By Westerly Gorayeb
A ZHUOKANGNI, China—A new two-lane concrete strip, part of an official rural infrastructure development project, cuts through farm plots in A Zhuokangni, a Tibetan village in the northern part of China’s Yunnan province. Cidan and Suonan, two local children, lead me down the vast expanse of this road towards the village center.
Cidan points to a modest white stupa monument tangled in fluttering prayer flags. Nestled behind the stupa sits a concrete building dulled by a dusting of dirt. “That’s a school,” Cidan says. As we walk past school’s gate, a rusted lock and chain comes into view.
Like all other school-age children in A Zhuokangni, Cidan and Suonan go to school over a day’s journey away in a neighboring town, returning home only for public holidays, like this week’s National Day.
Over the past two decades, the Chinese government has merged rural primary schools into larger town primary schools, and then transferred those town schools to urban centers. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of rural primary schools decreased by half, from 469,000 to 234,000. According to the Ministry of Education, combining rural schools has made quality standards easier to enforce. This, they say, has equalized education among rural and urban areas.
But some scholars believe the Chinese government relocated schools from fringe communities to population centers to prevent ideological and cultural fracture among China’s diverse populace. This process is controversially termed “sinicization.”
Education reform is just one initiative in a long line of policies the Chinese government says are inevitable consequences of modernization. Drafted as seemingly nonthreatening legislation, these policies are not explicitly assimilationist, but do encourage dependence on the state for basic necessities like a livelihood, food and water, and education.
Outside nearly every house in A Zhuokangni sits a pile of unopened solar water heaters, government-issued “gifts” under a rural infrastructure development project. By “accepting” the water heaters, residents in A Zhuokangni are indebted to the local government and are expected to relinquish control of village waterways to a nearby factory. Residents are forced to install plumbing connected to a nearby town, making them entirely dependent on the local government for one of their most basic needs.
Another long-term plan, a 15-year long, 1.6 billion yuan ($258 million) campaign to settle nomads on the Tibetan plateau and in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, is coming to an end this year. The plan, based on the official view that livestock grazing harms grasslands, relocates nomads into urban centers and forces them to abandon their traditional mobile lifestyle.
Many locals in A Zhuokangni see these kinds of policies as underhanded ploys to undermine ethnic identity and integrate the youngest, most vulnerable generation into mainstream Chinese society—and away from the traditional roots of their relatives.
Cidan and Suonan’s uncle, Zhaxi, an unofficial local government liaison and tour guide, agrees that standardized education poses a direct challenge to traditional ways of life. Using Mandarin Chinese as the main language of instruction erodes the traditional Tibetan values encoded in the Tibetan language, for example. For the worse, Zhaxi said, Tibetan children are being taught to see the world through Chinese eyes.
When ethnic minority children see their home communities through Chinese eyes, they may find the skills they learn in school—soft skills like math, writing, and public speaking—are irrelevant to the demands of the lives their parents lived.
Zhaxi says because he left A Zhuokangni for school, he never learnt how to read the weather in the clouds, or how to tell apart the sounds of each cow’s cowbell—skills he needs to help his family farm.
The gap between what is taught at school and what is traditionally learned in the home can have a profound effect on young peoples’ ability to find a place in their home community. Post-high school, many of A Zhuokangni’s youths have moved away to cities where their soft skills are embraced.
But in spite of this, standardized education may in fact benefit disenfranchised minorities. Straddling two worlds, ethnic minority children are taught the cultural conventions they need to navigate the state and, perhaps, the tools they need to protect their communities’ traditional lifestyles.
Though it is unlikely that the Chinese government will agree to strike a balance between ethnic education and nationalized education, or to slow the pace of education reform, it is still possible for minority populations to take action. Zhaxi’s own story offers a model of how standardized education can help minority communities regain control in the face of expanding government.
Zhaxi is lobbying against the factory upstream that has taken control of the town waterways, and he has also applied for funding to rebuild A Zhuokangni’s town hall. Standardized education taught him that waiting for approval—the Tibetan cultural norm—is not going to result in change. His education provided him with a Chinese way of thinking and acting, which has allowed him to become an active citizen and advocate for his community.
If preserving tradition is what these communities—Tibetan or otherwise—want for themselves, they can use what they have learned about Chinese society and culture to navigate Chinese bureaucracy to the benefit of their communities, just like Zhaxi has through lobbies and formal applications.
As the Chinese state encroaches on traditional lifestyles, power for the disenfranchised comes from being able to decide what is worth saving. Perhaps ironically, the Tibetan minority in A Zhuokangni will have to engage with the state in order to distance themselves from it.
Westerly Gorayeb is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo by Westerly Gorayeb]
Note: Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals in this article.