China’s Colonial Boarding Schools in Tibet with Dr. Gyal Lo

Dr. Gyal Lo, academic expert on China’s mass use of boarding schools to eradicate Tibetan identity and culture, addresses the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for his remarks.

Full Remarks

Dear brothers and sisters,

In 2015, I finished my PhD in Sociology of education at the University of Toronto and I returned to Tibet. Late next year, I got a phone call from my brother. He said, “Gyal Lo, I need you to come home to check on my two granddaughters. Strange things are happening with them and I don’t know how to interpret it.” On a Friday afternoon, I went to pick up my two grandnieces from their boarding school. 

But this was not just any boarding school; it was a boarding preschool. They were only age 4 and 5 years old. And this was an entirely new policy in Tibet. When those two little girls got home, I closely observed them and the way they interacted with their family. They didn’t hug anyone. There was no emotional exchange. They were silent, distant, almost like strangers or guests in their home. And I’m here to tell you, today, that all of this is by design.   

China’s mandatory boarding schools will destroy Tibet’s culture and identity if they are not stopped.  

Like a gardener, ripping out the tree from the ground, the CCP is trying to completely cut off Tibetan children  from their cultural roots in order to eradicate us forever. 

Around 1995, when I was teaching at university, I noticed my undergraduate Tibetan students were speaking Tibetan fluently in class, but when they turned in written assignments, their grammar was strange. I asked why, and they said, “This is the way we learned from our school.” So I got their textbooks and realized that they were poorly translated from Chinese textbooks. I thought, “We must write our own textbook!” I organized a group of people, principals, professors, and students to ask, “How should we teach child literacy in Tibet?” Together, we came up with an outline and then it was my job to write the book. I collected oral history from different villagers, transcribed it, and edited it.  

In 1999-2000, when we distributed the book to schools around Tibet, the kids were so happy. And their parents kept asking to borrow the books. Parents said, “Wow, your school is teaching this? You have to go every day.” Their enthusiasm and pride in our culturally relevant textbook and in our own language majorly increased daily attendance. 

In 2009, when I heard a rumor that China was planning a mandatory preschool program in Tibet for children ages 4 to 6, I thought we must get ahead of this. “Let’s bring everyone back together to discuss what we’d want as a mother-tongue-based curriculum and give our recommendations to the Chinese government.” But I was in Canada when Xi Jinping announced a new preschool policy. It wasn’t until I saw my grandnieces that I realized that their boarding preschool curriculum was worse than everything we could’ve imagined.  

So for three years, I traveled across eastern Tibet, visiting more than 50 boarding preschools, meeting with students, principals, and local people. And what I witnessed was nearly identical to my grandnieces’ experiences. Students are forced to speak in Mandarin. Teachers can only use CCP-approved textbooks.  

Everyday, it’s lessons like this. So when these 4 and 5-year-old children go home, they have almost nothing in common with their parents. Nothing to talk about. Almost like they were raised in a foreign country. 

When I asked my brother, “What would happen if you don’t send the girls to the boarding preschool?” He teared up, and said, “The girls will be blocked from getting an education for the rest of their life.” Even if most Tibetans don’t agree with this policy or Beijing’s curriculum, they have no choice. This is why 1 million Tibetan children are in boarding schools today. And this number means that 3 out of every 4 school-age Tibetan children now live separated from their parents and in the control of the Chinese state. 

As an educator, I can tell you that China’s pedagogy is very advanced. They’re brainwashing an entire generation of Tibetan kids so successfully that they won’t know how to practice their own language, culture, and religion in their homeland. The Communist Party is trying to force our Tibetan children to become Chinese. If this continues, then China will end Tibetans’ 5,000-year-old civilization.  

In September 2020, after so many years of advocating for the right to receive a Tibetan education in Tibet, I began to face serious political consequences. I tried to fight this, but a well-known lawyer recommended that I leave quietly, right away, before I’m in physical danger. I was shocked. It felt so sudden. But I packed up all my things and had one last dinner with my family. I told them, “I can’t stay here anymore. It’s possible we won’t see each other for the rest of my life.” But I couldn’t bear to tell my 80-year-old father the truth so I just said, “I have to go, but I’ll be back soon.”  

Today, I live with my wife and daughter in Canada. And I have watched the Canadian Prime Minister, Parliamentarians, and even Pope Francis apologize for forcing Indigenous kids into Residential Schools. And yet today – in 2023 – China is intentionally recreating this genocidal system in Tibet, and at nearly 10 times the scale. The only thing that will stop Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party is international pressure and sanctions.  

We must force them to end this practice, or Tibet will cease to exist. 

Thank you very much. 

Speakers and Participants

Dr. Gyal Lo

Tibetan activist, educational sociologist, and a leading expert on China’s assimilation and education policies in Tibet

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