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In an interview with Lhadon Tethong, the topic of Tibet’s Colonial Boarding Schools was discussed. Tethong expressed concern that these schools are robbing an entire generation of their future.

In an interview with Lhadon Tethong, the topic of Tibet’s Colonial Boarding Schools was discussed. Tethong expressed concern that these schools are robbing an entire generation of their future.

In December 2021, the Tibet Action Institute (TAI) released a report titled “Separated from Their Families, Hidden From the World,” which uncovered a widespread system of boarding schools for Tibetan children. The goal of these schools is to assimilate the children into Han Chinese culture and society by severing their ties to their families, culture, language, and religion. Tibetan educational material is replaced with political indoctrination. Local Tibetan schools have been closed by the government, forcing young students to travel long distances for education. According to official statistics, 800,000 children, or 78% of Tibetan children aged 6-18, are enrolled in these boarding schools. Dr. Gyal Lo, an educational sociologist, has found evidence of preschool boarding schools for Tibetan children as young as four, which the Chinese government has never acknowledged. Dr. Gyal Lo has visited 50 of these schools and estimates that there are over 100,000 children between the ages of four and six living in these institutions. He believes that the total number of Tibetan children in boarding schools is around one million. TAI director Lhadon Tethong states, “The schools have essentially removed all aspects of Tibetan culture and have indoctrinated the children with Xi Jinping Thought.”

In the follow-up portion of our conversation with Lhadon Tethong, she discusses the reasons why numerous Tibetan youth have been enrolled in these institutions and the effects it has on the children, their loved ones, and the Tibetan society. You can find the initial section of our interview here.

In a previous discussion about the education system in China, you mentioned the use of boarding schools as a means of control. According to a report from the Tibet Action Institute, approximately 800,000 Tibetan children, which accounts for 78% of all Tibetan children, are enrolled in boarding schools. These schools are similar to colonial boarding schools that were historically used to assimilate indigenous children in the United States, Canada, and other countries. Can you further elaborate on how these schools came to have such a large number of students? Additionally, could you explain the process by which families send their children to these schools?

I was surprised to learn that a Tibetan individual who had attended a boarding school in Tibet many years ago and had received education under the Chinese system was researching this topic. Their estimate was that there are approximately 900,000 Tibetan children between the ages of 6 and 18 in boarding schools on the Tibetan Plateau, as Tibetans understand it. This number was astonishing to some of us.

Upon further examination, it has become evident that Beijing has effectively isolated Tibet from the rest of the world since 2008. They have restricted the flow of refugees, tightened control over borders, confiscated passports from those who had them, and prohibited international travel into Tibet. While Chinese tourists are allowed to enter by the millions, individuals from other countries are not permitted to visit unless it is under strict government supervision. Additionally, there has been an increase in intimidation and repression for those who share information about protests with Tibetans living outside of Tibet. This has resulted in harsher punishments for sharing information than participating in the protests themselves. The surveillance of both online and physical activities has also intensified. As a result, Tibetans are unable to leave and the international community faces barriers when attempting to enter. According to surveys conducted by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, journalists have stopped requesting to visit Tibet due to consistent denials. In the rare instances when they are allowed, they are only given controlled trips and are faced with difficulties in reporting. China has effectively locked down Tibet and shut out the rest of the world.

Prior to 2008, an average of 2500 to 3000 Tibetan refugees fled on foot every year, providing valuable insight into the situation in Tibet. However, in recent years, due to increased control and censorship by China, fewer Tibetans have been able to escape and share information. This has made it difficult for the international community to fully understand and address the human rights issues in Tibet. Additionally, Tibetans living in exile may be hesitant to speak out due to fear for the safety of their families still living in Tibet.

Beijing has effectively used the visa and access to Tibet as a weapon, causing Tibetans, including some of my acquaintances, to desire a return to their homeland and reunite with their parents. Many of them left as children, but now wish to go back. However, China imposes a condition that they must refrain from any political activities upon their return. As a result, no one is willing to speak on record about the true situation in Tibet. This creates a more ambiguous situation for the international community. In our line of work, we are able to hear uncensored accounts from individuals who are not afraid to speak up. However, when trying to convey this information and shed light on the education policies in Tibet, China makes sure that there is limited access to information that would provide a clear understanding of the situation on the ground.

