The scale of the protests across Tibet at a time of already intense political repression – and now in China’s capital – reflect the strength of feeling among Tibetans about the marginalization and erosion of their language, the bedrock of Tibetan identity, religion and culture. The demonstrations follow a new emphasis in Qinghai province on the importance of Chinese language for Tibetans and a new ‘bilingual education’ imperative that is designed to transition ‘minority’ students from education in their mother tongue to education in Chinese. The situation is reportedly tense in the area, with a strong security presence.
A new status update on a popular social networking site read: “Today at 12, over 400 students protested at Minzu University of China [in Beijing] about freedom of language,” according to High Peaks Pure Earth, which also published photographs of the demonstration. The university has the largest concentration of Tibetans in China’s capital, with more than 600 Tibetan students, who are mostly studying Tibetology.
This week’s protests in support of the Tibetan language began in Rebkong (Chinese: Tongren) in Qinghai (the Tibetan area of Amdo) on Tuesday (October 19) when hundreds of students and some monks marched through the streets to express opposition to new measures under discussion in Qinghai about downgrading further Tibetan as a medium of instruction in schools. Students from the teacher training college in Malho (Chinese: Huangnan) held a banner with the slogan: “Return the authority of the Tibetan language.”
Students from six schools in the area, including the First Tibetan Middle School, Yifu National Middle School and the Teacher’s Training College in Malho demanded expanded use of the Tibetan language and protested against new measures of teaching through the Chinese language (Radio Free Asia video of the protests).
On Wednesday (October 20), thousands more students took to the streets in Amdo, in various towns in Chabcha (Chinese: Gonghe) county in Tsolho (Chinese: Hainan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai. According to various Tibetan sources in contact with Tibetans in the area, Tibetan students aged between 11 and 18 carried banners, written in both Tibetan and Chinese, reading “Equality Among Nationalities” and “Expand the Use of the Tibetan Language”. An eyewitness told Radio Free Asia: “The participants in the protests were students and we saw no participation from the public. All protest marching was peaceful and orderly.” Both Rebkong and Chabcha have the highest concentrations of students in the area.
The protests in Qinghai appear to have been sparked by new measures that focus on Chinese as the main language of instruction and the downgrading of the Tibetan language to be treated only as a language class, and with less time accorded to it in the curriculum.
This was confirmed by an official in Qinghai, identified only as Mr. Wang for the International Information Office of the Qinghai government, in a comment to CNN that: “The protest resulted from a new education policy which reduces Tibetan language teachings.” (CNN, Tibetan students protest, say China is wiping out their culture). Radio Free Asia also reported a source saying that the provincial authorities had ordered Tibetan teachers to attend workshops on the change of the medium of instruction from Tibetan to Chinese, saying: “If this plan is implemented, many Tibetan teachers will lose their jobs, and many Chinese will gain jobs in their place. This is a major concern for the Tibetan community.” The same source said that Qinghai Party Secretary Qiang Wei had ordered that language used in textbooks must be changed to Chinese.
In an article today in the English-language Global Times, a publication of China’s People’s Daily, Shao Lei, the manager of Bai Jia Hotel in Chabcha county, was quoted as confirming that a group of students marched on Wednesday morning. “The students, most wearing school uniforms, marched peacefully,” he said.
In the same article, a professor of ethnic policy studies, Xiong Kunxin, at Minzu University of China, where a protest occurred today, suggested that the local authorities should conduct more research and listen to local people’s opinions before implementing language policies. Xiong Kunxin also argued that encouraging local people to learn standard Chinese would not marginalize Tibetan culture. (http://china.globaltimes.cn/society/2010-10/584565.html)
The situation in the Rebkong, Chabcha and Xining area is reportedly very tense tonight, with one student saying the situation felt “potentially explosive.”
New measures on language education in Qinghai spark protests
The current Party Secretary of Qinghai province Qiang Wei has recently outlined the importance of the Chinese language over Tibetan, stating at a conference in education in September that: “Qinghai province has vigorously implemented state common language [Chinese] teaching in compulsory education while extending the ‘bilingual’ teaching of minority languages and scripts, making people of all minority nationalities grasp and use the Chinese language and script, thereby achieving ‘intercommunication between ethnics and Han’ [minhan jiantong].” He added that strengthening “bilingual” education, which asserts the importance of the Chinese language, is “an important political duty.” (Translation into English by ICT, of People’s Daily article, ‘Qinghai Province Party Secretary Qiang Wei: Make “bi-lingual” education a livelihood project’, September 30).
New measures to “forcefully develop ‘bilingual’ pre-school education in the farming and pastoral areas, strengthen teaching of the Chinese language in the basic education phase, basically resolve nationality students fundamental ability issues in speaking and understanding Chinese” were outlined as part of a ten-year plan for 2010-2020 in Qinghai in June. The section on ‘bilingual’ education, issued by four government departments including the Qinghai education department, is translated into English by ICT and included at the end of this report.
