Security was tightened Monday at schools in western China following demonstrations last week by Tibetan students who marched to protest reported plans to impose Chinese as the primary language of instruction.
Police and plainclothes security officials were stationed at several bilingual middle schools and high schools in the town of Tongren in Qinghai province, which is home to numerous ethnic minority groups, including Tibetans and Mongolians. Security personnel prevented reporters from entering schools _ where instruction is in both Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese _ and talking with teachers and students there.
Hundreds and possibly thousands of students marched in peaceful protests last week in several Qinghai communities, according to the London-based group Free Tibet. There were no reports of arrests or violence.
Use of the Tibetan language is closely tied to the region's political struggles. Many Tibetans argue they have traditionally been self-governing and that Chinese policies are effacing their unique Buddhist culture.
But the issue is complicated because while many Tibetans feel threatened by development and the migration of China's ethnic Han majority, some also hope their children master Mandarin in order to obtain better jobs.
For the Chinese government, any sign of unrest among Tibetans is seen as a threat to national sovereignty and a reminder of past uprisings against China's often heavy-handed rule over the area.
Discontent over Beijing's policies exploded into deadly rioting in Tibet's capital Lhasa in 2008, then spread through traditionally Tibetan areas such as Tongren that lie outside the official Tibetan Autonomous Region.
However, the current set of protests is unlikely to become as widespread or as incendiary as the ones two years ago, said Dibyesh Anand, a professor of international relations at London's University of Westminster.
"None of them challenge the authority of the state. They demand better conditions within the system," he said. "At the same time, maybe it might be more effective in getting what the protesters want because the government may realize ... a better solution is to address the grievances rather than suppressing the protests."
On Monday, there were no signs of visible disruption as classes were held and students could be seen playing basketball on outdoor courts.
Two Tibetan-language teachers, contacted outside of the classroom, nervously refused to discuss the protests or language plans.
"Let's not talk about the Tibetan language. We can't talk about it," said one male teacher, who refused to give his name.
A shopkeeper near the area, who also wanted to remain anonymous, said she had seen students marching several days ago. "In this area, things are not stable," she said.
Several students from different schools in Huangnan prefecture, which includes Tongren, confirmed that students protested last week. Asked whether students were unhappy about the possible changes in language instruction, one 13-year-old student who didn't want to give her name, said, "Yes, it's true."
In one middle school, where several police cars were parked out front, security officials said classes had been canceled Monday. One student said teachers were being called for a meeting.
Recent reports on plans to increase use of Mandarin in Qinghai have prompted fears among students that the current bilingual system of instruction will be scrapped, except in language classes.
Last month, Qiang Wei, the province's Communist Party chief, was quoted as praising the use of a "common language" in schools. A report on Qinghai's plans for educational reform over the next decade was even more explicit, saying "the nation's common language must become the language of instruction."
The Qinghai provincial education department director, Wang Yubo, was quoted over the weekend as saying that changes won't be forced in areas where "conditions are not ripe," but the official Xinhua News Agency report did not elaborate on how officials would make that determination.
Associated Press writer Tini Tran contributed to this report from Beijing.