Tibet has undergone extensive administrative division and fragmentation, making it difficult to pinpoint specific changes in the use of Tibetan language as the primary medium of instruction in primary schools. The approach has been more fragmented, as different branches of government administer different parts of Tibet. This complexity presents challenges in understanding the situation, as there is no simple set of documents or policies that can accurately depict what has occurred. Although boarding schools have always existed in Tibet, education under Chinese rule has been colonial in nature. However, there used to be a greater emphasis on Tibetan content in the curriculum and access to instruction in Tibetan language, even if it was not the sole medium of instruction. In recent years, this has changed significantly, with the complete removal of Tibetan language and a heavy emphasis on Xi Jinping Thought throughout all levels of education, including monasteries and nunneries.

In an attempt to suppress Tibetan resistance, the harshest and most effective measure was taken – the boarding school policy was intensified. This decision, made in 2015, mandated that all students from minority groups live and be raised in boarding schools, with a focus on strengthening their construction in minority areas. However, in 2012, the State Council declared that this push towards boarding schools was not beneficial for young children and that all schools should be local. This highlights the discrepancy between what is deemed good for China and Chinese people versus what is deemed good for ethnic minorities.

What was the reasoning given to the public for this decision? Was there an explanation as to why only minorities were required to attend boarding schools while others were not?

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 are a member of a minority group in China, there are certain aspects of your ethnic and cultural identity that are allowed to be preserved. This may include being able to wear traditional Tibetan clothing, participate in cultural activities like singing and dancing, and having a limited amount of instruction in the Tibetan language. However, the so-called “bilingual education” that is supposedly offered is a deception. The curriculum and teaching methods are not readily available, and it appears that only one or two 40-minute classes in Tibetan are offered while the rest of the day is filled with 10-hour long days of instruction in Mandarin and English. In fact, some students have observed that English takes precedence over Tibetan, with more hours dedicated to English classes and even a political indoctrination class taught in English. This is likely due to the intention of having students be able to effectively communicate propaganda rhetoric in English.

What is your level of understanding regarding the physical state of the schools and the treatment of the children?

Reworded: In our report, we referenced Chinese academic studies from within China that provided us with snippets of information. For instance, we came across a PhD thesis that focused on education in a specific area of Tibet and its boarding schools. In this study, we discovered that the school’s principal or teachers made racist and horrific comments about why Tibetans should not be allowed to go home frequently. They even stated that “five plus two equals zero,” implying that five days of speaking Chinese at school and two days of speaking Tibetan at home would result in no progress. While propaganda on the internet showcases these schools with modern and well-equipped facilities, it does not reflect the actual well-being of students who may be hundreds of miles away from their homes. The trend towards building large-scale “mega-schools” is a recent development, such as the education city outside of Lhasa which houses tens of thousands of students from various regions in Tibet. This has had a noticeable impact on the students’ lives.

We are deeply disturbed and troubled by the existence of hidden boarding preschools for Tibetan children in rural areas. These children, aged four to six, are being educated solely by Chinese teachers, often young volunteers. They are enticed with better living conditions and food than their families can provide, causing some to even prefer staying at the schools over returning home. This is concerning because these children come from poor families and are essentially being bribed to receive a Chinese education. A video of a birthday party at one of these schools highlights the stark contrast between the lives of these children and the majority of Tibetans living in poverty. The idea that these children will eventually help lift their families out of poverty is unrealistic, as most Tibetan jobs are low-paying and in the service or factory industries. Furthermore, being separated from their families and culture, these children lose their connections to their heritage and Buddhism. They are only allowed to practice Buddhism when they are home with their families, which is rare.

The aspect of this situation that saddens me is the number of Tibetans who have chosen to send their children to school in order to give them a better chance in life by learning Chinese. However, years later, they regret this decision as it has caused a significant rift between them and their children due to the stark contrast between Tibetan Buddhist values and the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, which is nationalistic, aggressive, and focused on materialism. This is truly heartbreaking.

