A Generation in Peril: The Lives of Tibetan Children Under Chinese Rule
II. Education

B. Access to Education

China's constitution guarantees its citizens 'the right as well as the duty to receive education.' In 1986, the PRC adopted the Law on Compulsory Education, which establishes nine years of compulsory education (six years of primary education and three years of secondary education) as a goal for all children in China. But the CCP also decided to implement this law progressively and in a manner that, in effect, exacerbates the existing disparity between Chinese and Tibetan children's educational access. Economically developed areas would receive first priority and only later would 'economically underdeveloped areas' begin to 'take a variety of measures to spread elementary education in varying degrees.' At the same time, major educational reforms enacted after the Cultural Revolution shifted financial responsibility for subsidizing education from the central government to local governments, which meant that '[f]rom 1985, education investment was directly dependent on the local economy.' Thus, the poorest areas of China, including Tibet, became in practice the regions with the least funds at their disposal, (i.e., because community taxation often proves insufficient). While education expenditures in Tibet increased somewhat in the 1990s, the net effect of these policies has been to widen the educational gap between Tibet and China. In fact, China conceded this in its prior report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, in which it stated that almost one-third of the children in the TAR receive no education at all; the figure for China as a whole is only one and a half percent. This results in a comparable disparity in literacy rates. Only about nine percent of Chinese adults are illiterate, compared with about sixty percent of Tibetans in the TAR.

Our research confirmed that access to education for Tibetan children remains poor and in some cases absent. This is, as noted, partially due to demographic factors. Children raised in cities and other developed regions typically enjoy better access - to generally higher quality - educational institutions than those in remote and rural regions of Tibet. But access to education also can be a function of wealth in a different respect. Many Tibetan children reported that they were forced to pay for supplies or services that Chinese students received for free or at a lower charge. They also reported that teachers expected 'gifts' of various kinds. Parents who could afford these gifts secured for their children a higher quality of teaching and better treatment. But Tibetan parents, who tend to be poorer than most Chinese settlers in Tibet, usually could not afford to give 'gifts' on behalf of their children. Moreover, while most Tibetan children we interviewed did not progress beyond primary school in Tibet, our interviews corroborated prior reports indicating that access to secondary and higher education almost always depends on guangxi within the CCP or the school system. Tibetan parents - particularly those who resist assimilation - rarely possess guangxi. Their children thus suffer from poor access to higher education. Finally, the Sinocization of education, both in terms of its medium (language) and its content, reinforces these trends, effectively inhibiting further Tibetan children's access to education.

1. School Fees

In theory, Chinese law forbids primary schools from charging tuition or 'school fees,' though it does permit schools to charge 'miscellaneous fees,' which effectively are the same. (Indeed, most Tibetan children did not appear aware of any distinction between 'miscellaneous fees' and tuition. They referred simply to school fees or tuition.) In practice, Tibetan children virtually always must pay fees to attend primary school. These include charges for admission, registration, desks, chairs, books, uniforms, fines for alleged misbehavior and extra fees to augment their teachers' salaries. The cost of tuition, or so-called 'miscellaneous fees,' poses a serious barrier to Tibetan children's access to education.

Primary school fees reported by Tibetan children varied from 10 yuan per month at the low end to as much as 300 yuan per month (over 3,000 yuan annually), with the majority relating fees of roughly 100 to 200 yuan per month (1,200 to 2,400 yuan annually). These figures are remarkable in view of the average per capita income in rural Tibet (including both the TAR and Tibetan regions incorporated into neighboring Chinese provinces), which, according to China's own official statistics, stood at only between 1,200 and 1,800 yuan in 1999. While children from poor areas did tend to report proportionally lower school fees, these figures suggest that the cost of schooling for Tibetan parents can represent a tremendous portion of their yearly income, particularly for Tibetans who send more than one of their children to primary school.

Only a handful of Tibetan children reported receiving primary education for no fee. Most of these attended either state-run schools that subsidized fees for poor children (a policy that the PRC claims is in effect throughout Tibet) or private schools that receive little or no government money. In some cases, local residents in remote regions of Tibet contribute to a collective fund that supports their children's primary school. In others, a rinpoche, monastery or foreign charity funds the school. But as a rule, fees of some kind - tuition in all but name - seem to be charged of virtually every Tibetan student. One Tibetan girl from a village near Lhasa recalled that the Chinese school staff told her plainly: 'If you don't pay the fees, you can't go to school.' Her fees were 300 yuan per month plus the cost of tables, brooms and other 'supplies.' Another child from Lhasa said that, when poor Tibetan families could not afford the fees, their children could still attend school but had to clean toilets and perform other physical labor as the price of admission.

