Language curbs spark student unrest

By Monika Urbanski

AT LEAST 1000 students took to the streets of China’s western Qinghai province last month in a rare protest against curbs on using their language in schools. The protests were caused by educational reforms already implemented in other parts of the Tibetan plateau, which order all subjects to be taught in Chinese and all textbooks to be written in Chinese, except for Tibetan language and English classes.

Protests like this by groups such as Free Tibet are commonplace outside China but rare within the country’s borders.

The protests spread around other Tibetan communities and finally reached Beijing on October 22 demanding “Equality of People, Freedom of Language”. According to the Los Angeles Times a witness who did not wish to be identified said 200 to 300 students participated in the two-hour protest at midday in Beijing, after which the president of the university and teachers called them into classrooms and asked them to write out their complaints in Chinese.

“Chinese law says that ethnic minorities have the right to study their mother tongue first in school, that’s why the students are angry,” says Xiong Kunxin, a professor at the Central University of Minorities in Beijing. As a source told Radio Free Asia, a major concern for Tibetans is that “if this plan is implemented, many Tibetan teachers will loose their jobs, and many Chinese will gain jobs in their place.” The widespread protests over language reveal the deep resentment for policies formulated by the Han, China’s dominant ethnic group.

The protests all remained peaceful and students returned to their classes shortly after the protests, although it was reported by the Tibet Post International that twenty Tibetan students were detained by Chinese authorities following protests in several counties in Amdho region, eastern Tibet. China following the first demonstrations. Police and plainclothes security officials were stationed at several bilingual middle schools and high schools. Nevertheless, hundreds and possibly thousands of students marched in peaceful protests.

Exiled students have also lended their support. In solidarity with the Tibetan school students’ ongoing protest in Tibet, over 655 Tibetan students from three major schools of Bylakuppe staged a Candle Light Vigil protest against the Chinese government’s new restrictions.

A senior student gave an introductory speech and stressed the need to support the protests in Tibet by the exiled school students.

Filmmaker Ngwang Choephel completed “Tibet in Song” after spending six and a half years in prison following his arrest by the Chinese government for espionage.

The subject of his film is the native music of his homeland and claims that from the 1950s China’s communist regime has sought to eradicate Tibet’s indigenous culture.

Support like this is important for the students marching against the changes to the educational system.

The Dalai Lama himself continues speaking to students all over the world, promoting the 21st century as the “century of dialogue”. The October protests have been the largest in Tibetan areas since thew March 2008 uprising.

But unlike those protests, these have been peaceful and are hoped to remain that way.