Asia-Pacific

Education reforms anger Tibetans

Students protesting in Beijing
Image caption Tibetan students in Beijing express their anger at planned education reforms in Qinghai Province

Around dawn last Friday a message was passed around the dormitories of Tibetan students at the Central University of Nationalities in Beijing.

They were asked to join a demonstration planned for later that day to complain at plans that could downgrade the use of Tibetan in schools.

Officials are nervous about protests in the Chinese capital and try hard to prevent them, but several hundred students turned up.

"We just wanted to show the government that we want it to change its policies on the Tibetan language," said one of the students who took part.

The protest was just one of a number that have occurred - mostly in the western province of Qinghai - over the last few days.

They were sparked by planned changes to Qinghai's education policy.

Many believe the region's Tibetan population will in future have to study in Mandarin Chinese, the main means of communication in China, instead of their own language.

Teenage protesters

The fears about the Tibetan language began with the publication of Qinghai's education plan for the next 10 years.

Qiang Wei, the Communist Party secretary in the province, laid out one of the aims in an article carried by the Qinghai Daily in September.

"China's common language will become the main language in primary schools by 2015. Local languages will be secondary," he is quoted as saying.

In this context, China's "common language" means Mandarin.

Other official documents suggest the same. One says Mandarin will become the teaching language in Qinghai.

There are already many schools in Qinghai that teach in Mandarin but, for many, this new plan appeared to indicate that all pupils will eventually have to use it.

Some argue that this would be a disaster because it is easier for Tibetans to study in their own language; they struggle if they are forced to do it in Mandarin.

Image caption Many Tibetan students want to continue learning in their own language

Others say it could also undermine Tibet's own unique culture.

According to campaign groups, such as the UK-based Free Tibet, protests against the proposed changes began in Tongren and rapidly spread to other parts of Qinghai.

The protesters were mainly school pupils, many of them in their early teens, according to reports.

Tibetan students at the Beijing nationalities university then decided to stage their own demonstration.

They gathered near a campus supermarket just after lunch last Friday and marched towards the main block of classrooms.

Protesters carried a banner that declared: "Protect Ethnic Minority Languages and Promote Chinese Civilisation."

'No forced reform'

They were stopped by senior teachers from the university and ushered into a hall to talk about their grievances.

The students were finally persuaded to return to their classrooms and write down their demands, which the school authorities promised to pass on to the government.

"Chinese law says ethnic minorities have the right to learn in our own languages. If we don't our cultures will one day disappear," said another student who took part in the protest.

None of the students interviewed by the BBC wanted to give their names.

But not all see this issue in such black-and-white terms.

A Tibetan post-graduate student at Peking University has carried out research in Tibetan areas.

He said many families had already decided to send their children to schools that teach in Mandarin.

They do this because they believe their Mandarin-speaking children will have more job opportunities when they grow up.

The local government in Qinghai appears to have backtracked slightly following the protests.

In an article published by Xinhua, China's state-run news agency, Qinghai's education chief Wang Yubo said the authorities would not forcibly push reform in areas "where conditions are not ripe".

But this is an emotive issue and the campaign against the proposed education changes has continued.

The International Campaign for Tibet, based in the United States, said hundreds of teachers and students have now written a letter to the Qinghai government explaining the reasons why they oppose the new education plan.

"An individual's wisdom and their ability to analyze problems is intimately connected to the development of their language abilities," said the letter, according to the campaign group.

"Therefore, in order to raise the quality of teaching and education and to amply reveal a person's intelligence, we should use a language of instruction most easily understood by the students."

For many, that means Tibetan for Tibetans.

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