The Tibetan language: an amazing disappearing act

On Thursday, April 17, 2014, in Culture & History, by John N

This morning two things came to my attention which help illustrate the disparity between official Chinese rhetoric and the reality in Tibet. Many Tibetans have expressed a fear that their language is being replaced by Chinese, a fear rooted in the reality that Chinese is the preferred language of governance, education, and commerce in the People’s Republic of China. On the other side, members of the Chinese government and the Communist Party have insisted that Tibetan is flourishing, as was voiced most recently by an official from the Tibet Autonomous Region who told Xinhua that “such a rumor as ‘the Tibetan language is dying’ is totally groundless.”

Shortly after reading the Xinhua story I ran into a collection of images that were being passed between Tibetans on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site similar to Twitter. The images showed a number of storefronts near Sangchu county’s Labrang monastery, a culturally and religiously significant region in northern Tibet, in which Tibetan was either reduced to a comically small size or entirely absent. These pictures were accompanied by by comments from a number of Tibetan netizens expressing frustration and anger at the denigration of their language. Here’s one:


You could be forgiven for not noticing the Tibetan at all here, as it’s been rendered in illegibly small characters above the two Chinese characters in the middle. In this case Tibetan appears to be shrinking and disappearing before our very eyes.


On the above storefront the Tibetan lettering is slightly larger, proportionally, but it’s still roughly 1/5 the size of the Chinese characters. The next one is particularly surprising:


State Grid is a state-owned enterprise which distributes electricity in China. It’s a place where local residents almost certainly have to spend some time over the course of a year, paying electricity bills and arranging services. If the official power provider in a Tibetan autonomous prefecture entirely neglects to label itself in Tibetan, what is the point of even having an autonomous prefecture? Another picture shows a China Mobile storefront with the same problem- Chinese characters are present (and even English, too), but there’s no sign of Tibetan:


China Mobile, a major telecommunication company with over 760 million subscribers, is state-owned as well. Is it somewhat revealing that state-owned enterprises are doing even worse than private shopkeepers in upholding the equal use of the Tibetan language in Tibetan autonomous areas?

It’s worth mentioning that the original Xinhua article was written to promote new “legal protections” which are being enacted to benefit the Tibetan language. In the article they refer to the “Several Provisions of the Tibet Autonomous Region on the Learning, Use and Development of Tibetan Language,” which was originally promulgated in 1987 and which was supposed to have already assured the protection of the Tibetan language. Today, however, we can clearly see that reality is quite different than what the contents of Chinese legislation would have you believe.

This week a member of the China Tibetology Research Center, a Chinese organization which tirelessly promotes the Communist Party line on Tibet, defended China’s language policies before members of the foreign press, saying that foreign journalists should “conduct more investigations before drawing conclusions.” That’s an ironic suggestion given the government-imposed blackout on reporting in Tibet; just two years ago Stephen McDonell of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was expelled by the authorities while trying to report from the very town where these pictures were taken.

Today we’re lucky to have access to the informal investigations carried out by Tibetans themselves who live in these areas. What we see from their pictures and what we hear from their statements casts a lot of doubt on the notion that Chinese authorities are truly working to protect and promote the Tibetan language.

Tagged with:

Last week I was struck by two new stories, only apparently distant from each other and I want to share this reflection with you. Please bear with me if it is not a short one; this is something I care deeply about.

A young Tibetan man, whose name has not yet been identified, was arrested on April 1 in the Tibetan county of Derge, administered today by China’s Sichuan province when he staged a solitary demonstration, walking alone down a public street.

During his walk he scattered flyers that challenged the Chinese leadership, and shouted slogans asking for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. Radio Free Asia also reported that Tibetan onlookers echoed his slogans before the police took him away.

See the picture below:

Tibetan walks alone along a public road

A young Tibetan walks alone along a public road, scattering paper flyers and shouting slogans in Sichuan’s Dege county, April 8, 2014. (Photo courtesy of an RFA listener)

Having started as a young activist myself, who began demonstrating when I was a teenager calling for a stop to the bloodshed of civil war in Bosnia, I could not help but identify with that young Tibetan; and I could not but think of how fortunate I was, and we all are in the democratic world, to be able to express freely our indignation over injustice; and to express (at least we can try!) our demands and hopes to our governments to improve our way of life here or in other parts of the world.