CDT: Because the alternative is not to put your kid in school, which is illegal. 

Reworded: It is not an option in urban areas of Tibet, where online propaganda promotes day schools for young children. Despite the limited number of urban areas in Tibet, these schools are capturing children as young as three and providing Chinese-language education. In the past, Tibetan children could have received a primary school education in their native language until a certain age, but now they are being taken away from their families at a young age and losing their identity. This reality is incredibly bleak and disheartening.

According to Dr. Gyal Lo, these Tibetan children will eventually leave Tibet and face challenges due to their nationality, as China’s political system breeds racism and discrimination. The education they receive may not be of high quality, as it is heavily influenced by the nationalist agenda. This will eventually lead them to realize that they are not Chinese. Despite the current state of Tibet, these children will still carry their Tibetan identity and may become activists or resisters in the future. China’s actions are causing harm to the cultural and social aspects of Tibetan society.

CDT: Have any studies been conducted on the long-term effects of attending these schools on the adult population? This includes potential impacts on mental health and individual trauma, as well as the broader effects on culture and society.

The concept of boarding preschools and its policies are relatively new. In 2016, Dr. Gyal Lo witnessed the opening of preschools in his region of Tibet. As a result, the children attending these preschools are still very young. Recently, it was discovered that these children do not speak Tibetan and struggle to communicate in the language. This poses challenges for their parents and grandparents, as they struggle to connect with them and control their behavior when they return home.

Our report features interviews with many older Tibetans who attended boarding schools. At a certain age, if they were serious about their education and achieving good grades, they were required to attend a boarding school at the county or city level, even if they were originally from a nomadic background. These boarding schools were known for providing the best education. The researchers and individuals we collaborated with shared their difficult experiences in these boarding schools, which were established before Xi Jinping’s leadership and were much larger and more complete. The conditions were terrible, and one of our friends even expressed how it changed his carefree nature and made him feel inferior.

These events took place in Tibet, and there was a prevalent issue of abuse. One woman we are acquainted with shared her experience of being raped and abused, but she never spoke about it before because it was a common occurrence for everyone. This is a very Tibetan mindset – to downplay individual experiences and prioritize the collective. However, our knowledge is limited as we have only interacted with a small group of people. The only thorough research has been conducted on the boarding schools within Tibet. Since the 1980s, Tibetans from Central Tibet (also known as TAR or “Tibet Autonomous Region”) were sent to different provinces in China for education. This was a form of colonialism, with the intention of grooming them to become administrators and officials in the Tibetan government. However, studies show that these students had high dropout rates and faced unemployment, feeling like strangers in their own land. They left Tibet thinking they were Chinese, but were treated differently and discriminated against in China. This experience strengthened their Tibetan identity, but also caused depression and psychological trauma when they returned to Tibet and were unable to find fulfilling jobs. The Tibetan students who were selected for this program were highly intelligent and successful, as it was one of the best opportunities for education in Central Tibet at the time. Now, this program is available to high-achieving students throughout Tibet. Those who have been through the system, including many in our small community, are very politically aware. They understand China better than those living in a more traditional lifestyle in Tibet. It has had the opposite effect – they have become well-educated, fluent in Chinese, and have lost some aspects of their Tibetan culture, but they value it even more and have a clear view of Beijing’s actions. This reminds me of Dr. Gyal Lo’s discussions about the boarding schools in Tibet – they are essentially turning Tibetan children into Chinese nationalists in appearance, but deep down, they are still Tibetan. Their education and realizations may come later in life.

The State Department has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials who are accountable for these educational institutions. What other actions do you believe the United States or other nations should take in response to this behavior?

