Tsering Yangzom Lama is a Tibetan-Canadian novelist and activist. Her debut novel, We Measure the Earth with our Bodies, will be published next year.
The surest way to eradicate a culture is to sever that culture from its children. This week, we learned that China has forced almost 80 per cent of Tibetan children to leave their homes for state-run boarding schools, where they are taught the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, which has colonized Tibet.
Tibetan and Chinese researchers have revealed that more than 800,000 Tibetan children are now housed in boarding schools where they are largely cut off from their families and taught primarily in Chinese for the purpose of instilling what President Xi Jinping has called “a strong sense of community for the Chinese nation” – a nation he takes to include Tibet, despite its long history as a sovereign country with its own culture, language and religion.
It is devastating to learn that Tibetan children are being sent away for indoctrination in numbers comparable to the estimated one million Uyghurs confined to re-education camps.
Tibetans have endured a brutal colonial occupation since the early 1950s, with waves of refugees fleeing into exile and many settling in Canada. My own parents and grandparents left their ancestral grasslands in western Tibet and crossed the Himalayas in 1959. Entering and leaving Tibet has become increasingly difficult, dangerous and rare. In recent years, repression has intensified under Mr. Xi alongside crackdowns in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang region, home to China’s predominantly Muslim Uyghur population.
Now a vast system of Chinese boarding schools is the latest, most insidious assault on Tibetan culture, identity and the desire for self-sovereignty. By closing rural schools in Tibet and pushing its boarding schools, Beijing has specifically targeted non-Chinese children, whose parents face a false choice between indoctrination and no education at all. Tibetan parents who resisted sending their children away have reported threats, fines and other forms of coercion. Tibetans now outnumber Han Chinese in boarding schools four to one.
Like Western colonizers, the Chinese government holds a deep-seated racist and paternalistic worldview. Tibetans are viewed as essentially barbaric, unclean, backward and inferior to the Han Chinese role model. Whereas in the early 2000s there was some semblance of tolerance for Tibetan-language education, Mr. Xi has called for non-Chinese groups to be remade with Chinese identities to prevent “separatist thoughts” or opposition to Beijing’s rule.
This may sound familiar to many Canadians. The residential-school system inflicted violence upon Indigenous families, seeded a sense of racial and cultural inferiority in generations of children and caused traumas that the broader public is only now beginning to see with clarity. The role of Chinese boarding schools in Tibet is the same as that of residential schools in Canada: to assimilate a colonized people by replacing their own language and culture with those of the oppressor.
Colonization through education could mean that China finally succeeds in its long-term project of erasing Tibetan identity. Take away a child’s mother tongue and their culture becomes mute to them. In a matter of decades, we may witness the extinction of Tibetan heritage on its own soil. What remains then? Perhaps just the exotic, ultimately dehumanizing ethnic stereotype of Tibetans currently promoted within Chinese popular culture and its broader national mythos.
A common tactic among China’s apologists is to deflect criticism, pointing out Canada’s own colonial wrongs. But let me be clear: Canada is a colonial country. So is China. These things are not mutually exclusive. Today, just as Canada finally begins to face its colonial legacy head on, we have a duty to oppose the subjugation of colonized people everywhere.
Canada recently joined a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics, but we can do more to hold the Chinese government accountable. Canadian leaders must call for access to Tibet, where little information is allowed to escape the black box of Chinese control. Revelations about these boarding schools came from hard-won scraps of information. While former students have reported traumatic conditions of bullying, abuse and sexual assault, a lack of access prevents us from knowing more. Until outside observers have full access to Tibet, this cultural genocide will continue in darkness.
If you are outraged by the history of residential schools in Canada, your outrage should provoke a desire to never see it happen again – anywhere. The basic function of the residential school system as a vehicle of cultural genocide is now chillingly reflected in Tibet. The mark of real progress, of real commitment to change, is not only owning our national wrongs, but intervening to stop history from repeating itself.
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