In December 2021, Tibet Action Institute (TAI) issued a report “Separated from Their Families, Hidden From the World,” exposing a vast system of boarding schools for Tibetan children that aims to assimilate them into Han Chinese culture and society by cutting off their ties to their families, culture, language, and religion, and replacing Tibetan educational content with political indoctrination. The government has shut down local Tibetan schools, and now young students are sometimes forced to travel hundreds of miles away from home to get an education. According to official figures, 800,000 children, or 78% of Tibetan children aged 6-18, are in these schools. Dr. Gyal Lo, an educational sociologist, has also discovered that Tibetan children as young as four have been sent to preschool boarding schools, the existence of which the Chinese government has never acknowledged. Gyal Lo has visited 50 such schools, and estimates that more than 100,000 children between the ages of four and six are housed in these institutions. He estimates that approximately one million Tibetan children are housed in boarding schools. As TAI director Lhadon Tethong says, “They have essentially just removed all the Tibetan, and Sinicized and politicized every aspect of the education. It’s all Xi Jinping Thought.”
In the second part of our interview with Lhadon Tethong, she describes the circumstances under which so many Tibetan children ended up in these schools, and what the impact is on the children, their families, and Tibetan communities. Read the first part of our interview here.
China Digital Times: You mentioned earlier the boarding schools and the education system, and how that’s being used as a form of control. The Tibet Action Institute report found that at least 800,000 children, or 78% of all Tibetan children, are studying in boarding schools. And, like with the colonial boarding schools that previously existed for indigenous children in the U.S. and Canada and elsewhere, the schools are a way to force assimilation. Can you explain more how so many children ended up in these schools? And what is the process by which families send their children there?
Lhadon Tethong: We were quite stunned when a Tibetan who actually grew up in a boarding school in Tibet a long time ago, and who completed education under the Chinese system, was researching these issues, and roughly estimated 900,000 Tibetan kids in boarding schools. These are 6-18 year olds in Tibet, as Tibetans know Tibet, on the Tibetan Plateau. That number was shocking to some of us.
In looking into those numbers, it just became clear that under our noses, Beijing had so successfully cut Tibet off from the world after 2008—blocked the flow of refugees, [took] more control of the borders, took people’s passports away (the few who had them were no longer allowed to travel out of Tibet), and blocked international travel into Tibet. Letting Chinese tourists go into Tibet by the millions, but not anyone from abroad on anything that’s remotely uncontrolled [by the Chinese government]. Also, increasing the fear and the repression just for passing information. It could be a stricter sentence for someone to send out information to Tibetans living outside of Tibet about a protest than for those who participated in the protests. So suddenly, just seeing increased surveillance, online and physical. Tibetans can’t get out, the international community cannot really get in, and from what we can tell from self-reported Foreign Correspondents Club of China surveys, journalists stopped asking to go, because they just get denied all the time. And then the only time they are allowed, if they’re in one of the major news agencies that get occasionally allowed to go on a controlled trip, it’s just so difficult to report. So China very successfully locked Tibet down, locked the world out.
The Human Rights Watch number was until 2008, an average of 2500 to 3000 Tibetans escaped per year on foot—and their testimony has been a picture of what’s happening on the ground, and their ability to share that information is what has made it very clear what’s happening in Tibet, in a meaningful way. And because people weren’t leaving, we weren’t able to really tell. I think five Tibetans escaped successfully on foot last year. It took a bit of time to sink in and become clear how successfully China had blacked out and locked down Tibet, and what that had done to our movement or the ability for us to rally even the most sympathetic governments to do something meaningful, because the evidence was just not as clear or as sound as the U.N. and others want it, or even the media. Because of transnational repression, Tibetans from Tibet living in exile, who have more information, are much more reticent and afraid to talk these days because their families back home are held hostage.
