Tibetologists appeal to Xi Jinping to save Tibetan culture

A Tibetan child with a Free Tibet bandana

A Tibetan child is pictured with a Free Tibet bandana as Tibetan activists in-exile take part in a protest in New Delhi on 10 December 2012 to mark World Human Rights Day. A 16-year-old Tibetan girl has died after setting herself on fire, Chinese state media said December 10, in an area that has become a flashpoint for protests against Beijing's rule. File photo/AFP/Getty Images/Manan Vatsyayana

By Didi Kirsten Tatlow | New York Times

BEIJING, China, 15 December 2012

Nearly 90 scholars of Tibet at universities and institutes around the world, from Melbourne to Warsaw to Vancouver, have issued a plea to Xi Jinping, China’s new Communist Party leader, to reverse state language policies and practices that “jeopardise the continuing viability” of Tibetan civilisation, something many experts say is stoking resentment of Chinese rule in Tibet.

The scholars have launched an online petition, against a backdrop of rising self-immolations by Tibetans — nearly 100 since February 2009, as my colleague Andrew Jacobs reports.

Titled: “An Appeal to Vice-President Xi Jinping from the International Tibetan Studies Community,” the petition doesn’t focus on the self-immolations, though it does note the “tragic events” taking place.

Instead, the scholars, noting that they are all specialists of the Tibetan language, culture and religion who hold formal academic positions, focus on language policies which they say threaten Tibetan culture.

“Over the last several years, the authorities have been trying to institute new measures that eliminate or severely restrict the use of Tibetan as the language of instruction in Tibetan-speaking areas,” they wrote.

“We know the value of Tibet’s civilisation and we regret that the Tibetan language, which is its fundamental support, is seemingly marginalised and devalued in the TAR,” or the Tibet Autonomous Region, as Tibet is known in China, “and in various other Tibetan autonomous administrative units at the same time that it is increasingly being taught and studied in universities around the world.”

Examples in the petition include: replacing Tibetan with Chinese as the medium of education in Qinghai province in 2010; and replacing textbooks written in Tibetan with Chinese textbooks in Rebkong, or Tongren county, also in Qinghai province, in March 2012.

The policy “has already been active in the Tibet Autonomous Region for several years and has led to well-known results: students destined for senior positions in the public or private sectors now have only a superficial knowledge of their own language and civilization,” said the scholars.

China says it supports a “bilingual” education policy in Tibet and surrounding Tibetan counties in Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan provinces, and that it has done much to educate and develop Tibetans and their society.

This official Chinese site provides more on the Chinese state’s view of Tibet.

The site also offers details of a recent programme, “National Territory Consciousness Education in School, Community and Media,” which was apparently launched in December with a goal to “further improve the awareness of identity among primary and middle school students and consciously maintain their consciousness of national territory.”

According to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, a rights group set up by Tibetan exiles in India, “patriotic education” programmes, of which this is one, are stirring anger in Tibet.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the issues the scholars describe are widespread.

Tashi, a Tibetan from Qinghai province who lives in Beijing, who asked to be identified only by one name for fear of reprisals, said getting a driver’s license in his home county had become difficult in recent years as the written part of the test was only available in Chinese. Many ordinary Tibetans cannot read or write Chinese well.

Tashi added this did not appear to be official policy but a local problem. Frustrated, people bribe the local authorities for a license instead, he said.

The scholars appealed to Mr Xi to give Tibetans greater language and cultural rights, as guaranteed in the Chinese constitution.

Today, “at the time when new leadership is taking control of the country, we address you collectively with the hope that you will be sympathetic to the aspirations of Tibetan citizens of China; that you will work with them to find peaceful solutions to this crisis that will allow for the promotion and development of Tibet’s language and culture,” they wrote.

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