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China’s plan to assimilate Tibet

The People’s Republic of China seized control of Tibet in 1950 in what its leaders termed the “peaceful liberation” of a theocracy. Generations of Tibetans in exile continue to call it an invasion and annexation of a de facto independent region where rich cultural roots are at risk of being buried in obscurity.

Otherwise tranquil Tibetan Buddhists once turned parts of their historical homeland into some of the country’s most restive regions, first in 1959 and again nearly a half-century later—both ended in bloodshed. Sporadic resistance against the Chinese government’s rule continued, but in each instance Beijing further clenched its authoritarian fist in pursuit of synthetic ethnic unity under a single banner of the Communist Party.

Tibet has essentially been a police state for more than a decade, observers say, marked by near-constant technological and human surveillance as well as a heavy law enforcement presence at religious sites, including the capital, Lhasa.

The West is familiar with Beijing’s heavy-handed approach in Xinjiang. What is less well known, activists say, are its systematic efforts to erase Tibetan identity, including by indoctrinating children. Under the authority of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Tibetans are increasingly seeing the government’s cultural and political “Sinicization” policies manifest in some of the ethnic group’s youngest members.

In early February, a group of United Nations special rapporteurs said they were alarmed by the placement of about 1 million Tibetan children in China’s residential school system as part of the country’s compulsory education. Removed from their family homes, young Tibetans are taught in environments built around dominant Han Chinese culture, in which substantive access to their own cultural, religious and linguistic roots is severely restricted.

“As a result, Tibetan children are losing their facility with their native language and the ability to communicate easily with their parents and grandparents in the Tibetan language, which contributes to their assimilation and erosion of their identity,” said the independent experts, whose roles are mandated by the UN Human Rights Office.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which has rebuffed similar concerns from UN fact finders since 2010, condemned the statement as “lies and rumors” aimed at discrediting China’s achievements.

“We urge these experts to…perform their duty in a fair and objective manner, stop politicizing and instrumentalizing human rights issues,” a spokesperson said. “Otherwise, they will risk losing their own credibility.”

The UN’s understanding of the situation is aided by evidence collected by nonprofits like the Boston-based Tibet Action Institute, founded by Lhadon Tethong. In a December 2021 report on China’s “colonial boarding schools,” the group found that nearly 80 percent of Tibetan children between the ages of 6 and 18 were enrolled in residential schools, compared to the national average of just over 20 percent.

In remote farming and nomadic communities of majority Tibetan areas, children as young as 4 are boarding in preschool, where, despite the official promise of bilingual education, pupils are instructed almost exclusively in Mandarin, the report said. The Chinese government has facilitated the expansion of the program by shuttering Tibetan schools and suppressing teaching initiatives by community leaders, compelling—or in some cases coercing—parents to send away their children.

Tethong, a Tibetan Canadian, sees similarities with the treatment of indigenous peoples in North America in the previous centuries, although on a much larger scale. And like those who survived the schools that existed in Canada and the United States, traumatized former students tested to poor living conditions and no protection against sexual violence and other misconduct.

“It’s a classic colonial system designed to erase the Tibetan identity and culture of this whole generation, by not just putting them in schools to streamline or fast-track it, but to remove them from their parents, families and communities so that transmission of language and culture isn’t there,” Tethong told Newsweek.

“Tibetans live in Tibet; they’re not Chinese. But somehow speaking Chinese, being Chinese and being loyal to the Communist Party in Beijing is more important than our ancient culture, traditions and rights,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if the schools are gleaming new and the children wear Tibetan chubas, have one Tibetan class a day and are fed Tibetan food, if the intent of the program is to remove the Tibetan out of the child.”

Before Xi’s arrival, there was some religious and cultural tolerance, but that’s “all out the window now.” What remains is “window dressing,” Tethong said. “This whole thing, taken together, is genocide. It’s a genocidal policy. There’s no benevolent intention here.”

Gyal Lo, a Tibetan scholar who has a doctorate in educational sociology, said the Chinese government began expanding its residential school program for Tibetans in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Parents were “very resistant” because of the Han Chinese-dominated curriculum, which has only become more restrictive.

A pupil from the countryside can spend up to 15 years in boarding school, depending on the family’s ease of access to primary and secondary education facilities, he said. Children are permitted to travel home on weekends and during summer and winter breaks, but they quickly grow distant because of a lack of cultural connections—the result of one hour of Tibetan class a day, or sometimes none at all, “ever since Xi Jinping came to power,” Gyal Lo told Newsweek.

“I’ve seen with my own eyes the children becoming unwilling to speak with their families after just three months in these schools,” said Gyal Lo, who fled to Canada for political reasons on the last day of 2020. “Firstly, they no longer have the ability to use the language. Secondly, their psychology changes and they’re unwilling to maintain close relations with their families. They become emotionally distant. It’s not only about the language.

“I call it a pedagogical revolution because it affects their psychological development. The survival of Tibetan culture is in serious danger. Culture is passed on by human beings. If people aren’t exposed to language and culture, they cannot pass them on, and they disappear from consciousness.”

Rights researchers who last month gave expert testimony to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were frustrated when Chinese representatives offered official accounts of their government’s policies that largely contradicted the lived experiences of those on the ground in the Tibet region. The UN treaty body’s quadrennial review of China, the first since 2014, had been delayed by Beijing’s tactical stalling, rights groups said.

The committee issued concluding observations on March 6 that found China’s ethnic minorities continued to face “severe restrictions in the realization of their right to take part in cultural life.” The panel urged the government to “immediately abolish the coerced residential school system imposed on Tibetan children,” and allow the establishment of private Tibetan schools to ensure their full cultural rights.

China’s diplomatic mission in Geneva didn’t return an emailed request for comment but said it would “carefully study” the committee’s findings, according to a response submitted to the body’s database. At the same time, Beijing said it regretted that the panel had cited “false information and rumors” on China’s ethnic policy: “The recommendations arising from there are untruthful, full of bias and double standards. China rejected those recommendations.”

The People’s Republic of China seized control of Tibet in 1950 in what its leaders termed the “peaceful liberation” of a theocracy. Generations of Tibetans in exile continue to call it an invasion and annexation of a de facto independent region where rich cultural roots are at risk of being buried in obscurity.

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