A Tibetan language advocate’s journey to imprisonment

Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan human rights defender and prisoner of conscience, will spend his third consecutive birthday, 8 May, languishing in a Chinese jail. His crime in the eyes of the authorities was to peacefully defend Tibetan culture. For this he could face up to 15 years in prison. 

Tashi has been in detention since January 2016 because he appeared in a widely circulated New York Times video documentary titled A Tibetan’s Journey for Justice. The video told the story of his journey, from the remote ethnic Tibetan-populated area of Qinghai province in western China to Beijing, to seek legal assistance in filing a lawsuit against local officials regarding the lack of Tibetan language education in schools.

Why did Tashi, a businessman who ran a shop and sold goods on China’s online platform Taobao, risk his comfortable life to defend Tibetan language education?

Increasing fears about the gradual extinction of the Tibetan language and culture, similarly expressed in the 2007 film “Leaving Fear Behind” by Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen, spurred Tashi to set off on his quest for justice.

Tashi Wangchuk could face up to 15 years in prison for peacefully defending Tibetan culture.
Tashi Wangchuk could face up to 15 years in prison for peacefully defending Tibetan culture.

“National Unity” versus the cultural right of ethnic Tibetans

Tashi identified a basis in China’s Constitution to sue local officials. China’s Constitution  states that “All nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages….”. There are a further 12 laws and 27 regulations to “protect” ethnic minorities’ language rights, if China’s recent report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is to be believed. 

Despite the government’s rhetoric claiming to protect ethnic minority language rights, it has pursued aggressive measures to embed a uniform national identity and to promote the use of the Mandarin Chinese language among Tibetans. This has created a real threat to Tibetan identity. The authorities justify this iron rule over ethnic minorities in order to achieve “unification of the country and unity of all its nationalities”.  

As they say in Tibetan བཀྲ་ཤིས་དབང་ཕྱུག་གློད་གྲོལ་གཏོང་དགོས། – free Tashi Wangchuk.

Chinese language dominance over Tibetan language in public schools

Under the so-called “bilingual system”, most schools in Tibet now use Mandarin Chinese as the dominant medium of instruction, the Tibetan language is merely taught as one of the subjects. Nowadays, it is rare to find Tibetan used as the teaching medium in secondary schools.

Only primary schools in rural farming and nomadic communities, where many teachers are unqualified to teach in Mandarin Chinese, use Tibetan. That leaves many students in rural schools facing the double whammy of not being able to use their mother tongue properly and not being able to read, speak or write Mandarin Chinese fluently.

Whether teaching in Mandarin Chinese or Tibetan, schools are required to use the “uniform national curriculum”, which basically teaches the dominant Han Chinese culture while the culture and history of ethnic minorities, whether of Tibetans or others, are barely covered.

Loss of identity of students in Neidixizang” Class Programme

Every year, the government relocates thousands of the best students from Tibetan primary schools, aged between 11 and 15 years old, from their hometowns to boarding schools in Beijing and other far away provinces to study in Neidixizang (Inland Tibetan) classes. These students are forbidden to travel home for at least four years until they complete junior secondary school, or seven years if they fully complete secondary school education.

The highly subsidized Neidixizang classes increase education opportunities, but at the risk of involuntary cultural assimilation.

During those formative years, the children study the uniform national curriculum with limited Tibetan language education, live in a Han Chinese dominated environment and are unable to participate in Tibetan cultural and Buddhist religious practices. Most of them return to Tibet after graduation, not proficient in Tibetan and adapted to Han Chinese culture and the uniform national identity.

The policy to establish this uniform national identity among ethnic minorities is not formally acknowledged but it seems well established. For example, last year government officials instructed head-teachers of these Neidixizang boarding schools to “tightly grip ideological and political education and ethnic unity education”. They must instil in students the “the five recognitions” – “the great motherland, the Chinese nation, Chinese culture, the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.”

Neidixizang classes were introduced in the 1980s when many Tibetan parents were smuggling their children across the border to Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) schools run by the Tibetan government in exile in India. In recent years, China also has tightened the border control and pressured parents to bring their children back from TCV schools. When the new school term began in February this year, there were no new Tibetan students from China enrolled at any of the 35 existing TVC schools, according to Radio Free Asia.

Private Tibetan education classes banned as “separatist”

Tashi learnt Tibetan at primary school and from his brother who had studied with a monk. He then continued studying as a monk himself for three years before taking private lessons, according to the New York Times. However, he found most of these means to study Tibetan no longer existed.

In 2015, he set out to find a Tibetan language school for his niece. He visited five schools across Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures in Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces only to find that Tibetan language education was no longer valued and Mandarin Chinese had become the sole language of instruction.

Monasteries, which were traditionally major education institutions are now prohibited from operating Tibetan language courses. As monks and nuns participated in protests for religious freedom, the government considered them a threat to national security and that the bond between monasteries and the community should be minimized.

Private Tibetan language classes have also been closed down. “Illegal associations formed in the name of the Tibetan language, the environment and education” is one of the 20 “illegal activities related to the independence of Tibet”, according to a government notice issued in 2015.

The government has branded groups that organize Tibetan classes as “criminal gangs connected to the separatist forces of the Dalai Lama” and urged the public to report these groups in a notice issued in January 2018. This measure is in line with the government policy to combat “infiltration, …sabotage and subversion activities” by “forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism”, for the “unification of the country and unity of all its nationalities”.

Yushu City Detention Centre where Tashi Wangchuk has been detained since Jan 2016
Yushu City Detention Centre where Tashi Wangchuk has been detained since Jan 2016

Charged for protecting Tibetan culture

After almost two years of detention Tashi’s trial took place in January 2018. In his interview with the New York Times in 2015 he expressed his distrust of government promises, saying: “The local government is controlling the actual Tibetan culture, such as the spoken and written language. It looks like development or help on the surface, but actually the goal is to eliminate our culture.” These words were used as evidence that Tashi was “intentionally inciting ethnic hatred and conspiring to undermine ethnic unity and unity of the country”. Tashi is now awaiting the verdict.

Imprisoning Tashi to silence him will not stop other Tibetans from struggling to preserve their language, culture and identity. The government must not keep ethnic minority children caged in an education system that force-feeds Mandarin Chinese and a uniform national curriculum in the name of “unification of the country and unity of all its nationalities”.

The government must immediately and unconditionally release Tashi Wangchuk who was only peacefully advocating for Tibetan language education, as is his right.  

As they say in Tibetan བཀྲ་ཤིས་དབང་ཕྱུག་གློད་གྲོལ་གཏོང་དགོས། – free Tashi Wangchuk.