrible conditions and be a long way from home, so it’s not easy for the children to go home. The new education "village" or compound in Lhasa, near Tselgungthang [about half a mile from Lhasa, to the southwest on the south side of the river], is a kind of showcase. Yes, once it opens and the schools are all moved from the city to the new compound, children will only get to go home every two weeks usually. They’ll be boarders from Lhasa boarding within Lhasa, basically.
Part 2: May 18, 2017
From our village, it’s just outside Lhasa, in [name withheld] county, they go for middle school and high school to a place near Lhasa, they board there. It would take about an hour to drive there. There is a primary school in [name withheld] township, it’s about a 20-minute drive. They don’t walk there anymore, not with all the traffic nowadays. It’s the township, the pre-school there is combined for several villages. That’s where they teach Chinese language, in that kindergarten. The kids from there can speak such fluent Chinese. For their grandparents, it’s really worrisome, but for their parents, many of whom I taught, they were drop-outs from school, they are very lost. Their grandparents are a bit older than my parents, their parents are illiterate, and are looked down upon, they didn’t receive a good standard education like the city kids get. But their kids are not willing any more to work on the farm.
These students who have stayed in school for a few years imagine that they are going to get a government job in the end, they won’t have to work on the land, and they look down on their parents. They’re close to the city and they lose their identity. And when they get to exam for middle school, then 90 percent of them fail and that’s the end of it. They go to work on construction sites, or do anything, nothing. They might lose contact with the family back in the village.…
[Older] people always complain about the lack of Tibetan, the fact that their grandkids cannot speak proper Tibetan at home. And the kids feel more themselves, more comfortable, if we talk to them in Tibetan. They feel lost in Chinese-medium teaching.
All the pre-school kindergartens teach in Chinese, though they teach the Tibetan alphabet and things like that too. A lot of these government-run kindergartens are teaching them the first-grade textbooks from elementary school. Yes, it’s illegal, actually. Before you didn’t have to attend the pre-school kindergartens. But now you get a study score, xuefen, if you finish a textbook or course, and now if you don’t have credits in your report card saying you have done pre-school, the elementary school will not accept you. They say it’s not compulsory, but in order to enroll your kids in elementary school, you have to have the credits from pre-school for at least, I think, two years. It’s called a xuefen, study score, or something like that. This report card, this book, is something that you carry with you all the way to high school….
On the other hand, there are some young people who have a higher education. They feel urgency and are doing their own things, what they can. But it’s so ironic to see a lot of these young people sent away to rural areas, remote places, sent to take up government positions, quite high ones, such as a village head - yet they have very little idea what to do. They don’t know rural life. And they don’t want to be there. And most of their work is advocating for the government, explaining policies, reading newspaper articles [aloud]. And they always want to come back to Lhasa. The village people don’t respect or trust them.
Are there private kindergartens?
There are a few private kindergartens. This morning I was talking to one kindergarten principal, a private one, he is very strong on Tibetan language. He says that they are really lacking materials for teaching. But the parents are lacking interest. We talked for an hour. I was really scared. I suggested teacher training in Tibetan, I know someone who does it there, I put them in touch. I was so amazed. I remember he had about 100 students, it was a very small place, near “K”, and people really liked it, and it was growing. But his original kindergarten was taken over by the local neighborhood committee. He is still the nominal headmaster, and the parents like his emphasis on Tibetan. But it’s been taken over by the neighborhood committee, and they have to follow that curriculum.
U was a monk from Norbulingka, you must remember him. When he came out [from prison], he had to disrobe [give up monkhood]. He opened a very good orphanage, with kids who were well dressed and well behaved, very traditional. They were all arrested, it was closed, and the kids were sent everywhere to other homes. Yes, that was the orphanage where Bangri Rinpoche was arrested. He’s still in prison, I think. It was in the early 2000s.
It’s really difficult to get the official papers to open a school or kindergarten. I enquired about it, I had a place, and they knew that my funding was ok, was safe.… I didn’t go formally to ask about it, but then different friends I asked, they said it’s not standard [to apply to open a kindergarten teaching in Tibetan], you are just labelling yourself….
A lot of the students who go to college from Tibet get acceptance letters from a college or institution in China, a long way away – and it turns out not to be a standard college that can issue a standard degree.
Wouldn’t learning Chinese help people to do better?
That’s what they say. That is what we discuss all the time. I would say that 98 percent of people I know say it’s important to keep the language. All but a few say we need to learn Tibetan. But a few say that we cannot really use Tibetan in life now, so just to speak a little is enough.
[Talks about Khenpo Tsultrim Lodroe’s answer to a question about whether it’s needed to learn Tibetan, or just keep the culture without the language.]
This is a question we ask ourselves. You can live a life without Tibetan, it even might be a more prosperous life wherever you happen to be, but this is a question we can ask.
Now more and more Tibetans, especially in the TAR, seeing all the changes happening so quickly, and not just in Lhasa, but even in remote areas, especially a lot of young people who have higher education, have awareness of keeping the language and the culture alive. And most of those I know in the city feel the responsibility falls on us. And not only making money but taking responsibility and serving the community. Observing on WeChat, in the circle that I know, with a lot of educators and social entrepreneurs – I showed you one in Ngari, Norbu Dondrub, doing livecasts daily. He uses central Tibetan dialect; he is really advocating Tibetan mother-tongue. I saw this morning that 60,000 people were watching him at one point, 92,000 a little later. While listening, they feel the same way, but after the show – they still speak Tibetan, but the very young are answering back in Chinese.
Part 3: October 13, 2018
I am not so sure 100 percent of the number of the Chinese living in our neighborhood now, but I am hearing that it is half-half. A lot of them rent, and also a lot of them buy, unlike before. Before it was old neighbors, residential, and in the meantime they are building a lot of houses outside the old city, quite far, like very tall apartment buildings, government housing for low-income people, so they are all very far away from the city. So, a lot of people from the old neighborhood were resettled in that housing. The government demolishes a building, and the uyonlhankhang [neighborhood committee] then does it … that’s why our people do not complain since we have been promised we can come back. Then whoever can afford it can buy the new ones, and of course you can use your connections. And the government also reserves some for – not for low-income people, I don’t think they keep those for them – renting to a higher income group, something to do with the housing department, turning the lower level into shops.
In Lhasa the rental rate is very high, so there are plenty of people who have the money to rent those, half and half, Tibetan and Chinese, I would say. In the old part of the city, some are Tibetan owned and rented to Chinese or Chinese Muslims. So, a lot of very similar shops, there are a lot of tourist shops in our area run by Chinese Muslims, so it seems there is big money there. It isn’t individual people who are renting this, though it looks like this, but all the things they sell are the same, so it seems it is owned by one business person who owns seven shops or a block, every other shop is the same, and all are close to each other. They sell things that they call Tibetan, but for Tibetans it doesn’t look Tibetan, but the tourists can’t tell, I don’t think they know these things are not Tibetan.
I saw some shops with Tibetans who are hired to work there, I know a Chinese woman who has a little shop nearby, and she had a Tibetan nun sitting near the window with her beads, not as a sales person, just to be visible, she was there entirely for that purpose [to make it look Tibetan].
It is separate communities, I don’t think people become friends with the Chinese, not really. I hear some people complain that Tibetans are renting their shops to Chinese or Chinese Muslims in the Barkor area, which makes the rents higher. There isn’t tension on the surface, Tibetans never enter into these shops, the tourists go. The people who go to do korwa [circumambulations] won’t go into these shops, and even some shops won’t allow them in. In several big shops there was always a guard hired by the shop outside who won’t let Tibetans in, I’m not sure if it is still like that, I didn’t go.…
The kindergartens – there are more government-run ones than before. And every area has a kindergarten. Then the kids have to go to, it is kind of mandatory, by I think the age of 4, so in order to, then, now I didn’t have a document but there is a whole new system, they need to have a report card or credit card in order to enroll in the elementary school, and it carries on in all the schooling years, they have a booklet, which teachers need to sign, from which year you have your whole life story starting from kindergarten. It is very difficult to enroll at the primary school, you have to have kindergarten signatures in there to enroll, you must have a record from kindergarten, it should be two years or three years, at last in Lhasa city, I don’t know elsewhere. I don’t think there is a grade attached to it. I think there is xiaoban, zhongban, daban, it’s all Chinese, its pre-pre-school, pre-school, and kindergarten, xiaoban is the youngest, they have to have a record of learning in those three years.
They have standardized textbooks or playbooks now, I heard, but it is not the same in every region. Some are still using it, some are in between, the one common thing is that they are mainly taught in Chinese. I think there are Tibetan textbooks, but the emphasis is on Chinese. If we look at the books, we see Tibetan, but I think most of the classes have to be conducted in Chinese. The reason I know is my cousin’s son is just enrolled this year, although they wanted him to keep him at home another year, but in order to get enrolled later they had to do that, to get the record, it is called a xueji card. So, she had to send him by the age of 3 to the kindergarten in order to get that xueji card.
My relative was very happy, she went to meet the teachers on the first day – they were all hearing that there is only Chinese in the kindergarten, so was very concerned – so she was very happy when she met the teacher that she speaks Tibetan well, she is encouraging parents to speak Tibetan at home, and said she is trying to use Tibetan more than Chinese in the class, she is confirming to them that she will try to do this. So far, the boy didn’t complain, there are a lot of toys, and these days the kindergartens look very nice, but he is a bit confused, because at home they only speak Tibetan. But he is picking up Chinese very quickly.
They said in other classes there are a lot of Chinese teachers coming from China too, so they are glad he got a head teacher who is Tibetan, they have several teachers in the kindergarten. A lot of people complained that the kids don’t speak Tibetan well when they get home from the kindergarten. The hours are 8:30 to 4:30, very long, and you can’t find a half-day one.
I had a few chances to go to an elementary school, with other teachers who came, when we entered the elementary schools, they are all Tibetan elementary schools, but everywhere they have these big signs saying we have to use Mandarin, speaking mandarin is our responsibility, we are Chinese kids, we have to speak Mandarin, or something like this, or I am a Chinese child, I like to speak Mandarin. The wall is saying how Mandarin is our language of teaching. My friends who are Tibetan language teachers, I asked her what you feel, because she is a very strong Tibetan teacher, they at first feel there is a big burden, it doesn’t mean we – everywhere in school they have these signs, that makes them also a little uncomfortable, they are the ones trying to teach the Tibetan kids not to lose your language, you have to speak Tibetan at home, but then they have these big signs – they are very uncomfortable. And also, they are very pressured, they are a little bit scared, since they are the ones telling students every day to learn Tibetan.
I asked if the officials say anything to them, or the head. They do not say anything direct, but when they have the teacher meetings, they do talk about emphasizing the Chinese, but they do not target the Tibetan-language teachers or say you are not allowed to teach this, no. Because all the meetings, even though all the teachers are Tibetan, are conducted in Chinese, and there is also a vice-principal or Party secretary who is Chinese. So, they feel a little bit awkward and pressured by the bigger environment. They have to watch what they are saying.
All the other classes are taught in Chinese. Tibetan textbooks are in Tibetan, but mathematics and other subjects, sciences and social studies, are all in Chinese. So, the level of Chinese of these first graders in Lhasa elementary schools is so good, just like Chinese. Also, there are some Tibetans who are teaching Chinese, a lot of math and social studies teachers are Chinese. In the kindergarten there are a lot of young teachers who are also mixed, there is a very big issue in Tibet right now: they are recruiting a lot of Chinese from mainland area, so these newly graduated Tibetans can’t get jobs nearby. One name is rencaiyinjing, literally “Importing Human Resources,” it can be in every sector.
There are several ways these Chinese are coming, a lot are coming with this program, where they can apply for the job from mainland China to work in TAR. Then there is another group like these volunteer groups from colleges, who get a job automatically in that work unit after a year of volunteering. People are very mad at this program. These Chinese don’t mind about the high altitude anymore, it’s very hard to find these “iron [rice] bowl” jobs in China, and there are a lot of benefits in Tibet if you get a job in government work. The gap between government and other jobs is so huge. They recruit very few Tibetans who graduate in mainland China. Every year people can take the civil exams, but very hard for Tibetans to get those jobs.
I heard from “X” and some friends ago that it is no longer Amdo or other Tibetans from those areas getting these jobs, there are some restrictions on minority nationality candidates getting these jobs. It is very difficult for a Tibetan from outside of TAR to get these jobs, it says you must be outside the TAR, but it is not publicly said that it does include Tibetans from outside. Then there are people who come with yuanzang [“Aid Tibet”] titles, and a lot of people taking advantage of these policies from China.… I know one of my friends’ son applied for this job, but a lady got this job as a math teacher in an elementary school. She is Chinese, in her 50s, she wants to come and retire in Lhasa in three years. I was quite surprised this from my friend, she said her son’s math teacher was Chinese.… She wasn’t happy in Tibet at all, but she has a high-school age daughter, so she had several reasons to come to Tibet, she wants to enroll her high school daughter to have a seat in Tibet, but actually she goes to school in mainland China, and then will come and take the final high school exam in Tibet and get the extra points. And in three years the mother can retire in Tibet and get the retirement payment from Tibet, which is triple her regular salary back in China, and then take the money and move back to China. There are these kinds of cases.
