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

Transportation has played several different roles in the rise of civilizations and also in national defense. For instance, the efficient utilization of roads helped the Roman Empire rule the ancient world.

The good network of roads served two purposes for the Romans: During wars with neighboring kingdoms, it served for quick deployment of soldiers. On the other hand, the well-connected roads helped them send quick reinforcements and to crush rebellions in their conquered colonies.

Like the Romans, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has given utmost priority to infrastructure development. Almost immediately after the conquest of Tibet in 1951, the CPC began constructing highways that would link Tibet with China for the first time in history. Thus, with this step, all roads from Tibet led to Beijing. 

The Chamdo-Lhasa Highway (called by the Chinese the Sichuan-Tibet Highway) and Tsongon-Lhasa Highway (Qinghai-Tibet Highway) constructed from 19541955 were two major routes connecting Tibet with rest of China, which later became the CPC’s modes of transportation and exploitation of everything for its own interests and not those of Tibet, the Tibetan people and neighboring countries.

By 1975 China had completed 91 highways totaling 15,800 kilometers, with 300 permanent bridges in Outer Tibet alone, by which 97% of the region’s counties were connected by road. 

Claude Arpi, a historian, journalist and prolific commentator on India-Tibet-China affairs, says the infrastructure development by the CPC in Tibet has served a dual purpose. It helps the CPC to control Tibet effectively and also facilitates the People’s Liberation Army’s militarization of Tibet’s borders.

But beyond that, these roads and railways were also engineered for the mass migration of Chinese people in search of work and pleasure in Tibet. 

In an interview to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) based in Dharamshala, India, Tsering Dorjee, a native of the Qomolangma basin who fled from Tibet and settled abroad, spent an entire year in Tibet from 2005-06. He said the number of Chinese settlers had mushroomed dramatically since he left.

Already the usage of written Tibetan language had become insignificant, and with the continuation of current trends, very soon spoken Tibetan might face the same demise as Tibetan script.

For instance, the Tsongon-Lhasa Railway (Qinghai-Tibet Railway) brought around 1.5 million passengers into Tibet during its first year of operation, ending on June 30, 2007. In its 13 years of operation, much has changed in the socio-economic and the cultural landscapes of Tibet.

The peaceful uprisings of 2008 were direct results of continuous undermining of economic, social and cultural rights and religious sentiments of the Tibetan people.

Hence, also in the veiled garb of development, the CPC is committing what Rinzin Dorjee, a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute based in Dharamshala, calls “urbancide.” By this he means the extinguishing of Tibetan culture and identity through an influx of millions of Chinese migrants to Tibet. This process is still being implemented. 

Because of the increasing Chinese population in Tibet, most of the services and facilities now cater to them.

For instance, Jampa Xiangbalacuo (aka Jampa Latso), in a paper titled “Empowering Women Health Workers in Rural Tibet” (2017) submitted to the SIT (School for International Training) Graduate Institute in the US state of Vermont, highlighted the language barriers faced by female Tibetan patients at a government hospital in Garze (Ganzi), in Tibet’s Kham region.

She writes, “The county towns are far, inconvenient and expensive, and women face language barriers in communicating with Chinese male doctors.”

Recently too, during the Covid-19 pandemic, such indifference toward Tibetan people became even more apparent.

According to a tweet on February 10 from @Lhatseri, the Twitter handle of Tibetan historian and professor Tsering Shakya, about the paucity of interpreters for Tibetan patients in hospitals, “Many Tibetans are refusing to go to hospitals because there are no interpreters, [despite] a new campaign telling people that interpreters will be provided.”

Such institutional biases are extensive throughout Tibet. One stark example is the introduction of bilingual education in Tibet. In reality, this policy was implemented to suppress further the learning and teaching of the Tibetan language.

In East Turkistan too, the CPC has politicized language policy. Because of frequent changes of official script, different generations of Uighurs and other Turkic students were exposed to different written forms of their language. The deliberate discontinuity of the traditional Arabic script has resulted in severe interruptions to the culture, heritage, traditions, and identity of the Uighur and other Turkic populations in East Turkistan.

