TONGREN, China (AP) — Security was tightened Monday at schools in western China following demonstrations last week by students who marched to protest reported plans to impose Chinese as the main language of instruction.
Police and plainclothes security officials were stationed at several minority middle schools and high schools in the town of Tongren in Qinghai province, which is home to numerous ethnic minority groups, including Tibetans and Mongolians. Security personnel prevented reporters from entering schools and talking with teachers and students there.
Use of the Tibetan language is closely tied to the region’s political struggles. Many Tibetans argue they have traditionally been self-governing and that Chinese policies are wrecking their unique Buddhist culture.
But the issue is complicated because while many Tibetans feel threatened by development and the migration of China’s ethnic Han majority, some also hope their children master Mandarin in order to obtain better jobs.
Last week, hundreds and possibly thousands of students marched in peaceful protests that began in Tongren and spread to other communities in Qinghai, according to the London-based group Free Tibet. There were no reports of arrests or violence.
On Monday, there were no signs of visible disruption as classes quietly resumed, with students seen playing basketball on outdoor courts.
Two Tibetan-language teachers, contacted outside of the classroom, nervously refused to discuss the protests or language plans.
“Let’s not talk about the Tibetan language. We can’t talk about it,” said one male teacher, who refused to give his name.
A shopkeeper near the area, who also wanted to remain anonymous, said she had seen students marching several days ago.
“In this area, things are not stable,” she said.
Several students from different schools in Huangnan prefecture, which includes Tongren, confirmed that student-led protests were held last week. Asked whether students were unhappy about the possible changes in language instruction, one 13-year-old student who didn’t want to give her name, said, “Yes, it’s true.”
In one middle school where several police cars were parked out front, security officials said classes had been canceled Monday. One student said teachers were being called for a school-wide meeting Monday.
The demonstrations had been sparked by a new plan to increase use of the Chinese language in the Tibetan regions of Qinghai province.
Qiang Wei, Qinghai province’s Communist Party chief, was quoted last month by the party newspaper as praising the use of a “common language” in schools. A report on Qinghai’s plans for educational reform over the next decade was even more explicit, saying “the nation’s common language must become the language of instruction.”
Students fear that means that the current bilingual system will be scrapped in favor of the use of Chinese alone, except in language classes.
The Qinghai provincial education department director, Wang Yubo, was quoted over the weekend as saying that changes won’t be forced in areas where “conditions are not ripe,” but the official Xinhua News Agency report did not elaborate on how officials would make that determination.
For the Chinese government, any sign of unrest among Tibetans is seen as a threat to national sovereignty and a reminder of past uprisings against China’s often heavy-handed rule over the area.
Discontent over Beijing’s policies exploded into deadly rioting in Tibet’s capital Lhasa in 2008, then spread through traditionally Tibetan areas such as Tongren that lie outside the official Tibetan Autonomous Region.