Beijing so successfully weaponized the visa and access to Tibet, so Tibetans, like some of my friends, want to go home and see their parents. They walked out as kids and now they want to go back. China says, “Okay, you can come back, but you have to refrain from political activities.” And then no one wants to go on the record and say, “I know exactly what is happening here and there.” It just became a far murkier picture for the international community. For us, we hear people uncensored, who aren’t afraid, in our work. But when you try to translate that into exactly what is happening on the ground with education policy, China makes sure that nothing is readily available that will paint too clear of a picture.
Also, Tibet administratively has been so chopped up and fragmented in a way that it isn’t super easy to say, “in this year, they took away Tibetan language as the primary medium of instruction in primary schools.” It’s a much more piecemeal approach, depending on which part of Tibet is administered by which branch of government. And so that also has made it harder to tell the story because it’s not simple and easy—here are the few documents and policy orders that you need to look at to say, “This is what’s happened.” There have always been boarding schools in Tibet. It’s always been colonial education in Tibet under China. But there used to be more Tibetan content in the curriculum, even if that was 30%, 40%, 20%. Or there used to be more access to Tibetan language-medium instruction, whether that was in the monastery schools, in the private schools, or even in primary schools, until recently. Now they have essentially just removed all the Tibetan, and Sinicized and politicized every aspect of the education. It’s all Xi Jinping Thought, even in the monasteries and nunneries, the curriculum is just so heavily political indoctrination.
Then they did what is the harshest and most effective thing, to really try to crush Tibetan resistance, which comes so much from Tibetan identity. They started putting the boarding school policy on steroids. From 2015, that decision on ethnic education says all students of minority groups should live in a school, grow up in a school; we should strengthen boarding school construction in the minority areas. While for the rest of China, in 2012, the State Council decreed that the push towards boarding schools was not good, especially for very young children. And in principle, all schools should be local. So what’s good for China and Chinese is not good for ethnic minorities.
CDT: And what was the public justification for that? Did they offer one for why the minorities should be in boarding schools but no one else should?
LT: No, because the argument and the logic, if you look at the 2012 to the 2015 decisions, they’re directly contradictory. With Tibet, they just use the [reasoning that] it’s extremely rural and sparsely populated. But you can see the justification in the common language and the ethnonationalist language and policy, which is where it becomes clear. They’re really not hiding it—everyone in China will be Chinese first.
If you’re a so-called ethnic minority of China, there will be a token side of your ethnic and cultural identity that will be allowed to be preserved. So that means wearing Tibetan dress, or singing and dancing for exercise. And then the language even: they call it “bilingual education,” and it is such a lie. They don’t make their curriculum readily available or the content of what they’re teaching or how they’re teaching it. But from what we can tell from talking to people, [they have] one 40-minute Tibetan language class, maybe two. And the rest is in these 10-hour, punishing long days, even for very young children. It’s just all Mandarin and English. And in fact, my one colleague’s observation about a schedule we saw out of Lhasa for middle school students was actually Tibetan is not a second language, it’s a third language. Because there was more English in the schedule than there was Tibetan. They were teaching not just English as the language class, but there was a political indoctrination class that was [in] English—for obvious reasons, because it will be good for those kids to be able to say all that propaganda rhetoric in English.
CDT: How much have you been able to learn about the physical conditions at the schools and how the children are treated?
LT: Not much. One of the things we used in the report were Chinese academic studies from China itself where we could see snippets. For example, someone did their PhD on education in some part of Tibet and boarding schools. And so there we see the principal of the school or some teacher on the record saying racist, horrific things about why Tibetans shouldn’t be allowed to go home too often. They say “five plus two equals zero.” So five days at school speaking Chinese plus two days at home equals no progress because they come back speaking more Tibetan. What we can see online from propaganda, it looks like the schools they choose to show, the facilities, school yards, playgrounds, cafeteria that all look quite new or quite modern or quite nice. But that doesn’t say anything to us about the state of being for the students, some who are hundreds and hundreds of miles from home. And the push to these mega-schools is a more recent thing. They built this education city outside of Lhasa that’s tens of thousands of kids in this massive complex of schools, and the different schools’ names seem to correspond with where these kids are from, in western Tibet or in the south or far away. That’s a newer phenomenon but you can see the impact on the kids.
