Education exists for holistic human development. The formulation of education policy of a country should give importance to the comprehensive development of its society by considering the welfare and aspiration of its people at its core. However, the education policy introduced by the People’s Republic of China in Tibet bears striking similarities to the colonial education policies in the 19th and 20th centuries aimed at psychological and cultural transformation of indigenous people.
Bilingual education policy has often been combined with colonialism. This was done for two reasons: to disorient the local people and to provide administrative convenience to the colonizers. The extent to which this practice was carried out is demonstrated by the wide usage of the English language in the modern world.
The Communist Party of China uses education to indoctrinate people politically in order to win their loyalty. Considering the huge Chinese population, Mao Zedong focused more on quantity rather than quality when it came to educating his people, according to the book Education in Tibet: Policy and Practice since 1950 by Catriona Bass. This is because “the quantity strategy prioritizes ideological, revolutionary training,” while “the quality strategy emphasizes academic and technical education.”
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) occupied Tibet in the 1950s. The “quantity education” policy was initially introduced in Tibet to educate the masses on socialism and communism. However, this policy was replaced by “quality education” when Deng Xiaoping became leader of the PRC in the late 1970s. The new policy was also implemented in Tibet.
Although “quality education” has brought tremendous economic benefit to China, it has been culturally detrimental to the Tibetans. Bilingual education was forced on Tibetans with preference given to the Chinese language. Tibetans were also discouraged from preserving their own language even though Article 4 of the PRC constitution provides bilingual educational rights to the so-called minority areas, including Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.
The education policy in the minority areas has a different priority than that of the Han areas of China. Bass writes: “While Han Chinese were to be educated to provide technical personnel for economic development, the overriding goal of education for ‘minority’ nationalities was to encourage political allegiance towards China and enhance stability in border areas.”
Bilingual education policy in “China proper” is also different from that of the minority areas. Han students in China are educated to keep in step with modern scientific and economic developments. On the other hand, minorities are educated to gain loyalty and induce Chinese nationalism. Textbooks in minority schools focus on creating a sense of “one China” and propagate communist ideology. Literature available to the minority students mainly consists of direct translations from Chinese sources, which are often about political ideology.
Two models of education system were introduced in schools in Tibet. In the first model, all major subjects are taught in the Tibetan language and not Chinese. When this model was introduced in Sichuan province, attendance at the primary level was high. But the numbers dropped considerably at the middle-school level for a practical reason: Employment opportunities required good command of the Chinese language.
In the second model, all subjects are taught in the Chinese language and not Tibetan. In this case, 95% of books and reading materials are in Chinese and just 5% are in Tibetan. The shortage of literature in Tibetan is a clear sign of discriminatory policy of the PRC toward the Tibetans.
Tibetan language in daily life
The Chinese language is more useful than Tibetan as most government offices use Chinese. Tibetan students are taught in Tibetan as required by Article 4 of the PRC constitution, but they find it difficult to pursue higher studies, as these institutions require competency in Mandarin.
Even after graduation, many young Tibetans remain unemployed as recruitment examinations in Tibet require a good command of the Chinese language. Instructors in educational institutions are from mainland China. As such, the Tibetan language has been reduced to the status of a research language that is used only at university research centers in Tibet and China.
Tibetans who don’t know the Chinese language cannot find work. Travel tickets and bank transactions in Tibet are printed in Chinese. Even though transportation facilities have improved over the last few decades, Tibetans who lack proper knowledge of Chinese have difficulties traveling even within Tibet.
The delivery of a letter took several months before the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Today, Tibet has entered the modern postal-service system that uses the Chinese language. Tibetans who don’t know Chinese are not able to use this service. This makes it difficult to preserve and propagate the Tibetan language.
Resistance to discriminatory language policy
The Chinese government has striven to assimilate the Tibetans with the increasing numbers of Chinese migrant workers who settle in Tibet. Tibetan resistance to these actions has grown stronger over the years. Many popular Tibetan singers have composed songs that urge the Tibetans to preserve and promote their own language. Individual initiatives, such as informal Tibetan-language instruction outside the school system, have also been started, especially by the Tibetan monasteries.
Over the years, Tibetan graduates have protested many times over the language policy. Consequently, many of these language activists have faced imprisonment for such alleged crimes as separatism and threats to national security.
Tashi Wangchuck, a Tibetan businessman, is one of the language activists. He was sentenced to five years in prison in Amdo Tsongon (Qinghai province) for campaigning to preserve the Tibetan language from the increasing dominance of Chinese. He was interviewed by The New York Times in May 2015 for his language advocacy. A video clip of the interview appeared later into public domain and he was, subsequently, charged with inciting separatism.
Before this, in 2010 Tibetan students in Rebkong (Tengren) and Qinghai (Tibetan area of Amdo) had protested the Chinese government’s repressive language policy. Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan activist and blogger, writes that because of the corrosion of the Tibetan language, many of the Tibetans who have self-immolated have pleaded for the protection of the Tibetan language. There have been 153 self-immolations in Tibet since 2009.
*Karma Tenzin is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute. This opinion piece was originally published in Asia Times on 4 January 2020.