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Politics behind China’s education policy in Tibet

OPINION

FEBRUARY 25, 2023

While finding the right balance between maintaining alive a minority culture through education in the minority language and the need for education in the national language is not easy to find as it is, in the case of China’s policy in Tibet, politics is the name of the game, writes René Wadlow*

Three United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteurs have recently highlighted the quality and methods of education of Tibetan students.  Farida Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, and Alexandra Xanthaki, Special Rapporteur in the field of Cultural Rights, first expressed their concern in a private letter to the U.N. Mission of China in Geneva.  This is the standard procedure of first trying to discuss an issue with the authorities of the State concerned.  When the reply of the government is non-existent or superficial, then the Special Rapporteurs can “go public” either in their report to the Human Rights Council or with a press release as is the case with Tibetan education.

The 6 February 2023 U.N. Press Release quotes fully the statement sent to the Chinese Mission.  The Special Rapporteurs highlighted the one million Tibetan school children sent far from home to be in residential boarding schools.  The Special Rapporteurs are “very disturbed that in recent years the residential school system for Tibetan children appears to act as a mandatory large-scale programme intended to assimilate Tibetans into majority Han culture, contrary to international human rights standards…. This increase in the number of boarding Tibetan students is achieved by the closure of rural schools in areas which tend to be populated by Tibetans and their replacement by township or county-level schools which almost exclusively use Putonghua in teaching and communication.”  Putonghua is the official name for what is usually called “Mandarin Chinese.”

Recently, there has been more international media and governmental attention given to the repression and “re-education” of the largely Muslim Uighur.  Less attention has been given to policies in Tibet, but from the Chinese government position, the issues are very similar.  In both cases, an ethnic minority is a majority population in a large frontier area. In both cases, the population in question is bound together by a common religion: Islam for the Uighur, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for the Tibetans.  The Chinese government is fearful that groups advocating violence will influence the Uighur as there are a good number of such Muslim advocates in Central Asia and the wider Middle East.  The major external influence on the Tibetans is the Dalai Lama, and he has repeatedly stressed non-violence in activities, including protests of Chinese government policy.  Thus the government’s greater fears of violence among the Uighur.  Repression has focused not only on students but on adults as well.

Finding the right balance between maintaining alive a minority culture through education in the minority language and the need for education in the national language is not easy to find.  Education in English has served to develop “American population” in the U.S.A.

The languages of the American Indian tribes have been reduced to folklore.  Finding the right balance for Tibetan students will not be easy to develop even if there were no political issues at stake.  However, politics is “the name of the game.”

The U.N. Human Rights Council has a number of Special Rapporteurs devoted to certain sensitive themes or to specific countries.  These Special Rapporteurs are independent experts selected by the Council. They are not members of the Secretariat and are not paid, but their expenses are covered when in Geneva or on mission. The idea for the creation of the Special Rapporteurs was to give them as much independence as possible from pressure of both governments and the U.N. Secretariat.  The U. N. Special Rapporteurs public statement on the education of Tibetan students will draw new attention to an issue which merits being closely watched.

* René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues.

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