This is not possible for a young Tibetan who wants to live in a better world and does not accept the injustices that have been imposed for decades on his people. The reality is that he will be arrested for doing what we can do freely.

Who knows what his motivation was, the specific reason that pushed him to say enough is enough? What made him decide to find those flyers and go out alone in the street to demonstrate against the Chinese government, knowing that he would be arrested?

As of today we still don’t know, and may be we will never know, as is unfortunately common for many Tibetans who are arrested and then sentenced to lengthy prison sentences after staging peaceful demonstrations. What I do know is that we will do our best to find out more about this young Tibetan as part of our commitment to him and all the many political prisoners in Tibet.

Another story, this time uplifting, came out of Taiwan.

Last Sunday, after 24 days of occupying of the Parliament, and amid incidents of violence and confrontations provoked by the police, the Taiwanese student movement claimed victory and left the Parliament building. They secured a promise from the government agreeing not to advance a key Chinese trade deal without close oversight from the legislature.

Many Taiwanese now say that thanks to the nonviolent struggle of the students, and the mass Sunflower Movement that emerged as a result of their initiative, democracy in Taiwan has been revitalized after years of stagnation and growing influence from pro-Beijing forces. According to several commentators the proposed trade agreement could not only negatively affect the Taiwanese economy, but could also pose a threat to the national security of the island.

You can watch here a news program that shows the achievements of the Sunflower Movement:
After watching this video, I could not but remember that next June 4th will be the 25th anniversary of the massacre of Tiananmen Square, and that on that day hundreds or thousands of Chinese students were killed only because they were asking to enjoy more freedom.

Now, my instinct tells me that Tibetans and Chinese students are trying to watch carefully what happened in Taiwan and are thinking (and seeing) that in a democracy, a peaceful struggle can succeed and should not be violently repressed.

These are the universal values that no government, including the Chinese, can stop from spreading across society forever.

The power of change can come from both a single person taking action, like the one in Tibet, and from 500,000 people gathering peacefully in Taiwan. But collectively we have the power to change opinions, policies…. and in the end to change the world in which we live.

Therefore it is up to each of us, as our individual responsibility, to say enough and make it happen.

This is why, today I call on you to join ICT and become part of a global movement of citizens who stand with Tibetans. We are working to make sure that the day, in which Tibetans and Chinese people can stage peaceful demonstrations without being arrested, comes sooner than later.

Please join us and share this story with your friends!



Facebook Twitter More...

I want to tell you something…

On Tuesday, April 8, 2014, in A Free Tibet in a Free World, by Matteo Mecacci

Matteo, Pam, Barbara and Jerry at the HSUS Gala event in Los Angeles.

Starting this week I am making a new commitment to you: I want you to know more about the great work that we do at the International Campaign for Tibet to advance the cause of freedom for Tibet; and furthermore, I will start sharing with you my personal reflections on the experiences and challenges that we are facing while advancing this very important cause.

So, every week I will write on this blog some of my most recent ideas, hopes and new projects, hoping that this information will allow you to know better who I am and the work that we do at ICT.

As you already know, I care a lot about our members and I am proud to be part of a committed and generous group of ICT supporters who I consider the backbone of the Tibetan movement worldwide, but also part of a much bigger group of people of “goodwill” who are trying to change for the better the world in which live.

As ICT members, we are all inspired by the values of freedom, nonviolence, compassion, democracy of which His Holiness the Dalai Lama is an extraordinary Ambassador all over the world, notwithstanding Chinese propaganda; but, it is also crucial to remind ourselves and that we have to nurture and strengthen concretely these values to be able to confront effectively oppression, violence, intolerance and tyranny.

I have read the very many comments and reflections of all those who have participated in the “I Stand with Tibetans” campaign. I was so moved and personally touched by many comments and by the will of so many of you to share with me your personal stories.

