China’s brutal treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang has won tremendous international attention in recent years, with human rights groups decrying the systematic detention in internment camps of a million people, as well as the Chinese state’s attempts to suppress Uyghur culture and the practice of Islam. But the plight of another oppressed ethnic group has flown largely under the radar. In Tibet, the Chinese state has also embarked on a campaign to quash the identity of a distinct people. Its chief weapon in Tibet is not dystopian camps but something seemingly more quotidian: residential schools.
Nearly a million Tibetan children live in state-run residential schools on the Tibetan plateau. Chinese authorities subject these children to a highly politicized curriculum designed to strip them of their mother tongue, sever their ties to their religion and culture, and methodically replace their Tibetan identity with a Chinese one. Children as young as four have been separated from their parents and enrolled in boarding kindergartens under a recruitment strategy based largely on coercion.
This alarming development has prompted a series of congressional hearings and formal inquiries in the United States, Canada, and the United Nations. “We are very disturbed that in recent years the residential school system for Tibetan children appears to act as a mandatory large-scale program intended to assimilate Tibetans into majority Han culture, contrary to international human rights standards,” a group of UN experts declared earlier this year. In August, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced visa sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for this program.
The West should be particularly concerned by China’s imposition of these schools on Tibetan youth. After all, the residential schools resemble the church-run boarding schools in which authorities thrust indigenous children in Australia and North America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In recent years, researchers and survivors have brought to light the horrific scale of abuses and trauma associated with these schools, which sought to separate children from their indigenous cultures and families. Australian and Canadian leaders have issued formal apologies to indigenous communities that still suffer from the legacy of forced enrollment in the residential schools. Chinese diplomats routinely excoriate the West for its colonial-era crimes against indigenous peoples. But now Beijing plans to do to Tibetans precisely what white settler regimes did to indigenous peoples.
THE THREAT OF DIFFERENCE
Writing in the 1990s, a chorus of influential Chinese intellectuals blamed the Soviet Union’s disintegration on Moscow’s failure to Russify the cultural and linguistic identities of its autonomous republics. They insisted that China should draw an important lesson from the fragmentation of the multilingual and multicultural Soviet Union, warning that special accommodation for minority nationalities impeded China’s nation-building project. These ideas gained currency with the rise of Xi Jinping in 2012. Under Xi, China has taken a darker and more uncompromising view of the cultural diversity within its borders. Authorities have taken aim not just at those espousing separatist ideologies but also at the separate identities of Tibetans and Uyghurs, the two major ethnic groups with the strongest historical and legal claims to national self-determination. Beijing has rarely let dissent go unpunished, but now it is even criminalizing difference.
In Xinjiang—the western region home to several Turkic-language-speaking, Muslim minority groups—this vision of a homogeneous China has had devastating consequences. Authorities have detained at least a million Uyghur Muslims in what are in effect concentration camps, and Chinese officials have subjected Uyghur communities to intense surveillance and prevented Uyghurs from practicing their Muslim faith. Beijing has sought to justify this campaign by raising the specter of Uyghur terrorism in the wake of the U.S.-led global war on terror. But that narrative is an awkward fit for Tibet. After all, the Dalai Lama is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the Tibetan nationalist movement is openly committed to nonviolence. So Beijing has relied on subtler and seemingly less brutal tools of repression to achieve its goals.
Chief among these methods is the suppression of the Tibetan language. Among all features of Tibetan identity, language is what most unites the diverse Tibetan communities of the plateau. Language sets Tibetans apart from Han Chinese even more sharply than does religion or the distinct geography of their Himalayan homeland. China has tamed Tibet’s forbidding terrain with a network of roads, tunnels, and railways. It has co-opted Buddhism by infiltrating its institutions, supplementing blunt repression with the finer instruments of state subsidies and surveillance. By contrast, the Tibetan language, which has nothing in common with Mandarin, remains doggedly unconquerable; unlike other aspects of Tibetan life, it has not been tamed, co-opted, or Sinicized. This is precisely why, in the eyes of Xi and the hawkish advocates of what has come to be known as China’s “second-generation ethnic policy,” the Tibetan language must be eradicated.
