Tibetan Language Advocate Tashi Wangchuk Released After Five-Year Imprisonment

Five years after his arrest on charges of inciting separatism, Tashi Wangchuk, an advocate for Tibetan-language education, has been released from prison. He attempted to use legal avenues to reinstitute Tibetan-language education in his home county of Yushu, Qinghai Province, a majority-Tibetan area where fewer than 20 percent of people were believed to be literate in Tibetan. He was arrested two months after the release of a 2015 New York Times film documenting his efforts to file a lawsuit in Beijing, and held in pre-trial detention for two years, during which he was allegedly tortured. At his trial in 2018, he argued that “his idea was to use litigation to force local governments to stop ignoring Tibetan language education, and he was exercising his right as a citizen to criticize.” At The New York Times last Friday, Chris Buckley reported on Tashi Wangchuk’s release and the current human rights situation in Tibet:

The businessman, Tashi Wangchuk, returned to Yushu, his hometown in the northwestern province of Qinghai, and was staying with a sister, the lawyer, Liang Xiaojun, said on Twitter and in a telephone interview. But Mr. Liang said he could not be sure that Mr. Tashi was “fully free.”

[…] “No one wants to live in an environment that’s full of pressure and fear,” [Mr. Tashi told The New York Times in 2015,] “In effect, there is a systematic slaughter of our culture.”

[…] Between 1998 and 2016, Chinese courts tried 11,810 people on charges of separatism or inciting separatism, and only 15 were acquitted, according to official statistics analyzed by the Dui Hua Foundation, a group based in San Francisco that monitors human rights issues in China.

[…] “Tashi’s only ‘crime’ was to peacefully call for the right of Tibetans to learn in their own language and governments must take strong, assertive action calling for his human rights to be upheld following his release,” Tenzin Tselha, an officer with the International Tibet Network who is based in India, said in an email.[Source]

Tashi’s lawyer, Liang Xiaojun, told the AFP that he fears Tashi is still subject to official surveillance. Tashi’s political rights have been suspended for five years. It is possible that he is being held under a form of “non-release release,” an “extra-legal and extra-judicial practice of re-detaining someone informally who under law should be set free, for example after having served their sentence, been given a suspended sentence or been released on bail from a detention centre.” Non-release release has been used against human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang and other activists. It is one of many tools the security state uses against those released from prison, alongside house arrest, police “escorts,” and “being touristed.”

Ethnic language education is a political flashpoint. In the fall of 2020, Inner Mongolian authorities’ mandate that key curriculum areas in bilingual schools be phased into Mandarin sparked massive protests that included school boycotts, petitions, and physical clashes between parents and police. The authorities’ expansion of Mandarin-language education induced scholarly debate about whether China had embraced “second generation ethnic policies” to roll back legally protected “minority privileges” like native-language education. In late January 2021, Shen Chunyao, head of the National People’s Congress’ Legislative Affairs Commission, stated that the use of minority languages in classrooms was “incompatible with the Chinese Constitution.” NPC Observer covered the NPC’s revisions to legal provisions governing ethnic minority education:

The Legislative Affairs Commission took issue with two sets of unidentified local regulations (legislation adopted by local legislatures) that govern the languages used in teaching at ethnic schools—schools principally educating students of minority ethnicities. One set of regulations provided that ethnic schools “shall” use ethnic languages in teaching, while the other prescribed the same requirement but allowed some classes at ethnic schools to be taught in Mandarin Chinese if the local education department approves. We found only two regulations that fit the Commission’s descriptions: Inner Mongolia’s 2016 Regulations on Ethnic Education [内蒙古自治区民族教育条例] in the former set, and Jilin Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture’s 2004 Regulations on Education for Ethnic Koreans [延边朝鲜族自治州朝鲜族教育条例] in the latter.