In many cases, these fees proved prohibitive. One young girl, an orphan from Kham, told us that she knew school was mandatory and wanted very much to attend. But the price, which she believed to be 800 yuan per year plus 80 yuan for a uniform, was well beyond what she could afford. Another girl from Lhoka related that, while she wanted to attend school, and there were many primary schools in her region, tuition cost 2,000 yuan per year plus the cost of books. Neither she nor her three siblings, the children of poor farmers, could afford these fees. A young nomad who lived in western Tibet said she could not attend school until the age of twelve, when her parents were finally able to save enough money to pay the fees. Even then, she alone among her several brothers and sisters was able to attend.

Several students told us that fees varied depending on whether they possessed a themto pass. Themto is a document or list that exists within each local Chinese government office, which authorizes the listed persons to live in that area. With documentation of themto (a themto 'pass'), a person receives certain rights, such as the right to send children to school, to receive subsidized healthcare, to own a home large enough to accommodate the number of themto-authorized persons, to buy rations in government shops and to obtain a job. This system exists throughout Tibet, but officials generally enforce it more strictly in the cities than in rural or nomadic regions. It is difficult to get themto for children born in violation of family planning rules. It appears, however, that in at least some cases parents can bribe officials to acquire themto passes for their 'unauthorized' children. Moreover, the policies regarding themto seem to vary considerably among regions.

One boy from Lhasa, who fled Tibet at the age of eleven, explained that school fees were 500 yuan without a themto pass but only 300 yuan with it. The themto pass itself, however, cost 1,000 yuan, and he said that it was often difficult to obtain without government connections. Another boy, who attended a government school in a village near Lhasa, told us he had difficulty gaining admission without a themto pass. His family had to pay an extra sum, possibly a bribe, to get him admitted to the school without it. This was in addition to the 100 to 200 yuan per month of regular fees.

Fees may also vary depending on whether a child's parents work for the state. TIN's recent study of education in Tibet notes that 'state workers who are in the wealthiest sectors of society, have their children's education paid for by their work-unit. Non-state workers have to pay their own educational costs.' Several of the Tibetan children we interviewed mentioned that school fees varied depending on whether parents were 'government staff or non-government staff.' Their accounts, however, were somewhat confused. It was not possible to draw any firm conclusion about whether children of government staff enjoy subsidized primary education.

Whether or not they paid 'tuition,' almost all Tibetan children reported paying various kinds of 'miscellaneous' fees: charges for textbooks, electricity, brooms, food, penalties for failing exams, maintenance fees for broken desks and chairs and payments used to supplement their teachers' salaries. One child said that, in addition to charges for the themto pass and monthly tuition, Tibetan students paid for uniforms, books and any furniture that broke during school. While Chinese law does, as noted, permit 'miscellaneous fees,' widespread complaints about local abuses of this practice led the TAR government to conduct an investigation in 1993. The resulting report culminated in a central directive to county governments that instructed them to cancel six so-called 'exorbitant fees.' Our research suggests, however, and other recent studies concur, that the practice of charging unduly high 'miscellaneous fees' remains widespread.

2. Demographic Disparities

Access to schools for Tibetan children in remote regions of Tibet, where residents tend to be farmers or nomads, is much poorer than in cities. Most state primary schools that receive significant central government funding are located in urban regions. In 1994, for example, Lhasa municipality had 538 primary schools, while the rural area of Ngari (which comprises about one quarter of the land mass of the TAR) had only 44; enrollment rates for the same regions in the early 1990s were roughly seventy percent and twenty percent respectively. In part, this should be attributed to the lower population density in Ngari and other rural regions of Tibet. But more than eighty percent of Tibetans live in these rural regions. The majority of central government funding, however, goes to support urban regions, which are increasingly populated predominantly by Chinese settlers.

Many of the rural and nomadic children we interviewed either did not attend school at all or traveled considerable distances to reach the nearest primary school. One boy, an eleven-year-old nomad from Amdo, did not attend school because, among other reasons, the nearest one was two days away by yak. Another child from Kham, eleven years old when he left Tibet, told us that neither he nor any of his four siblings attended primary school because the closest one took over an hour to reach by truck. Other children managed to attend school for a few years, but their families then needed them at home to tend herds or assist with farming. Thus, apart from the difficulty of transporting their children to and from school, it appears that many rural and nomadic Tibetan families simply cannot afford to lose the value of their children's labor during the school day. The PRC does not seem to have taken any steps to resolve this problem. Between the ages of five and eight, a nomadic boy from Kham told us, he tended cows and yaks. He could not attend school, he said, because if he failed to look after the animals constantly, neighboring Chinese residents would steal and slaughter them. Many rural and nomadic Tibetan children who did manage to attend school reported serious resource inadequacies.