According to Tibetan sources, another factor behind the unrest in Chabcha may be the intensified level of control over students that has followed the consolidation of around 200 schools into 60 boarding schools from 2008 onwards. Although many villages had their own elementary schools, now children are required to study in the boarding schools in the townships, and they are only allowed to leave their campuses once a month. One scholar from Amdo called this effectively a “lockdown.” This new measure includes children as young as four or five, and has created concern among parents in the area.
Resentment over few places in colleges to study Tibetan language and very few job opportunities even when Tibetans graduate is also likely to have been a factor behind the Rebkong and Chabcha protests. Last month in Lhasa, hundreds of Tibetan graduates of the Institute of Tibetan Traditional Medicine protested in front of the Tibet Autonomous Region offices in Lhasa, carrying banners demanding an increase in available jobs. In an interview by Radio Free Asia, a Tibetan closely associated with the Lhasa institute said: “Many Tibetan students who have texted [by cell phone] among themselves have been detained.”
There is intensifying anxiety over job prospects among graduate students throughout all of the PRC, but this is particularly notable in Tibetan areas due to the dominance of the Chinese language across all sectors and employer discrimination against Tibetan job-seekers. In 2006, for example, students at Lhasa University protested when 98 out of 100 government positions were assigned to Chinese graduates, and only two were assigned to Tibetan graduates. (Radio Free Asia report, November 8, 2006, http://www.rfa.org/english/news/social/tibet_protest-20061108.html.) It was later reported that in response to the students’ protest the number of Tibetan recruits was increased; however, students from mainland China were told at the same time that loans would be waived if they agreed to work in “western or remote areas” of the PRC, a situation which further disadvantages and marginalizes Tibetan graduates. The new education measures will make finding work even more difficult for those Tibetan university students who will be seeking employment as teachers in the Tibetan language, as they will now be left with even fewer job opportunities.
ICT’s Amdowa researcher Zorgyi, based in India, said: “The education policy inside Tibet has created a very tense environment for Tibetan schoolchildren and students. The Chinese authorities state that every minority nationality has the right to preserve their own language and writings. But the reality is that Tibetan university students cannot get a good job without good Chinese language after graduation, and even then it is difficult. The Tibetan language is central to our identity as Tibetans, but in every way the Tibetan language is being downgraded.”
The importance of the Tibetan language
“Without the Tibetan language, it is clear that Tibet won’t be Tibet any more.”
The Tibetan language is fundamental to Tibetan identity, culture and religion, and is one of the four oldest and most original languages of Asia. At a roundtable discussion in Washington, DC, scholar Nicolas Tournadre, professor of linguistics from the University of Provence and an expert on the Tibetan language, said: “There is a real threat of extinction or very serious decline of the Tibetan language and the Tibetan culture within two – or at the most three – generations. […] During the last 15 years, I have personally witnessed this decline. […] Languages are not neutral. They convey very specific social and cultural behaviors and ways of thinking. So, the extinction of the Tibetan language will have tremendous consequences for the Tibetan culture. The culture cannot be preserved without it. […] It is important because the Tibetan language and culture are extremely original. Forget about linguistics, medicine, or architecture; just take literature. Tibetan is one of the four oldest and greatest in volume and most original literatures of Asia, along with Sanskrit, Chinese, and Japanese literatures. So, that is a very good reason for the heritage of humanity to keep this culture.
“[Also] for the Tibetan economy it is very important in nearly every sector. […] Right now the rate of unemployment in Tibet is extremely high. A lot of rural Tibetans, whether nomads or peasants, are almost like foreigners in their own country and they don’t have the linguistic ability to find jobs. When they come to the cities, their culture is marginalized and devalued. So this leads also to the marginalization and devaluation of the people themselves. Without the Tibetan language, it is clear that Tibet won’t be Tibet any more.” (Transcript of the full Congressional-Executive Commission on China roundtable, Teaching and Learning Tibetan: The Role of the Tibetan Language in Tibet’s Future).
In 2002, the Chinese authorities announced new regulations on the study and use of Tibetan language, which China Daily described as “the first government regulation[s] ever passed in China on preserving an ethnic language” (March 22, 2002). While this could be taken as an indication of the gravity of the threat facing the Tibetan language, practical measures to ensure its more widespread use and study were either not implemented or withdrawn and the downgrading of the Tibetan language in favor of the Chinese language in Tibet has continued.