Like East Turkistan, Tibet faced a similar language dilemma created by the CPC. Because of continual hostile language policies, ordinary Tibetans have expressed widespread concern about the increasing loss of fluency in Tibetan among the younger generations.

For decades, scholars, rights groups and researchers around the world have expressed concerns over the deteriorating status of Tibetan language in Tibet. Despite numerous protests and petitions, the onslaught on the Tibetan language has now reached an extreme level under the current authoritarian party-state headed by General Secretary Xi Jinping. 

Why is Tibetan language is still repressed?

Rita Mae Brown, an American novelist, poet and activist, has lucidly captured the importance of language in two sentences. She writes, “Language is the roadmap of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.” Hence language is like a soul of the body; without it, the body is lifeless.

It appears that the CPC wants Tibetan people to forget their own history and also wants Tibetan identity to disappear and go nowhere. In short, through the systematic onslaught on the Tibetan language, the ruling party wants to erase the identity of the Tibetan people.

Tsering Shakya, in his book Dragon in the Land of Snows: The History of Tibet Since 1948, clearly captured the situation during the Cultural Revolution. He writes, “On the surface it seemed that Chinese had succeeded in assimilating the Tibetans: All expressions of Tibetan identity and culture was forbidden with the exception of the language, now the only marker of Tibet’s separateness from China.”

Hence there is no doubt that whatever the CPC has been doing in Tibet is not an accidental or unintentional but is systematically planned and premeditated. Countries sharing borders with Tibet and China must have realized that by now.

The Soviet empire to a large extent influenced the policies implemented by the CPC in Tibet. In order to consolidate and maintain his power and to keep the empire together, Nikita Khrushchev had to adopt more restrictive language policies than his two predecessors, Lenin and Josef Stalin. Soviet linguists and ethnographers insisted that changing a person’s language was a requirement for any change in ethnic identity.

Hence Khrushchev focused on language policy as the best hope of countering rising nationalism and ethnic uprisings that threatened the economic unity of the USSR.

Taking a leaf out of Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s playbooks, Mao Zedong understood the importance of destroying an identity lies in destroying its language. During Mao’s authoritarian rule, the Cultural Revolution took an enormous toll on Tibetan culture. And now the CPC under Xi is pursuing a similar policy.

Another reason for replacing the Tibetan language with Chinese language as the medium of instruction could be the significant development during the brief period of liberation when Tibetan students were instructed in their own language. Many scientific studies have proved the advantage of having one’s mother tongue as the medium of instruction in students’ learning abilities in the later stage of academic development.

Among Tibetan students in exile as well, there is remarkable growth of overall academic achievement after the introduction of Tibetan as the medium of instruction in most of the Tibetan schools in India.

And the CPC would have many reasons not to be interested in academic development of Tibetan students in Tibet.

In short, after completely connecting Tibet with China and entrenching its authoritarian rule under the garb of the infrastructure development in Tibet, the CPC started unleashing plans of exploitation and extraction of Tibet’s major natural resources. And most important, the roads and railways became the modes of acceleration of the influx of Chinese people to Tibet.

Hence, along with infrastructure development, the CPC also invited enforced cultural assimilation, economic marginalization and environmental destruction on the Tibetan Plateau. In fact, the list is endless.

The CPC’s latest onslaught is also on the Tibetan language as well. Researcher Adrian Zenz, in a report titled “Xinjiang’s System of Militarized Vocational Training Comes to Tibet” published by the Jamestown Foundation on September 22, writes, “In the context of Beijing’s increasingly assimilatory ethnic-minority policy, it is likely that these policies will promote a long-term loss of linguistic, cultural and spiritual heritage.” 

Currently, the CPC is trying to revive stalled projects under the Belt and Road Initiative. To date, more than 60 countries – accounting for two-thirds of the world population – have signed on to projects or indicated an interest in doing so. Now it is imperative to consider what happened to Tibet and the Tibetan people. What happened in Tibet could happen again anywhere, and now because of the blessings of the BRI, it has become faster, cheaper and easier.

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Tenzin Tsultrim

Tenzin Tsultrim PhD is a visiting fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute, a think-tank of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, India.

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.