China Jails Tibetan Activist For Trying To Preserve Native Language

Tashi Wangchuk was jailed for saying the Tibetan language was being marginalized and the Tibetan culture was being eroded in China.


A Tibetan education activist has been found guilty of “inciting separatism” and jailed for five years after he appeared on international news media.

His reason for doing so?

To promote the Tibetan language in Tibet schools.

Tashi Wangchuk was detained in 2016 for this crime. His sentence will now extend till 2021.

Tashi, who once owned a shop, learned the Tibetan language in primary school and from his brother, who studied with a monk. However, in 2015, he traveled to several provinces of China to find a Tibetan language school for his niece — to no avail.

In an effort to promote his native language in schools, Tashi featured in a New York Times video in January 2016. The video, “A Tibetan’s Journey for Justice,” followed Tashi as he traveled from Qinghai province in Tibet to Beijing to defend Tibetans’ right to attend schools where their native language was taught.

 Tashi tried to file a lawsuit against local officials in his hometown, Yushu, for violating China’s constitution, which maintains all ethnicities in the country “have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages.” He said the officials in his city was marginalizing the Tibetan language and teaching Mandarin instead and the Tibetan culture was being eroded in China.

In the interview, Tashi also maintained he was not advocating for the independence of Tibet, which is an autonomous region in China.

China detained Tashi after the video was published. Liang Xiaojun, Tashi’s attorney, said the activist was found guilty of promoting “separatism,” one of the three forces of evil cited by the Communist Party. The New York Times video was repeatedly cited during his trial as evidence that Tashi deliberately tried to portray Beijing violated the basic civil rights of the country’s ethnic minorities.

Tashi has denied doing so and said he only wanted to strengthen Tibetan culture in Tibet.

Attorney Liang said on Twitter, which is banned in China, that he was unavailable for interviews to foreign media as his law firm was currently under a yearly review by Chinese authorities. However, he claims his client’s innocence.

In 1950, China invaded the predominantly Buddhist territory of Tibet in what it calls a “peaceful liberation” which has brought prosperity to a feudal society. China claims it protects the rights of all its minorities and grants the people the freedom to use and develop their own native written and spoken languages. However, critics say China violates human rights and accuses it of religious, political and ethnic repression — a fact that Beijing denies.

China’s promotion of Mandarin in Tibet means Beijing deliberately wants to abolish the Tibetan culture and that this is just another move of the Communist Party to forcibly assimilate all ethnicities. Schools are also required to teach China’s “uniform national curriculum,” which highlights the history of the Han culture, China’s most dominant ethnicity. Private tutors or monks are banned from providing Tibetan language classes.

Amnesty International called the verdict a “gross” injustice.

“He is being cruelly punished for peacefully drawing attention to the systematic erosion of Tibetan culture. To brand peaceful activism for Tibetan language as 'inciting separatism' is beyond absurd,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, East Asia Research Director at the group.

Tibet and its surrounding areas has seen a spate of protests against Xi Jinping’s oppressive rule in recent years, most prominently before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Beijing also targeted Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, of being a dangerous intransigent who wants to annex a quarter of China’s landmass. In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India, where he lives as a refugee and continues to advocate for religious freedom, women’s rights, autonomy, interfaith dialogue and non-violence.

Banner/Thumbnail credit: SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

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