We’re really feeling horrified and concerned that there are boarding preschools for Tibetan children in rural areas that they don’t admit to: they’re totally hidden. And these kids [are] so young, ages four to six. But [the problem] doesn’t seem to be all about neglect and abuse. In fact, it seems like it’s a totally Chinese education with Chinese teachers, often young volunteer teachers, and the kids are almost being bribed; the food and everything they can get living there five days a week is better than any of these parents could ever offer them. And so sometimes the kids are asking to go back even before the weekend is over, because they want the good food, and they are from poor families. I have seen a video of a birthday party that just made me sick, because you can see how it is so cleverly planned, so that they’re getting a cake, everyone singing “Happy Birthday,” everything’s sparkly, shiny, new, and how does that compare to the vast majority of Tibetans who live a rural life and still a poor life? And if the idea is that these kids are going to help take their parents up out of poverty, we know most Tibetan jobs are now in the service economy or in these factories, like the Uyghurs. They’re just being shipped out to go to China to work for really, really terrible wages. And so these kids lose their family connections, their culture, their language, their Buddhism 100%, because they’re not allowed to have any exposure to Buddhism, only when they’re home with their families, which is pretty rare.
The part that makes me sad is how many Tibetans chose, “Okay, we’ll send our kids to the school because, at least with the Chinese language, they’re going to have a better chance at everything.” And then they’re regretting it years later, because they’ve just grown so far apart from their kids, because culturally the Tibetan Buddhist value system could not be more at odds with the Chinese Communist Party doctrine—nationalist, violent, materialist. It’s devastating.
CDT: Because the alternative is not to put your kid in school, which is illegal.
LT: Yeah, which is not an option. In the urban areas, you’ll see lots of online propaganda about kindergartens or preschools, and they seem to be day schools. And there aren’t many urban areas in Tibet, but there are some. They’re capturing those kids, even as young as three, and putting them in these preschools or kindergartens they must attend in these urban areas. And then it’s all Chinese-language education. So where a Tibetan kid, not that long ago, could have had a primary school education, and not the greatest quality education, but at least mostly Tibetan language up until a certain age—they wouldn’t have had to go to school so young, and they would have been with their family and retained this identity—now they are really stealing an entire generation. And it’s a very bleak and depressing reality.
At the same time, as Dr. Gyal Lo says, in the end, these kids are Tibetan, and they are from Tibet. And they will go out into the world and most of them will be rejected; they’re not Chinese, and are not going to have this life that supposedly they’re being prepared for. It’s just the reality of China, especially under the Communist Party—the racism, the discrimination, the opportunities that are going to be there for them. The quality of education overall, as Dr. Gyal Lo says, is not going to be very good. There’ll be some model schools we’ll hear about where kids do really well, but they’re going to have an intensely nationalist blueprint for life that’s baked into them right now. And they’re going to be realizing they’re not Chinese. And if things continue in Tibet the way they are, these kids are not lost, they’ll just be a different kind of Tibetan activist or agitator or fighter or resister one day, as the fundamentals are not changing. They’re doing serious damage to—“language and culture” sounds so detached—the “social fabric,” to Tibetan society.
CDT: Some of the kids who attended these schools are now adults. Has anyone been able to do research into the impacts on this population, either in terms of individual trauma and mental health, or on the culture and society as a whole?
LT: The boarding preschools and that preschool policy is quite new. 2016 was when Dr. Gyal Lo first saw preschools opened in his area of Tibet. So those kids are still quite young. We just heard recently that the kids who are growing up in the boarding preschools, they don’t speak Tibetan. They can’t really communicate at all in Tibetan. And parents and grandparents are having a hard time with them, just in terms of their attitude or how easily they’re able to control them when they do come home.
In our report, a lot of people we spoke to are a slightly older generation of Tibetans who went to boarding schools. At a certain age, if you were wanting to really get serious about school, and if you were achieving, you would have to go to a boarding school, off at the county or city level, even if you were a nomadic kid. That’s where you would go to get the best education. And so a lot of the researchers and the people we worked with, or have talked to, they have these harrowing accounts of their life in this pre-Xi Jinping, earlier generation of boarding schools before they were so complete, and so mega. And the conditions were awful. One that breaks my heart is a friend of ours who talks about how it changed who he was. He was this carefree child that eventually ended up feeling inferior.