Reworded: The restrictions on visas are a positive first step, and it would be beneficial for other countries to implement them as well. It has been proven that these restrictions are most effective when multiple countries participate. It should be noted that these are not military sanctions, but rather pertain to individuals involved in the education system who may unknowingly support Chinese colonial rule in Tibet. Their actions are ethically wrong and those responsible for creating such policies should be held accountable. It is important to recognize that it is not only the security state that should be a concern, but also the accountability of all individuals involved in perpetuating such wrongdoings. Other countries, such as Canada, the U.S., and Australia, are now aware of the consequences on children who are forcibly separated from their cultural roots and language. Although the physical facilities may seem better in Tibet, the ultimate outcome remains the same: the destruction of the social fabric of these people and their land. Stronger sanctions, including visa restrictions and bans, should be imposed on anyone associated with the implementation of this common language policy within the Chinese system. It is a clear violation of the fundamental rights of Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians, who should have the right to choose their children’s education and live with them while they receive it. We must acknowledge and condemn this policy for what it truly is.

Tibet has not simply faded from public attention due to a lack of information and restrictions. Our own actions have also contributed to its disappearance. China has employed strategic tactics to punish anyone who mentions Tibet or associates with the Dalai Lama, including world leaders, universities, and top artists. This has resulted in fear and hesitation to speak about Tibet, leading to its silencing.

The international community and individuals with conscience should take note of the genocidal practices within the boarding-school system in Tibet. Not only is the situation unresolved, but it also poses a threat to the Tibetan culture, identity, and way of life. This must be addressed and Chinese leaders must face consequences for their actions. By working together with international institutions and utilizing methods such as sanctions, the Chinese government can be influenced to make necessary changes. These sanctions also serve as a message to those involved in the education system in China, potentially preventing them from seeing their families abroad. It is crucial to hold China accountable for their actions and to support opposition within the country. Though challenging, it is the morally right thing to do.

Tibetans are resolutely taking action in order to bring attention to their situation. The only reason we are aware of what is occurring is because Tibetans have put everything on the line. We kept hearing reports of young children, as young as four or five years old, being sent to boarding schools. This confused us, as we were under the impression that there were no preschool boarding schools, only primary ones. However, after meeting with Dr. Gyal Lo, we discovered that these were indeed preschool boarding schools. We heard stories of Tibetans resisting and expressing their disapproval of this practice, desperately seeking alternatives as they felt trapped. These brave individuals risked everything to spread the word. Our investigation revealed a covert system of preschool boarding schools that the Chinese government is actively concealing. Their unwillingness to allow tours and their efforts to keep it hidden indicate their awareness that it is morally wrong. They know that the international community would condemn the practice of separating children aged four to six from their families to live in boarding schools.

CDT: Have you heard any response, either directly or indirectly from people in China, just regular citizens or people in the official realm?

Reworded: The Chinese government responded to the U.N. Special Rapporteurs’ inquiries and expressed concern about boarding schools, which sparked international attention. During China’s review by the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, they defended themselves by claiming to only be discussing the Tibet Autonomous Region and providing high-quality bilingual education to rural children. However, their response was weak and their argument that Tibet is sparsely populated does not justify the disproportionately high rate of boarding schools in the region compared to the rest of China.

If you can successfully conquer the challenging terrain, construct railways and the world’s highest airport, and control the rivers, among other infrastructure projects that are celebrated by the CCP, then you can also ensure that the majority of children in Tibet have access to top-notch education within their own communities, rather than having to board at a young and vulnerable age. I have acquaintances who grew up in rural areas of British Columbia and had to endure long bus rides to and from school, but they were able to live with their families thanks to the government’s support. So, if we are expected to believe in the capabilities of the Chinese Communist Party to provide for everyone, including the supposedly content minorities in Tibet, then they should follow through on their promises.

The Tibetan people had schools within their communities, including village schools. However, these schools were eventually closed down by the government. Instead of finding a way to support education for Tibetans in their own communities and uphold their basic rights, the government established large boarding schools that housed thousands of children. Regardless of the curriculum being taught, it is evident that the system itself – a boarding school system with a high number of children living away from home, especially young children – is highly problematic.

To gain further knowledge on colonial boarding schools in Tibet, please visit the resource page of Tibet Action Institute and read Dr. Gyal Lo’s op-ed in The New York Times.

This interview is a part of a series by CDT that delves into the present state of Tibet and the attempts to safeguard and uphold Tibetan identity and cultural legacy, amidst policies aimed at Sinicization and securitization of the area. To catch up on earlier interviews in this series, visit CDT. All interviews have been condensed and clarified for brevity.