U.N. Experts and Activists Sound Alarm Over Forced Assimilation and Coercive DNA Collection in Tibet

This week, three U.N. human rights experts stated that roughly one million Tibetan children have been separated from their families and put into state-run boarding schools in an ongoing effort by the Chinese government to forcibly assimilate them into the dominant Han culture. The statement follows recent reports of arbitrary mass DNA collection targeting Tibetans, and highlights the CCP’s use of coercive methods imposed on ethnic minority populations. Fernand de Varennes, U.N. Special Rapporteur on minority issues; Farida Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on the right to education; and Alexandra Xanthaki, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights wrote that they were “alarmed by what appears to be a policy of forced assimilation”:

“We are very disturbed that in recent years the residential school system for Tibetan children appears to act as a mandatory large-scale programme intended to assimilate Tibetans into majority Han culture, contrary to international human rights standards,” the experts said.

In residential schools, the educational content and environment is built around majority Han culture, with textbook content reflecting almost solely the lived experience of Han students. Children of the Tibetan minority are forced to complete a ‘compulsory education’ curriculum in Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) without access to traditional or culturally relevant learning. The Putonghua language governmental schools do not provide a substantive study of Tibetan minority’s language, history and culture.

“As a result, Tibetan children are losing their facility with their native language and the ability to communicate easily with their parents and grandparents in the Tibetan language, which contributes to their assimilation and erosion of their identity” the experts said. [Source]

Earlier research by the Tibet Action Institute found that three out of every four Tibetan students between the ages of six and 18 have been forced into these boarding schools. U.N. Special Rapporteur on minority issues Fernand de Varennes described this “very systematic approach to have children really assimilated into the Han language, religion and cultural spheres” as “shocking.” In an interview with RFA, he argued that, contrary to the beliefs of the Chinese government, such assimilation is profoundly detrimental to children’s development:

It must be clear that not teaching children in their own language does not help their development. In the case of Chinese authorities, there may be the belief and it may be an honest belief, that the way to progress can only be achieved by having children completely adopt Putonghua, the Mandarin official language.

This is not accurate. It’s clearly to the disadvantage of children not to be touched in their own language, and in this case, we do have clear reports of schools, especially rural schools, which used to teach in Tibetan being closed in the name of the best interests of children. 

These educational policies have to be looked at again because they are not helpful. In fact, I would say that they are destructive and clearly against the interests of children who are going to be disadvantaged by being removed from their own families, by not learning in the best medium of education possible in their own language as much as is feasible. [Source]

Tibetan activists and diaspora officials welcomed the U.N.’s renewed attention to Tibet, and reiterated their concern over the deteriorating situation. “China’s communist regime thinks that Tibetan culture, our distinct language and religion, is a threat to national security,” said Dorjee Tsetne, a member of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile based in northern India. “China’s aim is nothing less than to completely wipe out Tibet’s national identity.” The International Tibet Network shared reactions from several advocates of Tibetan causes:

Lhadon Tethong, Director of Tibet Action Institute, said:

“China’s policy of separating almost a million Tibetan children from their families is shocking and we welcome the critical action taken by UN human rights experts to expose this most horrendous of human rights violations. We further call on governments to hold China accountable and urge them to end the residential school system in Tibet.”

Gloria Montgomery, Coordinator of Tibet Advocacy Coalition, said:

“Today’s press release and recent communication mark a turning point. Top UN experts have now sent an unequivocal and long overdue message: China’s residential boarding school system, which is part of a residential school policy to eradicate Tibetan language, culture and community, can no longer go unaddressed. The international community must now follow suit and urgently take meaningful action to hold the Chinese authorities accountable for these crimes. If we stand on the sidelines and do not act, we will witness the human rights of an entire culture collapse.”