These are in Tibet, and abuse was very common. One woman we know who was raped and abused, she just said, “Oh, I never mentioned it before, because we all were.” It’s very, very Tibetan: “We all went through it; my story is not special.” But that is just us barely sampling a small group of people. The only rigorous studies have been on what they call the inland boarding schools. Since the 1980s, they’ve taken Tibetans from Central Tibet, or what China calls TAR [the “Tibet Autonomous Region”], to China to different provinces, where they would get education there. And it was classic colonialism, then to be returned to Tibet and be administrators in the system, to work in governments and teaching and hopefully to then get everybody on the right page. The one or two studies and surveys that have been done on that population show very high dropout rates, and a lot of unemployment, and they were made strangers in their own land. They only left Tibet to then realize they weren’t Chinese in China. And they were treated differently, discriminated against, and they became much stronger in their Tibetan identity. But then if they dropped out, or didn’t do well, or returned to Tibet to only get these crappy jobs or just not what they wanted to do, [they experienced] a lot of depression and psychological trauma. Tibetans that were shipped out, they were very smart, they did well, they got to go to these schools, because that was the best ticket for education for Tibetans in central Tibet for a long time. And now in all of Tibet, you can access this program if you’re high-achieving enough. And the ones I know who went through the system, and there are very many of them in our small community, they’re so political. They understood China better than anyone living back in Tibet in a more traditional life. It’s quite the opposite impact. They became well-educated, speak Chinese fluently, lost some important foundations of their Tibetan culture, but valued it more, and are super political and very clear-eyed about Beijing. And so that’s what I think of when Dr. Gyal Lo talks about that with the boarding schools in Tibet: the difference is, this is in Tibet. They’re turning Tibetan kids living on Tibetan land into Chinese nationalists in all the outward ways, but they’re still Tibetan. Their education and their realizations will just come later in life.
CDT: The State Department recently announced sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for these schools. What else would you like to see the U.S. or other governments do to respond to this practice?
LT: Those visa restrictions are a great start. And other countries need to do them as well, because they’re most effective when multiple countries do them. And these are not military sanctions. These are people involved in education who seemingly think they’re involved in a safe area of Chinese colonial rule in Tibet, but what they’re doing is so blatantly wrong. And we want to see the intellectual architects of these second-generation ethnic policies called to account for it. We would like to see more done to understand that it’s not just the security state that we need to be concerned about, and there should be accountability for everyone involved in doing what is so clearly wrong. And what other governments—Canada, the U.S. and Australia and others—especially know now, the impact on kids who are ripped from their cultural roots and their mother tongue is severed. We can’t say for sure, maybe the physical facilities are better [in Tibet], but in the end, the outcome is still the same: that you really just rip apart the social fabric of people, in and on their own lands. So we want to see more and stronger sanctions. These visa restrictions and bans are great, and [we also want to see them against] any academics, anyone from the Chinese system having anything to do with this common language policy. If you look at it practically and the way that they’re pushing it, it is absolutely a violation of Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolians’ fundamental rights—to choose education for their children, and for children to live with their parents while receiving an education. We just want to see it called out for what it is.
It’s important too that Tibet didn’t just disappear from the headlines because of the information blackout and the lockdown. It’s also because we allowed it to disappear. China began to very cleverly and effectively punish anyone who ever said the word “Tibet” or met the Dalai Lama or used a quote of his. They went after everyone, whether world leader, university, Hollywood, any of these top artists, anyone who dared to speak [about] Tibet or show any sympathy or meet the Dalai Lama. Suddenly they’re all blacklisted and punished, and it’s been effective. People are afraid to talk about Tibet, lest they be challenged or blacklisted. And so Tibet has been silenced.
