Tibetan students in western China marched to protest unconfirmed plans to use the Chinese language exclusively in classes, teachers said Wednesday, an unusually bold challenge to authorities that reflects a deep unease over the marginalization of Tibetan culture.
Students went from school to school in the town of Tongren in Qinghai province on Tuesday, chanting slogans against unconfirmed plans to supplant the use of Tibetan, the teachers said.
A fuzzy video of the march posted on the Internet showed students, many of them in school uniforms, walking alongside Tibetan monks. Still photos distributed by the London-based group Free Tibet showed similar scenes, including students and monks protesting outside the town's main Buddhist monastery.
The march ended by midday, and classes at the No. 1 Minorities High School in Tongren resumed in the afternoon, said a teacher there.
The teacher, who refused to give his name out of fear of retaliation by authorities, said about 300 students from the school had participated in the march. Free Tibet and U.S.-funded broadcaster Radio Free Asia said students from six different schools joined the march, estimating the total number of participants at anywhere from 1,000 to 7,000.
A teacher at the Huangnan Prefecture No. 2 Minorities High School, meanwhile, said classes there resumed Wednesday. The teacher, who identified himself only by his surname, Xu, said about 90 students took part.
The teachers said police did not intervene in the march and school administrators did not plan to punish participants.
"The students marched peacefully. Their only demand was for continued use of their mother tongue," said the No. 1 High School teacher.
Language has been an emotional and complicated issue in Tibetan and other ethnic minority areas under Chinese rule. While many Tibetans fear the development of their areas and the migration of majority Han Chinese to them could destroy their traditional culture, many upwardly mobile minorities want their children to go to Chinese-language schools because mastering the language is key to better career prospects.
That's especially true in Tongren, known in Tibetan as Rebkong, a regional economic and administrative center as well as a traditional center of Tibetan Buddhist art and culture.
The town's schools use Mandarin and Tibetan alongside each other, and both teachers said they had seen no official orders to switch entirely to Chinese. However, they said rumors and unconfirmed reports of a planned change in policy had been spreading among students and faculty and no clarification had been offered by education authorities.
Calls to the prefectural government, its education bureau, and the government spokesman's office all rang unanswered on Wednesday.
Traditionally Tibetan areas such as Tongren that lie outside the official Tibetan Autonomous Region were sealed off following widespread anti-government rioting in the spring of 2008. Scores were arrested and a crackdown waged against Buddhist monasteries and other repositories of Tibetan tradition.
They remain among China's most restive regions and a notice posted on the No. 1 High School's website contained an unusually detailed reminder to faculty of their responsibility to maintain stability on campus, including discouraging the spread of rumors and boosting "identification with the motherland."
Many Tibetans argue they have traditionally been self-governing and that Chinese policies are wrecking their traditional culture.
China defends those policies, saying they aim to spur economic growth in the largely poor areas and better integrate them with China proper.