Dr Gyal Lo, a Tibetan scholar and education expert, said:

“I have seen China’s residential schools in Tibet with my own eyes and the situation is very grave. While I applaud the four UN experts for giving the issue due attention, the UN and member states must act urgently to ensure Tibetan children can retain their language and culture and remain with their families.” [Source]

The criticism of forced assimilation at boarding schools follows recent revelations of mass DNA collection in Tibet and in other provinces with large Tibetan populations. In September of last year, Human Rights Watch revealed that Chinese government authorities have conducted a systematic and coercive campaign to collect DNA from Tibetan residents. Research by Citizen Lab estimated that up to one third of Tibet’s total population, or over one million people, have been compelled to provide DNA samples. Western companies such as Thermo Fisher have facilitated these abuses. Last week, numerous Tibet-focused organizations—Students for a Free Tibet, International Tibet Network, Tibetan Women’s Association, Tibetan Youth Congress, National Democratic Party Of Tibet, Free Tibet, Chushi Gandruk, and Tibetan National Congress—held a week of action to demand that Thermo Fisher stop providing products that support the Chinese government’s collection of DNA from Tibetan and Uyghur populations. 

It has become increasingly difficult for news from Tibet to spread outside the region. At the beginning of this year, government authorities imposed communication crackdowns and random cell phone checks on Tibetans in Drago county, located within Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province. Compounding the problem are severe, government-imposed restrictions on foreign journalists’ access to Tibet, with both journalists and diplomats being systematically denied access to the region. Moreover, discussions of major COVID outbreaks and subsequent lockdowns in Tibet have been censored on Weibo. This week, James Griffiths at The Globe and Mail described the mounting challenges of obtaining information from inside Tibet:

[While self-immolations] have become rarer, they have not stopped entirely, and other protests and unrest also take place sporadically in Tibet, both over local issues and national frustrations, such as COVID-19 lockdowns. What has changed is the amount of information making it out, which researchers and activists say has slowed to a trickle in recent years, turning Tibet into more of a black hole than ever before and effectively expunging it from global coverage, despite attention paid to China being at an all-time high.

[…] “Before 2014, getting information out of Tibet was relatively easy,” said Penthok, a Tibetan journalist and researcher based in Dharamshala, the spiritual and political heart of the Tibetan exile community since the Dalai Lama fled there in 1959. “But after the first wave of self-immolations, there was a clampdown, and the level of persecution in non-TAR areas reached the same level as in the TAR.”

Tibetans who once shared information with contacts outside the country have been silenced, their phone and internet communications surveilled and the fear of informers ever present. Penthok, who like many Tibetans goes by a single name, said even when sources do reach out, she has to weigh the potential costs of using their information, because often “it would be easy for the Chinese to pinpoint who was talking.” [Source]

This lack of information has made it easier for the rest of the world to forget about or avoid confronting the consequences of human rights abuses in Tibet, as Melissa Chan noted on Twitter:

Nevertheless, Tibet advocates continue to persevere. Students for a Free Tibet executive director Pema Doma, who recently began a fellowship at the Human Rights Foundation, shared a message of hope and resilience:

Q: What message would you give to Tibetans and all other populations living under authoritarian regimes struggling for freedom and basic human rights?

A: Struggles for freedom can take a long time. Sometimes it feels like there is no end in sight. But to create the world we envision, everyone must come together. Together, we can take steps toward justice and human rights. Tibetans are a great example of resilience and why we must keep fighting. The freedom we long for is only possible with the grit and perseverance that Tibetan people have displayed over the previous decades. [Source]

In a recent interview with Tibet Rights Collective, Tibetan activist Chemi Lhamo described this resilience as deeply embedded in the Tibetan community and an enduring feature of younger generations:

The strong spirit is rooted in our natural sense of community; it comes from there. There is a sense of oneness; there is a sense of togetherness within the struggles in many ways of being unable to go home. For many younger generations that have not even seen Tibet, it’s to imagine and envision Tibet together. We were always a very isolated community in historical Tibet, which has continued. Still, along with that, now, in addition to that, the fact that we are displaced people adds another layer of Resilience for our people, and that’s ultimately it. We have a Buddhist upbringing, and in TCVs, students have grown up with the motto – others before self. We have a harmonious society and community, which is what the Tibetan community is about.

[…] As Tibetans, displaced people, and organizers, we are born activists, so there is resistance in our existence, and so is the leader aspect of it. I can’t imagine myself in any position right now, like standing in front of you or sitting in front of you and without the guidance of my parents, who mentor me, and my community. 

In terms of the message for Tibetan youth and the world in general, this is it: it can get quite lonely because of the ongoing injustices around the world. I want to remind them that they are not alone. […] You’re not physically alone because these seniors and the community members are praying for your well-being as you continue to seek justice for the people who need it. [Source]


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