This genocidal boarding-school system should be a wake-up call for the international community and any person of conscience that not only is the situation in Tibet not resolved, but Tibetans are facing cultural elimination—the elimination of our distinct identity and ancient way of life and traditions and the core of who we are. And that must be objected to. Chinese leaders must pay some price, they must face international scrutiny and condemnation, and they have to be challenged on it at every possible step. There’s a lot of cooperation in the field of education with international institutions and China and development. There are ways to influence and push the Chinese government to do something differently. The accountability aspect of this with sanctions does telegraph a really important message to those in China, in the education system, doing this right now, that some of them may not be able to go see their kids who live in another country, in the U.S. or Canada or wherever. If these kinds of sanctions are real, they have a real impact, and we need this whole system, this whole model, this whole push by Xi Jinping to destroy all of these different people and nations—Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians—that has to have a cost. We have to help to build the opposition to all of this within China itself. And it’s not easy, but it’s necessary. It’s the right thing to do.
We see Tibetans are still doing anything they can. The only reason we know about what’s happening is because Tibetans have risked everything. We kept hearing about four- and five-year-olds going to boarding school, and we were thinking, “There are no [preschool] boarding schools; there are primary boarding schools.” And we just couldn’t figure it out. Then we put it all together once we met Dr. Gyal Lo, because he was like, “No, these are actual [preschool] boarding schools.” We were hearing Tibetans who were resisting or saying, “We don’t want to send them, it’s not right, we’re looking for any alternative, the walls are closing in on us.” People who are risking to get those messages out. And then sure enough, what did that turn up? Basically a hidden system of boarding preschools. And when the Chinese government is actually actively hiding something like that, and not willing to take people on tours, they know it’s wrong. They know the perception internationally would be that it is an abhorrent practice, to take four- to six-year-olds away from parents to live, at a preschool-age, in boarding school. So that’s why it’s hidden.
CDT: Have you heard any response, either directly or indirectly from people in China, just regular citizens or people in the official realm?
LT: There is quite a Chinese official government response. The Chinese official government response really only started since the U.N. Special Rapporteurs made public their communication to China, inquiring and expressing concern about the boarding schools. And that set off a wave of international attention in our small world. They have come out swinging, and it’s quite illuminating to hear their defense from the state level. A number of us were there for China’s review before the [U.N.] Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and they sent a huge delegation, and were challenged on Hong Kong, of course, and on East Turkestan and the Uyghurs. But it was the first time they were being challenged on the boarding schools. They had quite a weak defense that tried to pretend that we were only talking about the Tibet Autonomous Region: “So the million student numbers, just how does that even work?” Just a completely silly response. Then their argument is basically, “Tibet is very sparsely populated, and we want to give a high-quality bilingual education to even the most rural, poorest kids.” Our response to that is that the rate of boarding in Tibet as compared to China, even for rural areas, is so completely off-the-charts wrong.
If you can conquer the mountains, the elevation, build the railways, the highest airport in the world, the taming of the rivers, all the infrastructure that [the CCP] celebrates—if you can do all of that, you can help make sure that most children in Tibet are able to access high-quality education, somewhat locally, and that they don’t have to board, especially at very young, vulnerable ages. I have friends who grew up in rural British Columbia who took the bus for hours to get to school and back, but they got to live with their parents, and that’s what the government provided. And so if we’re supposed to believe this Chinese Communist Party, that can provide everything to everyone, especially those happy so-called minorities in Tibet, then, make good on that.
[Tibetans] had local schools, they had village schools. They might not have been the best, but [the government] shut them down. And rather than make it work for Tibetans where they are, so as to respect their fundamental rights, they created these mega boarding schools, for thousands of kids. Regardless [of] even the content of the curriculum, anyone should be able to see that the system itself—a boarding school system with that high of a rate of boarding for all children, especially very young children—is something that’s very, very wrong.
This interview is part of a CDT series exploring current conditions in Tibet and efforts to protect and preserve Tibetan identity and cultural heritage amid policies focused on the Sinicization and securitization of the region. Read previous interviews in the series on CDT. All interviews are edited for length and clarity.