Tibetan Students Reveal China's Identity Crisis

"Language shapes the way we think and determines what we can think about." So said the late American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf. China's Communist Party seems well ahead of the game.

On October 19th, Tibetan students in Eastern Tibet, many barely in their teens, took to the streets to protest plans to force local schools to adopt a Chinese-language only curriculum. The protest took place in the town of Tongren (Tib. Rebkong) in Qinghai (Tib. Amdo) province. The rights group Free Tibet received reports from local residents that between one and seven thousand students from six different schools marched while chanting slogans and raising banners reading, "Equality of People" and "Freedom of Language".

The protest mirrored another in Guangzhou in southern China this July, when 1,000 people turned out to challenge a local politician's proposal to force a local television network to stop broadcasting in Cantonese and switch instead to Mandarin, the country's official language.

Most of the Guangzhou protesters were in their 20's and 30's. Interestingly, it is not the elderly that are at the vanguard of the language rights movement in China and its occupied territories--but the young. Reports creep in of Tibetan youths engaged in a new kind of high brow graffiti--correcting Tibetan grammar on shop signs and changing Chinese signs into Tibetan.

It is worth noting that the students who participated in Tuesday's protest were taking an extraordinary risk. Political protest is not legal in China except in rare circumstances. They would all have been acutely aware that Tibetans have been arrested and even shot for doing less.

Rights groups claim that Chinese authorities inside Tibet are keeping Tibetans who aren't fluent in Chinese economically marginalized, by passing laws to minimize the teaching of Tibetan in schools and by replacing Tibetan language with Chinese in many spheres of public life.

"The Chinese are enforcing reforms which remind me of the Cultural Revolution," Free Tibet quoted one unnamed former Tongren teacher as saying. "This reform is not only a threat to our mother tongue, but is in direct violation of the Chinese constitution, which is meant to protect our rights."

This is technically right. But as many Chinese citizens know, the law and its enforcement don't always add up to the same thing. The 1984 Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law (REAL) entitles minorities to use and develop their own spoken and written languages. The law also states that minorities should use textbooks written in their own languages "whenever possible" and use these languages as the medium of instruction. The current plan to replace Tibetan language textbooks with Chinese versions appears to openly contradict this provision.

A 2005 report by the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China found that, "Upward social, economic, and political mobility is increasingly dependent upon one's ability to use Mandarin Chinese." The report also notes that while many minority groups welcome the opportunity to develop their Mandarin skills, they also believe it important to have the right to preserve their own languages.

The parallels between China's policies towards its ethnic minorities and the "Americanization" polices by US lawmakers towards Native Americans that were in place until 1920, are starkly obvious. But modern parallels to language issues in today's America fall short, since these are concerned with immigrants who came to settle in America from other countries, not large indigenous populations.

The pressurizing of ethnic groups to speak Mandarin is part of a wider policy that Beijing has been pursuing for several decades, though its efforts have intensified in recent years. The Uighur language is also under threat in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. In May 2002, the Xinjiang government announced that Xinjiang University would change the medium of its instruction to Mandarin Chinese. This was followed two years later by the forced merger of minority schools with Chinese-language schools. The then Secretary of the CCP Xinjiang Committee, Wang Lequan, described the promotion of Mandarin language use as "an extremely serious political issue."

The argument is that a common language helps to unite the country. The CCP views language as a "splittist" agent that could crack China along linguistic lines during times of social upheaval. However, China's one-language policy has been pursued particularly vigorously of late. What the policy-makers in China know is that just as it was in Guangzhou, the recent protest of Tibetan students is not just about language, but about the larger issue of cultural and ethnic identity.

Sociologists have long observed the link between language and group identity as well as how language helps social groups resist encroachment by other groups. Anything that encourages ethnic identity is regarded as a problem for Beijing, since it promotes a sense of cultural uniqueness and pride that the state is trying hard to dilute. But it could more easily be argued that if the central government would allow for more cultural autonomy in places like Tibet and Xinjiang, these regions would have less reason to resist the greater unity that Beijing craves.

The CCP seems to find it hard to understand that a people can feel both distinct and loyal and are more likely to feel loyal if given the freedom to express their uniqueness.

Examples of this can be seen all over the world such as the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh--one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse regions in Asia with an ethnically distinct population--where the people unequivocally view themselves as Indian citizens.

This September, a Beijing art exhibition showcased the work of some 50 Tibetan artists. In a poignant metaphor, one of the artists had encased two foot tall wooden Tibetan letters in glass coffins. But judging from this Tuesday's protest in Rebkong and the support it has inspired, the Tibetan language is not going to go down without a fight.