Free Tibetan activist Tashi Wangchuk

Calling for the right to use Tibetan language in schools is not a crime

Adam N. Lee,

A nine-minute video made by the New York Times may cost Tibetan language rights activist Tashi Wangchuk fifteen years in prison. He is the latest victim in an unprecedented crackdown in which hundreds of dissidents and rights advocates have been arrested, abducted, disappeared, tortured, forced to appear in televised ‘confessions’ and in many cases served with harsh prison sentences as a deterrent to others who would challenge Beijing’s policies.

32-year-old Tashi, a shopkeeper from the Tibetan prefecture of Yushu in Qinghai province, was arrested two months after featuring in the Times’ video documentary. He was held for two years in secret detention and then tried on 4 January this year for “inciting separatism”. The video film (see below) was played at the four-hour trial and according to Tashi Wangchuk’s defence counsel was the main “evidence” against him. The court will pronounce sentence at a later date but it is feared he could be handed a fifteen-year prison sentence.

China’s courts are under tight regime control and have a 99 percent conviction rate, 100 percent in the case of political trials like this one. International observers have condemned the detention and trial of Tashi Wangchuk, with Amnesty International calling it a “sham” based on “blatantly trumped-up charges”.

The case also highlights the worsening oppression of ethnic minority groups in China. Tibetans, Uighur Muslims and other minorities including Kazakhs who mostly also live in Xinjiang and are now under increasingly ferocious repression, face discrimination, loss of rights, repression and economic hardship. This fate is also being extended to “privileged” and nominally “autonomous” Hong Kong under current regime policies.

Since mass protests erupted in Tibet in 2008, a state crackdown in the name of fighting “separatism” and “terrorism” has escalated to unprecedented levels. In his short video interview, Tashi Wangchuk describes the life of ordinary Tibetans as “full of pressure and fear”. Some facts illustrate the anguish of the Tibetan people under China’s ultra-repressive policies:

  • There have been 140 self-immolations since 2009 – desperate protests against repression.
  • There are more than 1,800 Tibetan political prisoners – many are in prison for writing or speaking out.

New York Times video documentary, “A Tibetan’s Journey for Justice”:

Not a revolutionary

Tashi is clearly not a revolutionary nor an advocate of Tibetan independence. New York Times reporter Johan M. Kessel, who made the film of Tashi, says that during their meeting the Tibetan specifically told him he did not support independence. Like many others who have been targets of the crackdown of recent years they have simply called for reform within the system, rather than advocating more radical political change or the downfall of the dictatorship.

“All Tashi Wangchuk has done is peacefully advocate for constitutionally guaranteed rights,” said Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson. “If Chinese authorities consider that ‘inciting separatism,’ it’s hard to tell what isn’t.”

Tashi went to Beijing to appeal for the restoration of Tibetan language teaching in schools – which, like other minority languages, has effectively been eliminated at every level from primary education upwards in favour of Mandarin (Putonghua) as the only language of instruction. Tibetan, Mongolian and the Turkic Uighur language, for example, can be studied on the same basis as English or French, i.e. as “foreign” languages, but they are no longer languages of instruction.

This was not the case in the past. Even during the Mao years – universally referred to as a ‘dark age’ of repression – such a rigid and heavy-handed language policy was not applied. And certainly the current policies of the Chinese regime have nothing in common with genuine Marxism or socialism – take for example the extremely sensitive and democratic approach taken by Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution, towards the language question:

“That is why Russian Marxists say that there must be no compulsory official language, that the population must be provided with schools where teaching will be carried on in all the local languages, that a fundamental law must be introduced in the constitution declaring invalid all privileges of any one nation and all violations of the rights of national minorities.” [Lenin, Is a Compulsory Official Language Needed? January 1914]

The regime’s claim that a single official language, i.e. Mandarin, is needed to facilitate economic development and integration is a false and blinkered standpoint. It reflects a crude police mentality that coercion is the answer to every problem. Many economically developed societies operate multi-lingual education systems and business environments – from Switzerland to Singapore. But Beijing’s language policies have been adapted to its nationalistic agenda for maintaining political control by the centre.

Read more: Lenin against a compulsory official language ➵

Fracturing of China

In the past decade, as Beijing’s fears of mass unrest and the fracturing of China have risen, extensive repressive measures have been implemented especially in Tibetan regions and in Muslim-majority Xinjiang. Tens of thousands of auxiliary police have been recruited, religious establishments have been militarised, and an unprecedented ‘deep state’ has been assembled with the latest mass surveillance technology. These methods are being tested in minority regions to be used against the Han Chinese majority – striking workers or anti-pollution protesters – in the future.

The current language policies are in breach of China’s constitution which includes guarantees of the freedom of ethnic nationalities to use their own spoken and written language. These clauses, like much else in the constitution (which also ‘guarantees’ democratic rights and freedom of speech) are meaningless. This is central to the alleged ‘crime’ of Tashi Wangchuk who, as shown in the Times’ documentary, went to Beijing to petition the authorities to uphold the Tibetan people’s constitutional language rights.

His trial for “inciting separatism” therefore sends an unmistakeable message and perhaps not the one the Chinese regime intends. They want to project strength, their resolve to crush opposition. But another message, intended or not, is that it is impossible to pursue ‘reform’ within China’s authoritarian system. If you call for even very limited reforms, especially if you do this publicly or embarrass the dictatorship by proffering its own constitution, you will be punished with the same malice as if you advocated revolution. In this way, the dictatorship is leaving only one road open to those who want and need change – the road of revolution.

Rather than create ‘stability’, the unprecedented crackdown in China’s ethnic minority regions is breeding an explosive mix of disillusionment, fear and anger, and makes the Chinese regime the most powerful promoter of demands for national independence, as it has become in Hong Kong. With such policies, China’s rule is not strengthened but actually undermined in the longer term. Tashi Wangchuk’s futile mission to Beijing and the regime’s cold-blooded reaction have made him a hero among Tibetan youth. But will the younger generation share his belief that it is possible to make Beijing ‘listen’ to reasonable arguments?

Only by building working class organisations that unite the oppressed of all ethnicities in common struggle, is it possible to defeat repression and the arbitrary rule of a dictatorial regime. This is part of a global struggle against grotesque inequality, national oppression, environmental destruction, war and foreign occupation. These horrors flow from the nature of global capitalism which is a major supporting pillar of the current ‘Communist’ regime in China.

Read more: Tibetans in revolt – What is the way forward? ➵

Read more: Tibet and the National Question ➵