But there are plenty of very qualified Tibetan graduates even from Beijing Normal University who are finding it very difficult to get Tibet jobs, and even to go to work in a remote area they need to pass the civil exams. But not that many Chinese are going to rural areas, right now they are trying to fill the more comfortable jobs in towns, and cities – in rural areas still the conditions are tough.
2. Interview with a Retired Schoolteacher from a County Near Lhasa
There are 345 students at our county middle school which has classes 6-12. Classes 6-9 are middle school and classes 9-12 upper middle school. About 10 years ago, we used to have about 50 to 60 Chinese students in our school, but the number has gone up a lot since then. Today we have 112 Chinese students. It is because of the increase in migrant workers all over the county, and the number of Chinese government employees in townships and villages. For example, since the authorities removed seven Tibetan cadres from their posts for political reasons, we no longer have Tibetan party secretaries in the townships, they are all Chinese. There are at least five Chinese cadres in each administrative village, and there are many Chinese cadres among the work-teams stationed in each village as well. I don’t know exactly whether it is correct or not, but people say that Toelung and Taktse [two counties in Lhasa municipality] have the biggest Chinese population.
A friend who works for government told me that “the Chinese population in Toelung has increased more than 400 percent in the last five years.” I think he could be right, because since the railway reached Lhasa in 2005, the government built warehouses for heavy construction materials on the west side of the county town, the materials for constructing the line to Shigatse were kept there, and many government construction companies are also based there. In the last five years, the government built two bridges over the Toelung River, and then built housing blocks for Chinese migrant workers on the other side of the river. The area has now become a suburb of Lhasa city and there are no Tibetans living there, all are Chinese. We don’t know how many, but I am sure there are thousands of them. These people are not included in government population figures.
These Chinese have little contact or dealings with local Tibetans in their daily lives, but it looks like they are going to stay there forever, it already looks like a Chinese city, with schools, banks, hospitals, markets, restaurants, hotels, night clubs, sports facilities, cinemas, and many prostitutes and brothels. So I think many Chinese migrants' children are going to boarding middle school in Lhasa, as there are many middle schools in Lhasa.
Significant Changes in Our Middle School
In general, education facilities in county middle schools in the TAR have improved a lot in last five years, the salary of county middle school teachers increased 50 percent since 2008. The average teacher’s salary used to be 2,500 Yuan but it’s increased to more than 5,000 Yuan per month.
Those Chinese students at our school whose parents have ration cards in Toelung county have to study Tibetan language for four hours a week. This compulsory program was introduced by government in September 2011. There was a regulation about this program, 10 points in a six-page booklet. The title on the cover was “Regulations for the trial implementation of Tibetan language study for outstanding students.” The program does not include the children of ordinary migrant workers (bao gung doi), only the children of those working for the county government, county party members, party secretaries from the five townships, and for important government-owned development and mining projects in the county.
There are about 65 Chinese students taking part in Tibetan language program and all of them are Baoding students. The school principal talked about the program at the teachers’ meeting, saying that teaching those students Tibetan is the request of the TAR Education Department, and all the teachers and school staff should be supportive of the program and students, to fulfill the TAR leaders’ request. He said that our school's responsibility is to raise these selected students to formulate and build their capability to reform the masses’ livelihood, and to be able to contribute to making the motherland greater. The leaders of concerned departments are awaiting positive results from the program and a good example for other county middle schools, he said.
The long-term aim of the program is to prepare the students for official positions and create a [group of bilingual officials] to deal with ordinary Tibetans at village level in the future. But our school principal did not mention this! Those students have been taking this program since 2011, some of them already speak fluent Tibetan and are able to follow lectures in Tibetan and read books in Tibetan. It is not only about learning language, the school invites Tibetan experts to introduce Tibetan culture, society, tradition, history and other complicated philosophical ideas to them in Tibetan. Sometimes even monks give talks, to introduce basic Tibetan Buddhism; since 2013, the school invited monks about 10 times. We don’t know which monastery those monks are from. The school also organized a bus to take them on a few days’ school trip to visit monasteries and museums, and to see Tibetan village life. These activities are very sensitive and always done secretively. Only the school principal and class supervisors know. These subjects have never been taught to other [Tibetan] students, they have the best Tibetan teachers of course, and there are some high-level cadres inspecting the program's progress. They come to the school from time to time in expensive official cars, and meet only the Tibetan program students, the principal and class supervisors, and do not talk to other teachers or students at all.
Restrictions and Moral Education for Tibetans
In March 2011, the authorities introduced new regulations at our school, “Regulations for the trial implementation of rectification and tightening of moral education for middle school students.” There are four chapters and 38 points. I can’t remember all the details, but the main points in the introduction said that using suitable teaching methods for students of different ages and abilities, give a clear introduction to the “nationality theory” of Marx, Lenin and Mao. It said that this key concept should always be the fundamental method to establish “healthy political thinking” and to reform “habitual thinking” of students. It added that “nationality theory” always has direct relevance to individual students' daily school lives and is also the bottom line to measure the quality of the next generation of citizens of our Great Motherland.
All the teachers and staff had to study the regulations for more than a week before implementing them at school. Two Chinese cadres from the TAR Party school came to teach us about it, and at the end of the day the county Party secretary Li visited the school. Li did not talk to the teachers, only with the principal and class supervisor, so we don’t know what he said about it. The most important things that we were told over a weeklong study of the regulations were:
1. Any conversation, attitude, behavior, and activities that students have been taking part in their daily life has to be monitored and examined, starting with individual students’ daily school life. If there is anything harmful to the “unity of the motherland and nationality unity,” it should be completely and decisively removed from the school environment straight away. Those involved must receive appropriate advice from school supervisors, and political guidance.
2. All school teachers and heads of class must pay full attention to the minority day-school students’ behaviors by spending time with the student as their friend rather than teacher. Any inadequate behavior or attitude toward the “three inseparables” principle (propaganda formulation for the inseparability of the Han and the minorities) has to be investigated in order to understand where and from whom the young mind picked up negative influences in the first place, without being given a chance to hide from scrutiny in school and classroom. All class supervisors must closely monitor minority-background students, enhance strict control of students “ideological conduct” toward the school political environment and sensitive conversation topics with classmates.
3. The class supervisors should have a good relationship with day-students. They should have a timetable to meet the parents at least twice a month. All day-students must be informed that their class supervisor has immediate responsibility for their political behavior.
3. Interview with Another Retired Schoolteacher from a County Near Lhasa
(The interviewee submitted some of their comments as written responses.)
Nine categories for receiving Patriotic Education
At present, under the direction of the Education Bureau, education work is divided into nine basic categories, with a detailed practice of Patriotic Education and political/ideological regulations in use for each. The nine categories are: 1. primary education, 2. lower middle school compulsory education, 3. middle school vocational education, 4. higher education, 5. professional education, 6. youth education, 7. distance education, 8. correspondence education, and 9. special education.
Of these, most of the students in categories 5-9 are future government officials, or current officials doing further training, who tend to be those in leaders at various levels, or Party and government workers in important positions. The education is said to be [for improving] political awareness in relation to one’s area of work on the basis of Marxist theory, and improving work capacity. However, a great many young Tibetan officials are also sent to China for study and training directly related to their work, and then there are those who are trained in China and sent to Tibet as “Tibet Aid Cadres”, all of whom are selected and allocated by the state Personnel Bureau. These are the 9 categories in TAR education.
The TAR Student Population
According to a reference book on political fundamentals for middle school teachers distributed by the TAR Education Bureau, there are now 882 primary schools, 91 lower middle schools, 15 upper middle schools, 9 full middle schools [middle schools with classes 7-12], 7 intermediate vocational schools, and 6 university/colleges. Then, TAR students are enrolled in “Tibet classes” in 35 middle schools and colleges in mainland China, including 18 lower middle schools, 13 upper middle schools and 2 teacher training colleges (but not including schools for sports, arts, music, etc.)., while some 50 or more upper middle schools in the mainland without “Tibet classes” also admit Tibetan students. However, when admission exams are held for schools from mainland provinces and municipalities with “Tibet class” enrollment, they are announced everywhere, mainly to the parents of middle school students, and there is no secrecy involved.
Patriotic Education Campaign, the Extent of its Coverage
To speak about the TAR: Patriotic Education and its various campaigns fall under political education, for which the State Council has chief responsibility. This education campaign is not like other political campaigns that are launched for a time and then come to an end.
When they do ideological education and patriotic education in mainland areas of China, one is expected to express love for the Party and Nation and love for Socialism, praise and support the political principles of the Party and Nation, and its laws, and promise to follow them, and there are not really onerous and difficult political preconditions. But in ideological education and Patriotic Education in TAR, unification of the Motherland, unity of nationalities, opposition to splittism and maintaining stability are made preconditions, and those preconditions are the beginning, the end, and the whole point of these two educations. This can be seen clearly from the controversial statement by Deng Xiaogang broadcast on Tibet TV’s Channel 2 on November 25, 2015, that “Both the central government and TAR government are putting financial, material and manpower resources into ideological education in Tibet unlike any other province or autonomous region in the country.”
That is why a trusted friend told me a year ago “The political situation in TAR is complicated/vexed. Public attitudes are disparate, and opinions are confrontational. So, nationality language and culture become unjustly targeted as problematic.”
If one looks closely at Patriotic Education … apart from its various aspects, in general, public cultural life, such as newspapers, TV, films, radio, magazines, libraries, arts, song and dance, celebrations, anniversaries, gatherings, festivals, parties, etc., [and the institutions] that blend with all aspects of public life and activity, schools, monasteries and offices, are the specific focus. Yet these days, people think of Patriotic Education and its campaigns only as flying the national flag on their roof, keeping a picture of the CP [Communist Party] leaders in their house, supporting the national team in sports competitions [like the Olympic Games], singing the national anthem and so forth. In fact, the Patriotic Education campaign and the extent of its coverage are very broad and deep.
In general, Patriotic Education means that the public should, of their own accord and with pure motivation, undertake study of the achievements of previous generations in religion and culture, language, customs, progress, etc., with chief regard for the character/interests of the nation to which they belong and the interests of the masses, to constructively pass them on to the next generation, and do this with an altruistic devotion to society, the people and the nation. This has to be done according to the political outlook, culture and customs, and territorial sovereignty of each nation, and in a place like Tibet, this is an extremely complicated/problematic business from start to finish.
It is no easy task to get someone to think patriotically, and in the case of a person with antipathy to the state, getting rid of that, eliminating it, is even more difficult. But, in the Patriotic Education that is going on in Tibet these days, the public’s support for the PRC under the leadership of the CP, its political stance and political requirements, the upholding of its state power, national dignity, national sovereignty, etc., irreversible faith and commitment to the Party, the nation and its leaders under any circumstances or political conditions, following their political direction unquestioningly, this is the basic condition.
Moreover, the main point is that Tibetans are citizens of the PRC, and the entirety of Tibetan religion, culture, language, customs, history, crafts, heritage is presented as the culture of the Chinese people, one constituent of the Chinese peoples’ cultural repertoire. If a schoolchild or anyone else says that Tibetan culture is not Chinese, or that it is different, that demonstrates an incorrect political stand, and to argue that Tibetan culture was created by the Tibetan people and developed by them through the ages confirms this, in terms of political principles. On the ideological basis that “Without the CP there would be no New China, without New China there would be no socialist system and no New Tibet”, present-day Tibet, Tibetans and Tibetan culture belong to China, and that is the basic point and bottom line of mass ideological education.
So, in general, China’s Patriotic Education is called a “single measuring stick” [allowing no room for slight deviations], but in fact, there are a great many differences between the campaigns conducted in mainland areas and in Tibet. In TAR there are many differences in the style and content of Patriotic Education as conducted in different contexts, in rural areas, urban areas, schools and monasteries, differs out of consideration of the outlook of the masses, their livelihood, political environment, and level of education. But it is in schools and monasteries that it is carried out most forcefully and with most intensive management.
Content of Patriotic Education from Primary School to Upper Middle School
The basic strategy is “Instill patriotic thinking through moral education, and instill patriotic thinking to correct the moral conduct of the students.” However, the Patriotic Education that is conducted in TAR schools cannot be described as Patriotic Education, because Patriotic Education in schools is a complete system, and various periodic campaigns are conducted within the context of that system, so “both education and campaigns” are combined. For example, from primary school [years 1-6], through lower middle school [up to year 9] until upper middle school, there are 18 courses and over 200 topics [compiled by the regional educational materials’ editorial office]. These 18 courses and over 194 topics are all written in both Chinese and Tibetan.