And for this, I thank you.

Looking at the last ten days I have a lot to tell you. Last weekend I went to Los Angeles with my wife Barbara to attend a great event organized by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of its founding. I was invited to attend by Pam Cesak, a very active member of the Board of Directors of ICT whose husband Jerry serves on the Board of HSUS. While there, I was also able to visit my stepson Tommaso who is studying music at the Musician Institute, and to enjoy a little bit of sunshine, since I have experienced what I was told has been one of the coldest winters ever in Washington, DC!

Anyway, going back to that beautiful evening, I clearly felt that many of the supporters of HSUS (the biggest organization for animal protection in the United States) share the same values that we do, and this was confirmed by the many speeches that I heard that evening, and by the people I talked to. It was an uplifting and inspiring event and I look forward to knowing and sharing more about these people of “goodwill” in the future.

Coming back from Los Angeles on Monday, I participated in my first Tibet Lobby Day by meeting more than one hundred Tibetan Americans, Tibetan Associations and Tibet support group members who came to DC from different states of the US to meet their Representatives and Senators and ask them to act in support of Tibet in the Congress. It was an amazing meeting and these Tibet supporters where able to have 150 Congressional meetings in just two days!

All ICT staff worked hard to make this happen (but I want to thank in particular, Tencho Gyatso, Ronnate Asirwatham and Todd Stein). Also, on Monday we were able to welcome to DC Representative Kaydor Aukatsang and the staff of the Office of Tibet who has relocated here from New York.

All the participants in the Tibet Lobby Day were volunteers, Tibetans and US citizens who took time off from work or study and spent their own money to come to DC to help the Tibetan people. Having been myself for many years a volunteer and an activist, I expressed my gratitude to them, knowing that they do this not as a sacrifice, but as conscious choice to make their lives and those of Tibetans better.

Speaking of Tibetans inside Tibet, last Sunday we received the news of another self-immolation. This time was a Tibetan nun of 31 years old whose name is Dolma. Her whereabouts are not known at the moment, but we hope she survived.

At ICT we will continue our work until the plight of the Tibetan people finds a dignified solution, until this precious culture will be protected and preserved, and we will never forget the sacrifices of Dolma and of the other 129 Tibetans who have self-immolated since 2009 whose common messages were for freedom in Tibet and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

This is my first blog post, I hope you enjoyed knowing more about me and what we do, and please let me know what do you think about this new initiative.


Human Rights Council session

Attendees at the Human Rights Council session stand to commemorate Cao Shunli, a Chinese human rights activist who was prevented from traveling to the Council and died in detention.

On March 19, 2014 I travelled to Geneva to represent the International Campaign for Tibet at the adoption of China’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). This was a culmination of more than a year’s long work for ICT and I was glad that I was going to be at the Council. Below is my personal experience at the HRC. The views in this blog are my own and do not reflect those of ICT.

On that morning, as soon as I walked into the HRC chamber and sat down on one of the seats reserved for NGOs, a man approached me asking me very directly whether I would give a statement on Tibet later on during the adoption of China’s report. At first, this only surprised me. ICT as a member of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) had planned to issue a joint statement together with FIDH and Human Rights in China (HRiC). FIDH, as an NGO with consultative status, was going to deliver it. However, our joint oral statement was not public yet. Moreover, I had never met this man before.

He must have noticed my surprise because he tried to reassure me by saying that he was “Tibetan” and therefore very interested in my statement. He wished to see the statement beforehand and asked me to send it to him but when he gave me his email address, it was only composed by numbers and did not have a name, or even an organization, in it. Now this made me very suspicious as to whom he was and how he knew I worked on Tibet.

When he gave a statement on behalf of his “NGO”, the China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture (CAPDTC), during a Council debate on minority issues, I knew he was not presenting the real picture in Tibet but the government’s version.He stressed that the Chinese government was safeguarding the rights of the Tibetan people, especially those concerning language and bilingual education. However I know from ICT’s reports that this is not the case in Tibet.

