The US Department of State announced visa restrictions on Chinese officials linked to the alleged systematic assimilation of over a million Tibetan children in state-operated boarding schools. This decision is part of a broader strategy by the Biden administration to address China’s treatment of its ethnic minorities, with a particular focus on the Tibetan and Xinjiang Uighur regions.
In his statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken conveyed concerns over what he termed “coercive” strategies that seemingly erode Tibet’s distinct linguistic, cultural, and religious traditions, especially among younger Tibetans. He emphasized this, saying:
We call on PRC authorities to halt the compulsory enrollment of Tibetan children into government-controlled boarding schools and to desist from stringent assimilation methods, both within Tibet and in other PRC territories. We stand steadfast in our endeavor to work alongside international allies and partners, drawing attention to these practices and advocating for accountability.
In 2021, a pivotal policy shift in Beijing’s approach to educating minority children became evident with the release of The Outline on the Development of Chinese Children (2021-2030). The original document emphasized the rights of ethnic minority children to be educated in their native languages, with specific mention of “respect and protect the rights of children of ethnic minorities to be educated in their own language”. However, this phrase was omitted in the updated version, and the emphasis has shifted to “promoting the common national language.” This alteration suggests a potential shift towards a more centralized Mandarin Chinese instruction for ethnic minority students in educational settings.
In the context of China, this common national language refers to Mandarin Chinese. Historically, China has a rich tapestry of ethnic diversity, boasting 56 recognized ethnic groups. Among them, the Han Chinese represents the majority, with 55 other ethnic minorities making up a significant portion of the nation’s cultural fabric. While this might seem like a move towards standardization, the implications run deeper. The rights and preservation of their languages and cultures have always been a point of discussion.
Chinese Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin firmly objected to the US sanctions, emphasizing Tibet’s unparalleled human rights environment and cultural preservation. Wang explained the need for Tibet’s boarding schools, considering the region’s vast landscape and dispersed population. He stressed that attending these institutions remains a choice for students and parents, with students free to return home during weekends, holidays, and traditional Tibetan festivals. Highlighting the schools’ cultural inclusivity, Wang mentioned courses on Tibetan traditions and the flexibility for students to wear traditional attire and consume Tibetan meals. He dismissed allegations of “forced assimilation” as baseless.
Amid these tensions, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo is set to visit Beijing and Shanghai from August 27-30 to engage in constructive dialogues with senior PRC officials and U.S. business leaders. This trip comes in the wake of President Biden’s meeting with President Xi in the previous year, as both nations attempt to deepen their communication on an array of topics. Raimondo’s visit signifies a focused effort to discuss challenges U.S. businesses face in China and explore areas for potential cooperation.