HomeNewsRights group says Tibetans 'denied mother tongue' in schools

Rights group says Tibetans ‘denied mother tongue’ in schools

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has found that Tibetan-language instruction in primary schools in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is on the decline as a direct result of government policy, potentially contravening both Chinese and international law.

After conducting interviews with parents and children at rural primary schools in six different townships in northern Tibet, HRW reports that a Chinese-medium teaching system had been introduced since March of that year. 

While no official government policy to that affect had been announced, an official in the region told HRW he expected the government to introduce a scheme making Chinese language instruction in primary schools compulsory in the region. 




Although Chinese has been the primary language of instruction in Tibet in middle and high schools since the 1960s, Beijing’s efforts to use Chinese as the teaching language for Tibetan students in primary school and even kindergarten are relatively new.

Officially, both Tibetan and Chinese languages should be “promoted” in the region, while primary schools can decide whether to change from Tibetan to Chinese-medium teaching. China’s constitution, meanwhile, guarantees minority language rights. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which China ratified in 1992, likewise states that children belonging to ethnic minorities “shall not be denied the right” to using their own language. 

In 2010, China formally introduced a policy of “bilingual education” for schools in all minority areas in China, which does not contravene international law as long as it “promotes competency in both the local and the national language.”

However, efforts at “strengthening the unity of nationalities,” including mandatory “bilingual” kindergartens that immerse Tibetan children in Chinese language and state propaganda from age three, appear targeted at squeezing out Tibetan language and culture.

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“When we entered the [Tibetan] elementary schools, everywhere they have these big signs saying ‘We have to use Mandarin,’ ‘Speaking Mandarin is our responsibility,’ ‘We are Chinese kids,’ ‘We have to speak Mandarin,’ or something like this, or ‘I am a Chinese child; I like to speak Mandarin.’ On the wall it says, ‘Mandarin is our medium for teaching’,” a former Tibetan part-time teacher from Lhasa told HRW in October 2018.

Sophie Richardson, HRW’s China director, said that Beijing’s bilingual education policy is motivated by political and not educational imperatives.

“The Chinese government is violating its international legal obligations to provide Tibetan-language instruction to Tibetans,” she said. 

Tracking the erosion of Tibetan as medium of instruction in primary schools since the 1980s, HRW reports that a “number of indirect mechanisms to pressure schools in the TAR to switch to Chinese-medium teaching” have been instituted. 

Included among these measures are compulsory immersion in Chinese culture and language, facilitated by “mixed classes”, “concentrated schooling, the mass transfer of Chinese teachers to Tibetan schools, sending Tibetan teachers for training in provinces where Chinese is the dominant language, and requiring Tibetan teachers to be fluent in Chinese.

“The measures have indirectly increased pressure on schools in the TAR to reduce the availability of mother-tongue education for Tibetan children over the last decade, and are accelerating the gradual shift to Chinese-medium teaching in TAR primary schools,” the HRW report found. 




While the number of Tibetan language instructors has diminished on account of concerted government policy, the number of non-Tibetan-speaking teachers working in Tibetan schools tripled between 1988 and 2005. An additional 30,000 such teachers will be sent to both Tibet and Xinjiang — the northwestern region where Uyghur Muslims are likewise facing wholesale oppression and forced “sinicization” — by 2020.

A dearth of quality Tibetan-language textbooks has also compelled schools to use Chinese language versions “from Kindergarten on”, one mid-ranking Tibetan official told HRW.

“China’s ‘bilingual education’ policy in Tibet goes against the constitution, international standards, and expert consensus on the importance of mother-tongue instruction, and the basic aspirations of the Tibetan people,” Richardson said.

“Forced assimilation is no solution to the governance of ethnic minority regions, nor is national security an acceptable justification for the denial of mother-tongue education rights.”

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