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Tibet's postal protest

About the author
Ugen is a Tibetan student from the Amdo region, now in exile and studying at a university in the United States.

In the past, whenever I came to the west, Tibetans in exile and their supporters would ask me what they could do for Tibet. I told them that they should circulate news of our country’s plight on the international stage and to set up non-political, small-scale NGO projects. However, there is a more immediate act Tibetans in exile can perform for Tibetans at home: send letters and postcards to friends and family with the address written in the Tibetan language. By doing so, they can test China’s claims that they are protecting the Tibetan language in addition, perhaps, create jobs for Tibetan college graduates.

China’s government always claims that it is actively promoting the use of the Tibetan language in Tibetan areas under its control. Its official documents and publications are full of stories professing that Tibetan is the primary language in Tibet. In reality, the Chinese government ‘s policies are helping to ensure that Tibetan is becoming a dying language in its own homeland. In particular, the laws and regulations on the usage of the Tibetan language in Tibetan areas it passed in the 1980s are actively discouraged.

Recent protests in front of government offices in Qinghai by Tibetan students from Yazi (Xunhua) county, Haidong prefecture, highlighted the problem. The students were protesting against the imposition of a Chinese-only rule on those taking exams to qualify for government jobs. As a result, most of the jobs go to either Chinese graduates or those from the Salar minority (who studied only Chinese at high school). The details of the exam requirement are still sketchy, but the message is clear: if you study Tibetan at college, your chance of getting a job is nil. After all, how can Tibetan students compete with Chinese students in Chinese?

This story reminds me of my own experiences. In summer 1995, as a curious student in Tibet, I went to a local post office to send some registered mail to friends in Lhasa. I was wondering whether my letters would be delivered if I wrote the address in Tibetan. Usually, the Chinese lady clerk, whom I had known for a long time, would give me forms to fill out and tell me the charges. On this occasion she took my letters and, as she was about to put stamps on them, she saw that the addresses on the letters were written in Tibetan. She said with a smile: "You have to write the address in Chinese, otherwise your letter won’t be delivered."

Also in openDemocracy about Tibet:

Jamyang Norbu, “Tibetan tales: old myths, new realities” (June 2005)

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In my accented Chinese I replied: "Under the Chinese constitution, all languages in China are equal. Why can I not use Tibetan in Tibetan areas?" She told me that I was wasting my money. For a while we argued the legality of this in a friendly way. Then I convinced her at least to try to send the letters addressed as they were. I filled in all the necessary forms and paid my fees, and went home.

Several weeks later, I went back to the post office to inquire about my letters. They had not been delivered, but had remained in the post office, marked in red ink with the words "WRITE ADDRESS IN CHINESE” (written in Chinese) stamped on the envelope. Since then, several of my friends have tried to send letters with Tibetan writing on the envelope; all of them ended up with the same fate.

Such political discrimination towards the Tibetan language, alongside other forms of political repression, have led Tibetans inside Tibet to regulate themselves within China’s political parameters. The political repercussions their families inside Tibet might face also make Tibetans in exile afraid to challenge the political culture there. Tibetans often ask me to write addresses for them in Chinese. This not only promotes the usage of Chinese in Tibet even more widely, but also gives a green light to the Chinese authorities to look down on the Tibetan language. We should change this situation.

One of the things exiles could do is to send a massive number of letters, postcards and packages to their relatives in Tibet with the addresses in Tibetan. There are two possible outcomes: either the Chinese government has to hire a number of Tibetan postal workers to deliver the mail, or it would have to ban mail which has the address written in Tibetan.

As China opens up to the world, an increasing number of international couriers are engaging in business in all provinces in China, including Tibetan regions. These companies are committed to guaranteed deliveries, so they cannot refuse to deliver them. At this moment, sending letters with the address written in Tibetan may be one of the most effective ways to promote the Tibetan language in the Tibetan regions, and to expose China’s discriminatory language policies in Tibet.


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