The main courses in which Patriotic Education is elaborated are primary literacy, children’s stories, general knowledge, composition, Chinese history, international and Chinese revolutionary history, politics, introduction to law, social science, etc., while biology, chemistry, science, mathematics and basic computing do not have that much relation to Patriotic Education and political education. At present, all upper and middle schools in TAR have both Chinese and Tibetan students, and there are no exclusively Chinese or Tibetan schools. The topics of the 18 courses and supposedly 250 reference books are automatically translated into Tibetan, and seem to be of a standardized quality. However, there is no practice of teaching middle school courses in both languages. In the case of Chushul county middle school, Tibetan students are 65 percent of the total, but as the principals, teachers and parents all know and can see, in reality, apart from literacy, general knowledge, composition and Chinese history, 73 percent of courses, like science, chemistry, biology and computing are taught in Chinese, and there is no prospect for Tibetan students to improve their level of Tibetan language.
In terms of the TAR’s education system and policy, there is the right to parity and equal treatment of written Tibetan and written Chinese, or even primacy of written Tibetan, under the legal provisions of the nationality autonomy system, but the actual reality is quite different. The crucial point in this is that it depends on deciding in which language the 18 courses are taught, which is up to government policy and resources for teacher allocation and training, and so far the TAR has not trained [enough] Tibetan teachers to teach all these 18 courses in Tibetan, while there is a fully trained corps of teachers capable of teaching them in Chinese. The corps of Tibetan teachers is small, poorly resourced, neglected by the school directors, and so on. So although the teaching materials are in both languages, the actual teaching of the classes … for example, at our county primary school, when one looks at the class periods and teacher allocation in the timetables for each term, Chinese language classes take up half the time, or for some terms, Tibetan language classes take up slightly more time.
Crèches and Kindergartens
Generally, there are primary schools in township centers throughout the rural areas of TAR. For example, in the counties of Lhasa municipality, they say every village of more than 200 inhabitants has a crèche or kindergarten (these used to be known as crèches [bu bcol khang], but since 2003 when they were given government funding and supervision, they became known as kindergartens – byi pa’i rol rtsed khang).
In our county, for example, after the 2014 decision to construct a model county, and the development of the suburb of the county town with a population of over 30,000, and 17 rural villages into administrative villages [village with local Party office], the government gave money to build six kindergartens and added two new primary schools in two townships, bringing the total of primary schools in the county to seven.
There are two main reasons for the TAR to spread provision of crèches from urban to village areas:
Traditionally, when the parents go out to work, they leave the children with unoccupied elder relatives or grandparents to look after them. But with the strict enforcement of compulsory education in rural areas, parents who stop or restrict their children from attending school are fined, and so on, and the livelihood of the whole society, and the traditional patterns of seasonal work are all undergoing major change. With these social and livelihood changes, the number of children below 7 staying at home and being schooled at home is reducing.
Since about 2004, when crèches were included in TAR compulsory education, the government gave funding for many more crèches to be built all over, which were called kindergartens, all the childcare staff were sent by the county education department, they received various degrees of professional training, and the government gave them the same rights as officials or workers. So regardless of the state of childcare, it became easier for parents, and the government achieved control of the entirety of junior education.
Children going to kindergartens are generally ages 2-6, and they can be left there for six to eight hours a day while the parents are at work. Earlier, in the 1990s, there were crèches in Lhasa and larger cities, but they did not come under the government’s compulsory education program, and there was no clear policy towards them. Under those conditions, there were many privately run crèches, and apart from cities like Lhasa, Shigatse, Tsetang, Nyingtri, etc., there were a lot of people running private primary schools as well.
In [name withheld] county, for instance, “X” started a home crèche in 1998, and then started a primary school alongside, for Classes 1-3. Then in 2008, the primary school was closed down, and the crèche was also closed a year later. The primary school followed all the county education department’s registration procedures, and no questions were raised about authorization, but they said that pupils up to Class 3 were taught to do [daily] prayers, how to do prostrations, make dedication prayers to the Three Jewels [the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha] before meals, and that various [religious] items were arranged in the classrooms. Moreover, butter lamps and water bowl offerings were done in the classroom, which they said is against national and regional regulations on the moral and ideological foundations for primary education, and detrimental to their psychological wellbeing. On the order of the county education department head Zhang Chun, the primary school had to be closed.
“X” and a group of parents petitioned the TAR government, saying that the school had taught only nationality customs, language, and songs, nothing politically reactionary or against the Motherland. The Lhasa Municipal Procuracy and Education Bureau then made a case against “X”, who was arrested, detained in Lhasa for three months, and fined 20,000 Yuan for running a school that broke national education regulations. At that point, the crèche was also closed down. At first, they were ready to listen to public opinions, whatever they were, and the regional Education Bureau had told “X” and the parents that making verbal and written appeals to the government before holding public meetings in the streets was proper and within the law.
Among the 23 parents supporting “X”, “Y” from the [name withheld] county government office was accused of using bad language with government officials, detained for one day in the county, and made to stay at home without salary for three months to think it over, as well as a fine of 2,000 Yuan.
These days in Tibet, there is a new surge in the language preservation movement. Is it really the case that hostile policies by the Chinese government are posing new risks to Tibetan language, or is there another kind of political background to this?
That is a big question. We spoke about this before the New Year, and identified the main reasons, now I will tell you whatever I know and think about them.
1. As the Dalai Lama’s call is not for independence, and there is more emphasis on preservation of religion and culture, he has emphasized the written language and culture so much in public addresses and teachings, so people in Tibet have realized that they need to think again about the unavoidable issue of language loss and religion, culture, national [loss].
2. Earlier, people in Tibet used to wishfully think that the standard of Tibetan instruction in exile government schools must be a hundred times higher than in Tibet, and many children were sent to India [in the 1980s and 90s]. But the standard of Tibetan and cultural education of children educated in the Dalai Lama’s schools did not meet their expectations. It is a fact that Tibetan children educated in Chinese government schools under the minority nationality system have a strong, competent level of Tibetan. It would be correct to say that these two points are objective factors.
3. Concerning the factors inside Tibet … there has been great economic development, Chinese people have moved to Tibet and settled, Chinese children are growing up in Tibet, and the numbers [of such children] in the TAR education system is a really big issue. The implementation of education policy is suited to the Chinese students, and sometimes even favors them. Any school will run school courses of most benefit to the Chinese students, and teachers try to please the Chinese students and favor them, because it is the easy and safe way, and makes it easier to get their allowances and benefits. Tibetan students naturally get pushed to the sidelines, their access to the rights and benefits of minority education and access to resources endangered, and … the inclination of school principals to misbehave have given Tibetans in Tibet, parents especially, something to think about.
4. Previously, although the number of Chinese students in the prefectures and cities of TAR was quite a lot, in the primary and middle schools in counties and townships, Tibetan students made up around 70 percent. Now the number of Chinese workers and officials in the counties has increased many times over, and their children are attending those schools … the teaching staff, school resources, central government, and regional government allowances for education in Tibet are also taken advantage of by the Chinese students, and with the increase in their numbers, many education systems follow the example of mainland schools in prioritizing Chinese students, and this is becoming more evident. Tibetan students are not the focus, they are ignored, courses based on Tibetan language get neglected, and education and school organization geared to the Chinese students.
About 10 years ago, in TAR primary and middle schools, Tibetan and Chinese students were separated, and many language-based courses were taught, but now it is a big issue … I have not seen the policy documents and regulations from the central education ministry, regional education bureau and county education departments, but in practice, mixed classrooms have been set up, and Tibetan students have not only a daily language class but classes on Chinese history and political study mostly alongside the Chinese students, a new system which both students and parents find very disturbing.
5. Earlier … maybe 10 years ago, the Chinese who came to do construction in Tibet, or professionals and skilled workers sent by “Aid Tibet” tie-ups or mainland cities, they didn’t used to bring their whole families, and when their term of employment was over, they went straight back. But this has completely changed in recent years. This is something that the Dalai Lama, and exile commentators do not seem to realize. I have not seen this said or written anywhere, and I noticed it is not mentioned at all in the book you lent me about education, maybe because the author is from Amdo.
Listen … the fact is that things have changed a lot since the 18th Party Congress. These days, mainland Chinese like construction workers and skilled workers bring their whole families with them to Tibet at the outset. If either the husband or the wife is unemployed, the employer or company provides income support for the unemployed spouse, their kids go to school in the town where their parent is employed, and they are equally entitled to the school fees and welfare policies [designed] for Tibetan students. Around 40 percent of the students qualifying for Tibet-adjusted education policies are Chinese migrants.
For instance, a friend told me that most of the 300,000 Chinese who came to build the Qinghai-Tibet railway mostly did not return to China but settled in Tibet. They say that employees who work for the State Railways Corporation for more than five years get assistance from the corporation to settle in Tibet and do any kind of business. Most of the Chinese who settled in and around Chushul county are those who came to do construction work. No one can say exactly how many they are, but each new Chinese settlement has at least 10,000 inhabitants.
Since they don’t have separate schools for their kids, they send them to the existing county primary and middle schools.
6. The county middle schools and township primary schools in particular are the foundations of Tibetan education and the breeding ground of the next generation. Earlier, a lot of school principals were Tibetan, at least in the county and township schools. This has changed – now you hardly see Tibetan principals in county schools, and it’s the same in township primary schools. The government sends a lot of teacher-training graduates from China to work in Tibet, who are more qualified then Tibetans to become school principals, and automatically meet the political qualification of nationality unity, I have noticed. School principals have to be Party members, and they control all the school activities and teachers, and have full powers to decide what is good.
Whatever is said about the nationality education system in Tibet, the focus of every activity in the classroom is on the Chinese, and if large numbers of Chinese are needed to develop Tibet, if Tibetans have to become richer, and the orders of the regional and central governments have to be followed, then Chinese definitely has to be taught, and those who take the view that this is not compatible with teaching Tibetan language are many, as I saw in my time as a county school teacher.
Especially, many Chinese principals feel worried that teaching Tibetan language will endanger nationality unity and are very resistant to it. And because the principals are mostly Chinese, Tibetan language teachers are under-resourced and not encouraged, so that when a student gets excellent grades in Tibetan, the principal is not interested.
[Tibetan] parents do not have good relations with the principals, and because if they do not speak Chinese well, they cannot directly discuss problems with their children’s education, Tibetan students cannot focus on getting the benefit of their studies, and as Chinese language classes are emphasized out of nationality unity and political requirements, students have no choice but to do what will win the approval and praise of the principal. In this way, written Tibetan, and the cultural values it transmits is naturally ignored and rendered irrelevant.
7. Today, the reason why Tibetans in Tibet are so concerned about language and doing whatever they can about it is the Dalai Lama’s influence. First, the Dalai Lama and Tibetans in exile have not accomplished the task of sustaining Tibetan language, the exile education system has failed and been derailed, and now that it has been confirmed that they are not able to preserve our language, that task is up to the people in Tibet. I think they must be encouraged to find new strategies and methods of emergency preservation. For example, graduates of exile schools with their poor speaking ability are a matter of shame for the Dalai Lama, and the disastrous failures of that system are now spoken of openly.
Now that this is no longer a secret, we people in Tibet have learned this through social media and so on, become worried about how little we too have done, and basically understood that the survival of our language is in our own hands, and we cannot rely on the Dalai Lama or the Tibetans in exile.
That is why there is wide participation in language preservation and call to speak unmixed language, and this is not a directly political issue. Whatever movements and discussion are going on take place in Tibetan society, by the Tibetan public, for a reason, where the theory and practice of autonomy and nationality policy can be brought together.
Anyway, apart from these issues I have nothing new to add. Mainly, the two points about policy failures of the exile government and Chinese migration, an agonizing prospect for the language issue.
When did the bilingual kindergartens policy begin? Were any private or monolingual kindergartens closed?
I have thought about these questions, and asked friends familiar with language [in] education, and it is really complicated. Trying to find the origin is frustrating. I will just tell you what I know.
Bilingual education in Tibet is nothing new, but taking a broad view of the outcome, etc., of bilingual education, I get the feeling that there are some things that are important to understand in order to answer your question in full, the present requirements of the policy, the ultimate aim and eventual outcome.
Bilingual education was introduced in government schools in the early 1970s. At that time, schools in the xiang [townships], fen [a group of three ruka or units] and ruka were known as minban, People’s Schools, and schools in county towns were known as Government Schools. Both were administered by the government, it is not that People’s Schools were founded privately, but the government did not directly pay teachers’ salaries and running expenses for People’s Schools. These had to be provided by the xiang, fen, or ruka. So, the People’s Schools did not have Chinese teachers, and only Tibetan was taught. But they used the same textbooks as the Government Schools. People’s Schools went only up to Class 6, and Classes 6-12 were taught in the county middle and upper middle schools.
With the introduction of the Liberalization policy after 1980, there were big changes to primary education in xiangs and villages. The government sent Chinese teachers to middle and primary schools at county level but lacked resources to send them to the village level, so Chinese language teaching did not become that widespread, and hardly existed in remote villages, border areas and pastoral areas.
