Reporting from Beijing — Protests by Tibetan students over plans to elevate Chinese to the main language of instruction in western China schools spread Friday to Beijing, where students at a minority university staged a rare public demonstration.
Earlier in the week, as many as 9,000 people protested in Tibetan communities in Qinghai and Sichuan provinces with banners reading "Equality for minorities; equality for languages."
The protests were set off by plans of education officials in Qinghai to use only Chinese-language teaching materials except for language lessons in Tibetan and English. Qiang Wei, the province's Communist Party chief, has been quoted recently speaking out in favor of students learning a "common language," shorthand for Mandarin Chinese.
"Chinese law says that ethnic minorities have the right to study their mother tongue first in school; that's why the students are angry," Xiong Kunxin, a professor at the Central University for Minorities in Beijing, said Friday.
A source at the university who did not wish to be identified said 200 to 300 students participated in the two-hour protest at midday, after which the president of the university and teachers called them into classrooms and asked them to write out their complaints in Chinese.
Among Tibetans, the language of instruction in schools is a flashpoint for protest. Although many families want their children to learn Chinese so they can attend a university and apply for better jobs, they also worry that Chinese officials are seeking to diminish their language, culture and religion.
The largest of the protests this week was in Tongren, known as Repkong in Tibetan, a city in Qinghai province that has frequently been the scene of ethnic clashes. These were the largest demonstrations by China's Tibetans since 2008, when clashes erupted in the city of Lhasa and spread through most of the Tibetan communities in China.
As many as 6,000 people were reported to have demonstrated Tuesday; there were no reports of violence. Free Tibet, a London-based advocacy group, said that police did not interfere with the protests.
"The Chinese are enforcing reforms which remind me of the Cultural Revolution. This reform is not only a threat to our mother tongue, but is in direct violation of the Chinese Constitution, which is meant to protect our rights," the group quoted a former middle-school teacher from Tongren as saying.
"The Chinese have been talking more and more about promoting the 'common language,' but now they are re-allying implementing these policies with textbooks and also broadcasting," said Tsering Shayka, a Tibetan historian based in Canada, who has been blogging about the protests.
In July, there were protests in Guangdong about plans to switch the language of many television shows from Cantonese, the language widely spoken in southern China, to Mandarin.