Development economist Andrew Fischer, who has carried out extensive fieldwork in Tibet, including in Rebkong, suggests that two critical dimensions of current policy need to be addressed in order to lessen current economic polarity and social instability, saying: “On the one hand, urban employment for locals requires protection and promotion at both the lower and upper strata. On the other hand, the linguistic and cultural disadvantages faced by Tibetans in urban employment need to be lessened, albeit in ways that do not undermine Tibetan language and culture. It is suggested that the existing national minority laws in China already provide ways to resolve both issues if their full implications were put into practice, as exemplified by the recommendation by the [late] 10th Panchen Lama that public sector employees working in Tibetan areas should have at least some working knowledge of the Tibetan language, supported by a strong promotion of [genuine Tibetan and Chinese] bilingual education in the minority areas.” (Educating for Exclusion in Western China: Structural and institutional dimensions of conflict in the Tibetan areas of Qinghai and Tibet by Andrew M. Fischer).
In the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People handed over to Chinese officials on November 4-5, 2008 as part of the Sino-Tibetan dialogue process, Tibetan representatives of the Dalai Lama drew attention to the critical importance of the Tibetan language, citing provisions in the Constitution of the PRC and the Law on Regional National Autonomy which guarantee the freedom of nationalities the ability to use and develop their own spoken and written languages. The Memorandum notes that: “Article 10 of the Law on Regional National Autonomy provides that these organs ‘shall guarantee the freedom of the nationalities in these areas to use and develop their own spoken and written languages….’ and the Note to the Memorandum.
ICT recommendations to governments:
- Seek to ensure that the right of peaceful expression of views by the students be respected, and that the relevant authorities address their grievances substantively and appropriately;
- As part of engagement with the Chinese on education issues, raise the issue of study for Tibetans in their own language, drawing attention to the importance accorded to this by the Chinese state as evidenced by the 2002 ‘Regulations on the Study, Use and Development of the Tibetan Language’ and in accordance with the law of Regional Ethnic Autonomy;
- Encourage Chinese leaders to engage with the Dalai Lama’s representatives, as part of their dialogue process, specifically on issues of language and education as spelled out in the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy and the Note to the Memorandum.
Qinghai Government Information Office Document (2010) No. 126
Qinghai Government Information Office
Notice from four provincial departments including the Department of Education on guiding suggestions for strengthening the education development plan by promoting work on the adjustment of school distribution
Xining City, all Tibet Autonomous Prefectural Governments, Haidong Administrative Offices, and all Provincial Government committees, offices, departments and bureaus:
The “Guiding suggestions for strengthening the education development plan by promoting work on the adjustment of school distribution” by the provincial Department of Education, the provincial Reform and Development Commission, the provincial Department of Finance and the provincial Housing and Urban Construction Department has been agreed upon by the provincial government and is hereby relayed to you for careful implementation.
Qinghai Government Information Office
Guiding suggestions for strengthening the education development plan by promoting work on the adjustment of school distribution
Provincial Department of Education; Provincial Reform and Development Commission; Provincial Department of Finance; Provincial Housing and Urban Construction Department
From the “Twelfth Five-Year Plan” to the year 2020 is a key period in our province’s construction of a well-off society in an all-round way and the promotion of construction and modernization. In accordance with the “State mid- to long-term education reform and development outline plan (2010-2020)” issued approved and passed by the State Council, and in order to comprehensively implement the scientific development view and to satisfy the masses’ educational demands that are growing greater by the day – in particular the demands for outstanding educational resources – to further strengthen education planning, to optimize the allocation of education resources, to standardize the establishment of schools, to promote and implement work on adjusting school distribution across the province, and to promote the comprehensive, coordinated and sustainable development of education throughout the province, the following guiding suggestion are hereby given:
7) Implement a project of reforming and advancing “bilingual” education. Forcefully develop “bilingual” pre-school education in the farming and pastoral areas, strengthen teaching of the Chinese language in the basic education phase, basically resolve nationality students fundamental ability issues in speaking and understanding Chinese, and in reading and writing in order to make minority nationality students raise a step further their Chinese language abilities and levels on the basis of studying well their mother tongue. Implement “Ethnics and Han co-education” and off-site schooling and classes, change the teaching and learning environment, create new training models and create innovative conditions for minority nationality students to receive a good education. Train “bilingual” teaching staff, strengthen the ranks of teachers. Establish teaching materials systems to match “bilingual” education, develop and create “bilingual” education resources, and strengthen and improve the teaching and study of the natural sciences in nationality elementary and middle schools. Deepen nationality preparatory education reforms. Equip each individual class at nationality boarding schools with a television, and arrange for teachers and students to watch such Chinese-language programming as “News Broadcast” every day. Strive for Provinces and Prefectures (districts, cities), county broadcasts, television stations to start specialized programming for minority nationalities to study the Chinese language and script and for Han to study minority languages and scripts, creating a social atmosphere of studying and applying “bilingual”-ism.