Then, since the start of the 10th Five-year plan (2000), around the time that construction of the Qinghai-Tibet railway started, the central government granted massive funds for road building in rural areas, improving electricity coverage, building schools and amalgamating schools. By the end of the 12th Five-year plan, there was Chinese language instruction in village primary schools all over TAR. Still, the great majority of children in Xiang and village schools come from Tibetan households and are not that exposed to Chinese language from a young age, so most of them learned only how to mix Chinese words with Tibetan, but not speak fluently in Chinese. Their disposition, way of thinking, behavior and educational development remained dependent on Tibetan language. Chinese mores and culture could be explained to them in Tibetan, but they could not understand it for themselves.
From the point of view of Tibetan language education, identity and cultural survival, this state of affairs can be seen in both positive and negative ways.
The positive: this generation spoke unadulterated Tibetan, as favored by those who wish to see the long-term survival of the Tibetan language. They either did not go to school, or left after primary level and did not go to the county school, went back home and joined their families in farming or herding. In the present Tibetan society, this generation is seen as purely Tibetan, guardians of a Tibetan consciousness passed down over generations, those who can pass on the noble outlook of awareness of karmic cause and effect, kindness and compassion, respecting the old and caring for the young, and so on, to the next generation. Despite the disastrous political upheavals of 1959 and the Cultural Revolution, this thing was not extinguished in Tibetan society but survived and revived, so this generation of people who had no doubt about identifying themselves as Tibetan became qualified as bearers of the ancestral tradition. They had no bilingual education in primary school or kindergarten, etc., and lived in a traditional social milieu, and this is seen as the positive outcome.
The negative: in Tibetan society now, urban and rural, there are young people who do not know Tibetan properly, and even worse, their grasp on the uniquely Tibetan identity and way of thinking has been lost. There are many youths who have Tibetan inscribed on their ID, but whose actual lives are devoid of Tibetanness, who are not even sure which nationality they belong to. Yet in this fast-developing society, it is mostly they who get government jobs and positions, they benefit from the central government’s Tibet policy, aid projects and so on, and tend to find fulfillment in meeting their material needs.
Many people on the outside look at how much stake young Tibetans have in rapid economic and social development, at the economic and political prospects for Tibetans in the development of Tibet, looking only at economic and employment status, as though the satisfaction of material needs were the only condition determining political outlook. Moreover, when the government and media proclaim the correctness of nationality policy, it is this young generation that stands out of Tibetan society as a whole, that can be pointed to as having both the education and the ability to develop Tibet through the kindness of the correct policy. So foreign tourists and many mainland tourists mistakenly see the young generation of Tibetans as beneficiaries of 21st century state-led nationality equality and a guiding force for Tibetan society emerging from poverty towards a prosperous society. The tourists are not to blame for this, since they are not aware of the unique properties of Tibetan-ness and the values associated with it. They are not able to see the imminent danger to Tibetan language, religion and culture from all sides on its current course, and without seeing the profound virtue of Tibetan customs and traditions relative to those of the Chinese or other nationalities, the influence of the idea that “we are all members of the same family of Chinese nationalities” goes for granted. On top of that, I worry whether we have a detailed and clear understanding of the dangers for the future of Tibetan language in exile society….
In TAR today, the top leaders do not take public opinion into account when making political or policy decisions, and those taking important decisions affecting the whole society are still Chinese. So, education work, construction or whatever, is done according to the priorities and objectives of the Chinese leaders, not the actual local situation. Normally, the TAR Party Committee automatically follows whatever the central government policy is, and everyone knows that to oppose it is a political offence. In particular, with the building of kindergartens everywhere in urban and rural areas in which the bilingual system has to be followed, no one will listen to popular sentiment or public opinion about the future of Tibetan language, and there is probably no way for members of the public to speak out.
In my view, “bilingual” kindergartens were started in TAR due to the requirements and objectives of firstly, economic development and secondly, the political ideology of nationality unity.
As for economic development, with the start of the 12th five-year plan, the Socialist New Villages construction program was expanded, huge budgets were allocated for infrastructure projects, and especially village urbanization, relocation for poverty alleviation, professional and vocational training, and tourism development programs multiplied from early 2009. In this context, education work in Tibet underwent great changes aimed at turning out the professionals, technicians and scientists of the future to build Tibet. I feel that the education figures and the rate of employment of skilled personnel over the last 15 years does reflect the actual situation.
The economic development I am talking about, based on Lhasa, the larger cities and resource-rich areas with transport access, has now spread to rural areas throughout the 74 counties of TAR. The “Aid Tibet” projects run by central and provincial governments continue to attract lots of Chinese who migrate to wherever the government money is, but Tibetan graduates, professionals, craftsmen etc., also find employment in these various projects. Which rural Tibetans get employment and benefits out of these projects? Apart from local craftsmen, more than 70 percent are Tibetan students who graduated from high schools in the mainland. The remainder are those who attended primary school in the xiang or county and learned to read and write Chinese or to communicate with fluency.
However, it is not true to say that Tibetans with no knowledge of Chinese have not benefitted at all from development projects in Tibet. Illiterate laborers get income from casual work as well, as everyone knows, but only pick and shovel work, they have none of the education and language skills for the easy, well-paid jobs that go to graduates and mainland Chinese … The CCP built roads, brought electricity, mechanized agriculture and liberated this paradise for dumb oxen, draught horses and donkeys, except that they used to do the work, but now we have to do it for them [the Chinese]. What does that mean? It means that if you don’t know Chinese, you are like a draught animal in old Tibet, working day and night on Chinese construction projects. This shows that for the 80 percent of Tibetans living in rural areas, a way of life using spoken and written Tibetan involves more and more hardship and sorrow.
I already mentioned the groups of young people given skills and technical training to raise a cadre force for developing Tibet. Here again is a big difficulty for ordinary people’s language usage: those Tibetans with the essential knowledge of [Chinese] language for everyday life, business and work, who have proven skills, are those who studied in Chinese medium. All the skills training is in Chinese, and all the training books and manuals. The government pays no attention to translating them, to allow skills training in Tibetan language, and no training is given in Tibetan for rural areas. The instructors are arrogant, and have the attitude that only Chinese is suitable for modern life, and Tibetan is irrelevant, backward and useless.
I have been working since 1992 … I have been a witness to the transformation in Tibet – it has all happened before my eyes. About bilingual education and my background: I went to the village primary school. Back then, in [name withheld] county, there was the middle school, but in the People’s Schools below that, I never saw a Chinese language teacher….
Under these conditions, pure Tibetan employees like me, with a fairly good level of written Tibetan, never use it in their working lives, rather the Chinese leaders see this knowledge as a ground for suspicion, and it causes various negative reactions from Chinese colleagues, so for a Tibetan to know their own language well becomes an obstacle in their career. The same problem is there for Tibetans working in all kinds of government offices and enterprises.
So, we already know that bilingual education is about breaking the continuity between my generation, with a fair knowledge of Tibetan, and the next. For Tibetans, the sickening and vexing plight of their language is something they experience in daily life, a troubling burden that we have long carried. The details, and the entire process of how this is happening, is something that the Dalai Lama, the exile government, international human rights organizations and the UN, etc., do not get to know about.
When we talked earlier, and you asked me about bilingual education, I felt delighted to find someone outside Tibet taking an interest in the language situation. Any people need to use its own language, and if someone tries to prevent that, it is not just a Tibetan issue, but a major human rights issue for the whole world. So, if people like you want to use your freedom to look into the issue and research it, I am happier than words can say.
In Tibet, the only way to live your life using Tibetan is to do farming or herding in remote rural areas. There is no future for Tibetan in urban areas. Whether or not this is the deliberate policy of the central government, it is what the Chinese TAR leaders have decided. Tibetans, especially parents who want a secure future for their children, must conclude that they have to study Chinese, because using Tibetan will only bring a life of hardship.
The government’s policy that removing obstacles for Tibetans with employment and economy involves not the creation of a Tibetan-speaking environment but rather having Tibetans learn Chinese to be employed or make a living, is completely inconsistent with nationality policy and constitutional guarantees of nationality autonomy. It is about stopping the use of Tibetan in society, and having the next generation grow up with no use for Tibetan. The current implementation of bilingual education in TAR starts from kindergarten, and the central government has paid a lot of attention to it and provided a lot of funds, sent teachers for training (in teaching Chinese). Building kindergartens in the villages and teaching Chinese to the newborn is about changing the language environment for the next generation, or to be blunt, it is an aggressive policy to disrupt the continuity of language transmission between generations of Tibetan society. If it succeeds, it is not difficult to foresee that Tibetan religion, culture, consciousness and identity will become sinicized.
One thing we can be sure about: the government policy of teaching Tibetan kindergartners Chinese in kindergarten has not been clearly and widely announced, and it has nothing in common with the special provisions for national autonomous regions, and the constitutional guarantees of respect for nationality religion and culture. On the other hand, they say many nice-sounding things about “early education,” increased financial and material support for education, delivering equal education in urban and rural schools, making the [provision or quality of] education even, and expanding the coverage of education resources, but what they say and what they do are in complete contradiction. Apart from all the talk, and all the different names and terms, what is the government actually doing with Tibetan language? It is deceptively but determinedly pursuing its agenda, making all Tibetans use Chinese, eliminating its role in practical life, and its future, and turning it into useless garbage for the purposes of the entire society.
Since there are Tibetan-language textbooks, why are schools choosing to teach in Chinese?
There are Tibetan textbooks in schools, but they can’t really be used as a textbook, it’s not like the Chinese, there are many problems, it can’t be used really. In mathematics there are many terms, it’s really difficult, I am saying there are different areas which each have a different version, so it’s just like a mess, the situation is not good. Maybe there is a textbook but actually they are teaching Chinese. It is not that they really took care. It is not that the government really supports it, puts effort in it. This is the problem. Earlier, they used to have Tibetan textbooks, but things are not up to that standard now. There are many ways the prefecture could come together, there are already some basic materials, and make it possible, but it didn’t happen. So, there are sometimes books in Tibetan, but they are not getting to the proper level.
These sixiangpingde [moral education] textbooks are not about how to be a good person, they are white and black sort of things – “this person is mad,” “this person is bad” – that sort of idea.
My kid is in the primary school, and I never saw a reasonably translated Tibetan textbook, even in the Tibetan language class. I have a feeling that there were some textbooks that had quite many mistakes, and different translation versions [of the same word] – it was very preliminary kind of work, there were many problems. As a student they naturally go for the far finer book, the Chinese one.
Starting from kindergarten there is almost no option but to do Chinese teaching with Chinese textbooks - in the Tibetan language class you could do it, but with other subjects, it is almost impossible, most of the teachers come from China mainland, they don’t know Tibetan anyway.
Do students in middle and high schools still get to study Tibetan language?
Yes, in the middle school and high schools, they are teaching Tibetan language, a little bit less than the Chinese. Chinese is the priority, since with this language you should understand all your tasks. Many Tibetan students feeling very bad about the Tibetan, because they see that it is not important at all with that environment, it’s just an extra task.
Are kindergartens compulsory? What language do they use?
As for kindergartens, sometimes it is difficult to [find] kindergartens with any good condition. Actually, all of those kindergartens with good conditions are teaching in Chinese, so some parents are sending kids there for safety. Yes, they have a choice not to send them to the kindergarten, but there are very few kindergartens and not enough for all the kids. So, the family is not taking much care about the language, they are deciding where to send them based on safety. There are some kindergartens that are private and maybe teach in Tibetan but there are so many risks, and their conditions can’t compare to the fancy, modern ones. I didn’t hear of anything particular that happened that was dangerous, but it is not really ideal. There is a potential, except for teaching in Tibetan, there is no guarantee.
Do they have a deliberate policy to create mixed classes?
I also have a very strong feeling that they are doing this mixed class, educating like this. That makes them to be actually sort of forcing Tibetans into the situation of studying in Chinese language - a situation where there is no option, since Chinese students never learn Tibetan. In the kindergartens, there are no separate Tibetan or Chinese classes: they are mixed together, all with one language, and the teachers have to speak in Chinese.
Ma Rong [the leading sociologist] wrote an article in which he said Uighurs need to learn Chinese to be competitive in the job market. This is totally right. But the question is why did they have this problem in the first place? In the nationality autonomy law, the reason that they cannot get jobs is because only the translation and broadcasting and translation bureaus require Tibetan or Uighur language. The others all use Chinese language as a requirement. So, I want to ask Ma Rong about this. Of course, I cannot ask this openly. So, I created a story.
Once upon a time there was a large group of cats catching fish, and in the same place there was a small number of rabbits eating grass. Then one day the cats came to the rabbits and told the rabbits, “Why don’t we get together, so that we can protect ourselves from the wolves? And at the same time, your grazing will be easier and better.” Then the rabbits reluctantly agreed. Then the pool got bigger with more and more fish, while the grassland on which the rabbits grazed got smaller and smaller.
