A Tibetan shopkeeper who has publicly supported education in the Tibetan language faces a 15-year sentence for promoting minority language. Human Rights Watch says the Chinese authorities should drop the politically motivated case against Tashi Wangchuk immediately. A trial is expected to take place soon.
Tashi Wangchuk, 31, was detained on January 27th 2016, after appearing in a New York Times video in which he advocated for the rights of Tibetans to learn and study in their mother tongue. Although he told the paper explicitly that he was not calling for Tibetan independence, he was charged in March 2016 with “inciting separatism,” and faces up to 15 years in prison.
In September, prosecutors sent his case for trial by a criminal court in Yushu prefecture, Qinghai, but in December, they unusually asked the court to send the case back to them for further investigation. The re-investigation concluded by January 4th 2017, and the case has now been returned to the court for trial.
“Tashi Wangchuk has joined the ranks of those prosecuted in China by simply calling for rights to be respected and the law to be upheld,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Cultural rights, which include the right to use one’s own language, are protected under both the Chinese Constitution and international human rights law.”
Tashi Wangchuk ran a small shop in Kyegundo, in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province, selling Tibetan products such as caterpillar fungus, which he also marketed online. He began voicing concern publicly about the lack of Tibetan-language education after the authorities in Kyegundo stopped local monasteries and a private school in the area from teaching Tibetan to laypeople, according to the Times. Since 2012, public schools in Tibetan areas of Qinghai and neighboring Gansu Province, although nominally offering bilingual education in Chinese and Tibetan, had stopped using Tibetan as a medium of education and offered it only as a standalone subject, if at all.
China has set up a bilingual education system in minority schools, but in practice, teaching of Mandarin Chinese increasingly predominates or is exclusive. Regulations on the implementation of bilingual education in “ethnic minority areas,” issued by China’s State Council in August 2015, ordered authorities in those areas to “unswervingly implement the national common language and writing education to ensure that minority students master and use the basic national common language,” referring to Mandarin Chinese. But the regulations state only that the right of ethnic minorities to receive education in their own languages be “respected and guaranteed,” and does not explicitly require the government to provide minority language education.
Tashi Wangchuk traveled to Beijing in May 2015 to explore filing a formal complaint against officials in his home area for failing to support Tibetan language education. On that visit, he met with Times journalists and “insisted of doing on-the-record interviews,” according to the paper. In September 2015, the Times’ journalists traveled to Yushu to meet him, and in November 2015, the paper published articles about his efforts in English and Chinese, together with a nine-minute video in both languages.
The video shows Tashi Wangchuk traveling from Yushu to Beijing in September 2015, in an unsuccessful attempt to file a lawsuit against Yushu officials and to get Chinese media to take up the language issue. He is shown discussing his plans with a Times journalist before leaving Yushu, having a photograph of the Dalai Lama in his home, traveling with the journalist to Beijing, being accompanied by the journalist in Beijing during his efforts there, and answering a question as to whether he planned to self-immolate – actions that did not violate any Chinese laws but which would have been especially sensitive given the involvement of foreigners.
Tashi Wangchuk had also posted messages on his Sina Weibo or microblog account that expressed concerns about what he referred to as the “systematic slaughter of our culture.” His last microblog message, posted on January 24th 2016, called on the local people’s congress in Qinghai Province to enhance bilingual education and to hire more bilingual officials.
After being detained in January 2016, Tashi Wangchuk was held in secret in a detention center in Yushu while his case was investigated by the guobao, the section of China’s police force that deals with internal security. Although Chinese law requires that a detainee’s family be informed of a detention within 24 hours, such a requirement can be waived in cases involving “national security” and “terrorism” and when the police believe that such notification could “impede the investigation.”
His family was not provided such notice until March 24th. At that time, police notified his family that they intended to charge him with “inciting separatism.”
The case was referred by police to the Yushu procuratorate, which for unknown reasons requested the police to conduct an additional investigation into the case, which concluded on August 25th. The procuratorate handed the case over to the court for trial in September, but in December asked the court to delay the trial while the second re-investigation was carried out. This concluded in early January 2017, when the case was sent back to the court for trial.
The indictment has not yet been made public, and there is no publicly available evidence of his “inciting separatism.“ The Chinese government has a long record of using article 103(2) of China’s Criminal Law, which details this charge, to prosecute critics from ethnic minority communities.
Tashi Wangchuk had been detained briefly in 2006, for “trying to travel illegally to India,” and again in 2012, for posting online comments that criticized local officials about land seizures in his area.
“Chinese authorities are bound by law to allow Tibetan language education precisely as Tashi Wangchuk advocated,” Richardson said. “By prosecuting him, rather than dropping the charges and releasing him, the authorities are putting their own constitution on trial.”