This was only the beginning of the many intimidation measures I would witness at the HRC those days.

Later during the day, when speaking to representatives of other Tibetan NGOs, I was told that they had been photographed by some Chinese officials while they were sitting in the UN Cafeteria.

That afternoon, when the start of China’s adoption approached, NGO seats began to be filled in the Council chamber by many representatives of Chinese NGOs, or rather representatives of the Chinese government.

The adoption started by being delayed. Rumors started circulating about a possible postponement of the adoption to the following day. The Chinese officials were complaining to the President of the HRC about NGOs’ request to hold a minute of silence to honor Ms. Cao Shunli, a Chinese human rights defender who died in detention on March 14. In the meantime, Chinese delegates were filming and taking pictures of NGO representatives in the Council chamber in contravention of the HRC’s rules, which state that only accredited press have permission to do so.

One of China’s targets on that day was Ms. Ti-Anna Wang, the daughter of a well-known Chinese political prisoner. On March 18, she had given testimony on her father’s situation in detention. A Chinese representative openly photographed her in the Chamber. On March 19, when she was sitting right next to me a Chinese official leaned over and took a photo of the screen of her laptop. After reporting these actions to the UN security guards, the devices were confiscated and the violator escorted outside the room. As reported some days later by the New York Times, the UN decided to disbar this man from its premises.

In the end, the adoption of the report was postponed to the next day.

On March 20, the atmosphere in the HRC chamber was very heavy. The feeling I had was that everyone knew that something would happen but no one wanted to mention it. Again, Chinese representatives were everywhere, especially near NGOs. During those two days, other UPR reports were adopted, such as the ones of Saudi Arabia, Chad and the Central African Republic, notably not human rights champions. However, what happened with China was incomparable to any other State.

The first speaker on the NGO list was the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR). NGOs had planned a joint action, which ISHR was leading. It involved standing up while holding posters of Ms. Cao Shunli as soon as the first NGO would start speaking and mentioning a minute of silence to remember Ms. Cao’s death. Personally, this was an incredible experience. Cao Shunli was planning to attend a human rights training and China’s UPR session in October 2013 but she was detained before catching her flight to Geneva. Six months later she was dead, simply for doing what I was doing – attending a UN session. It was beautiful and touching to see so many inspiring people united and protesting peacefully against injustice. China’s complaints as well as those from its authoritarian friends, such as Iran, Cuba, Pakistan and others, were all in vain. Civil society went on with its silent protest until the end of the Council’s debate of China’s UPR.

As FIDH delivered its oral statement, the Chinese delegation interrupted the speaker by raising a point of order. The Chinese asked the President of the Council “to abolish the status of the speaker [FIDH] to speak” because the other two organizations did not have consultative status. The UN secretariat ruled against the Chinese, citing a long practice where accredited NGOs could “mention other entities.” FIDH was allowed to continue with the statement.

This is what China is mostly afraid of. It is aware of the power of the people. This is why it wants to silence them with all means.

Oddly, I don’t think this was a bad experience for the civil society movement. On the contrary, I think it only shows the strength of our movement, the movement of thoughtful, committed citizens, who believe that there is ONE people with the same rights all over the world, be it the Tibetans, the Chinese or the Syrians. It shows that with a common, unified approach and with commitment to the fundamental values of freedom and democracy, this movement one day will win its battle. It may not be tomorrow but it is only a matter of time. On a personal level, it has reinforced my own convictions that what we are doing is right.

Moreover, this has also been a victory for ICT. The unacceptable behavior of Chinese representatives has once again proved to the whole world what the true face of an authoritarian State looks like, despite the friendly smiles and handshakes. Their measures are not only counter-productive, as they showed Chinese opposition to fundamental freedoms and drew more attention to the Tibetan cause, but mainly because they proved that China has no moral legitimacy in an important forum such as the HRC and, most importantly is a threat to democracy and freedom everywhere, not only within its own borders.

Democratic countries have nothing to share with a dictatorship. Now it’s the international community’s time to act.