Tibetans resist cultural erasure among assimilation policies and residential schools

Arya Gunde • Apr 5, 2024

(Constantine D/Flickr)


Tibet is the home of Mount Everest, Tibetan Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama. The region has long fascinated the western imagination.

Its unique culture and geography have been the inspiration for countless works of art around the world. But what many fail to realize is that this ancient culture is being lost to the tides of geopolitics.

Since its annexation by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1951, Tibet has been bordering on a constant state of political unrest, accounted for by numerous uprisings and attempted revolutions.

To erase the strong sense of autonomy from the Tibetan people, China is actively engaged in a cultural cleansing campaign under the guise of assimilation and unity.

Earlier this month, the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa hosted a panel assessing these assimilation policies in Tibet.

The CIPS panelists on for the discussion of Tibetan erasure (Arya Gunde/CHUO)


Uzra Zeya is the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights and U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. She was the keynote speaker at the panel.

“The PRC aims to subsume Tibet’s rich spiritual, linguistic and cultural traditions into its political framework, and they have wasted no time,” she says. “Beginning as early as four years old, Tibetan children are separated from their families and coerced into government run boarding schools.”

Zeya explains that at these schools, Tibetan children are purposely restricted from learning their language, celebrating cultural events like Tibetan New Year and practising Tibetan Buddhism.

“More than one million students, or three quarters of school aged Tibetan children, have been forcibly assimilated in these schools all to serve a long term role of co-opting and reshaping Tibets traditions,” she adds.

The panel also heard from Dr. Namgyal Choedup, a representative of the Dalai Lama and the office of Tibet in North America, as well as Dr. Tashi Rabgey, a research professor of international affairs at George Washington University.

Dr. Cheodup points to May of 1951 as the time that the PRC first offered the “one country, two systems model,” which would repeat itself with time with the PRC’s claims made on other territories surrounding mainland China.

“Today our friends and brothers and sisters in Hong Kong and Taiwan understand that,” says Dr. Cheodup. “They remind us, yesterday it was Tibet, today it’s Hong Kong, tomorrow it could be Taiwan.”

However, as Dr. Rabgey explains, Tibet is inherently different.

“The Tibetan Plateau, it’s a quarter of the Peoples’ Republic of China. It’s a large territory,” she begins, highlighting the importance of the geophysical scale of the region.

Dr. Rabgey also points out that when travelling through the region of TIbet, for almost all of the major and rural herding areas the majority of the people are Tibetan.

“Which is to say that when you stand on Tibetan territory, Tibetan’s are not a minority at all, they are a majority people,” she says.

Dr. Rabgey goes on to compare Tibet to modern day Kurdistan, specifically the Turkic region. Here, the government of Turkey has pursued similar assimilation policies while disregarding the Indigenous culture of the land.

(Arya Gunde/CHUO)

This approach has led to militancy and terrorism in the region, isolating it from the rest of Turkey.

Dr. Rabgey expresses concern about these outcomes, saying China has not set itself up for long-term success in Tibet. She brings up China’s falling birth rates and the lack of a succession plan for Xi Jinping as reasons for impending failure.

China will be appointing the next Dalai Lama to gain power over Tibetans, but the Dalai Lama says he’ll appoint his successor under his own authority. While looking ahead, Tibetans are challenged with preserving their culture against the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) mass propaganda campaign.

Sherap Terchin, executive director of the Canada Tibet Committee says the erasure has already begun with young Tibetans losing the ability to communicate in their mother tongue, the Tibetan language.

“There are stories about how Tibetan children, when they come back from the residential schools in Tibet, back to their home they’re not being able to communicate with their grandparents who speak only Tibetan and not Chinese,” he says.

“The children speak only Chinese and not Tibetan. So the parents and the elder brothers and sisters, they play the mediation role with communicating in turn with the grandparents and children,” he adds.

The implications of the residential schools methods of erasure are dire, according to Terchin. “Once you do not realize you have a distinct history with a religion, culture and language that is so different from the Chinese I think you become assimilated and hence, not even need autonomy to practice your own culture,” he says.

Terchin also reveals that Chinese repression might be a significant reason the Tibet identity is still being invigorated in the youth.

He says the Tibetans still inside Tibet have a deep sense of their identity, “which in some ways may be even stronger than those of us who live in exile.”

Terchin adds that Tibetans outside of the region empathize with their brothers and sisters facing the oppression inside it.

“But they experience it in their daily lives in various ways. Once you experience that kind of repression directly or indirectly, I think you get a lot more resistant resilience,” he says. “That is what, to me, was really encouraging, that they haven’t given up,” he says.


Listen to this story as told on CHUO’s weekly show The Mosaic: