Culture Clash over Teaching Tibet Tibetans Say Chinese-Run Schools Are Part of an Assimilation Campaign

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The clashing colors and symbolism of the gilded hilltop palace of the exiled Dalai Lama and the camouflage-green outpost of the Chinese Army that surround the Lhasa No. 1 middle school in many ways reflect a larger battle over Tibet's future.

While Beijing claims that the school and others like it being built across the Tibetan plateau are helping prepare residents of this long-isolated land to rise through Chinese society, Tibetan exiles say the Communist-run education system is aimed more at erasing cultural identity.

In China's view, the school "provides a level playing field for Chinese and ethnic Tibetan students to compete, and a fast-track to upward mobility," says Xia Zhu, an expert on Tibet at the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Classes at the school, like many throughout the Himalayan region, are predominantly conducted in Chinese "to allow graduates to enter the government, higher education, or business throughout China," Mr. Xia adds.

But Tibetan nationalists say the school's slighting of the Tibetan language and the integration with students from China proper reflect Beijing's strategy of gradual assimilation of the region's once- unique culture.

Like Lhasa's top middle school, much of Tibet is caught in the middle of a disagreement between China and Tibet's government-in- exile.

The two sides disagree on everything from whether education levels have risen or dropped since the Dalai Lama's fall from power, to whether the ultimate goal of schooling here is integrating Tibetans into Chinese society or cleansing the region of its Tibetan Buddhist roots.

Three or four years of schooling

Tom Grunfeld, a Tibet scholar at Empire State College in New York, says that "literacy levels have been dropping in Tibet for the last 15 years.

"The stark reality is that most Tibetan students now receive only three years of formal education," Grunfeld adds.

He cautions, however, that Tibet was no educational paradise prior to the Chinese invasion. "There was no serious education system {in Tibet} before 1950 except in the monasteries," he says. "Tibet was in 1950 essentially a medieval, feudal country."

Xia Zhu says that the government ultimately hopes to bring Tibet into the 20th century by investing in schools and infrastructure, but he concedes that less than 15 percent of Tibetans who begin school ever complete a secondary education.

Members of the Dalai Lama's India-based government-in-exile, along with human rights monitors in the West, also say Beijing is denying a large proportion of the populace a basic education.

"The scarcity of schools in Tibet is a deliberate policy on the Chinese government's part to eradicate the Tibetan identity," says Mary Beth Markey, a spokeswoman at the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.

Education official Xia Zhu, himself an ethnic Tibetan, concedes that "41 percent of Tibetans are functionally illiterate," but he says that the figure has been dropping since the party replaced the Dalai Lama at the peak of Tibet's power pyramid.

The US State Department, in its annual human rights report on China for 1998, said that "The current illiteracy rate for all Tibetans is approximately 40 percent, and in some areas it reaches 80 percent." Tibetan rights groups say those figures compare with a 15 percent illiteracy rate for China. …