EDUCATION AS A WEAPON
To achieve that goal, Beijing has sought to corral Tibetan pupils in state-run residential schools. Political indoctrination and cultural marginalization have always been inseparable from modern education in Tibet since the region’s conquest by China in the 1950s. Until recently, however, schools in Tibet were mostly local day schools, and students returned home each evening; whatever they were taught in school was moderated by what they learned at home. But since Xi came to power, the government has shuttered most of these local schools and consolidated them into newly constructed boarding establishments located far from villages and towns. Unlike the schools of the past, the residential institutions enable the state to fully wrest control of the students’ attention and environment. This gives the Chinese Communist Party unprecedented power to shape the worldview and mold the identity of the youngest generation of Tibetans.
The most comprehensive study on the residential school system to date comes from a 2021 report by the Tibet Action Institute, a human rights advocacy group. Its researchers used Chinese government statistical yearbooks, firsthand testimonials from Tibet, and Chinese language academic publications to estimate that some 800,000 Tibetan students aged six to 18 are currently in the boarding system—roughly three out of every four students in Tibet. This staggering statistic does not include the more than 100,000 Tibetan children aged four to six who are believed to be in boarding kindergartens. The report also documents many cases of the state coercing parents into enrolling their children, puncturing Beijing’s claim that all enrollment is voluntary. Chinese authorities impose punitive measures, including fines, denial of welfare subsidies, even arrest and imprisonment, to force parents to enroll their children in the schools.
In all boarding primary schools and preschools across the Tibetan plateau, Mandarin has been imposed in the last decade as the sole vehicle for interaction both in and outside the classroom. A Tibetan preteen who attended a boarding middle school outside Lhasa, and who now lives abroad, described to us an average school day for a fifth grader. From 6:30 AM to 9:45 PM, students endured a grueling schedule, with more time devoted to “patriotic education” and Chinese language than to math and science. Breaks were few, brief, and highly regimented. Before she boarded, around the age of ten, Tibetan was indisputably her first language; less than a year after enrolling in the school, Mandarin had displaced Tibetan, which she now fumbled as if it were a foreign tongue.
Until about a decade ago, Tibetans had more pathways for pursuing a culturally grounded education—some attended monastery day schools or private schools, while others sneaked off to India to study at the educational institutions overseen by the Dalai Lama. But all those options have disappeared thanks to China’s closure of local and private Tibetan schools from 2012 onward and the tightening of the borders around Tibet between 2006 and 2009.
Earlier this year, when the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights conducted its review of the third periodic report on China, Chinese officials defended the mandatory boarding policy by claiming there were no schooling alternatives in rural Tibet, conveniently forgetting that they themselves had destroyed the alternatives. Although the boarding system exists in other parts of rural China, the rate of boarding is astronomically higher for Tibetan students (78 percent) than for Chinese students in the rest of the country (22 percent). This is not accidental. In 2015, the Chinese government explicitly called on officials to “strengthen boarding school construction” in minority regions so as to ensure that “children of all ethnic minorities will live in a school, study in a school, and grow up in a school.”
Chinese officials defended the use of Mandarin as the medium of instruction by claiming that the Tibetan language lacks the vocabulary for teaching science and mathematics. This claim is not only false but hypocritical. It is normal for a language to lack the requisite technical vocabulary when encountering new subjects; such obstacles are easily surmounted through the creation or loaning of new words. In fact, Mandarin itself used thousands of loanwords from Japanese and English when new disciplines such as sociology and natural science entered China’s curricula a mere century ago. More pertinently, subjects such as math, chemistry, biology, and geography were taught in the Tibetan language until around 2010, when “model one” bilingualism, which privileged Tibetan as a medium of instruction, began to be replaced by “model two” bilingualism, which used Mandarin as the medium.
China has shuttered most local Tibetan schools and pushed students into new boarding ones.
The loss of Tibetan has real consequences for communities and families. As children grow up not in their homes but in the alienating space of school dorms, the foundational structures of Tibetan life weaken. Researchers are already seeing the early but unmistakable results of this wholesale linguistic displacement and cultural erasure. Preadolescent Tibetans are fast losing their ability to converse in Tibetan, which leaves them disoriented during their lives’ foremost developmental stage. A friend who recently visited Tibet reported that among all the children younger than ten that he met during his trip, none spoke in Tibetan.
