The Tibetan culture that has an originality and specificity of its own, distinct from the Chinese culture, is being subjected to disuse with the expectation that it would ultimately lose its shine and appeal.This is cultural hegemony at its very worst with a brazen effort to steamroll diversity. The Sinicization of Tibet can be understood in the broader context of the emerging Chinese strategy to assert its dominance abroad after establishing unabashed cultural hegemony at home. How the ethnic Tibetans and the larger international community react to such aggressive cultural policy remains to be seen.
Since the annexation of Tibet in 1951, which Beijing refers to as the “Liberation of Tibet”, the Chinese government has been implementing various policies over the last seven decades to assimilate the Tibetan people and their culture into the mainstream Chinese culture and erase the Tibetan religious and local identity. In a recent report on 6 February 2023, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs expressed their alarm about Chinese efforts to force the cultural absorption of approximately one million Tibetan children into the Han majority culture. These children are reportedly being forcibly separated from their families and enrolled in government-run residential boarding schools far from their homes across China. The UN report maintains that the Tibetan children are being taught ‘Putonghua’ (the standard form of modern Chinese, based on the dialect spoken in Beijing) as part of a compulsory curriculum, with no lessons on Tibetan language, history, or culture. This is cultural hegemony at its very worst with a brazen effort to steamroll diversity. The Tibetan culture that has an originality and specificity of its own, distinct from the mainstream Chinese culture, is being subjected to disuse with the hope that it would lose its shine and appeal in the years to come.
Over the past couple of years, the Chinese language has increasingly dominated as the official language of communication in Tibet, which the Chinese the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), misleading outsiders to believe that the region is being granted ‘autonomy’ in terms of administration and local control. However, in reality, an unannounced policy of de-Tibetisation has been adopted right since China forcefully annexed the region. As Chinese economy boomed through the 1970s and 1980s, thanks to American backing, and it acquired strategic heft, China has been more and more assertive about its cultural policy. This has been quite visible in Xinjiang and Tibet, both of them proclaimed as ‘autonomous regions’, in recent years.
In August 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced new policies aimed at building Tibet up as a modern socialist society with ‘Chinese characteristics’; a society that is “united, prosperous, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful.” However, the replacement of the Tibetan language with the Chinese language in public signboards, notices, and banners since the announcement indicates China’s intention to prioritize what it calls “raising population quality” and “forging the consciousness of the Chinese national community” over what the Tibetans would want, i.e., preservation of the Tibetan language, culture and identity. The Tibetans appear helpless and forlorn in the face of such blatant onslaught by China.
Interestingly, China has done it with cunning, on the sly. It has introduced Chinese language as a national policy without seemingly undermining the local Tibetan language but promoted the former at the cost of the later. From 2010 onwards, China has enforced a bilingual education policy in all schools in its minority areas, including primary-level rural schools in the TAR, to promote proficiency in local and national languages. However, the policy did not specify the medium of instruction, leading to ambiguity. It has been reported that the Chinese government has pressured Tibetan schools to switch the medium of instruction to Putonghua. The Communist Party of China (CCP) considers the cultural assimilation of ethnic minorities through linguistic imposition as ‘essential’ for national unity and stability. However, this policy has negatively affected Tibetan efforts to preserve their culture, traditions, and religious practices, with the language being an essential component of Tibetan identity and consciousness.
On 21 May 2021, the Chinese government issued a white paper titled “Tibet’s Peaceful Liberation, Prosperity and Development,” which emphasized Sinicization of religion, aiming at adaptation of Chinese characteristics by all religious groups and believers in line with the country’s socialist policies, seeking an essentially Chinese orientation of all religious practices. Such policy preferences have posed new challenges for the minority groups in China, including the Tibetans. Since the release of the white paper, restrictions on Tibetans have worsened, and local Chinese authorities have ordered the destruction of religious sites such as temples, statues, and monasteries. According to the Tibetan Action Institute (TAI), nearly 80 per cent of all Tibetan school children have been forced by Chinese authorities to attend state-run boarding schools. These actions add to recent Chinese efforts to eliminate the Tibetan identity. Such an approach has been witnessed since the policy adopted by the government in 2018 required major monasteries of religious institutes to implement training programmes to demonstrate their competence in religious studies on the one hand and their political and ideological commitment to the Communist Party of China (CCP) and socialism on the other. Children under 18 are prohibited from receiving religious education at monasteries or participating in any religious activities, thus hindering Tibetan children’s familiarity with their religious and cultural heritage.
In the beginning of February 2023, the Chinese government conducted more such onslaughts in Tibet, such as enforcing a new cyber law. The law was initially introduced in 2016 and included stricter actions against those guilty of creating “public disorder by engaging in separatist acts”, effectively looking at every Tibetan as a potential threat to Chinese national security and public interest. Unsurprisingly, the legislation is ambiguous and does not specify the type of violations it should have defined, making all Tibetans vulnerable to Chinese surveillance, intimidation, and attacks on their cultural, social, and religious practices. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Tibetans are being harassed and punished for communication “violations” regardless of the content of their communication.
The latest Chinese crackdown has targeted the Drago county, located in the historical Tibetan province of Kham within the Sichuan province of China. Since 2008, it has been known as a hotbed of resistance by the Tibetans against Chinese rule, and its residents faced renewed attacks since 2021. They have experienced the demolition of their cultural and religious heritage, detention, torture, and “re-education” by Chinese authorities. Since the beginning of 2023, local Chinese authorities have warned Drago county residents to cease communication with people outside Tibet, making it almost impossible to communicate or send money to family members outside the region. The Chinese government’s efforts at this clampdown appear to have two motives. The first is to deal with the possibility of Tibetan resistance against Chinese rule by cracking down on communication, and the second is to impose the supremacy of Chinese culture and language over Tibetans to sustain its cultural and political hegemony.
Scaringly, the Chinese government’s efforts to maintain its political and ideological legitimacy through cultural imperialism extend far beyond its harsh treatment of minorities within the country. The global expansion of Confucius Institutes (CIs), particularly in South Asia, has drawn increasing criticism at the local levels. These Chinese government-funded institutes aim at promoting the Chinese language and culture among non-Chinese populations and stand accused of using such institutes to spread Chinese propaganda. These CIs have censored talks on sensitive topics such as Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen at the host universities. China’s use of cultural imperialism as a form of soft power is a new strategy for maintaining its global dominance.The Sinicization of Tibet can be understood in the broader context of the emerging Chinese strategy to assert its dominance abroad after establishing unabashed cultural hegemony at home. How the ethnic Tibetans and the larger international community react to such aggressive cultural policy remains to be seen.
Ms Ankita Sanyal is working as Associate Research Fellow at ICPS, New Delhi. She has been a doctoral student in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University