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The Tibet Action Institute drew on official data to estimate that 806,218 Tibetans between the ages of six and 18 currently attend a boarding school – 78 per cent of the 1,039,370 children attending school in Tibetan regions.Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press

Almost 80 per cent of Tibetan children in China have been placed in a vast system of government-run boarding schools, where they are cut off from their families, languages and traditional culture, according to an analysis of official data by researchers at Tibet Action Institute.

The U.S.-based NGO found more than 800,000 Tibetan children between the ages of 6 and 18 “are now housed in these state-run institutions.”

“The colonial boarding school system in Tibet is a core element of the Chinese Communist Party’s systematic effort to co-opt, undermine, and ultimately eliminate Tibetan identity in an attempt to neutralize Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule,” the group said in a report published Tuesday.

For years, Tibetans have been sounding the alarm over what they see as assimilationist policies from Beijing. Scholars agree that the implementation of such policies escalated in the wake of large-scale unrest in parts of Tibet in 2008 and the coming to power of Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2012. Spiking repression in Tibet has coincided with a crackdown in China’s neighbouring Xinjiang region in recent years, which has seen an estimated two million ethnic Uyghurs pass through a system of “re-education” or “de-radicalization” camps.

While boarding schools for Tibetan children have been promoted by the state for decades, the scale of the system and its growth since 2008 have not been previously reported. The Tibet Action Institute drew on official data to estimate that 806,218 Tibetans between the ages of 6 and 18 currently attend a boarding school – 78 per cent of the 1,039,370 children attending school in Tibetan regions.

Much of the data are publicly available and supported by other official Chinese documents and pronouncements reviewed by The Globe.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a faxed request for comment. In the past, officials have defended education policies in Tibet by saying they are aimed at alleviating poor school standards and widespread poverty in the region and by arguing that “bilingual education” protects and promotes Tibetan languages alongside Chinese.

When Tibet was invaded by the People’s Liberation Army in 1951, the Chinese government promised that the “religious beliefs, customs and habits of the Tibetan people” would be respected.

After an uprising in 1959, the Dalai Lama – the spiritual leader of Tibet but also a former political leader, as his predecessors have often been – fled to India, and Beijing took full control over the Tibet Autonomous Region. Since then, Chinese leaders have remained nervous about potential support for independence among Tibetans, which they generally blame on overseas actors, including the “separatist Dalai clique.”

At times China’s leaders have promoted and protected Tibetan languages and culture. This reached a peak with the 1982 constitution, which states that “the people of all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and to preserve or reform their own ways and customs.”

Back then Tibet was, as it is now, among the poorest regions of China, and Beijing made considerable investments in education, including the establishment of some early boarding schools.

One Tibetan who attended one of those schools – whom The Globe and Mail is identifying by the pseudonym Tenzin so he could speak freely, without concern for his family back in Tibet – said that while instruction was still largely in a Tibetan language, “the content of what we studied was almost all Chinese.

“The history we studied was all Communist or Chinese-centred, even when we studied world history.”

Kunchok, a Tibetan now living in exile in New Delhi who asked to be identified only by his first name, described being sent to a boarding school in Markam, a town in the east, on the border with Sichuan, in 2000, when he was seven years old.

“We were not allowed to go home on the weekend or holidays – for the whole of [my first year] I did not see my parents,” he said.

Widespread unrest in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as well as chronic poverty and economic difficulties in Tibet that some officials blamed on the limited use of the Chinese language, prompted Beijing to rethink its policies in the region – just as Mr. Xi was coming to power.

“There was a feeling that education and propaganda work had not been taken as seriously as it could have been, with too much focus on ethnic autonomy,” said James Leibold, an expert on Chinese politics and ethnic minority policies at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

Tenzin also connected the policy shift to the events of 2008. “If you look at a map of Tibetan protests and self-immolation protests, they overlap with places where there was a strong cultural identity or linguistic identity,” he said. “Almost all the counties in Qinghai and Gansu [provinces] have been converted to Chinese medium education. There’s a policy to reduce any room for Tibetan language learning or cultural spaces, to clamp down on future potential protests.”

In a speech in 2014, Mr. Xi emphasized the need to “bind the people of each ethnic group into a single strand of rope.” The following year, the State Council urged officials to “strengthen boarding school construction” in ethnic minority areas and “steadily promote bilingual education.” The latter policy actually led to Chinese-first instruction in practice and the continuing marginalization of Tibetan and other non-Chinese languages, according to a 2020 Human Rights Watch report.

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By 2016, even a state media report noted that almost all schools in Tibet were using Mandarin Chinese as the primary language of instruction. It added that some parents and teachers “have taken action, opening Tibetan-language schools.”

Many of those alternative schools, often run or staffed by Buddhist monks, have since been shut down. According to Amnesty International, in 2018 the government urged the public to report groups that organize Tibetan classes, branding them “criminal gangs connected to the separatist forces of the Dalai Lama.”

Mr. Xi himself has overseen this assimilationist shift in policy, according to classified documents leaked to the Uyghur Tribunal, an independent body based in the U.K. that is examining allegations of genocide and other crimes in Xinjiang. Documents published by the group include speeches by Mr. Xi from the mid-2010s demanding that children in western China be sent to boarding schools so they would “study in school, live in school, grow up in school.”

“Numerous other policies designed to assimilate and control the region’s ethnic groups, including a Chinese (Mandarin) language focused education in centralized boarding schools … can be directly linked to statements or explicit demands made by Xi Jinping,” scholar Adrian Zenz wrote in a summary of the leaked documents.

Tenzin, who is now living in the U.S., said “now kids as young as five years old are being taken from their hometowns and environments and put in this school system.

“When you are cut off from your language and culture and history, you lose a sense of who you are, and eventually it feels like you’re losing the very fabric of your humanity,” he said. “You don’t feel complete.”

Speaking at a news conference in 2019, Wu Yingjie, the party secretary for the Tibet Autonomous Region, praised the “centralized school system,” as the boarding school network is sometimes called, saying it could help solve “the problems of Tibet’s large area and sparse population.”

Officials in Sichuan recently published a “10-year action plan for educational development in ethnic minority regions,” which calls on local governments to “advance the boarding school system” with the aim of increasing capacity to 820,000 students by 2030.

In the TAI report, the authors directly compared the situation in Tibet to that of colonial societies elsewhere, including in Canada. This year, researchers in Kamloops discovered the unmarked graves of more than 200 Indigenous children, which forced Canada to reckon with the horrors of the residential school system. More mass graves have since been discovered, prompting calls for further action and reparations.

“There is strong evidence that the colonial boarding school system for Tibetans is designed to achieve the same end as the residential school systems in Canada and the United States,” they wrote.

One of the report’s authors, Lhadon Tethong, said researching the boarding school system resonated with her not only as a Tibetan, but as a Canadian. She was born in Victoria and attended the University of King’s College in Halifax.

“The parallels were very striking,” she said. “We are acutely aware that the situation in Tibet is not the same as for First Nations people in Canada, but what is clear is that the aim of the state in separating children from their families is the same. The fundamental bottom line is about eliminating identity and changing children into something they’re not, taking the language from their tongues, taking the cultural roots out from beneath them.”

When the Kamloops and other unmarked graves were discovered this year, Chinese state media covered the story intensely, while officials used it as an opportunity to highlight Canada’s historic abuse and mistreatment of Indigenous people.

“Indigenous lives matter,” Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in June. “Canada claims to be a model of human rights and an open advocate of the cause. However, it is reticent and blind to its own crimes and stains in human rights that can never be washed away or justified. Such hypocrisy and double standard is disgraceful.”

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