Estd. 2006

Tenzin Chime

Growing up as a Tibetan-American, I was lucky not only to have one native language, but two. At school and work, I was conditioned to speak English, but beyond these two environments was an entirely different world in which I felt a sense of belonging. From temple gatherings to crowded wedding banquets, I loved hearing conversations in Tibetan booming from every corner. Living in diaspora, I receive an unparalleled sense of comfort connecting with other Tibetans in our native tongue, a comfort made all the more powerful due to my inability to return to Tibet and the attempts of China to eradicate our language. 

Today, one week before Tashi Wangchuk’s release date from Chinese prison, I want to call attention to China’s language rights violations in Tibet. My hope is that I can amplify the voices of Tibetans inside Tibet, like Tashi Wangchuk, who sacrifice everything to speak against oppression and advocate for language rights.

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) cultural genocide in Tibet has targeted the Tibetan language for decades. In 2010, the CCP introduced a policy of “bilingual education” in Tibet. This seemingly innocuous policy was supposedly a way for “ethnic minority” groups to receive education in both Chinese and their native tongue. In practice, this policy resulted in the switch from Tibetan to Chinese-language for core classes like science and mathematics, meaning that even in Tibet, Tibetan language is taught as a “foreign language.” Similar to what happened in schools in Hong Kong in 2014 which sparked the Umbrella Movement, in 2010 the Chinese government changed all textbooks in Tibet from Tibetan to Mandarin. Thousands of students in Tibet risked imprisonment to protest this policy to no avail.

The forceful imposition of Mandarin in Tibetan schools greatly impacts students’ identities and their right to embrace their culture. The CCP has created a situation where Tibetans living in their own country cannot obtain further education, competitive jobs, or even basic healthcare if they do not know Mandarin. This has forced many Tibetans to learn Chinese more rigorously than Tibetan, resulting in the new generation of Tibetan youth rapidly losing their fluency in their own mother tongue.

Even worse, the CCP has imposed drastic policies that outright criminalize learning the Tibetan language. In December 2018, a ban was placed in Nangchen, Yushu (ch: Nangquen County, Qinghai) that made it illegal for monks to run informal Tibetan language classes for community members. The CCP described these classes as “ideological infiltration among the youth.”

No person exemplifies the attack on the Tibetan language more than Tashi Wangchuk. On January 27, 2016, Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan shopkeeper in the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture was forcibly disappeared by the local authorities after appearing in a New York Times article in which he advocated for meaningful language rights for Tibetans, rights guaranteed in China’s Constitution which claims to respect bilingual education for all “ethnic minorities.” It wasn’t until two months after his arbitrary detention that Tashi’s family was notified of his arrest, despite Chinese law which requires notification of family members within twenty-four hours of detention. On May 22, 2018, Tashi Wangchuk was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “inciting violence.” Since his imprisonment, many organizations such as Amnesty InternationalStudents for a Free TibetPEN America, and the United Nations, among others, have called for Tashi Wangchuk’s release, condemning the CCP’s actions. He is due to be released in January 2021, after serving the entirety of his five year sentence. Tashi Wangchuk has not committed any crime under Chinese or international law and should be freed immediately with a guarantee of his safety.

If you want to take action for Tashi Wangchuk, there are many virtual actions you can take in support of this campaign. Click here to find graphics which you can share on social media in the lead-up to January 27th. Also, to call on China to release Tashi Wangchuk immediately and unconditionally, sign this petition:

(Tenzin Chime have been working as the Communications Intern at Students for a Free Tibet while a senior in college)

January 23 2021