The Plight of the Tibetans
Tibet has tended to disappear from the media for some time now. The Covid-19 pandemic has relegated the plight of the Tibetans to the background and has turned our attention to China, and to Wuhan in particular, which has become as famous as Beijing or Shanghai. One would have thought that the Chinese President Xi Jinping would remain busy solving the terrible crisis created by this virus, which has now spread around the world. But, while the world is busy treating the living and counting the dead, Xi continues with his policies of assimilation and repression of the so-called ‘minority’ populations.
Although the media have communicated a great deal on the spread of Covid-19 in the regions of China proper, little or practically nothing has been published on the situation in the Tibetan region. However, even during these dramatic months, it is clear from the meagre information that reaches us that the repression continues in Tibet. This includes the arrest of Tibetans for ‘spreading rumors’ on Covid-19, the closure of Internet discussion groups in Qinghai and Lhasa, and investigations of Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) who have contacts with their families in India and Nepal.
It is interesting to note the priorities of the Chinese government. Its sophisticated system of global surveillance makes it possible to arrest ‘criminals’ who share censored information, sometimes simple photos of the Dalai Lama. But they ignore the proliferation of trafficking and consumption of endangered animals, including the pangolin, in defiance of international conventions. For many decades, Chinese authorities in the Tibetan zone have feared the month of March, fraught with key dates for Tibetan resistance – the most important being March 10, the day of the Lhasa uprising in 1959. Despite the confinement, they proceeded with a military show of force on March 6 in Lhasa. The authorities of the People’s Republic of China are not only rewriting the history of the appearance and spread of a new virus, they are also promulgating new laws designed to exercise even tighter control and perfect assimilation of the Tibetans and other non-Han populations.
Teaching the Tibetan language has been under attack for years. “Bilingual” education launched in 1992 refers to a system where two languages are present, without specifying the share each occupies. As a result, this is increasingly reflected in the exclusive use of Chinese for all subjects, Tibetan being reserved only for Tibetan language and literature classes – as a foreign language in a way, whereas it is the learners’ mother tongue. In April, when the schools reopened, the authorities announced that education in the Ngawa region of Amdo will now be provided exclusively in Chinese. Amdo is the region where, to date, the Tibetan language and script have been best preserved through tolerant local policies and the actions of civil society and the religious community.
In Lhasa, where Chinese is compulsory even in kindergartens, Tibetan children are losing more and more control of their native language under the influence of Mandarin, while officially, Tibetans represent 92% of the population in TAR. Beijing could not dream of a better assimilation: children incapable of communicating with their parents and their community other than in the language of the colonizer and who will therefore not be able to transmit to future generations their own language or the cultural and historical memory that feeds on it.