One of us, Gyal Lo, who worked as an educational sociologist in Tibet for two decades, visited roughly 50 residential preschools between 2015 and 2020 and witnessed this unfolding tragedy in real time. A growing number of Tibetan children are struggling to forge meaningful relationships with their parents. When home during school breaks, children often avoid interactions with parents and other family members. Among themselves, they speak only Mandarin. Residential schools have placed barriers not only between pupils and Tibetan culture but also between the pupils and their own families.
But that is in large part the goal of such schools. Much like their counterparts in North America and Australia decades ago—when authorities ripped indigenous children from their families and communities and confined them in boarding schools—these institutions in Tibet are designed to stem the transmission of culture and language from one generation to the next. In many traditional societies, grandparents play a seminal role in shaping children’s psychosocial development and worldview. By expunging the children’s mother tongue, the residential schools render them unable to communicate, let alone converse, with their grandparents. This systematic estrangement of children from their parents and grandparents will lead to psychological and developmental damage, not to mention the collective trauma of a culture collapsing.
AN ADMISSION OF DEFEAT
What is happening in Tibet is not just a violation of international law but also a betrayal of the promises that the Chinese government made to Tibet. In 1951, when the People’s Republic of China signed the 17-Point Agreement with the Tibetan government in Lhasa, Beijing pledged to respect Tibetan autonomy in the domains of faith, culture, and language. In 1984, Beijing recommitted itself to these principles of linguistic and cultural autonomy when it decreed the Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy, which stipulated that schools and other “educational organizations recruiting mostly ethnic minority students should, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use these languages as the media of instruction.”
These promises were made at a time when Chinese leaders were confident that Tibetans would eventually accept the ideological superiority of communism and submit to the soft power of Han civilization. Once Tibetans had tasted the fruits of modernization and economic development, Beijing assumed, they would abandon their Buddhist value system, shed their traditional identity, and voluntarily embrace the Communist Party and the “motherland.” But this theory of voluntary assimilation has been frustrated by real events—including the 2008 uprising in Tibet, when Tibetans took to the streets to rebel against Chinese rule, and the subsequent wave of self-immolations in protest—as Tibetans insisted on holding on to their spiritual inheritance and traditional identity.
Western countries have a responsibility to condemn China’s modern version of a colonial practice.
In a sense, China’s shift under Xi to a more coercive policy of seeking to eliminate Tibetan culture and language is an admission of defeat. Beijing’s weaponization of schools and kindergartens to convert Tibetan children into Chinese subjects is a tacit acknowledgment of its failure to win Tibetan hearts and minds through the persuasive power of growth and development. This failure is the ultimate reason why the institution of colonial residential schooling, consigned to history in the rest of the world, has now appeared in Tibet.
In recent months, Beijing has gone into overdrive trying to whitewash the residential schools. The Global Times and China Daily, both government mouthpieces, have published story after story trying to justify the schools, using glitzy images to portray them as different from the historical residential schools in North America. This is a clear sign of Beijing’s sense of vulnerability and its growing anxiety over the issue receiving greater attention, not least at a time when China’s international stature and domestic legitimacy have diminished following its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, its aggressive foreign policy, and the recent struggles of the Chinese economy. Beijing may be susceptible to international pressure, and the time to act is now.
States must condemn the colonial boarding school system by issuing strong statements, especially at seemingly mundane but strategically critical opportunities such as the upcoming UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of China. They should be echoing this with statements from their foreign ministries, and punishing Chinese officials with travel restrictions and slapping sanctions on the architects of these insidious policies, as Blinken did in August. Finally, states should coordinate with one another to strengthen their collective response to China’s campaign to eliminate Tibetan identity and culture. In particular, Australia, Canada, and the United States—all with a history of weaponizing education to eradicate indigenous cultures—have a special responsibility to condemn the twenty-first-century version of this colonial practice. Their recent reckoning with their own inglorious pasts gives them the unique credibility to warn China not to make the same mistake. If diplomatic interventions, multilateral pressure, and targeted sanctions come together at the right time, the residential schooling policy in Tibet might yet be checked and reversed.