So, then the cats come to the rabbits again and say, “You have to listen: from now on you had better think about learning how to catch fish, otherwise you won’t be able to survive.” So, then the rabbit has to think about that.
This is the story. This is Ma Rong’s thinking.
Ma Rong perfectly pointed out the issue: without learning to catch fish, the rabbits can’t survive. That is the reality. But he didn’t ask two important questions. At the beginning, the cats promised better grazing, but the pool in fact got larger. And the second thing is that the cats make a counterargument, saying that the fact that we are asking you to learn to catch fish doesn’t mean you have to stop grazing – no, you can do both. But where is the grass on which to graze?
So, this is bilingual education. In theory it means you can do both. It sounds beautiful. But in practice the working language even at the township level is in practice becoming Chinese.
But Ma Rong could reply that the pool gets bigger because of the rain, not the cats, couldn’t he?
Ah yes, you’re right. In other words, globalization. In this story the cat asks the rabbit to become a cat, that’s what’s so sad. If the rabbit had asked the cat to become a rabbit, what would you feel?
Has the use of Chinese increased at the township level?
Yes. Even the Tibetan university graduate students, their Chinese is much, much better than their Tibetan unless they are Tibetan majors. If he is in the township, even if he wants to use Tibetan, his writing is not good enough, so he would be embarrassed and would use Chinese. I am not against learning languages at all. The more foreign languages the better. But learning Chinese at the cost of your mother-tongue, that is the problem. As the cats said, learning to catch fish without abandoning grazing is fine, that’s good. Maybe even Ma Rong is serious about that. But in practice we do not have the condition to continue grazing. You – the government – would have to make the conditions to continue grazing. He is right that Uighurs are not competitive with their Chinese counterparts, it’s true, but he and people like him never ask the reason why they are not competitive. In the constitution and the law, the language of jobs in the hospital, school and so on should be in the local language, and if the Chinese put all the articles in the regional autonomy law and the constitution into practice, then many Tibetans would be perfectly happy, we would not need extra law and would not need to make a change. The problem is you promised many things, but now you didn’t keep them. Then there’s a problem – and it’s not our problem, it’s your problem.
Thirty years ago, the township working language was Tibetan, I can be almost sure, especially in my area, where township documents had to be Tibetan. Now 30 years later, the language has to be Chinese, or at least, more and more documents are Chinese. Even in villages, in some cases. Now among the daxueshengcunguan [university students sent to work as village officials], many are from Tibet University, but their Tibetan language is not good enough, so they are happy to write a report in Chinese, and then in a meeting they can speak directly to the nomads. Now the township will still accept a report in Tibetan, but they would prefer Chinese.
What other evidence is there of the pool expanding?
Now the position of Tibetan [in schools] is equal to English, it’s like a foreign language. Now all subjects except that are taught in Chinese. In Qinghai, the situation is much better, that’s why there were demonstrations in Rebkong and other places about five years ago when they tried to change the teaching language, you know better than me.
Yes, but what is your direct evidence and experience?
In Lhasa there are lots of kindergartens run by private people, they are quite modern in terms of facilities and environment, so my colleagues like it. But no Tibetan in the kindergartens, only mathematics and so on, in Chinese. The government closed many kindergartens – Tibetan-run ones – and schools run by monks, they also closed them. Many kindergartens are run by Chinese privately, and only mathematics, Chinese and maybe English are taught – but no Tibetan.
This is why Tibetans are not just the victims, but active participants in their marginalization. It’s really complicated, it’s not one way or the other. If the thing is put in a very simple way, the counter argument of the Chinese is, why are you Tibetan parents sending your children to this Chinese kindergarten, you could just teach Tibetan at home? So, they could say this. I could use the same argument too. So, at the same time, Tibetan people actively work – not just passively – in the system to promote this [situation]. Last night I had a conversation with one of my best friends who works in the [name withheld] office, and several months ago he went to [name withheld] (Western country), his first time abroad. He felt that that place is very clean, with blue sky, and so on, but other than that, there was not really much difference between Lhasa and there, so now he feels Tibet is really developed.… So, I can feel that people enjoy the material benefits in the TAR. He said this foreign place is very modernized and part of the western world and is very developed, he expected something very different from Tibet, but he found much the same blue sky, and iPhones, and the Wi-Fi connection is much better in Lhasa than there in his hotel.
Do you have an example of this change in language use?
About language, township documents are my first observation. The worst case is maybe in Linzhi [Nyingtri], in Kongpo. People my age speak to their children in Chinese more than in Tibetan and they feel comfortable about doing it, they feel nothing unusual about it. I have a colleague in Lhasa, a PhD from China, a very close friend, and one day she took me to dinner, she has a very nice car – I’m really not part of the system, I don’t have a car – and she got a phone call and I can tell it’s her father, she said Pala or something like that, but the content was Chinese. So, I said politely – because I know her Tibetan is not good, she can speak but not write – “interesting, you speak in Chinese to your father.” She said, “Yes, we know it’s a problem and that we should speak in Tibetan, but in Linzhi it’s like that, we do like that.”
So, I went to Bayi three years ago. It’s really hard to find a noodle restaurant there with Tibetan sweet tea and Tibetan noodles, it’s really hard to find one. In the end we had to ask the cleaner. So Linzhi is a typical example of a kind of colonized city. Many of the shops and restaurants are Chinese and only those doing lower level jobs are Tibetans. Many of them are Khampas, cleaning the streets, those kinds of jobs. Because of so many Chinese in Linzhi, when Tibetans meet there, they feel very emotional. I can tell you one story. When we went to a famous scenic spot that is now very famous in the new economy called Lunang - the Chinese say Lulang – it has a five-star hotel, we went there. We came across a stand selling some local products. So, we stopped, because my Chinese colleague wanted to buy some mushrooms, and I helped. The salesgirl said to me, because she saw I was Tibetan, “Don’t buy this we are just tricking the Chinese, you are Tibetan.” So, when they meet Tibetans from other places, they automatically feel much better. There are several kinds of mushroom and she said to me, you only buy either of these two kinds, the others are just for the Chinese.
Tell me about the kindergartens.
Before there were no kindergartens. In my time at school, the instruction language was Tibetan, and then they changed the language at school – from the late 1980s to the early 1990s it become more obvious. I think it was Chen Kuiyuan’s [party secretary of the TAR, policy [1992-2000] to really discourage Tibetan language education, even at Tibet University, it was directly connected to the earlier demonstrations, they thought that Tibetan identity would increase because of language and would give them problems. So, kindergartens are something new, only over the past 10 years. Right from the beginning they are private Chinese ones where of course they hired Tibetan workers, but the owner was Chinese. It seems that the government indirectly encouraged it, they think that if these children are fluent in Chinese at three years old, it’s better for them, like Ma Rong says, they can get a better chance of jobs, and it’s better for the stability issue, that’s their thinking. So, when the rabbits agree to share with the cats, there is actually no issue of the cats protecting the rabbits, because the rabbits de facto become cats. Maybe inside his herd, the rabbit thinks he is a rabbit, but his way of life is effectively cat. So, the promise of protection is irrelevant, they are already cats.
Did you see inside any kindergartens in those days?
I went several times with my friend to the kindergarten, it was near our compound, in the city, it was, in terms of facilities, quite modern, they have lunch there so that the children just like you have it don’t have to go back home, they have lots of pictures, like the English alphabet, on the walls. There is nothing in Tibetan. It’s very modern and the environment is very good and clean and shiny and looks very nice, and so any parent going there will feel safe. And for a parent safety is the first priority, more than language. If they think their children can learn Tibetan but doing it feels unsafe, then they will give up. They will give up the language question in that case.
How did you know that they were giving preference to Chinese in that kindergarten?
When we went to pick up his son, the son came out and said “bye bye” to the teacher, who is Chinese, laoshi zaijian, he said something like this. So now small children, their Chinese – I have still a strong accent, not only a Tibetan accent but a local accent from my area of Tibet, they always joke about our accents in Chinese, about people of my generation – but now the small children do not have an accent when they speak Chinese. They speak just like Beijing. In a TV show in Beijing there was a singing competition recently, and there was a small boy from Amdo county in Nagchu, which is quite remote and very high, and they showed he is truly from a nomadic family and his father is still from a nomad. And when he performed, he spoke perfect Chinese, which really impressed people. On the one hand, this is good, but it’s like … the ideal scenario is you can fish, and you can still graze. On the other hand, I am really impressed by the rabbits’ fishing skills, like the boy. But if the rabbit cannot graze well, then I will feel sad, because the cost is too high.
I have another theory, which I think that the government researchers do not realize. Whenever there is a demonstration by some group of people in Lhasa, what the government does is to show some individual on Lhasa TV saying. “I was born before 1959 and at that time we were very poor, so now I am retired, my son’s children went to school in China, every Sunday we go to the park and I go and do some korwa [circumambulations].…” On the one hand, they sacrificed years of their time in Tibet, these Chinese who worked to achieve this in the early days, so it is true, and in the 1950s, the economy was really backward comparatively, no cars, no modern school, no bicycles. So, he is right, his two sons and daughters went to Beida [Beijing University] and now have jobs in the Tibetan government – I have no problem with that. You are right. My problem is [writes on napkin:] “individual well-being–collective well-being.”
Now the government and many researches equalize these two. Individual well-being goes up, then group well-being also goes up. That’s how they think. In the Han case, of course this is true: if every single Chinese person’s well-being improves then the total situation of the group improves. No question of loss of identity. But in the Tibet case, it is the opposite: the more progress individually then the less progress for the group, or it means even going backwards for the group. This I really think the Chinese government doesn’t realize. They think when every single individual Tibetan’s well-being improves, they should be happy. Yes, your [interviewer’s] car and house are better, it’s true, but … So, with Tibetan children going to China, individually they lose Tibetan and master Chinese, they get a better job and living, but for the Tibetan nation it is regression. It’s the opposite way. So, I don’t think many Chinese realize this. So, whenever there is a protest, they show an individual case on television - but actually it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t make sense. When I point this out to my Chinese colleagues, they say, yes, it’s true, and they say that they had never thought of that. But they say, so then what? They think.…
Recently there is a Chinese guy, quite famous, Song Luzhang, he is quite active on YouTube, he is a political scientist from Fudan and is affiliated with an institution in France. He is often shown in debate programs, such as one I watched on VOA. What he expressed is the concern of many Chinese: he talked about democracy very clearly, and about the Catalonia situation, and he said that China can never get democracy because once China gets this he is almost sure Tibet and Xinjiang would be separated through a referendum. So, he said we cannot choose democracy. I can feel Ma Rong really has this concern. Once you are democratic you have to give people self-determination rights. Then you can’t really control them. They say it doesn’t fit the Chinese context in the past, but now they directly say it is for the unity of the country. They directly say it now.
Any other evidence of Tibetan language in that kindergarten?
My friend told me there is no Tibetan language in that kindergarten. On the wall there was a colorful picture for each letter in the English alphabet, but no Tibetan. I could easily find one like that in Chengdu. And this was an ordinary one. In my [rural/remote] area, one of my cousins worked for the kindergarten run by the government, so I know that was using Tibetan. I think it is still like that, in that place. [Writes on napkin] “in economically backward places, Tibetan identity is better maintained.”
In Gyalrong a singer, a Tibetan woman, made an embarrassing mistake on television, a few months ago. It was a singing competition. It is on a video. She wanted to impress the jury. They asked why she wanted to sing in Tibetan. She said, as a Gyalrong Tibetan, “I feel bad, I want to promote our Tibetan language, because we speak it, but we do not have a written form of our language.” She used the word Zangyue, she means Tibetan, not a local Gyalrong language. She wanted to protect it, but she said this. So, many Tibetans were angry and said, how could you say that in front of the Chinese? They said that it is because she does not know Tibetan.
In terms of development, these places did much better than distant places, but in terms of identity they do much worse. Wang Lixiong said it in his Sky Burial book – I really like this idea – “nature saves Tibet.” Do you think so? Still 99 percent of people in Nagchu are Tibetans, because it is the highest area in the region, even if I give Chinese $1 million to settle down there, they won’t do it, they won’t settle permanently. It is not the case in Linzhi, which is lower altitude, beautiful forest, so many Chinese feel like buying a house, escaping from the smog, and so on. It’s not because they had more identity in Nagchu – it’s because of nature….
Do you think some kindergartens were closed down?
I don’t have direct knowledge of this, I just heard about it. I know of some schools which were….
What about the [name withheld] school statement that was posted online, saying it had been taken over by the authorities?
Yes, I read that. I think what happened to them there is because of several factors. Maybe one is because the counterpart [government office] maybe wanted to get benefit from the local property and wanted to get the advantages of selling or renting out that property. And possibly they also had a quota of the number of children they had to say that they had reached and worked with. So, these might be part of the reasons that they did this.… But the Chinese would never say that was the reason. They’ll always give another reason. Otherwise people could say that they are going against the regional autonomy law and the constitution. So, they’ll say it’s a tax or something else. It will always be like that.
