Some words on Tibetan language

On Friday, June 22, 2012, in China, General Commentary, Recent, by Leslie Butterfield

At a recent meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Chinese representatives have been adamantly refuting claims that their government does not respect human rights. Let’s take for example the Chinese delegate’s reply (available at 47:59) to an NGO statement delivered by ICT staff, Ngawang Choephel speaking on behalf of the Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network on the diminishment of Tibetan language instruction, which said that China’s education system:

“…imposes an alien political ideology upon the Tibetans who wish to ensure that quality education actually preserves their right to receive instructions in their own rich language (ICT Report: Protests by students against downgrading of Tibetan language spread to Beijing) while grasping the opportunities to master other languages. We, therefore, urge the Special Rapporteur to support our call for the withdrawal of all the restrictions being applied on the promotion and preservation of Tibetan language as the medium of instruction in Tibetan areas of the People’s Republic of China.”

The Chinese reply was:

“The Chinese Constitution, the National Autonomous Regional Law and Education Law and the National Generic Language Law have strict and clear provisions on the education in languages. The Chinese Constitution stipulates clearly that we will promote the national language, at the same time, it is stipulated all ethnic nationalities have their own freedom in pursuing their own languages.”

Ok. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that, but I’m willing to listen to her explanation. What exactly does this “freedom” look like for Tibetans?

The Chinese delegate explained:

“The Tibetan students will learn Tibetan as their main course, the other courses in principle will be taught in Tibetan language. In Tibet, the bilingual education with Tibetan language as the main language were promoted in all the schools in the region. The textbooks in Tibetan languages in all the subjects were published. Some regions have special school of Tibetan languages based on their local conditions. The Tibetan language was used very widely in the region.”

Though, her explanation is put in stark contrast by reports of the reality on the ground. A Tibetan blogger who goes by the penname Mila Tsitsi posted in his blog that:

“Recently a friend said that the new governor of Temchan County, Yang Yongzhou, called the Tibetan director of the Education Bureau and said, ‘From now on, don’t recruit Tibetan teachers in the Tibetan schools. Gradually in the education system, Chinese is becoming the main language and Tibetan will be less important.’”

This seems to run counter to what the Chinese delegate stated.

The Chinese delegate further noted that:

“In 1987 the Tibet Autonomous Region promulgated laws on promoting and using Tibetan language. It stipulates clearly that in Tibet, the Tibetan and Han languages are given equal importance. The Tibetan language will take a dominant role in that region.”

But again, Mila Tsitsi’s experience seems to contradict the Chinese representative. Mila wrote:

“A few days ago, I went to visit a relative who is a prisoner at the Chadam Labor and Reform Camp in Gormo (Golmud). After going through the procedures, the prisoner was brought to the other side of the window. We picked up the phones on each side and started a conversation. But at that moment, a guard said, ‘You are not allowed to talk in other languages, only Mandarin. [T]here are about seven to eight years to go before my relative’s prison term ends. His mother, grandparents and two great grandparents, who are in their 90s, don’t know any Chinese at all. They will not able to speak a single word to him for seven or eight years.”

With access to Tibet denied by Chinese authorities for foreign journalists, diplomats, or international observers, it is difficult to take the Chinese delegate at her word-especially in light of blogposts from inside Tibet like Mila Tsitsi’s. Until we can independently assess the situation, I find it difficult to refute Mila, whose personal account sheds (new) light on what the Chinese government means when it insists that Tibetans have “freedom in pursuing their own language.”

Tsitsi eloquently places this lack of freedom in perspective, noting: “Taking away a person’s language is not the same as taking the bread out of someone’s pocket, and it’s not the same as taking a person’s bag off their shoulders. It is like having your tongue pulled out of your mouth.”

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An (im)practical approach to human rights in China

On Friday, June 15, 2012, in China, Recent, by Leslie Butterfield

In the days leading up to the 20th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has released its second National Human Rights Action Plan of China (henceforth, the Plan). Unfortunately, just like the 2009-2010 National Human Rights Action Plan of China released in response to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review, the 2012-2015 Plan suffers from a misguided approach and a questionable perspective on reality.

Unique to this recent Plan is an acknowledgment by the Chinese government of its limitations in actualizing its aspirations for human rights. In fact, the Plan’s introduction recognizes that China still “has a long way to go before it attains the lofty goal of full enjoyment of human rights,” a rare, but welcome admission that human rights in China are not yet fully enjoyed.

Unfortunately, this recognition of limitations also creates a cop-out in the interest of relativism. Under the guise of “practicality” the Chinese government excuses itself from its full responsibilities, noting that “proceeding from China’s national conditions and new realities…” it will “advance the development of its human rights cause on a practical basis” (emphasis added). Such practicality provides an excuse for the government’s egregious human rights violations in Tibet — after all, given the ‘national conditions’ of ‘instability’ taking place in Tibet, how can the PRC be expected to ‘practically’ respect human rights?

Such relativism comes into play as we evaluate the Chinese government’s proposed protections for Freedom of Religious Belief. Each promise of free belief comes under the conditionality that the religious belief be deemed “normal” by state authorities. Unfortunately for Tibetan Buddhists, many of their traditional practices including a devotion to the Dalai Lama have been deemed as not “normal” by the state. Instead of guaranteeing Tibetans free practice of religion, the state has recently taken to stationing Communist Party cadres inside monasteries to ensure that Tibetan Buddhism is practiced according to the law and under the watchful eye of security cameras and government officials. Who better than to regulate Tibetan Buddhism than an officially atheist government?

A similar relativism characterizes the promises to protect the rights of ethnic minorities. Following its theme of legality, the Plan asserts that the “state protects the lawful rights and interests of ethnic minorities,” which, unfortunately, without adequate opportunities for participation in decision making by Tibetans, means that the state determines the interests of ethnic minorities.

In regard to cultural rights, the Chinese approach equates to the state quantifying intangible cultural expression and deeming what expression is appropriate for Tibetans to express. The PRC’s policies of ‘protecting Tibetan culture’ have instead yielded disastrous results that the Dalai Lama has compared to “cultural genocide”. ICT has recently published a report detailing how these policies and practices have led to cultural destruction instead of cultural protection.

Given the ‘practical’ approach that the PRC is taking, what does the Plan mean for the next three years of human rights promotion in China? Unfortunately, it appears to be another unapologetic justification for continuing the status quo. Only now, Chinese government officials will point to the Plan and say that they are taking steps to improve the situation.

It is up to the members of the UN Human Rights Council, and other governments, to raise the facts about the human rights situation in China and Tibet in order to hold the Chinese leadership accountable and to encourage them to take a what could be considered a more practical approach to human rights — one that involves legitimate stakeholders and truly respects the rights and beliefs of all citizens.

Troubling Double Standards

On Friday, March 11, 2011, in EU Policies, by Paola Trevisan

On 28 February 2011, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission Catherine Ashton delivered a speech before the 16th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

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