Tibetan Language Learning Eroded Under China’s ‘Bilingual Education’: Rights Group

March 5, 2020 Updated: March 5, 2020

BEIJING—China is eroding access to Tibetan language learning and resources in the Tibet Autonomous Region while carrying out so-called “bilingual education,” according to a new report from Human Rights Watch.

The Chinese communist regime, while ensuring its minority Tibetan community gets education in their native tongue, has sidelined Tibetan-language classes by making Mandarin Chinese the primary language of instruction, said the report released on Mar. 5.

In 2002, the Tibet Autonomous Region’s government issued decrees that bilingual education meant Chinese and Tibetan were to be given “equal weight,” but that wording has now disappeared from official messaging.

China has started pushing bilingual education in recent years, while remaining vague in its public-facing comments on what bilingual education actually means, the report said.

By 2017, the entire Tibet Autonomous Region was carrying out “bilingual education.”

In practice, this policy means Chinese is the main medium of instruction, with only one class dedicated to Tibetan, the rights group said, adding that the next generations’ fluency in Tibetan was at risk.

“The promotion of Putonghua (Mandarin Chinese) among Tibetan communities is really problematic and has had a really profound impact on their identity, their language practices, and their ability to practice their culture,” said Gerald Roche, a senior research fellow at La Trobe University in Australia, unaffiliated with the group.

Switching to Chinese-medium instruction in western Qinghai Province, where ethnic Tibetans also live in large numbers, has led to sporadic protests against the government. In 2018, China sentenced a Tibetan-language advocate from Qinghai to five years prison on charges of “inciting separatism.”

The Tibetan Autonomous Regional government and China’s Ministry of Education did not immediately reply to faxed requests for comment.

Still, many Tibetans see Chinese as a valuable skill for the next generation, as it provides economic and education opportunity to a population that lives in remote and underdeveloped areas.

“Many of the Tibetans we talk to tell us they are indeed keen to ensure that their children speak Chinese … but not at the cost of Tibetan-language education,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

“The idea of truly bilingual education is great and desirable. But that’s not what’s really on offer.”

By Huizhong Wu