Chinese erosion of Tibetan identity should not be tolerated

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Lhasa, Tibet [Dennis Jarvis/Flickr]

Chinese development projects in the mountain region are wiping out the ethnic and cultural identity of the Tibetans, writes Madi Sharma.

Madi Sharma is a UK member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and former president of the Human Rights Committee of EESC.

Tibet is one of the most culturally-rich provinces of China, yet it is one of the least developed ones. This has led to a surge in development projects in the province, orchestrated by the central administration, in an effort to change Tibet and bring it into the “future”.

Nevertheless, some Tibetans are worried that the drive for change is eroding their region’s unique identity and while some Tibetans are benefiting from the flow of development projects, many are not convinced as they believe the economic gains are largely flowing to Chinese immigrants. At the same time, their own cultural identity is fading.

One of the most important elements of the central administration’s plan is to create a transport network in the province that will facilitate the influx of goods and people from the eastern parts of China. The party’s infrastructure drive is an important part of its policy of integrating the poorer west of the country with the richer east.

In Xinjiang, in the far northwest, where many members of the ethnic Uighur minority feel oppressed by Beijing, building transport links is also seen as a way to increase national security. Lavish spending on infrastructure reflects the central government’s determination to use economic development to bring “peace” to the tense western regions.

Issues such as cultural, linguistic and religious protection do not appear to be on the agenda of the central administration, inevitably unsettling the local ethnic minorities.

A BBC report provided a characteristic example of the situation, with the Tibet Shanghai Experimental School, an institution built with funds from the Shanghai government, providing a picture of the future. Although the school itself claims that teaching Tibetan is a priority, on closer scrutiny that does not seem to be the case.

Half the teachers are Chinese and only the Tibetan language course is taught in Tibetan. All the exams, except for Tibetan language, have to be written in Chinese. Even the signs around the school and the names of the classrooms are all in Chinese. The curriculum is all in Chinese too. So the children are taught, for example, that the Dalai Lama is a threat to China.

It appears though that the Communist Party’s plan for harmonisation has brought about the exact opposite result, with the uprising of many Tibetans in 2009. Through religious control, the erosion of the Tibetan language, intense surveillance and “patriotic education” policies, the government has sought to suppress traditional beliefs and customs.

More than 130 Tibetans have set fire to themselves in protest since 2009. It is now extremely difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary Tibetans to travel abroad from Tibet and border security has been tightened. Before 2008, the number of Tibetans escaping into Nepal each year was as high as 3,000. In 2013, only 300 were successful in fleeing.

According to The Economist, the number of ethnic-Han Chinese coming to Tibet as tourists or workers continues to soar. In 2013, 7.5 million passengers used the railways, which is more than double the population of Tibet itself. Plans for the construction of new railway lines will provide access to previously remote parts and will inevitably increase the volume of visitors, drawn by the promise of an unspoiled and spiritually-rich land.

The influx of Han Chinese as tourists and migrants is altering Tibet. Part of the plan is China’s policy of moving every Tibetan herder and farmer into a new home. China says it has constructed 230,000 of what it calls “comfort houses” for 1.3 million Tibetans in the past four years. It gives grants to help pay the costs.

But the Tibetans have to use their own savings too and take out loans, so they end up in debt. As a result, poor farmers have leased their farmland to Chinese migrants to raise money. The Chinese grow vegetables while the Tibetans now work on construction sites, shifting Tibet’s demographics.

Europe cannot simply maintain a passive or even corroborative stance towards China’s plans to alienate the ethnic Tibetan’s from their identity. We cannot promote trade with China knowing that this money is being used to support such intolerant policies, whose only target is to wipe part of the human history from the map so that the Communist Party can better rule the people of Tibet.

We need to ensure that the EU will stick to its values when dealing with the Chinese leadership, and that no double standards will apply only to facilitate business deals that will eventually harm humanity in the long term.

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