First-grade students, hands folded on their desks, watch a teacher write a brush-like stroke on a blackboard in their Tibetan alphabet. Outside, craggy mountains climb toward the brightest of blue skies. The air is clean and crisp at 2,800 meters (9,100 feet), if a bit thin.
The Shangri-La Key Boarding School is an example of bilingual education, Chinese-style. Tibetan activists have a different term for it: forced assimilation. The issue is getting official attention this year, with UN human rights experts and representatives from the US and a handful of other Western governments condemning the system.
China has shuttered village schools across Tibet and replaced them with centralised boarding schools over the last dozen years. Many students come from remote farming villages and live at the schools. The practice is not limited to the region but appears to be much more widespread in Tibetan areas.
Activists estimate 1 million Tibetan children study at such boarding schools, though the number is difficult to confirm. They say the schools are part of a broader strategy to dilute Tibetan identity and assimilate Tibetans into the majority Chinese culture. School officials respond that the lessons include Tibetan-related material such as songs and dance, and that the boarding schools were born out of a need to deliver the best education in impoverished remote areas.
In ethnic areas, the population is scattered, and the government has put in a lot of effort to consolidate educational resources and provide an excellent teaching and learning environment for the students, Kang Zhaxi, the principal of the Shangri-La school, told about 10 foreign journalists recently as lines of students spilled out of the cafeteria at dinnertime. This is how it works. Kang Zhaxi, who was speaking in Chinese, gave the Chinese version of his name, which would be Kham Tashi in Tibetan.
China has long sought to eradicate any possibility of unrest in regions home to sizeable ethnic populations by imprisoning those who dare to protest while reshaping societies and religions including Tibetan Buddhism, Islam and Christianity to align them with the views and goals of the long-ruling Communist Party.
The approach has hardened in the past decade under leader Xi Jinping, notably in a brutal crackdown on the Uyghur community in the Xinjiang region north of Tibet.
In the battle for global public opinion, the government organized a tour for foreign journalists to a predominantly Tibetan region in Sichuan province. Officials showed off schools, economic development projects, Buddhist monasteries and a Tibetan medicine hospital. Many of these locations, including boarding schools, would normally be difficult for foreign media to access. All interviews were conducted with government officials listening in.