Learning to Be Chinese | Newsweek, 26 august 2002

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Learning to Be Chinese

‘A’ is for assimilation at China’s strict minority schools

By L.L.Jen
NEWSWEEK INTERNATIONAL

Aug. 26 issue — Tsenyi likes to play badminton. Her favorite subject in school is Chinese. In her free time, she hangs out at the campus Internet cafe and, like many teenagers in China, she adores pop-singer Tsai Yi Ling, whose latest hit can be heard blaring on her dorm-room stereo.

SHE’S NO DIFFERENT than the typical Chinese high schooler—except she’s Tibetan. But the fact that Tsenyi could be mistaken for any other Chinese teenager was exactly what authorities intended when they created China’s version of the finishing school—special institutions of learning dedicated solely to the education and indoctrination of young Tibetans and other minority students.

If you are looking for Tibet’s best and brightest, don’t bother looking in Lhasa. The top scorers of the province’s junior-high and high-school entrance exams—between 1,300 and 1,600 students each year—are now regularly shipped to study in China’s central and eastern cities. The first Tibetan boarding school opened its doors in 1985 and was deemed such a success that about 40 more have followed. Young Uighurs from the far-western province of Xinjiang started attending similar schools in 2000. Critics worry that these minority academies are really only trying to teach one lesson: how to become a good Chinese citizen. Others, including some of the Tibetan pupils, see the schools as a chance to obtain the language and life skills necessary to succeed in a country where Han Chinese dominate business and government.


One of the prices of admission is living in a near citadel of learning. Students endure a tough regimen and the teachers are taskmasters. Rising from bed at 6:30 a.m., they have classes until the late afternoon, followed by hours of homework. Even free time is not so free: on weeknights, administrators require students to watch the 7 o’clock national news, with its heavy dose of government propaganda. And many schools enforce curfews on the weekends, if the students can leave campus at all. The school for Uighurs in Shanghai resembles a high-security fortress, according to one matriculant’s uncle, who tried to see his nephew without success. “It’s impossible to visit the students,” says Ahmet, a Uighur graduate student, who refused to give his surname. School administrators claim to keep their charges under lock and key for their own safety, say students.


What’s most controversial about the schools is not their strictness, or even what they teach, but what they don’t teach. All classes are conducted in Mandarin, except for a 45-minute Tibetan-language class that meets once a week. Students say modern history and religion are taboo subjects, and attention to Tibetan culture boils down to drawing the occasional Buddha in art class or singing Tibetan folk songs in the school choir. “We’ve asked for more classes on Tibetan culture, but nothing’s changed,” says one student. In Tibet, students could elect to attend schools where at least half of their classes would be conducted in their native language.

Even some Chinese administrators admit to doubting whether it’s good to school Tibetans in such segregated settings. School officials in Beijing rationalize the program by suggesting that Tibetan children generally lag behind their Chinese peers at other Beijing schools academically. But several years later more than 90 percent of the boarding-school students go on to higher education. And, after college, these graduates are usually assured good government jobs in Lhasa. But some graduates complain that these institutions are still second-class at best. One alumnus says that the curriculum didn’t prepare him to compete with his classmates at Beijing Normal University, where he dropped out after two years.


If this Chinese school system is more about assimilation than education, it’s not clear that it’s working. As any high schooler’s parents know, isolation and strict discipline are as likely to lead to rebellion as to reform. Some boarding-school students say the draconian academic environment has fostered strong anti-Han sentiments. “I don’t like Han people. We can’t get along,” says one Tibetan boarder. But then she adds, “I have no choice but to speak Chinese and eat Chinese food. I won’t jeopardize my future.”


Many Tibetans clearly agree. According to an administrator at Beijing’s Tibetan high school, 6,000 students from Tibet’s Shannan region applied for 200 spots. When families receive those acceptance letters, they will often celebrate by holding Tibetan banquets in their children’s honor. It’s the last bit of Tibetan culture their children are likely to see for some time.

© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.

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