TONGREN, China — Billboards for a planned business and entertainment complex in Tongren show sketches of ethnic Tibetans in traditional clothes happily walking among fancy new buildings. Large placards announce that tens of millions of dollars will be poured into gleaming offices, cultural centers and a sports stadium in this dusty city of markets and monasteries on the edge of the Tibetan plateau.
It's exactly the sort of state-funded development effort that Beijing says will bring Tongren and the surrounding province of Qinghai a better quality of life.
There's just one hitch: The signs are written in Mandarin Chinese. For those ethnic Tibetans who can't read Mandarin, it's a meaningless jumble. For others, it's an unsubtle reminder that even though Tibetans are the biggest population locally — some 70 percent of the roughly 87,000 people in Tongren city, official statistics say — it's Han Chinese, the national majority, who call the shots.
Those simmering issues grabbed headlines late last month when hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students in Tongren and surrounding towns marched against government plans to enforce Mandarin as the primary or possibly sole teaching language.
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Although the protests ended without bloodshed, many in Tongren, known in Tibetan as Rebkong, said there could be more problems on the horizon.
"In the Tibetan areas, we should have the freedom to speak Tibetan. On the surface, the government is not trying to take that away, but in reality that's what they're doing," said Sangye Bum, a 33-year-old Tibetan visiting Tongren from the town of Hainan, some 100 miles to the northwest. "There is going to be trouble between the government and Tibetans. The government says one thing, but does another."
Maps show the western province of Qinghai — where Hans outnumber a melange of other ethnicities — as split from what China refers to as its Tibet Autonomous Region. But in enclaves such as Tongren, many ethnic Tibetans consider themselves Tibetan, not Chinese, and feel more loyal to exiled Dalai Lama than to officials in Beijing.
The tensions in Tongren signal that China, for all its world-shaking economic clout, still faces serious problems across its vast western expanses, and Tongren is a mild example.
Sitting next to Qinghai, Tibet and the ethnic Uighur Muslim region of Xinjiang comprise more than a quarter of China's landmass, and Beijing's efforts to pacify them with a version of carrot and stick — billions of dollars in infrastructure projects and a heavy presence of security forces — have often failed.
There were riots in Tibet in 2008, and deadly ethnic clashes between Uighurs and Hans in Xinjiang in 2009. Chinese security forces launched a severe crackdown, in which of hundreds of civilians are said to have disappeared among reports of torture.
Although Tongren hasn't seen those levels of violence, the complaints of many Tibetans there echo those of Tibetans in Tibet and Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang — primarily, that Han now control their lives.
Tibetans in Tongren say Han businessmen have taken over much of the area's commerce and give jobs only to other Hans. Even in schools run for Tibetan students, they say most of the classes are taught in Mandarin. The police, who seem to be everywhere — cruising in trucks, standing on corners, patrolling up and down the street — all look Han Chinese.
No one's forgotten that during local demonstrations in support of those detained in the 2008 riots in Tibet, some Buddhist monks in Tongren were beaten severely by police and soldiers, according to eyewitness accounts published by Human Rights Watch.
On the other side of that troubled equation, many Hans in Tongren are deeply resentful of what they see as a lack of appreciation for government projects and business efforts.
"If you are in China, you must be able to speak Chinese," said Li Shiju, a Han woman who runs a beauty and bath supply shop in Tongren. Li said that she moved to the city about a decade ago from the southern province of Hunan because "the government said it was going to develop the west."
Several Han shopkeepers expressed similar sentiments, with most saying they're worried, many said scared, after seeing hundreds of Tibetan children marching down the street and shouting slogans.
People in Tibetan quarters, though, say it's they who should be nervous about what's happening.
"Tibetans have no freedom . . . that's how low we are," said one ethnic Tibetan man, a farmer and construction worker whose name is being withheld to protect his son, who attends high school in Tongren. "We are Tibetans, it's not right for us to not be able to study the Tibetan language. If this continues, we won't listen to the government anymore."
The man, his face dark and hair coarse from laboring under the open sky, brought his son to Tongren from a small western town to study in hopes of finding a better future.
Instead, his 20-year-old son, who'd started elementary school late because of farm work, said he found only confusion — six of his seven classes are taught in Mandarin, a language he can speak but isn't fluent in.
Last month, the young man joined other students in the protest marches, which were halted in part because school administrators said there would soon be more Tibetan language instruction.
A few days after the protests, the director of education in Qinghai province was quoted in state media as saying that "in places where conditions are not ripe, the authorities won't forcefully push the reforms."
For the farmer's son in Tongren, there's been little difference.
"It's the same this week — six classes in Chinese," he said recently, sitting at a booth in a Tibetan restaurant near his high school for minority students. "Those who don't speak good Chinese don't understand what the teachers are saying, especially in subjects like math and science."
Older ethnic Tibetan residents interviewed in Tongren seemed quicker to acknowledge the need for students to concentrate on Mandarin, as long as they aren't losing Tibetan in the process.
"I think it's reasonable to learn more Chinese," said Wangden Tsering, a 55-year-old who makes a living carving statues for Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. "Once you're past Lanzhou" — a city roughly 110 miles to the northeast — "the Tibetan language is useless."
He added: "They haven't said we aren't allowed to learn Tibetan. That would not be good."
Tenzin Kyi, a 20-year-old Tibetan, was less willing to weigh the pros and cons.
"I don't like the Chinese language," said the Tongren native, who's attending medical college in the provincial seat of Xining. "I don't want to accept Han culture."
At the Qinghai Minzu University in Xining, set up for ethnic minority students, six Tibetan students all recently told a McClatchy reporter that tensions about the question of Tibetan instruction and Han influence in the region are far from over.
None wanted their names printed; they pointed to the large group of plainclothes security officers who weren't allowing students to leave the front gate that afternoon as the reason.
One of them, a 21-year-old from Tongren who plans to be a Tibetan language teacher, said the state university's refusal to allow students to protest in solidarity with his hometown last month was a breaking point: "It has absolutely changed the way I see the government."
"We will definitely take some action if this continues," he said, looking around the university courtyard. "It might be violent, it might be legal — that depends on how the government acts."
It wasn't clear whether his words were just bravado, but his friends said they agreed.
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