The Chinese government is gradually dropping the name “Tibet” in official English-language references in favor of the region’s Mandarin Chinese name—”Xizang”—with experts saying the move is in line with Beijing policies aimed at erasing Tibetan culture.
The propaganda department of China’s State Council, its central government, last week released a white paper on “Governance of Xizang in the New Era.” Though the term “Tibetan” is used to refer to the region’s people and geographical features like the Tibetan Plateau, Xizang is used exclusively when referring to the southwestern region’s official name.
The document comes on the heels of a Chinese forum in October in the Tibetan city of Nyingchi, where Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi rebuffed Western human rights concerns and invited international visitors to another government-organized showcase of ethnic culture in the heavily policed region. “Xizang” was reportedly displayed in lieu of “Tibet” for the English translation of his opening speech.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry had not responded to Newsweek’s request for comment before publication.
“The Chinese government was desperate enough to propagate Xizang to create a Tibet of Chinese characteristics which is unknown to the world,” Tenzin Lekshay, a spokesperson for the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government-in-exile, said of Beijing’s report.
“This time, the Chinese government is rigorous in changing the name in all the official records and communications, which is strictly designed to fulfill their political ambition of legitimizing their claim over Tibet by dividing and annihilating Tibet,” he told Newsweek.
Lekshay said the Sino-Tibet conflict was long-running and that changing the name would complicate rather than improve the situation.
Beijing says its policies have improved the lives of those living in the sparsely populated region.
The recent white paper lauded the Chinese Communist Party’s policies and said state-directed development had achieved “victory in the battle against extreme poverty that had plagued Xizang for thousands of years.”
On the cultural front, the paper said it had helped people of all ethnic backgrounds in the region to “develop a sound understanding of our nation and our country, and of history, culture and religion.”
Many in the Tibetan diaspora, however, say Beijing is bent on sinicizing the former Buddhist monarchy, which was annexed by China in 1951.
In February, members of an independent fact-finding mission mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Office found the vast majority of children in Tibet, or about 1 million, were placed in boarding schools, as opposed to the Chinese national average of 20 percent.
The curriculum was almost exclusively taught in Mandarin, with a learning environment based on the culture and experiences of China’s Han ethnic majority.
“As a result, Tibetan children are losing their facility with their native language and the ability to communicate easily with their parents and grandparents in the Tibetan language, which contributes to their assimilation and erosion of their identity” the fact-finders said.
“China’s leaders are acutely aware their occupation of Tibet, including a coercive system of residential boarding schools now housing one million Tibetan children, is viewed as a serious problem by the international community and so they are literally trying to erase Tibet from global consciousness by replacing the name Tibet with the Chinese word ‘Xizang,'” Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute, a rights advocacy group, told Newsweek.
“Language matters, and it’s critical the international community does not comply with China’s effort to hide its crimes in Tibet through this cynical and manipulative ploy,” she said.
“Beijing’s strategy in Tibet is that of a gradual cultural genocide,” German scholar Adrian Zenz, who has written extensively about forced labor and forced assimilation in China’s western Xinjiang region, told Newsweek.
The strategy spans both linguistic assimilation and “targeted separation of children from parents through the expanding boarding school system,” Zenz said.
In August, the U.S. State Department announced visa restrictions on officials allegedly involved in forcibly assimilating Tibetan children in government boarding schools.
“We urge [People’s Republic of China] authorities to end the coercion of Tibetan children into government-run boarding schools and to cease repressive assimilation policies, both in Tibet and throughout other parts of the PRC. We will continue to work with our allies and partners to highlight these actions and promote accountability,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said of the sanctions.
Blinken also raised the issue of human rights in Tibet, as well as in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, when he met with Foreign Minister Wang during the latter’s visit to Washington in late October to pave the way for this week’s meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Joe Biden.
“Renaming a country is so obviously a move from the colonial playbook that I think most international governments and institutions would recognize it as such and be unlikely to easily go along with China,” Tethong said of Beijing’s new naming convention.
However, she said Chinese authorities clearly saw it as a priority and would thus exert pressure to reinforce it where they can.
China has been accused of threatening and harassing dissidents or the families of dissidents who have fled Tibet—or Xinjiang, Hong Kong and elsewhere—and speak out against Chinese government activities back home.
“The PRC utilizes a wide variety of tactics, including online harassment, exit bans on or imprisonment of family members of targeted individuals, the misuse of international law enforcement systems such as Interpol, and pressure on other governments to forcibly return targeted individuals to the PRC,” Uzra Zeya, the under secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights—and America’s special coordinator for Tibetan issues—said in September at a congressional hearing on transnational repression.