Despite the manifest need for greater educational funding in rural regions of Tibet, as TIN's recent study points out, the TAR government has chosen to devolve this burden to the impoverished local Tibetan residents. Families in rural areas must pay not only registration fees and supply costs, but also payments to supplement teacher salaries. Many also must contribute construction materials and 'voluntary' labor to building schools. As TIN notes, 'The Fifth TAR Conference on Education outlined a system by which the funding of schools in rural areas would depend directly on voluntary labor and the donation of materials by local people.' The poorest Tibetan families thus often bear the greatest financial burden in providing their children with a basic primary school education.

3. Closure of Private and Monastic Schools

Poor educational access in rural regions motivates many Tibetan parents to send their children to monastic-affiliated or private Tibetan schools (where such schools exist). These often represent the only feasible alternative to distant and poorly-funded government institutions. But our research suggests that China may be engaged in a systematic effort to shut down or assume control over these schools. Several children who had studied at private or monastic-affiliated primary schools told us that Tibetan remained the primary medium of instruction and, to varying degrees, they learned about Tibetan history, culture or religion. But the children reported that many of these schools were subsequently closed or altered to suit Chinese authorities.

Pema's Story:

Pema attended a boarding school in the region of Lhoka. It had been set up by a Tibetan rinpoche, who funded it through loans. While it functioned, the school appears to have been very successful. In 1992, it provided instruction to more than 400 boarding students and 300 day students. The rinpoche did not charge them tuition. Nor did he condition entrance to the school on an exam. The school was open to all. Tibetan children thus received free education as well as - for the day students - transportation to and from the school. They learned standard subjects (Chinese, Tibetan and mathematics) and also received vocational training in electrician's skills, Tibetan medicine and secretarial work. But in 1994, Chinese authorities arrested the rinpoche for alleged political activities. They plastered posters on the school, warning students that if they continued to attend the rinpoche's school they would not get a job. Pema recalled:

We . . . waited for a bus at Lhoka. But no bus came. Then we heard the school was closed. When we went to check with the education department, they had no information. Then we heard from the police that we should gather our things from the school - that we would be misled as children by this rinpoche, that he's involved with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and is not a real rinpoche.

After Chinese authorities closed the school, its students were left with no alternative for their education. Two months later, police arrested Pema, together with most of her classmates, and interrogated her under torture in an effort to determine what the rinpoche had been teaching at the school. After her release, Chinese officials issued her a paper that barred her from attending any school at all for a period of three years.

A physician from Amdo who fled Tibet in 1998 ('Dr. Norbu') described how, for a brief period, he ran a similar school. Concerned at the high number of Tibetan children in his rural village with no access to primary education, he established a small school to teach grades one through three. Like the rinpoche, he used Tibetan as the medium of instruction and did not charge fees. But when Chinese authorities learned of the school, he said, they perceived it as an institution for imparting political ideology to the students. To receive official sanction, they told him, he must teach China's political system and way of life and exclude 'Tibetan culture and tradition.'

The most detailed account of this trend that we heard concerns the Chinese government's assumption of control over a school affiliated with the prominent Kirti monastery. Kirti lies in Ngaba Autonomous Prefecture in Amdo. More than 3,000 monks formerly studied there. Kirti monastery also operated a school, separate from the monastery, that served as a primary school for roughly 500 of its young monks. For some time, this school received support from both Kirti monastery and the Chinese government. It taught, among other subjects, Tibetan, mathematics, and poetry, and apart from math class, its teachers used Tibetan as the medium of instruction. But in August 1998, Chinese authorities shut down the Kirti primary school and took over its administration. Two young monks, aged nineteen and twenty-two, who had been teachers at Kirti's school since 1996, described this process.

In 1997, Chinese authorities accused the Kirti school of 'dealings' with foreigners. One official apparently defended the school, delaying its closure for some time. But in August 1998, Chinese authorities took over the school and implemented new mandatory policies. All lessons except Tibetan language had to be taught in Chinese. All students had to purchase (for 50 yuan) and wear special Chinese suits instead of their traditional monastic robes. The school could not have any contact with or receive any funds from outside (i.e., non-state) sources. A Chinese appointee replaced the Kirti rinpoche as the school's headmaster, and the Chinese officials told the Tibetan teachers that they must participate in a 'reeducation' program focused on Chinese history and culture. By the year 2000, the authorities said, there would be no more jobs for Tibetan language teachers.

