China could learn from Canada’s mistaken attempt to “take the Indian out of the child,” as John A. Macdonald put it.
Now China is repeating Canada’s folly by trying to take “the separatist” out of Tibetan children. Those Tibetans who want to preserve their language and traditions have been branded as “criminal gangs connected to the separatist forces of the Dalai Lama (Globe and Mail, Dec. 7, 2021).”
China began to crack down on Tibet in 2008. The traditional ruler of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, is in exile and seen as a threat. Now Tibet is threatened by the repressive measures of the ruling Han people of China and the rise to power of Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2012.
Almost 80 per cent of Tibetan children in China have been placed in a vast system of government-run boarding schools, where they are cut off from their families, languages and traditional culture according to a recent report by the Tibet Action Institute.
“Kunchok”, a Tibetan who now lives in exile in New Delhi described being sent to a boarding school in 2000, when he was seven years old.
“We were not allowed to go home on the weekend or holidays,” he said “for the whole of [my first year] I did not see my parents.”
More than 800,000 Tibetan children between the ages of 6 and 18 are now housed in these state-run institutions.
In the past, China’s leaders have promoted and protected Tibetan languages and culture. China’s 1982 constitution states that “the people of all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and to preserve or reform their own ways and customs.”
A Tibetan who attended one of those early state-run schools said that at least the Tibetan language was used. Now in exile, “Tenzin” said that while instruction was still largely in a Tibetan language, “the content of what we studied was almost all Chinese.”
“The history we studied was all Communist or Chinese-centred,” he said, “even when we studied world history.”
Things are different now with forced Chinese language and content.
The Han people represent 90 per cent of the Chinese population. They are the largest of 56 ethnic groups in China, many of those dwindling in numbers with only a few thousand members. Others, such Tibetans and Uyghurs have healthy populations in the millions.
President Xi wants to make China great again. He has overseen a revival of traditional Chinese culture. Xi calls traditional culture the “soul” of the nation and the “foundation” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) culture. Hanfu, the traditional dress of Han Chinese, has seen a revival under him.
The colonization of China by the Han people parallels the colonization of the Americas by Europeans. The difference is that the Han have lived in China for millennia. The similarity is the attempt by the Han to assimilate ethnic groups into a homogenous Chinese culture.
Canada has prided itself as being a cultural mosaic while ignoring Indigenous treaty rights. The discovery of children buried at the Kamloops Residential School has forced us to confront our hypocrisy.
China will eventually learn Canada’s painful lesson and realize that its strength lies in cultural diversity.