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.
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.
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.
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.
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.