Chinese paramilitary police patrol near the iconic Potala Palace in Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region. Photo: AFP / Johannes Eisele

The year 2020 will be remembered as one of the most disturbing times in human history. The Covid-19 virus that had its origin in the Wuhan region of China has devastated lives, crippled economies, and brought the world to a screeching standstill.

In December 2019 the news emerged of the first human infection with this coronavirus, with the World Health Organization basing its claims of the origin and spread of the virus on Beijing’s narrative on the same.

The Chinese regime under President Xi Jinping has come under intense global scrutiny for its actions during this pandemic, which ranged from covering up key information about the virus to suppressing citizens who dared to speak about the pandemic, right up to threatening governments such as those in the European Union and Australia that sought an independent inquiry into the origins and spread of the virus. 

The relationship between Tibet and Beijing has been defined by the latter’s hardline policies that have been on the rise since the annexation of the former by the People’s Liberation Army. The Cultural Revolution was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans and the destruction of countless monasteries in Tibet. The Communist Party-led regime has not only pressed hard on the people of Tibet but has sought to mold the land into its image of “China’s Tibet.”

Tibet remains a region with one of the worst human-rights situations in the world due to China’s hardline policy. In particular, education and preservation of the Tibetan language have suffered under those policies.

China is not on the same page as the rest of the world when it comes to educating young generations. The Communist Party of China’s education policy has two doors that have led to two different realities.

The first reality has been the education of Han Chinese youth, which has significantly contributed to the economic development of the country as a whole. The second reality, which is a grim one, has been for the ethnic minorities, Tibetan youth in particular, as the education setup that they are pushed into by the government serves as an effective propaganda tool to mold their opinions while tearing away the fabric of their own culture and language. 

As the world came to focus on dealing with the pandemic, China continued its oppressive policies on the Tibetan people.

In April, the local government in Ngawa (in Chinese Aba), Sichuan province, announced a new policy that mandated Mandarin to be used as the medium of instruction for all the subjects in the region’s schools except while teaching the Tibetan language specifically. This contravenes the Chinese constitution itself, which includes articles protecting minority languages. However, the rule of law has always given way to rule by law in China.

This policy has precedence in past state directives. For example, a similar law was announced in Rebkong (aka Tenrong, Qinghao) in 2010, leading to thousands of students marching in the streets in protest against the government.  

The population of Tibet continues to rise but the reason is attributed largely to the movement of a large number of Han Chinese into the region, due to the encouragement of Beijing, both migrants seeking employment and tourists.

Furthermore, many of these people later are able to receive permanent residence in Tibet, the cumulative effect of this mass movement being that Tibetans are under threat of becoming minorities in their own land while their language and culture come under increasing pressure of assimilation and becoming irrelevant.

In the Tibet Autonomous Region alone, 20 million to 25 million inland tourist visits have been recorded annually, putting immense pressure on the Tibetan population to speak a language that is not their own and thereby further marginalizing the use of their native tongue.

Despite such tremendous pressure from local and state governments, the Tibetan people have resisted. The large-scale protests in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics remain a vivid testimony of their resistance, while the 2010 student protests in Tibet reveal the dissatisfaction of Tibetans across generations with the Chinese policies aimed at marginalizing and assimilating their unique language and culture.

These incidents show that the policies implemented in Tibet are not being accepted by the younger or elder generations who have lived through the discriminating education policies of the CPC. It is high time to revise the education policies to cater to the legitimate needs of the Tibetans, a policy that benefits them, their future, and their cultural heritage.  

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Karma Tenzin

Karma Tenzin has an MPhil in political science from Madras Christian College in India. He served as a political-science teacher for five years at TCV (Tibetan Children’s Village) Gopalpur and as assistant headmaster for one year. Currently, he is working on education policy at the Tibet Policy Institute. He focuses on minority language rights and bilingual education in Tibet.