China has quietly downgraded Tibetan language in continuing Sinicization move

Signs marking the national college entrance examination sites in Nagchu Municipality, Tibet Autonomous Region. (Photo courtesy: HRW)

(, Jul22’21) – China’s officially declared policies on Tibet are bad enough, especially if one could see through the cover of euphemisms used to sugar-coat them. But what it implements without any explicit declaration of policies is no less damning. One such undeclared policy that is seen to have become explicit is on the downgraded use of Tibetan language on official sign-boards in Tibet, according to a new report by New York-based Human Rights Watch Jul 21.

The group said that while the Chinese government had long issued laws and statements declaring its respect for minority languages, including regulations requiring all public signs in minority areas to be bilingual, the latest evidence from the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) indicates otherwise. It shows that Tibetan language has been relegated to a status below the Chinese language.

Since at least the start of the reform era in the 1980s, Tibetan has always been placed above Chinese on all public signboards, notices, and banners in the TAR.

But now a team of researchers consulted by the group has compiled scores of photographs from the official Chinese media over the past year that all show a major change: except for older banners, Chinese is now always above the Tibetan, the report said.

The group said the decision to subordinate Tibetan to Chinese in official signage had not been announced publicly, but was now uniform throughout the TAR, even in remote villages, a clear indication of a requirement imposed by the state.

The group noted that provisions for language use are seen by minority peoples in the PRC as bottom-line guarantees of their distinct identity.

Curbs on them tend to be imposed quietly and incrementally. In this connection the group has noted that policies promoting Chinese-medium teaching in Tibetan primary schools have been carefully but falsely presented as promoting bilingualism. And it has resulted in protests, as happened most recently with respect to Mongolian language instruction in Inner Mongolia in Sep 2020, the report noted.

The group noted that the changed order of languages on public signs had been evident since Aug 30, 2020, which was the day after a meeting called “the 7th Forum on Tibet Work” was held in Beijing. The meeting saw China’s top leader Xi Jinping announcing his new policies for Tibet. They emphasized “ethnic mingling” and “patriotic education” – policies that serve Beijing’s interests at the cost of Tibetans’ identity – in Tibetan schools.

Examples of the rollout of these policies include a new campaign in villages and monasteries in the TAR to teach Tibetans to speak the “national common language” in order to “raise population quality” and to “forge the consciousness of Chinese national community.”

While Tibetan is still spoken and used, the new regulations placing Tibetan below Chinese on public signs are a clear indication that threats to the language – and therefore Tibetans’ identity – are growing, the group said.


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