Boarding school system in China robs Tibetan children of their languages ​​and culture, report says

The Tibet Action Institute relied on official data to estimate that 806,218 Tibetans between the ages of 6 and 18 currently attend boarding schools, or 78% of the 1,039,370 school children in Tibetan areas.Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

According to an analysis of official data by researchers from Tibet Action Institute.

The US-based NGO found that more than 800,000 Tibetan children between the ages of 6 and 18 “are now housed in these public institutions”.

“The colonial boarding school system in Tibet is a central part of the Chinese Communist Party’s systematic effort to co-opt, undermine and ultimately eliminate Tibetan identity in an effort to neutralize Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule,” the official said. group in a published report. Tuesday.

For years, Tibetans have been sounding the alarm over what they see as Beijing’s assimilationist policies. Scholars agree that the implementation of such policies intensified following large-scale unrest in parts of Tibet in 2008 and the rise to power of Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2012. The growing repression in Tibet coincided with a crackdown in China’s neighboring Xinjiang region. in recent years, which has seen an estimated two million ethnic Uyghurs go through a system of “re-education” or “de-radicalization” camps.

While boarding schools for Tibetan children have been state-sponsored for decades, the scale of the system and its growth since 2008 has not been previously reported. The Tibet Action Institute relied on official data to estimate that 806,218 Tibetans between the ages of 6 and 18 currently attend boarding schools, or 78% of the 1,039,370 school children in Tibetan areas.

Much of the data is publicly available and supported by other official Chinese documents and statements reviewed by The Globe.

China’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a faxed request for comment. In the past, officials have defended education policies in Tibet, saying they aim to alleviate poor educational standards and widespread poverty in the region and claiming that “bilingual education” protects and promotes Tibetan languages ​​alongside from Chinese.

When Tibet was invaded by the People’s Liberation Army in 1951, the Chinese government promised that “the religious beliefs, customs and habits of the Tibetan people” would be respected.

After an uprising in 1959, the Dalai Lama – Tibet’s spiritual leader but also a former political leader, as his predecessors often were – fled to India, and Beijing took full control of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Since then, Chinese leaders have remained nervous about potential support for Tibetan independence, which they generally blame on foreign actors, including the “separatist Dalai clique”.

At times, Chinese rulers have promoted and protected Tibetan languages ​​and culture. This culminated in the 1982 constitution, which states that “persons of all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages ​​and to preserve or reform their own habits and customs”.

At the time, Tibet was, as it is today, one of the poorest regions in China, and Beijing made considerable investments in education, including the establishment of some early boarding schools. .

A Tibetan who attended one of these schools – whom The Globe and Mail identifies under the pseudonym Tenzin so he can speak freely, regardless of his family back in Tibet – said that while education was still largely taught in the Tibetan language, “the content of what we studied was almost entirely Chinese.

“The history we studied was entirely communist or China-centric, even when we studied world history.”

Kunchok, a Tibetan now living in exile in New Delhi who asked to be identified only by his first name, said he was sent to a boarding school in Markam, an eastern town on the Sichuan border in 2000, when he was seven years old.

“We weren’t allowed to go home on weekends or holidays – for the whole [my first year] I haven’t seen my parents,” he said.

Widespread unrest ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, along with chronic poverty and economic hardship in Tibet that some officials have attributed to the limited use of the Chinese language, prompted Beijing to rethink its policy in the region – just as Mr. Xi came to power.

“There was a feeling that the education and propaganda work had not been taken as seriously as it could have been, with too much emphasis on ethnic self-reliance,” said James Leibold , an expert in Chinese politics and ethnic minority politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne. .

Tenzin also linked the policy shift to the events of 2008. “If you look at a map of Tibetan protests and self-immolation protests, they overlap with places where there was a strong cultural or linguistic identity,” said he declared. “Almost all counties in Qinghai and Gansu [provinces] were converted to the Chinese medium education. There is a policy to reduce any places for Tibetan language learning or cultural spaces, to quell potential future protests.

In a 2014 speech, Xi stressed the need to “bind people of every ethnic group into one strand of rope”. The following year, the Council of State urged the authorities to “strengthen the construction of boarding schools” in ethnic minority areas and to “regularly promote bilingual education”. This latter policy actually led to the practical teaching of Chinese first and the continued marginalization of Tibetan and other non-Chinese languages, according to a 2020 Human Rights Watch report.

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By 2016, even a state media report noted that almost all schools in Tibet used Mandarin Chinese as the main language of instruction. He added that some parents and teachers “have taken action by opening Tibetan language schools“.

Many of these alternative schools, often led or run by Buddhist monks, have since closed. According to Amnesty Internationalin 2018, the government urged the public to report groups running Tibetan classes, calling them “criminal gangs linked to the Dalai Lama’s separatist forces”.

Mr. Xi himself oversaw this shift in assimilationist policy, according to classified documents leaked to the Uyghur Tribunal, an independent UK-based body that examines allegations of genocide and other crimes in Xinjiang. Documents released by the group include speeches by Mr. Xi from the mid-2010s demanding that children in western China be sent to boarding schools to “study in school, live in school , grow up in school”.

“Many other policies designed to assimilate and control ethnic groups in the region, including Chinese (Mandarin) language-focused education in centralized boarding schools…can be directly linked to statements or explicit demands by Xi Jinping” , researcher Adrian Zenz wrote in a summary. leaked documents.

Tenzin, who now lives in the United States, said: “Now children as young as five years old are being taken from their hometowns and surroundings and put into this school system.

“When you’re cut off from your language, your culture and your history, you lose a sense of who you are, and ultimately you feel like you’ve lost the very fabric of your humanity,” he said. . “You don’t feel complete.”

Speaking at a press conference in 2019, Wu Yingjie, party secretary for the Tibet Autonomous Region, praised the “centralized school system”, as the network of boarding schools is sometimes called, saying that ‘it could help solve “the problems of Tibet’s vast area and sparse population.”

Sichuan officials recently released a “Ten-Year Action Plan for the Development of Education in Ethnic Minority Areas”, which calls on local governments to “advance the boarding school system” in a bid to increase the capacity to 820,000 students by 2030.

In the TAI report, the authors directly compare the situation in Tibet to that of colonial societies elsewhere, including Canada. This year, Kamloops researchers uncovered the unmarked graves of more than 200 Indigenous children, forcing Canada to reckon with the horrors of the residential school system. More mass graves have since been discovered, prompting calls for further action and reparations.

“There is strong evidence that the colonial boarding school system for Tibetans is designed to achieve the same goal as the boarding school systems in Canada and the United States,” they wrote.

One of the report’s authors, Lhadon Tethong, said researching the residential school system affected her not just as a Tibetan, but as a Canadian. She was born in Victoria and attended the University of King’s College in Halifax.

“The parallels were very striking,” she said. “We are fully aware that the situation in Tibet is not the same as for First Nations people in Canada, but what is clear is that the objective of the state in separating children from their families is the same. The main thing is to take away the identity and turn the children into something they are not, to take the language out of their language, to take the cultural roots out from under them.

When the Kamloops graves and other unmarked graves were discovered this year, Chinese state media covered the story intensely, while officials took the opportunity to highlight Canada’s historic abuse and mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples.

“Indigenous lives matter,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in June. “Canada claims to be a model of human rights and an outspoken advocate. However, it is reluctant and blind to its own crimes and human rights abuses which can never be erased or justified. Such hypocrisy and double standards are shameful.

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