Appendix 2: Petitions
October 15, 2010
Raising the quality of nationality education requires adhering to teaching the mother-tongue as the dominant language
Under the correct leadership of the Qinghai Province Department of Education, Tongren County in Huangnan Prefecture arranged and held Tibetan Language Course Reforms Training from October 11 to 16, 2010 for elementary and middle school teachers. More than 300 teachers from Tibetan elementary and middle schools across Qinghai province attended the training, and the outcomes of the training were exemplary. However, trainees engaged in deep discussions during the training, and consider that there must be thorough changes to the backward state of Tibetan education, requiring adherence to teaching of the mother-tongue as the dominant language.
Violating regulations on teaching and study and not using a scientific medium of instruction are major factors restricting the quality of teaching and study at nationality elementary and middle schools. Our province’s Tibetan students come from the vast farming and nomadic areas and have never been in a Chinese-language environment. Even though they have studied Chinese for several years by the time of their elementary school education, they cannot communicate in Chinese. If our province were to address such a group as this by adopting Chinese-language tuition, the outcome would be that the students would not understand what the teacher is saying, not to mention be able to actually learn anything. The choice of language of instruction should depend entirely on those being taught. The purpose of education is for teachers and students to convey and receive knowledge by the most easily understood means between teachers and students. As far as the Tibetan students in our province are concerned, they are not familiar with Chinese and so they are not able to think about or express their ideas in Chinese, not to mention being able to use Chinese to creatively analyze problems. However, in daily life the Tibetan mother-tongue is the most familiar tool for analyzing problems and expressing ideas, and therefore it should be the most effective tool for study in their lives at school. As an example, with regard to normal middle-school students, their mother-tongue is Chinese, the language they are most familiar with, and they take to teaching in the Chinese language like a fish to water. But what would happen if the language of instruction we used for ordinary middle school students was English, with which they are unfamiliar? Obviously, the quality of education for the vast majority of ordinary middle school students would suffer significantly.
Using the mother-tongue as the language of instruction for nationality elementary and middle school students does not imply a weakening of the Chinese language. Quite the contrary: aside from teaching classes such as Chinese and English using the mother-tongue, the study of Chinese should be strengthened, and the study of English should gradually be strengthened.
A Tibetan scholar put it well: if one wishes to stand up, one must study one’s mother-tongue well; if one wants to leave one’s home, one must study Chinese well; if one wants to go out into the world, one must study English well – there is no point therefore in belaboring the importance of the Chinese language and script and the English language. Relatively speaking, in accordance with the realities in Tibetan areas it is more important to study Chinese. At present, there are many problems with the Chinese language and script as taught in Tibetan elementary and middle schools, such as with the teaching methods and the chosen teaching materials not conforming to the real conditions of Tibetan students. In many places in our province, Tibetan students have studied Chinese for 10 or more years – from elementary school until upper middle school – but they are still unable to communicate in Chinese. In order to thoroughly change this situation, we must renew our understanding of how we can effectively teach Chinese to Tibetan students, and even carry out research into this topic. In many countries in the west, there has been much research into methods and materials for teaching English as a second language.
As a result of this research, there have been positive outcomes in English teaching in non-English speaking countries. In recent years, our country has also adopted these teaching concepts and there have been great changes in English language teaching from the teaching methods to the teaching materials, which has made English language teaching more practicable, and increased students’ interest in study. Such progressive foreign teaching methods should also be used for Tibetan students studying the Chinese language, and for teaching the Chinese language and script as a second language. The relevant education departments should formulate appropriate measures to this end, and focusing on the real conditions of Tibetan students, compile Chinese language and script materials and train Chinese language teachers in the new teaching concepts and practices, thereby making Tibetan students’ study of the Chinese language more effective and more practical.
But we cannot sacrifice the study of other subjects for the sake of properly studying the Chinese language and text and the English language. We should understand the difference between teaching a language and the language of instruction. The choice of which language is used for instruction should be decided entirely upon which language is not an obstacle to the student’s studies. An individual’s wisdom and their ability to analyze problems is intimately connected to the development of their language abilities. Therefore, in order to raise the quality of teaching and education and to amply reveal a person’s intelligence, we should use a language of instruction most easily understood by the students, at the same time as strengthening the teaching of language itself. Therefore, all trainees maintain that it is scientific to continue using the mother-tongue as the language of instruction.
2. The Entire Body of Trainees at the Qinghai Province Elementary and Middle School Tibetan Language Course Reforms Training Class
October 15, 2010
(The names and affiliations of the trainees are as follows: [names and affiliations withheld])
October 24, 2010
Material in square brackets represents summaries of longer sections.
Suggestions on the Issue of Long-Term Reforms to Tibetan-Han Bilingual Education in Qinghai Province
[The writers express effusive praise for education achievements in the province and note Qinghai’s education development plan and the allocation of 7.6 billion Yuan and a determination to make new breakthroughs in bilingual education.]
Because the Qinghai development plan touched upon such major issues as the primary and secondary distinctions between the Chinese and Tibetan languages and unification of the language of instruction, added to which was the urgent resolve, speed and strength of implementation by education administrative authorities and individual jurisdictions, this gave rise to dissatisfaction among students and parents in some areas, leading to various forms of protests at middle and elementary schools such as street demonstrations and rallies on campuses in the four Tibetan autonomous prefectures of Huangnan, Hainan, Guoluo and Haibei, which continue to spread and extend to other places beyond schools, and which had an extremely adverse impact both domestically and internationally.
[The writers express their concern about the stability of Qinghai’s Tibetan areas. Comments by the head of the Education Department were published in full in Chinese and Tibetan, helping us to understand the students’ demands.]
With regard to the Education Department submitting in the “Qinghai plan” that Chinese will be primary and Tibetan will be subsidiary, with Chinese as the language of instruction and Chinese language extended to pre-school, and disregarding the normal requests by such interest groups as students and parents to hasten implementation, the Director of the Education Department Wang Yubo put forward the “three complies”, which are the center’s spirit, national laws, and the fundamental interests and wishes of the masses. [But all our experience tells us that these are not being complied with.] We consider that:
First: There is no basis for “complying with the spirit of the center,” and qualitatively, to do so would contravene the center’s requirements. Having been submitted numerous times for public feedback and comments, it can be said that the “National Mid- to Long-Term Education Reform and Development Outline Plan (2010-2020)” had collated public opinion, chimed with public opinion and complied with public opinion. In the “Chapter Nine – Nationality Education” section on “vigorously promoting bilingual education”, it emphasizes, “Comprehensively carry out Chinese-language syllabuses, comprehensively promote the national language and text. Respect and protect the right of minority nationalities to use their nationality’s own language to receive and education.” Obviously, this is formulated based on the reality that Chinese is the second language in minority nationality areas (particularly Tibetan areas). The Han population is large, Chinese is broadly used, and the international influence of Chinese as a global strategy is ceaselessly growing. The Tibetan cadres and masses are as keen to voluntarily learn Chinese as they are to learn English, and the comprehensive carrying out of a Chinese-language syllabus has never been questioned, and even less has it been resisted. We believe that the provisions of the “preceding clause” are accepted and promoted by all areas. But it is immediately followed by “to use their own nationality’s language to receive an education, which defines it as a right granted by law which is to be respected and guaranteed, while significantly there is no “requirement” for Chinese to be the language of instruction for such non-language elementary and middle school syllabuses such as mathematics, physics, politics, geography, ethics and science and technology.
Does the government have a responsibility to respect and protect the national language as the language of instruction or the subsidiary language? But Wang Yubo emphasizes setting the target as, “upholding teaching in the national language and text as the primary while at the same time studying well the nationality language and text, and making the national language the language of instruction,” and furthermore, the public implementation timetable says, “By 2015, elementary schools will realize ‘bilingual’ teaching whereby the national language and text is primary and the nationality language and text is subsidiary,” which not only bypasses the teaching setting of conducting syllabus teaching in the Chinese language, it also pilfers and tampers with the concept of “a right to an education in the nationality language” proposed in the “National plan.”
Second: the so-called “complies with national law” is in fact out of context, and there are serious unconstitutionalities and illegalities. [The writers provide a long analysis of the relevant laws, policies, guidelines, etc.]
Third: By making a language the sole official language of the PRC because it is understood is ignorant and sophist, and even more so it ignores the basic characteristic of China as a unified multi-ethnic nation, and the basic system of national autonomy. [Wang Yubo’s argument that Chinese is the sole official national language does not stand; it contravenes numerous legal and policy provisions.]
Fourth: since there is affirmation of the successes of bilingual teaching, there is no reason to make the Tibetan language the scapegoat of reform, and no reason to blame difficulties with bilingual education on Tibetan. Wang Yubo said, “Bilingual education has made great progress, with a basic bilingual teaching system in place from foundational education through to higher education, which has nurtured a batch of socialist constructors and successors fluent in Chinese and nationality languages, who are playing an important role on all battle-fronts throughout the entire province”, and that they have an “important and irreplaceable role” can be said to be objective, fair and realistic. Many of us retired cadres have experienced for ourselves this historic process, and some have even dedicated their entire lives to this undertaking. And so if education departments understand that these achievements are so significant, why are they still abolishing bilingual education, separating languages into primary and subsidiary, and unifying the language of instruction to Chinese, and so thoroughly denying nationality education, bilingual education that has taken decades to explore, repeated practices, hard-won development, and the cultivation of other great achievements? We are at a loss to understand it! Attributing the many problems with bilingual education to Tibetan as the language of instruction is biased and sophist, with no scientific basis. And so it was recently in the first such demonstration on September 19 in Longwu Town in Huangnan Prefecture, that aside from the three language syllabuses of Tibetan, Chinese and English at two high schools, in the remainder of the non-language syllabuses, in Tongren County Nationality Middle School the vast majority of courses use Tibetan as the language of instruction, and the Huangnan Prefecture Nationality Middle School uses Chinese and Tibetan as the languages of instruction for different grades. Teaching practice has shown that the Tongren school does better than the prefecture school, and the prefecture school’s Tibetan-language classes do better than the Chinese-language classes. How is this to be explained? Furthermore, the two prefectures of Huangnan and Hainan have over the long term both used Tibetan as the language of instruction for the majority of bilingual teaching, and the three prefectures of Haibei, Haixi and Yushu have used Tibet curricula (or for elective courses), and the popularization and quality of bilingual education in the former far exceeds that of the latter – again, how is this to be explained? Ignoring good results and good experience for the sake of “reform”, it is perfectly understandable why students and parents find this difficult to accept.
[Having long considered the issue of bilingual education], we consider that the choice of a language of instruction in a school must “be decided in accordance with the wishes of the majority of the masses and the local language environment” (“Some suggestions on strengthening nationality education work” [issued by the National Education Committee and State Ethnic Affairs Commission, 1992]), and not changed at the will of the leader of a provincial-level administrative department.
Based on the above understandings and considerations, we propose:
1. Immediately halt illegal provision for implementing Chinese as the sole language of instruction [i.e., properly enforce the relevant parts of the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law, etc.].
2. Based on reality, with respect for science and adherence with the law, use Tibetan to jointly promote and jointly strengthen the teaching of both the Chinese and Tibetan languages as well as other language classes. [Making better use of the experiences with bilingual education already noted above; improve students’ abilities in Chinese by means of language instruction, and not by such tangential means such as “arithmetic, painting, and sports”; hiring genuinely bilingual teachers – i.e., Tibetan teachers are expected to be bilingual, but Han teachers are not.]
3. By defining a certain proportion and quota of “nationality students sitting the university entrance examination in that nationality’s language” [Ch.: min kao min], broaden the avenues for bilingual students to advance their studies and employment option, strengthening their adaptability to the Chinese-language world. [It isn’t the students’ fault that opportunities are limited; good examples from all of the nationality areas in the country should be studied.]
4. Honor commitments to strengthen and make progress in nationality language teaching, eliminating people’s worries and doubts about bilingual reforms. Wang Yubo proposed, “Continue strengthening and reforming minority nationality language teaching, increase investment, improve conditions, and raise the quality of education.” Such empty parlance is all too common and painful to our ears. In our experience, a “twin-track system” of two models of bilingual education were introduced in tandem in Qinghai in the 1980s, which were focused on two different regions: implementation of bilingual teaching with Chinese as the language of instruction and the sole nationality language in the varied nationality schools in areas of Xining and Haidong, and implementation of bilingual teaching in the six autonomous prefectures with Tibetan as the language of instruction and Chinese as the only other language. After 30 years of development, in Xining and the varied nationality areas of Haidong (aside from Xunhua, which in recent years has started to recover), bilingual education practically existed in name only in other areas, and practically no nationality-language teachers were deployed, meaning that bilingual Tibetan-Chinese, Tu-Chinese and Sala-Chinese elementary and middle school education was just a fiction. Bilingual teaching in the nationality language alone seemed to become the initial stage for promoting the practice of monolingual Chinese teaching. Such a history was unwilling to be seen within the entire province, and instead it needed to be corrected and improved upon. Now, with such determination and great efforts to promote Chinese at the provincial-level education department, a blind eye is being turned to nationality language education in these areas (including some townships and some pastoral and agricultural areas of Haibei and Haixi), and so how does this prove “language equality”? We call on the provincial department of education to take up a program of nationality language curricula in rural nationality schools in Xining and Haidong within 60 days of receipt of this petition, and to provide a clear answer to thoroughly prove that “one language is being used to weaken another”, in exchange for the trust of the Tibetan masses at home and abroad.
