Radio Free Asia reports (17.10.2023) that China has banned the teaching and use of the Tibetan language at elementary and middle schools in two Tibetan-populated regions and mandated that all instruction is to be in Mandarin. This is not a new phenomenon and is part of the larger ‘Sinicization’ of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) that began in the 1960s. It is assessed that the move could lead to the extinction of the language in the two regions and endanger its viability across TAR. The Chinese government reportedly ordered the ban in government-run schools in Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province, starting with the fall semester that began in September 2023. The latest ban is a continuum of a strategy initiated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to make Mandarin compulsory in the entire TAR.
In the case of the two TAR regions, it has been stated that current middle school students could do the next two years of studies in Tibetan, but starting in 2025, all classes would be held in Mandarin. Previously, state-run schools in the region taught Tibetan language classes to students, and subjects including mathematics, science, physics, geography, history, and social studies. Mandarin was also taught as a language course. The Chinese government has now directed the teaching of all school subjects in Mandarin in all the twelve counties comprising Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The ban is part of China’s wider “Sinicization” program that has also restricted the language and culture of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and other minorities in China, despite protections in China’s Constitution that permit minority groups to use their language in their own regions.
The introduction of Mandarin as the language of instruction in all middle and high schools in the TAR began in the 1960s. Much later in 2010, a policy of ‘bilingual education’ was implemented, for schools in all minority regions of China. In Tibet, many primary schools and even kindergartens were forced to use Mandarin as the teaching language for Tibetan students. According to the 2020 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, the Chinese government has tried its best to make Mandarin the dominant language in Tibetan schools. The CCP plan to make Mandarin compulsory across the TAR has not been without protest. Resentment amongst public and educators in 2020 to change the language of instruction to Mandarin from Tibetan in elementary and middle schools in Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture boiled over into a large protest, and the proposal was put on hold.
By the fall semester of 2021, all kindergartens in ethnic and rural areas in TAR that had hitherto not used Mandarin for education activities were mandated to do so. Teachers were also directed to undergo national common language application ability training for a period of four years, during 2021-2025 (22 September 2021, LiveMint). In early August 2021, authorities in Tehor Rongbacha Township in Kham Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture ordered Gyalten Getza School to change medium of instruction to Mandarin and conduct examinations in the Chinese language. Those schools who failed to comply with the order were forced to shut down (23 August 2021, freetibet.org).
Tibetan is widely spoken not just in the TAR in the far western part of China, but also in neighbouring parts of the country with large Tibetan populations. For example, about 90% of Kardze prefecture’s one million inhabitants are Tibetan. Despite the steady erosion of Tibetan language as a medium of instruction on account of the CCP’s mandarin emphasis, attempts were made to keep the Tibetan language alive. Mention can be made here of the formation of a Tibetan language task force under the Kardze Area Tibetan Language Regulation adopted in 2015.
The latest ban in the two prefectures comes as local authorities verbally informed teachers and parents to start implementing the new rule at the start of the new academic year. After banning Tibetan instruction at the Chak-sam-kha Middle School in Sichuan Province, Tibetan language teachers were told to shift to other areas where the government still allowed Tibetan to be used as a medium of instruction. The current step has been termed by one observer as “soft anarchy”. This observer told RFA that “On the pretext of the government’s program, China is trying to completely wipe out the Tibetan language.” He added that the CCP’s objective is to annihilate Tibetan society and its education system, by “soft atrocities”.
School administrators did not inform the students’ parents about the change in the language of instruction from Tibetan to Mandarin in various subjects. Instead, they held a meeting with teachers who were instructed to teach their subjects in Mandarin. Middle schools in Zoege county, are widely known for their high standard of Tibetan-language teaching but had to switch to Mandarin as the main language of instruction this year. All teachers at Zoege country middle schools have been ordered to implement the measure. At the 38th Human Rights Dialogue in Brussels on 17 February 2023, the European Union raised its concerns regarding the new report of the UN Human Rights Council on the issue of Chinese atrocities against Tibetan minorities and the suppression of “cultural coexistence and restrictions on the exercise of fundamental freedoms, use of forced labour, limits on due process rights and lack of judicial independence”. The world realises that there is a steady erosion in the identity and culture of Tibet. China’s education policy in the TAR is one such significant measure which has reduced the access of ethnic Tibetans to education in their mother tongue. This is the conclusion of a 2020 HRW report. The Chinese government policy, called “bilingual education,” has in practice led to the gradual replacement of Tibetan by Chinese as the medium of instruction in primary schools throughout the region. That in the long-term signals a death knell for the Tibetan language.