In response, most Tibetan teachers fled. Many Tibetan parents, who had been pleased with the school under the administration of the Kirti rinpoche, withdrew their children. They did not want them to attend a Chinese school. Many of the older monks fled to India. According to the two teachers who described these events, the transformation of Kirti's primary school is only one example of a new rule that the Chinese authorities are now enforcing throughout Amdo. It forbids 'individually-sponsored' schools of any kind. This includes those sponsored by foreign charities and Tibetan rinpoches - two major sources of private-school funding in Tibet.

It is not clear whether Chinese authorities in the TAR or in the Chinese provinces that comprise Kham have instituted a similar rule. One Tibetan boy who arrived in exile in 1998 told us that he attended a private Tibetan primary school near Lhasa funded by a foreign charity and donations from local residents. It taught Tibetan calligraphy, Tibetan language and mathematics, and the teacher would at times teach the children about Tibetan Buddhism. But again, Chinese officials later coopted its management, discouraged the study of Tibetan and eliminated morning prayers. By contrast, one monk whom we interviewed, formerly of Ganden Monastery, told us that he had worked at a private school in Kham run by a Tibetan rinpoche. It taught Tibetan, English, math, history (including some Tibetan history and culture), Chinese, art (including traditional Tibetan thangka painting), printing, tailoring and Tibetan medicine. The school received funds from a foreign organization and, like the other private schools, did not charge fees. The monk also said that it had excellent facilities. He worked at this school for several years before returning to Lhasa and ultimately escaping into exile in November 1998. He does not know whether this private school continues to operate or whether, like the others, it has since been shut down or coopted by Chinese authorities.

4. The Role of Bribes, Bias and Connections

Finally, educational access for Tibetan children appears to be restricted at times by their parents' lack of guangxi, or connections, with school officials or within the CCP hierarchy. This seems particularly true of secondary education, though we found that access to state-run primary schools also can require connections. Within schools, too, some teachers apparently demand 'gifts' in exchange for favorable treatment or better teaching. Tibetan parents rarely can afford these gifts. Their children, as a result, may suffer from wealth-based discrimination in school.

For some children, admission to state-funded primary schools requires connections. One student, as noted earlier, told us that Tibetan students in his region need government connections to obtain the themto pass required to attend primary school. Another boy from Kham could not attend a mixed state-run primary school because, he said, only students with influence in the Chinese government or relatives among the school staff would be admitted. Most of these students were Chinese, though Tibetan children whose parents worked for the Chinese government could also gain admission. This was the case, for instance, with another child we interviewed, whose entry into a state-run school in Lhasa was enabled by assistance from a relative of his father, who worked in the school's office.

Once admitted, bribes and connections can continue to play a significant role. At times, they affect Tibetan children's treatment by their teachers. Nyima, whose story is recounted above, described the substandard teaching given to Tibetan students who could not afford bribes demanded by the teacher. A boy from Lhasa similarly told us that his teachers beat Tibetan students if their parents could not afford to give the teacher gifts. Chinese children in the same school, whose parents typically could afford gifts, received lenient treatment. Another Tibetan girl, who had initially been informed that she passed her board exams, was later threatened with failure unless her father agreed to give the Chinese teacher two blankets as a bribe. Bribes do not always consist of material goods. At one girl's mixed primary school in Kham, the teachers forced Tibetan students to arrive early and stay late in order to clean the school and cook for the teachers. If they did not cooperate, she said, teachers did not punish them physically but refused to teach them. Another Tibetan girl from Lhasa said she was forced to wash dishes and perform other uncompensated work for her Chinese teachers.

Most of the Tibetan children we interviewed were very young and had left Tibet prior to the stage at which they would normally seek admission to secondary school. Indeed, many left precisely because they were unable to obtain a secondary education in Tibet. But accounts of the secondary education admissions process that we heard suggest that bias and connections play an even greater role as students move up the educational ladder. One Tibetan girl, who attended a mixed school in Kham, reported that she had been listed as first in her class. Her teacher told her that she was slated as one of only two students who would be sent to China to pursue a higher education. When the next school year began, however, she waited in vain for news of where she would be sent to study. Finally, she asked a school official and learned that she had been displaced. Her Chinese teacher's own child had been sent in her stead, even though the teacher's child's grades were not comparable. Greatly disappointed, this Tibetan girl tried to lodge a complaint, but it was ignored. The same pattern recurred in several other cases. After a Chinese teacher told her that she had passed her exams, another Tibetan girl, the child of a family of poor farmers from the region of Ngawa, discovered that the official list neglected to include her name. She believes authorities tampered with her grade because her mother is a former political prisoner. Still another Tibetan girl from Lhasa told us that a Chinese girl took her spot in secondary school because the latter's parents had connections within the Chinese government. Time and again, it appears that Tibetan students who excel in primary school may be excluded from higher education because they lack - or someone else has - the right connections.

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