[…] The Commission did not mention how the two local regulations—both several years old—came to its attention in the first place. If private citizens had requested review, it would have likely said so, as it does elsewhere in the report. Considering the authorities’ push for Mandarin-language education in Inner Mongolia and China’s northeastern provinces (with a sizeable ethnic Korean population, especially in Yanbian) last fall, it is probably not a coincidence that the ethnic education regulations of Inner Mongolia and Yanbian were reviewed and found unconstitutional.

Finally, we will note that here, as has usually been the case, the Commission has not publicly offered any reasoning as to why it thought the local regulations at issue violated either of the relevant statutes or the Constitution. We also have no idea whether it engaged with any legal authority pointing in the other direction. For instance, China’s semi-constitutional statute on ethnic autonomy, the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law [民族区域自治法], expressly allows ethnic schools to teach in minority languages while offering classes on the Chinese language—which was exactly what Inner Mongolian and Yanbian schools had been doing. On top of that, the P.R.C. Constitution also guarantees all ethnicities “the freedoms to use and develop their own spoken and written languages” (art. 4, para. 4). It is arguable that the Commission’s interpretation would have a negative impact on these freedoms. [Source]

The Economist’s Chaguan column for January 30 detailed changes in Korean-language education policy and their implications for China’s other ethnic minority languages:

Yanbian is home to fewer than a million members of an officially recognised Korean ethnic minority, most of them descended from migrants who fled wars and famines on the Korean peninsula in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chinese scholars study the region as a model of co-existence with the country’s Han majority. Education is part of that story. Ethnic Korean schools in Yanbian have offered bilingual education for more than 60 years. Until recently, classes in maths, science and foreign languages were offered in Mandarin, while Korean was used to teach hard-to-grasp concepts in subjects like history, politics and other social sciences.

[…] Now Yanbian finds its education laws under direct assault. On January 20th a powerful body, the Legislative Affairs Commission of the npc Standing Committee, announced that education laws in two unnamed places violate an article of China’s constitution that says the state promotes the nationwide use of Mandarin. As first reported by NPC Observer, an invaluable blog run by Changhao Wei of Yale University Law School, the only education laws that match the announcement are in Inner Mongolia and Yanbian.

The ruling is shocking in several ways. For one thing, it is the bluntest of legal instruments to declare a law unconstitutional. For another, the npc ruling made no mention of another article in the constitution that offers protection for ethnic-minority languages. In reality, those protections are a relic of policies that date back to the founding of Communist China in 1949. Today, the political tide is with prominent scholars and officials who call for “second-generation ethnic policies”, built around assimilating minorities into a single, Chinese civilisation. Such nationalists justify their centralising zeal with claims that China risks ethnic unrest and a Soviet-style break-up if minority privileges are not ended. [Source]

In a December article for The Wall Street Journal, Eva Xiao, Jonathan Cheng, and Liza Lin documented the Chinese government’s recent embrace of assimilationist policies, a significant departure from Mao’s vision of regional ethnic autonomy:

“Under Xi Jinping, the China Dream is the dream of Han-centric cultural nationalism,” said James Leibold, a professor who specializes in China’s ethnic policy at La Trobe University in Australia. Chinese leaders believe “the party needs to be involved in manufacturing this stability and this national belonging.”

[…] Although the Communist Party always retained ultimate control, Mao set up a system of autonomous regions, prefectures and counties that granted minorities important posts in local governments. Many benefited from state investment. Members of minority groups also got exemptions from China’s one-child policy and extra points on the country’s all-important college entrance exam.

[…] The two Hus, who aren’t related, took inspiration from the American idea of a melting pot, which they said helped “maintain the U.S.’s national unity, development vitality, and social order” by minimizing cultural divisions and creating a shared identity. Citing the collapse of the Soviet Union, they cast the “fusion” of ethnicities as a matter of national security.

[…] During a government conference on ethnic affairs following the Kunming attack, Mr. Xi rejected calls to do away with China’s system of minority autonomous regions, which is enshrined in China’s constitution, but doubled down on ethnic fusion. [Source]


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