As Tibetan students call for equality of ethnicities

The Chinese government said on Saturday it would reconsider its plan to promote the use of Mandarin, the language spoken by the majority Han Chinese ethnic group, as the sole language of instruction in universities after hundreds of Tibetan students in western China and in Beijing protested the move this week. On Tuesday, more than 1,000 university and high-school students marched in Tongren (Rebkong in Tibetan) in western Qinghai province, calling for “equality of ethnicities” and “freedom of language”.

The protest was sparked by reported comments from the Communist Party's Qinghai chief, Qiang Wei, calling for the use of “a common language” in schools and suggesting that the province would introduce Mandarin as the language of instruction over the next decade.

Protests spread to other towns in western China last week after videos of the Tongren protest spread through the Internet. The official Xinhua news agency reported protests in at least four prefectures in Qinghai, with students “expressing their dissatisfaction”. There were no reports of arrests or clashes between police and the students, who appear to have been allowed to carry out the protests.

On Friday, 400 students at Minzu University, a school that specialises in education related to China's minority groups, marched in their campus in north-western Beijing, echoing the call to ensure the freedom of language.

The government moved on Saturday to calm fears of the introduction of the new language policy. Xinhua quoted Wang Yubo, director of Qinghai's education department, as saying changes would not be enforced in areas where “conditions are not ripe”, though he did not say what those conditions were.

Woeser, a prominent Tibetan writer in Beijing, said it still remained uncertain whether or not the government would suspend the policy. “In view of the protest in Qinghai, the government has said it would somehow suspend the language policy, but I cannot see if this will really happen,” she told The Hindu.

In recent years, the Chinese government has introduced a “bilingual education” policy to promote Mandarin in ethnic minority areas. The government argues that spreading Mandarin would help bridge the income gap between Han Chinese and the country's 55 minority groups.

In Tibet, and other areas such as Xinjiang, widening income disparities have been blamed on higher-income jobs, for which Mandarin is often a prerequisite, going to Han migrants from other provinces. The government introduced bilingual education in Tibet and Xinjiang, but Tibetans and Uighurs fear the neglect of their languages will erode their cultures.

Ms. Woeser said many Tibetans viewed the policy as a move “to marginalise the Tibetan language.” “On the one hand, the government's objective is to advance its objective of unifying the country,” she said, also pointing to recent protests by students in southern Guangdong province following efforts to promote Mandarin in place of the local Cantonese in television programming.

“The second objective,” she added, “is their political intention. The government is trying to weaken Tibetans' identity as an ethnic minority.”

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