China’s “bilingual education” policy has accelerated the demise of Tibetan-medium instruction in primary schools in Tibetan areas, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Wednesday. The policy, carried out over the past decade in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan areas, has increased Chinese language schooling at all levels except for the study of Tibetan language itself.
The 91-page report, “China’s ‘Bilingual Education’ Policy in Tibet: Tibetan-Medium Schooling Under Threat,” examines the Chinese government’s rollback of minority education rights in Tibet under the guise of improving access to education. It highlights compulsory “bilingual” kindergartens that immerse Tibetan children in Chinese language and state propaganda from age 3, in the name of “strengthening the unity of nationalities.” These developments reflect an assimilationist policy for minorities that has gained momentum under President Xi Jinping’s leadership.
“China’s ‘bilingual education’ policy is motivated by political imperatives rather than educational ones,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The Chinese government is violating its international legal obligations to provide Tibetan-language instruction to Tibetans.”
The report features in-depth interviews with Tibetan schoolteachers, academics, and former officials, and includes translations of recent petitions by Tibetans and debates on language rights and education.
China’s constitution guarantees minority language rights, and Tibetan-medium education began to be introduced in schools in the relatively liberal 1980s, although only at the primary level in the TAR. In an increasingly repressive political climate, the authorities now consider even local initiatives for the promotion of Tibetan language as “separatist” activities. Many Tibetans view the primacy and continuity of their language as the fundamental guarantee of their future as a distinct people within the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
In 2010 to 2012, the proposed phasing-out of Tibetan-medium instruction in Tibetan areas of Qinghai province sparked school protests that the authorities crushed, but caused the new policy to be put on hold. In May 2019, however, Golok Prefecture in Qinghai announced that Chinese would be made the medium of instruction at all levels, starting from the September semester.
No such announcement has been made in the TAR, and officials claim that each primary school can decide whether to switch from Tibetan to Chinese-medium teaching. But the Human Rights Watch report presents evidence the authorities there have adopted measures that appear designed to pressure local schools to switch to Chinese-medium. These measures include hiring thousands of non-Tibetan speaking teachers from other parts of China under the “Aid Tibet” program and the promotion of ethnically “mixed classes,” also for the sake of “nationality unity.” These make the adoption of the Chinese language largely inevitable, especially in urban areas, even without direct compulsion.
International observers are denied access to Tibetan areas of China, but in September 2019, Human Rights Watch was able to ask questions regarding the language of instruction to parents and teachers in six rural townships in Nagchu Municipality in northern TAR. All replied that as of March 2019 their local primary schools had switched to using Chinese as the language of instruction.
Tibetans sources told Human Rights Watch that while it is necessary and desirable for children to acquire fluency in Chinese, this was in no way incompatible with Tibetan-medium instruction at the kindergarten and primary level. Some were aware of international academic research showing that children learn faster and better in their own language and are better placed to learn a second language once they have acquired competency in their mother tongue. One expert contributor to an online debate wrote: “[I]t’s surprising that there is a wish to abandon our own advantage of having a mother-tongue education system, and … to consider this ‘transformation’ to be an ‘improvement in quality.’ This is as stupid as scaling a tree to catch a fish.”
China’s version of bilingual education contravenes international human rights law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). UN committees such as those on the Rights of the Child; Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and Elimination of Racial Discrimination have all expressed concern over the rights of Tibetans to education in their own language and culture in China. UN member countries should urgently and publicly raise their concerns in bilateral meetings and international forums.
“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.”