International affairs

Europe must unite against China, says Tibetan activist

Prof Gyal Lo, a Tibetan activist, pictured at Neumünster abbey where he held a talk on what he describes as a colonial boarding school system in Tibet. Photo credit: Amis du Tibet

Prof Gyal Lo, a Tibetan activist, pictured at Neumünster abbey where he held a talk on what he describes as a colonial boarding school system in Tibet. Photo credit: Amis du Tibet

Western and European countries must show more internal solidarity to pressure China on its human rights record, a Tibetan activist visiting Luxembourg this week said as EU Council president Charles Michel meets with president Xi Jinping on Thursday.

Prof Gyal Lo has published research on Chinese education policy in Tibet and its impact on culture and identity in the region. He was visiting Luxembourg in cooperation with the Amis du Tibet association on Monday to give a talk about his work.

“Education is a powerful tool,” Gyal Lo said in an interview, adding that Beijing’s policy would gradually “eradicate Tibetan identity and culture.” 

On the one hand, children as young as four years old are separated from their families to attend boarding school, which means they are also separated from local daily life, its customs and traditions. On the other hand, the curriculum at the boarding schools has sidelined Tibetan teaching, the academic stated.

Gyal Lo said he witnessed the effects not only in his research but also in his brother’s grandchildren, who--after just several months at the school--began to speak Mandarin between themselves and lost their family ties. “They came home as guests, as strangers,” he said.

Gyal Lo was a professor at Yunnan Normal University’s Institute for Studies in Education from 2017 to 2020, before fleeing to Canada after his lawyer warned him that he might soon be arrested. He is unlikely to ever see his family again and contact is limited as he does not want to expose them to harm. Even in his new hometown, Toronto, he has been cautioned not to walk the streets alone for fear of being disappeared.

“Baseless, malicious lie”

The professor estimates that by 2060, around 70% of the population will not be able to speak Tibetan if the current schooling continues, likening the policy to “cultural genocide”. The damage will eventually become irreversible, he said. The home that many exiles hope to return to one day will cease to exist. 

“The claim of Tibetan youngsters being forced into boarding schools is a baseless, malicious lie,” the Chinese embassy in Luxembourg said in a statement. “In old Tibet there was not a single proper school. The illiteracy rate exceeded 95%.”

The embassy said that the central government has invested nearly 257.5bn renminbi (around €35bn) in Tibet’s education over the last seven decades. Because of the remoteness of the terrain, it said the government offers the opportunity for children to attend boarding school. “Those who choose to live in boarding schools can usually go back home on weekends and holidays. They can take leave at any time at their own requests.”

The Chinese government “respects the rights of ethnic Tibetan people to live and conduct social activities in accordance with traditional customs and habits. It is committed to promoting the cultural heritage and development of Tibet,” the embassy statement said. It described claims that students have no access to Tibetan language and culture as “pure nonsense”, adding that Tibetan language classes are the “main course” of a bilingual curriculum.

“It’s a complete lie,” Gyal Lo claimed. Other minority groups, such as the Uyghurs in Xinjiang or ethnic Mongolians in Inner Mongolia, are suffering a similar fate as Tibetans, he said. Thousands of ethnic Mongolians in 2020 demonstrated against changes to their school curriculum imposed by Beijing that removed the Mongolian language from core subjects, replacing it with Mandarin.

Anti-lockdown protests an opportunity

“They’ve increased the fire,” the academic said of Beijing under the leadership of president Xi Jinping. Xi recently started an unprecedented third term in office at the head of the Chinese Communist Party. “If we don’t increase pressure on China, the game is going to be over.”

Only a show of power would impress Xi, he said. “Western countries, in particular European countries, must increase their internal solidarity to become much stronger.”

The 27 EU member states on numerous occasions have failed to agree on how to deal with China. During a European Parliament debate on EU-China relations earlier this month, MEPs from different factions respectively warned against becoming a pawn of the US and falling into a Cold War rhetoric, advocated “pragmatism” or called for a stronger stand against China including cutting commercial ties. “It’s a complex relationship,” said the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in his closing remarks.

The Chinese people and minority people are facing the same challenge, the same dictatorship, but in different ways.
Prof Gyal Lo

Prof Gyal LoAcademic and activist

EU Council president Charles Michel is meeting Xi on Thursday for bilateral talks and lunch in what is seen as an effort to strengthen ties between the bloc and the Middle Kingdom, also in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine. But with the violent crackdown on anti-lockdown protests, Michel finds himself in the spotlight to get tough on China. So far, Brussels has not condemned Beijing’s actions but merely said that it is closely following the protests in several Chinese cities.

The US and Canada have expressed their support for the protesters while UK premier Rishi Sunak in his first major foreign policy speech this week said that the “golden era” of UK-China relations is over after a BBC journalist reporting in China was detained. 

The protests for Gyal Lo are an opportunity to put Tibet and the rights of other minority groups on the agenda within the country, to make people understand how much the regime has been eroding their rights for years. “The Chinese people and minority people are facing the same challenge, the same dictatorship, but in different ways. Chinese people need to stand up to turn upside down the party in China.” 

China as a partner for Luxembourg

“China is and remains a partner in many areas, even if there are big divergences, foremost on human rights,” Luxembourg foreign minister Jean Asselborn (LSAP) said in a foreign policy speech in parliament on 8 November.

More than 4,100 Chinese nationals were registered as living in Luxembourg at the start of 2022. Seven of China’s largest bank access Europe through the grand duchy, and the country is the largest global domicile of investment funds investing into mainland China. 

Chinese investment company Legend Holdings owns 90% of the Banque Internationale à Luxembourg, while the Henan Civil Aviation and Development Investment Company owns a 35% stake in freight airline Cargolux. And Chinese investors own a 25.5% share in Luxembourg utilities provider Encevo.

Luxembourg and China in 2018 signed an agreement on space cooperation. The following year, prime minister Xavier Bettel (DP) signed a memorandum of understanding in support of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. The University of Luxembourg is home to a Confucius Institute and a China cultural centre opened its doors earlier this month.

“Luxembourg and the EU will continue defending universal human rights, also in China,” Asselborn said in his speech. The grand duchy currently occupies a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, with the foreign minister saying the country is well aware of its responsibility on this body. “We are seeking critical-constructive dialogue on all subjects,” he said.

Gyal Lo meanwhile warned that China should be judged not on words and promises but on its actions. “Take action to stand on the right side,” he urged Europe, saying that short-term economic benefit cannot be the key prerogative. “Other aspects are much more important.”