We strongly call for:
1. Reflection on the positive and negative experiences since the Cultural Revolution, and by means of mutual respect between Han and minority nationalities and the study and use of language, further consolidate good ethnic relations. [Han should learn local languages in accordance with the provisions of the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law, etc.]
2. The protection and development of the Tibetan language is a requirement for the harmonious co-existence of language cultures and the continuation of human civilization; please pay respect and attention to this. (Tibetan is an international language; its preservation is not merely a domestic issue. There is great uncertainty at the moment – post 3.14 [March 14, 2008 riots and protests] – about the center’s Tibet policies and what changes may be afoot, so any changes to language policy are particularly worrisome at this time.)
3. With relevant social groupings aside from education and nationality work departments taking the lead, carry out in-depth studies, discussions and experience exchanges on the issue of bilingual education, upholding social stability and the unity of the nationalities and avoiding the Tibetan language becoming a political factor affecting ethnic relations and national security.…
October 24, 2010.
Copies to: the Central United Front Work Department (UFWD), the National People’s Congress (NPC) Nationalities and Religion Committee, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, the National Ministry of Education, the National Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), all standing members of the provincial Party committee, the provincial people’s congress, the provincial government, the provincial CPPCC leadership, their departments, the provincial UFWD, the provincial Nationalities and Religion Affairs Committee, the Party committees, NPCs, governments and CPPCCs of the six prefectures, and the education bureaus of the six prefectures.
Appendix 3: Social Media Debates, 2016-2017
1. Social Media Post by Dekhang Jampa, Government Employee in the Legal Sector, Lhasa
June 14, 2016
Dekhang Jampa’s posting was a personal response to the June 2016 announcement by the Lhasa Education Bureau of a switch to Chinese-medium instruction for mathematics classes in certain primary schools in Lhasa.
Who took away Tibetan children’s right to receive a Tibetan language education? – On defending the language rights of nationalities
Recently, there were crazy rumors going around that the TAR Department of Education was going to print all elementary school mathematics course materials in the Chinese language in the name of “improving effectiveness and simplifying procedures,” but as a legal worker and on the basis of my professional training I knew there wasn’t a sufficient factual basis to accept such a rumor. It was only when I saw information on the Lhasa Education micro-blogging platform about the versions of textbooks used in elementary schools in all of Lhasa City’s counties and districts that I knew that the online rumors were not unfounded. Yet the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China provides that “The people of all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages.” The Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law of the People’s Republic of China provides that “Autonomous agencies in ethnic autonomous areas guarantee the freedom of the nationalities in these areas to use and develop their own spoken and written languages,” “Autonomous agencies of an ethnic autonomous area persuade and encourage cadres of the various nationalities to learn each other's spoken and written languages,” and “The cadres and masses of the various nationalities must be educated to trust, learn from and help one another and to respect the spoken and written languages.” The Law of the People's Republic of China on a Common Spoken and Written Language provides that “The spoken and written languages of the ethnic peoples shall be used in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Constitution, the Law on Regional National Autonomy and other laws.” Several requests hereby made of the autonomous regional Department of Education in order to rectify the various areas of chaos in TAR education.
First, public schools must guarantee the implementation of nationality language education. Public schools are schools which are expressly established by the state to guarantee citizens’ rights to culture and education. In Tibet, public schools must first guarantee the right to the use and development of the Tibetan language, and no work unit or individual may for any reason infringe upon citizens’ legitimate rights, nor besmirch the solemnity of the “Constitution of the PRC” and the “Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law of the PRC.” Therefore, without exception, public schools must first guarantee the rights of nationalities to use and develop their own language.
Second, teachers should regularly receive training to protect against communication barriers between teachers and students. In the spirit of "mutual trust, mutual help, mutual respect for language,” various teachers within the nationality, through regular training, regular inspection and supervision measures, must ensure that all teachers including those from the local nationality are understood by students, and that students are understood by teachers as a means of promoting unity of the nationalities and the great goal of common prosperity.
Third, strictly forbid the unauthorized printing of textbooks, as it violates the fundamental rights of citizens and throws into chaos the normal order of education. At present, different versions of mathematics textbooks within Tibet has not only directly stripped the nationalities’ right to use their own language, it has also thrown the normal order of education into chaos, leaving teachers and students not knowing what’s good. Such chaos can make children in nationality areas receive an uneven education which is not only detrimental to the development of their own nationality, even more so it is detrimental to the future construction of the motherland, and must be urgently rectified.
Fourth, aside from Chinese-language subjects within the area of ethnic regional autonomy, entrance examinations must guarantee the use of the nationality’s own language. As far as children, parents, schools and the Education Department are concerned, the greatest concern is the advancement rate for children. Children within Tibet study the language of their own nationality, but examinations are in the language of another nationality, which directly causes a drop in the child advancement rate.
So, I hope that the leadership will urge rectification of this. Thank you!
Note: The national constitution, laws and regulations, and Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law of the state exist in order to protect and implement the rights and obligations of citizens of the People's Republic of China, and if a unit or individual through illegal means has committed a violation of personal or collective legal rights, citizens then have the right to make a request to the units or individuals, and the departments have the obligation to rectify or explain the actual situation. This article made a legitimate request to the autonomous regional education department in strict accordance with the existing laws and regulations of the country, and there is no personal will or ulterior motives behind the expression. If incorrect, please correct me!
Deputy Professor at Tibet Minzu University School of Education, PhD in education, and researcher in nationality education. August 6, 2016.
Here Prof. Xu responds to the social media comments posted by Dekhang Jampa three weeks earlier (Appendix 3.1) about the switch to Chinese-medium instruction in some mathematics classes in Lhasa.
Some elementary schools in Lhasa are changing to “Han Mathematics.” What do you think?
1. All elementary schools are changing to “Han Mathematics”? It’s not like that.
On June 13, a message about bilingual education in Tibet went viral, flying around friend circles. The original text is as follows:
The Education Bureau has right now changed all elementary school books into Chinese saying it’s to improve efficacy, because if textbooks for mathematics, etc., were in Tibetan then procedurally it’s too complicated, but, if it’s going to be like this, Tibetan children from a very young age won’t have the opportunity to study their mother language, not to mention carry forward their nationality’s culture. I hope the relevant departments will consider this properly!!! Please resend!!!
This message didn’t explain in what area this Education Bureau is, nor did it say whether other subjects aside from mathematics – in addition to Tibetan and English – are also taught in Chinese. It can be seen from the sentence, “The Education Bureau has right now changed all elementary school books into Chinese,” that almost all textbooks have apparently been changed to Chinese. But we can see from the statement “saying it’s to improve efficacy, because if textbooks for mathematics, etc., were in Tibetan then procedurally it’s too complicated” that seemingly only mathematics textbooks are to be changed to Chinese teaching. It’s extremely important to consider how this issues relates to the Tibetan masses sense of nationality, so I urgently asked the friend who had [emailed] me about it, who said that the Education Bureau mentioned in the microblog was Lhasa Education Bureau; then I went to try and verify it with a friend who’s an elementary school teacher but the outcome was that they weren’t too sure. “I’ve heard maybe” that the mathematics teaching is to be in Chinese, but the other subjects are to be as before. At dawn on June 13, a circle friend who’s a teacher in Tibet forwarded me an article sent out as a public message by the Lhasa Education Bureau entitled, “Mathematics textbook versions used in elementary schools in all counties and districts in Lhasa.” The complete text is copied below:
1. Cheng’guan District, Duilong Deqing District, Qushui County and Nimu County use the Chinese version mathematics teaching materials for first through sixth grades.
2. Mozhu Gongka County Elementary School uses Chinese mathematics, other schools use Tibetan mathematics in first grade and second grade, Chinese mathematics from third grade through sixth grade.
3. Linzhou County Elementary School uses Chinese mathematics, one third-grade class in the Bianjiaolin Township uses Chinese mathematics (as chosen by the teacher), and all other schools use Tibetan mathematics from first grade through sixth grade.
4. Dazi County transitioned to using Chinese mathematics for first through sixth grades in autumn 2016. Previously the County Elementary School used Chinese mathematics, and other schools ranged.
5. In Dangxiong County elementary schools, some classes in all grades use Chinese mathematics and other classes all use Tibetan mathematics; Longren Township uses Chinese in first through third grades, and all other grades use Tibetan completely. Other schools entirely use Tibetan mathematics.
This public message from “Lhasa Education” was published on June 13, and the message about how elementary schools “changed all elementary school books into Chinese” began suddenly going round my friend circle in huge numbers that afternoon (because of work connections, my friend circle has several hundred secondary, elementary and kindergarten school teachers in Tibet and in-college students), and I figured that the source of this “changed all elementary school books into Chinese” information was perhaps the article sent out as a public message by “Lhasa Education,” and it was just that the “Lhasa Education” article had been taken out of context by understanding or misinterpreting that the policy change in Dazi County to teach mathematics in Chinese meant that all elementary schools in Lhasa were going to do the same. Of course, it is not difficult to see from the “Lhasa Education” article that many elementary schools in Lhasa have already implemented “Chinese mathematics” teaching, but it’s just that every time there’s a teaching language policy change it inevitably raised concerns among the Tibetan masses on the issue of protecting and carrying forward their nationality language.
2. Will using “Chinese mathematics” lead to a Tibetan language crisis? This is not likely.
On June 14 at 14:48 in the afternoon, an essay by “Dekang Qiangba” was published (I can see what time it was published on the microblog, but not which platform was used). It was also rapidly resent by friends. This piece opened by citing clauses from the “Constitution,” the “Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law” and “The National Common Language Law” about using minority nationality languages, and then, “presented some requirements to the autonomous regional department of education with a view to rectifying all kinds of chaos in education within the Tibet Autonomous Region”: first, public schools must guarantee implementation of the Tibetan people’s language in education. Second, teachers must periodically undergo training to ensure that there are no impediments to communication between teachers and students. Third, strictly forbid the unauthorized printing of textbooks which deprives citizens of their fundamental rights and disturbs the normal order of education. Fourth, aside from the Chinese language as a subject within the area of ethnic regional autonomy, advancement examinations must be guaranteed to be in the language used by that nationality.
I am willing to believe that the writer of the above has no ulterior motives, and is using a certain ability to express themselves learned from using written language to express the thoughts harboured by many of the Tibetan masses and the deep anxiety they have about a crisis being faced by their nationality language and nationality culture. The Han nationality also have this sense of crisis and anxiety. Discussions over the past few years about English language education and the drop in the proportion of marks in the university entrance exam for English and the rise in the proportion of points for [Chinese] language are a reflection of this sense of crisis and anxiety. The Han are facing the internationally forceful language of English and they are trying to protect Chinese, and minority nationalities are facing Chinese which domestically is in a strong position and want to protect their minority nationality language – they have the same concerns and the same concerns for the same reasons. A nationality’s language maintains a link to nationality sentiment, and it is the carrier of nationality culture. The fading of a minority nationality language always gives rise to people’s worries about the fate of a nationality. Many people believe that without a nationality language and a nationality culture, qualitatively a nationality can no longer exist. Protecting a nationality language and culture is not only the contemporary international consensus, it is also consistently provided for in laws such as the Constitution, the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law and the Education Law. But the above-mentioned Internet posting is based heavily on the emotions of nationality sentiment, and it lacks any in-depth or comprehensive analysis:
First, changing mathematics to be taught in Chinese doesn’t imply that all subjects are to be taught in Chinese. Tibetan language courses as well as ideological and moral courses, science, music, art and other courses are taught in Tibetan which helps to preserve Tibetan in its place as the primary language of teaching during elementary school, and helps students to lay a solid foundation in Tibetan. This point is extremely important, because the vast majority of bilingual people use their primary language as the strongest language for thinking. If there isn’t the ability to develop strong language skills for thinking, it can affect future academic achievements.
