One day in late November 2016, back home in Tibet, I received a distressing call from my brother telling me I needed to check on his granddaughters. “Something very strange is happening,” he said.
My young relatives, who were 4 and 5 years old at the time, had just enrolled in a boarding preschool that the Chinese government had established in my hometown, Kanlho, a seminomadic region in the northeast corner of the Tibetan plateau. Their new school was one of many — I have personally tracked about 160 in three Tibetan prefectures alone — and part of Beijing’s growing network of preschools in which Tibetan children are separated from their families and communities and assimilated into Chinese culture.
Though it had only been three months since the girls had started at the school, my brother described how they were already beginning to distance themselves from their Tibetan identity. On weekends, when they could return from school to their family, they rejected the food at home. They became less interested in our Buddhist traditions and spoke Tibetan less frequently. Most alarmingly, they were growing emotionally estranged from our family. “I might lose them if something isn’t done,” my brother worried.
Concerned, I set out to the girls’ school a few days later to pick them up for the weekend. When they walked out of the gates, they waved to me but barely spoke. When we arrived home, the girls didn’t hug their parents. They spoke only Mandarin to each other and remained silent during our family dinner. They had become strangers in their own home.
When I asked the girls about school, the older one recounted how on the first day several children, anxious from being unable to communicate with teachers who only spoke Mandarin, urinated and defecated in their pants.
As the Chinese government continues its 70-year quest to build legitimacy and control over Tibet, it is pivoting increasingly to using education as a battlefield to gain political control. By separating children from their families and familiar surroundings and funneling them into residential schools where they can become assimilated into Chinese subjects, the state is betting on a future where younger generations of Tibetans will become groomed Chinese Communist Party loyalists, model subjects easy to control and manipulate.
Today these boarding schools house roughly one million children between ages 4 and 18, approximately 80 percent of that population. At least 100,000 of those children — and I believe there are many more — are only 4 or 5 years old, like my young relatives were.
After listening to the girls’ stories, I asked my brother what would happen if he just refused to send them. He teared up. Disobeying the new policy would mean having his name blacklisted from government benefits. Others who have protested the new schools have suffered terrible consequences, he said.
He also didn’t have any other choice. Though Chinese boarding schools for Tibetan children have been around since the early 1980s, until fairly recently they had mostly enrolled middle and high school students. But beginning around 2010, the government, in preparation for the new wave of residential preschools, began shutting down local village schools, including the one in our hometown. Then it made preschool a prerequisite for elementary school. Though many of the new boarding schools are far from children’s hometowns, refusing to enroll in them would mean children would grow up with little to no education and become further marginalized from an economy that many Tibetans are already excluded from.
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Distressed by the changes I observed in my family, I set out over the next few years to visit more than 50 boarding preschools across northern and eastern Tibet, areas that China calls the Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu provinces. Over the course of my three years of fieldwork and meetings with students, parents and teachers, what I discovered was worse than anything I could have imagined.
I met young Tibetan children who could no longer speak their native tongue. The schools strictly controlled parental visits. In some cases, schoolchildren saw their families only once every six months. Dormitories, playgrounds and teachers’ offices were heavily surveilled. I saw security cameras installed in classrooms, no doubt to make sure teachers — many of whom were young Chinese undergraduates with little to no background in Tibetan language and culture — only used C.C.P.-approved textbooks.
In one school I visited in the nomadic town of Zorge, a homesick child, in a very quiet tone, said, “When it gets dark in the evening and I can’t take care of myself, I miss my mom and grandparents.”
A woman in my village whose small children had been sent to a boarding school told me: “Whenever I came home exhausted after working all day on the farm, I wanted to hug my 4- and 5-year-old kids. But they were not there.” To heal the pain of their separation, she and a group of other young mothers from her village organized a 1,200-kilometer walking pilgrimage to Lhasa.
One villager told me: “We realize that the government is not ours. When officials come to our town, they don’t know our language or how to communicate with us.”
Another asked: “How can our language and culture survive if we are not able to stop what is happening?”
Beijing’s use of schools to erase Tibetan culture isn’t new. During the Cultural Revolution, the government banned the teaching of Tibetan in many schools. Then, in 1985, in addition to the boarding schools that had been set up inside Tibet, Beijing pioneered its Inland Schooling Program, which sent Tibetan students off to boarding schools in cities across China. James Leibold, an expert in Chinese ethnic policies, described the schools as “a military-style boot camp in how to be ‘Chinese’ and how to conform to acceptable ways of acting, thinking and being.” By 2005, 29,000 Tibetan students had attended these schools.
The trend has only accelerated — and reached younger and younger children. In March 2018, at an annual Parliament meeting, President Xi Jinping said that “core socialist values should set the tone of the common spiritual home of all ethnic groups” and “should be nurtured among the people, particularly children and even in kindergartens.”
Beijing’s focus on separating younger Tibetans from their culture has finally caught Washington’s attention. Last month, the U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, announced that the United States would impose visa restrictions on Chinese officials who are involved in “the coercion of Tibetan children into government-run boarding schools.” As other countries like Canada and Australia reckon with their own history of colonial boarding schools, I hope they follow in Secretary Blinken’s footsteps and intervene as China enthusiastically replicates these horrors in my homeland.
I can only hope that the international attention will force Beijing to rethink its policy and alter the fates of children like my young relatives. After years of fieldwork, I am deeply concerned for the fate of Tibetan culture: that it will slowly disappear as more and more children are forced to become Chinese, and the Tibetan culture that I know and cherish will not survive for future generations. Or else I worry that they will grow up as perpetual strangers in their own homes, in their own homeland.