Second, [China has constitutional protections for language use.] In order to uphold the right of minority nationalities to use their own language, the government once established nationality language schools in Tibet and many other nationality areas, but the minority nationality masses wanted more to send their children to study at schools where Chinese was the primary language. What’s even more interesting is that there are some minority nationality scholars and cadres who on the one hand loudly call for protecting the nationality language but on the other hand they do everything they can to send their own children to schools where Chinese is the primary language, including schools in the interior…
Third, the online post says, “Children within Tibet study the language of their own nationality, but examinations are in the language of another nationality, which directly causes a drop in the child advancement rate.” I don’t know exactly what this means, but obviously it makes no sense. Since certainly, “Children within Tibet study the language of their own nationality,” where is the crisis for the Tibetan language? And furthermore, what school teaches in one language and then holds examinations in another? Also, it is not so that there has been a drop in the study advancement rates. A decline in school advancement rates depends on the teaching, and a district and a nation’s study advancement rates are not qualitatively restricted by teaching levels, but are decided by the scale of enrolment and admission scores at institutions of higher education. If the threshold is low enough, workers, peasants and soldiers could all go to university. If what the writer is truly trying to say is that Chinese-language teaching may lead to a drop in students’ achievements in mathematics, this would be a more rational concern; but is also an unnecessary concern, as discussed below.…
In April 2017, Zhang Wenkui, party secretary of Tsolho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai, proposed major changes to the bilingual education system in the prefecture. This led to strong criticisms online from Tibetan scholars and students in Qinghai. Zhang’s alleged response was then circulated online.
If we look at the history of the development of the natural sciences in our country, following the “May Fourth” movement and following reform and opening up in particular when hundreds of thousands of our science elites went abroad to study, a huge number of people were raised not only using excellent Chinese but also excellent foreign languages, putting them among the world’s intellectual vanguard for the natural sciences. When they came home to serve the Motherland, they promoted the Motherland’s overall economic and social development to an enormous extent, in particular the leap-over style development of science and technology. We mastered our strengths, supplemented our weaknesses, and may I ask, did the study of the sciences at the forefront of knowledge by means of foreign languages weaken the Chinese language? Was this bad for the people? Evidently it was not, and so I don’t know what the “experts” and the “scholars” are thinking. We should focus our attention on the current state of development in Tibetan areas and on nationality education, and place ourselves at the head of the tide of minority education in the entire country and indeed the entire world. And there is something else that has me wracking my brains, and that is that around 45 percent of Tibetan state cadres in Hainan Prefecture as well as urban professionals send their children to ordinary schools, and these students and their families are all running around after the good quality schooling of an ordinary school, running around for a good university place afterwards, and running around for the good prospects that all that can bring, and this proportion is getting bigger by the year. If we don’t improve the achievements of minority nationality students and schools in all subjects, supplement their weaknesses and fail to do everything we can to improve graduation rates, then the sources of students from minority nationality schools will trickle away and disappear. We have to truly and thoroughly appreciate these issues and comprehensively raise the quality of education and teaching, thereby giving a good account to the broad masses of agriculturalists and pastoralists. Otherwise, those of us who are responsible for the minority nationalities shall be regarded as the villains of history. Any minority nationality with the will and ability to develop should not sit complacently on their merits, but should have a fierce sense of crisis and an urgent sense of development, and those Tibetan experts and scholars in particular should be more far-sighted, raise their heads to the era, and correctly lead in the direction of development.
[Party Secretary, Tsolho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture]
A number of Tibetan scholars and intellectuals responded on social media to Zhang Wenkui’s defence of the Party’s decision to shift to Chinese-medium instruction in Tsholho prefecture.
Qinghai Province, and Hainan Prefecture and Huangnan Prefecture in particular, have always been models for bilingual education and Tibetan language mother-tongue education. A great number of elite talents have been nurtured to lead every trade and industry to comprehensively lead the way in the Tibetan areas of the five provinces. Just in contemporary literature and the arts, including film directing, etc., all are led by Qinghai with national and even international impact and all completely reliant on the advantage of a mother-tongue education. It’s surprising that nowadays Hainan Prefecture isn’t considering how to strengthen this advantage or how to meet the challenges of providing a mother-tongue education in the face of the new situation, and it’s surprising that there is a wish to abandon our own advantage of having a mother-tongue education system, and instead to thoroughly relegate the L1 bilingual teaching [mother-tongue dominant] model to an L2 bilingual teaching [second-language dominant] model and to consider this ‘transformation’ to be an ‘improvement in quality.’ This is as stupid as scaling a tree to catch a fish. As a region at the forefront of providing total mother-tongue education, Hainan Prefecture’s education reforms not only touch upon Hainan Prefecture itself but even more so they touch upon mother-tongue education across the entire Tibetan region. Such a retrograde measure must be resolutely opposed.
Yixi Weila A’cuo
[Yeshe Osal Atsok], Professor of Linguistics, Nankai University
Hainan Prefecture has upheld bilingual education since its own infancy, conscientiously setting down a provincial pre-school bilingual education demonstration zone, with three years of bilingual pre-school minority nationalities resolving the problem of minority nationality kindergarteners being able to speak the national language, and such a decision [to abolish bilingual education] is completely bureaucratic, and is completely contrary to the laws of children’s cognitive development. In the 1980s, the Canadian bilingualism expert Kaomengsi [Cummins] put forward the theory of ‘languages mutually reliant for their development.’ He pointed out that when a child is able to skillfully utilize their mother-language for communication in a mother-language environment and to master a certain size vocabulary, then thought processes in the mother language have already been formed. Such a child’s ability to skillfully utilize their mother language will help the child’s study of a second language and furthermore will not cancel out that child’s utilization of its mother language. In contrast, if the child’s foundation in their mother language is weak and it has mastered only a limited vocabulary, the child’s ability to think in its mother language has not reached a fully complete stage and starting to make the child study a second language will not only hamper the child’s development of the child’s language development in its mother language, it will also make study of the second language much more difficult. Such bilingual people will appear in our society who are good at neither of the two languages. We are most often surrounded by people who speak only one language who formulate policies on how to develop bilingual education for people who are bilingual. Such a phenomenon has been continuing for many years. I would just like to ask whether during the process of formulating this policy for Hainan Prefecture the opinions of grassroots teachers were solicited? Were the opinions of Tibetan students solicited? Is there anyone there who understands the theory of children’s bilingual study?
Yixi Lamucuo [Yeshe Lhamo Tso]
April 4, 2017
Dear Secretary Zhang,
In the education theories of the great education theorist Kaomeiniusi [Cummins?], “The direct use of the mother language for study lends support to the understanding of all topics of study, and it is the most flexible way of raising the quality of learning and promoting students’ talents.” This passage explains the importance of mother-tongue education, and similarly clarifies the directness of mother-tongue education.
After the May Fourth Movement, there was a wave of direct foreign language learning at universities including Beijing University, and the direct study of developed countries’ science and technology by means of foreign language study. But ultimately it all failed. All of the schools in Hong Kong–which was then a British colony–abolished Mandarin, and the direct study of foreign languages and the study of western science and technology by means of foreign languages also failed, and so later there was no choice but for mother-tongue education. In the half-century and more since the founding of the New China in particular there has been the rapid development of education and the development of science and technology and of society and the economic [growth] has been incredibly fast, all of which has been because of mother-tongue education. May I ask: which of such countries as America, Britain, Germany, France, Russia and Japan does not use a mother-tongue to implement education and learning?
If indeed you insist upon upholding your stance, please consider for a moment the state of education in Yushu and Hualong prefectures in Qinghai, where 30 years ago they started to abandon the L1 [mother-tongue dominant] model and started to teach using the L2 [second-language dominant] model, and in just this 30-year period, how many students from Yushu and Hualong prefectures have sat entrance examinations for ordinary universities or nationality universities? Are their enrolment rates greater than Hainan Prefecture’s? How many masters and doctorate students have they nurtured during these 30 years?
In response to Secretary Zhang Wenkui:
A single leaf has blinded Secretary Zhang Wenkui so that he no longer sees the forest; he presents only the superficial and does not dig deeper. Most importantly, he does not listen to advice and suggestions, and instead is stubbornly set in his ways and making up his own reasoning!
First, may I ask, were these elites who were sent abroad educated completely in English from a young age? The answer is most certainly negative, and if they weren’t, then your example simply cannot stand!
Second, the argument that the difficulty of raising the achievements and raising the low enrolment rates in the agricultural and pastoral regions can be put down to the idea of studying Tibetan is simply wrong. This completely confuses black and white, it is alarmist, and it must be called out!
Third, those who understand education at the very least appreciate that the primary task in raising achievement is to improve the overall levels of teaching and professionalism, and that it has nothing to do with the language used. If it was connected to the language of instruction, according to your understanding everything should be changed to English instruction because mathematics, physics and chemistry are such exotic goods!
Fourth, there are only two ways of directly improving the enrolment rates: either improve opportunities for admission to ordinary schools and colleges or increase bilingual professionals at schools and colleges. Anything else isn’t worth talking about.
Fifth, leading cadres must themselves make efforts to improve their virtues and standing, they must take the long view, they must understand rational analysis and deepen their scientific spirit, and not do the opposite by besmirching professional elites and raising themselves up!
Those who suit their actions to the times are wise, and I ask Secretary Zhang to ponder well before taking a step back!
Ye Latai, M.A.
Appendix 4: “Why I Won’t Send You to the Municipal Kindergarten”
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
not because I don’t want you to broaden your experience in a stimulating environment, but because I want you to be a Tibetan child in more than just name.
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
not because I do not see the value of pre-school education, but because I am not comfortable with a principal telling an audience that “A Tibetan-speaking child is not a good child.”
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
not because I ignore the merits of studying a variety of subjects, but because I fear the onslaught of mainstream education will shatter the enunciation of the alphabet which is our life-force.
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
not because I cannot think how much you enjoy playing with kids your own age, but because I am scared that their heedlessness will irreversibly degrade the wholesome ways of our forefathers.
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
not because I don’t appreciate the beauty of fancy classrooms and nice playgrounds, but because I want to set my inescapable responsibility to you straight.
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
not because I do not respect and admire the abilities of trained teachers, but because I call you by a true Tibetan clan name with a certain cultural background.
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
not because of any idea that it is all right not to learn the majority language, or any partiality at all, but because it scares me that the time will come when you cannot communicate with the elders in your own homeland, and can barely read or write our recorded history.
In short, I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten because being the head of a household, I like to think I know best.
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
because of the miniature Tibetan gown that mother lovingly made for you, and the little “Speak and Write” books that father got for you.
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
because of the sight of the grassland spangled with wildflowers, herds of sheep and yak grazing, and smoke rising from the black tents.
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
out of affection for the constant melody of grandpa and grandma’s mani recitations, devoted to the enlightenment of all beings.
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
so that you are nourished by the milk of the white-coated yak cow and the whiteness of fresh Tsampa.
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
wishing our family members to declare without reservation before the tombs of our ancestors that “I am your descendant.”
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
because Jomolangma is the crown jewel of mountains, and the Potala palace is so magnificent.
I won’t send you to the municipal kindergarten
especially because I want to take an interest in everything you are learning, and be in charge of what children are told in the classroom.
Beloved daughter of my dreams, you are my star fallen from heaven, my flower plucked from the earth, my one jewel from the human world – and I want your warmth to spread and your light to shine. For one as small as you, father’s strong wishes may seem too much, but the time will come, when you are older, when my wishes will be clear to you, [and you will] understand that all of this is part of an inescapable predicament, a noble burden to be shouldered without weariness or resentment, so that a community with the courage to stand up for its people can welcome you in, and the lord of refuge rich in blessing and miracles can protect you.
This father-tongue and mother-script in which my outer, inner and secret mind is steeped, may they live forever! The customs and devotion in which my body of flesh and blood is clothed, may they last forever and ever!
Written by Do-lho Drengbu, at the start of the first month of autumn [August 22, 2017], at [name withheld] primary school. Translated by Human Rights Watch.
 This interviewee based their comments on their own experience in school and as a worker in the government sector and on talking with friends familiar with language policy in the education sector. The comments indicate that the interviewee is unusually familiar with technical details of government policy regarding education and a number of related issues.
 The open letter from the teachers and students was written in both Tibetan and Chinese. This translated was published by International Campaign for Tibet and is used with their permission.
 “关于青海省藏汉双语中长期改革问题的意见” (Suggestions on the issue of long-term reforms to Tibetan-Han bilingual education in Qinghai Province), October 20, 2010. As posted at
 (Who took away Tibetan children’s right to receive a Tibetan language education? – On defending the language rights of nationalities), Dekhang Jampa, social media posting, June 14, 2016, reposted at Trimleng.cn, . Dekhang Jampa uses the usernames “Lhasa-School-1” at the top of the article and “Young-Girl-Student-Lhasa-Tibet” as the sign-off at the end of the article.
 See notes 34 and 35 above.
 Xu Kefeng, “拉萨部分小学改 “汉数,” 你怎么看？” (Some elementary schools in Lhasa are changing to “Han Mathematics.” What do you think?), blog post, June 2016, .
 Thanks to Timothy Thurston for re-posting these via Twitter, April 5, 2017,
- I. Erosion of Tibetan as Medium of Instruction in Primary Schools
- II. “Bilingual Kindergartens”
- III. “Ethnic Mingling”
- IV. Protests and Resistance
- Appendix 1: Extracts from Interviews
- Appendix 2: Petitions
- Appendix 3: Social Media Debates, 2016-2017
- Appendix 4: “Why I Won’t Send You to the Municipal Kindergarten”