The clashing colors and symbolism of the gilded hilltop palace of the exiled Dalai Lama and the camouflage-green outpost of the Chinese Army that surround the Lhasa No. 1 middle school in many ways reflect a larger battle over Tibet's future.
While Beijing claims that the school and others like it being built across the Tibetan plateau are helping prepare residents of this long-isolated land to rise through Chinese society, Tibetan exiles say the Communist-run education system is aimed more at erasing cultural identity.
In China's view, the school "provides a level playing field for Chinese and ethnic Tibetan students to compete, and a fast-track to upward mobility," says Xia Zhu, an expert on Tibet at the Chinese Ministry of Education.
Classes at the school, like many throughout the Himalayan region, are predominantly conducted in Chinese "to allow graduates to enter the government, higher education, or business throughout China," Mr. Xia adds.
But Tibetan nationalists say the school's slighting of the Tibetan language and the integration with students from China proper reflect Beijing's strategy of gradual assimilation of the region's once-unique culture.
Like Lhasa's top middle school, much of Tibet is caught in the middle of a disagreement between China and Tibet's government-in-exile.
The two sides disagree on everything from whether education levels have risen or dropped since the Dalai Lama's fall from power, to whether the ultimate goal of schooling here is integrating Tibetans into Chinese society or cleansing the region of its Tibetan Buddhist roots.
Three or four years of schooling
Tom Grunfeld, a Tibet scholar at Empire State College in New York, says that "literacy levels have been dropping in Tibet for the last 15 years.
"The stark reality is that most Tibetan students now receive only three years of formal education," Grunfeld adds.
He cautions, however, that Tibet was no educational paradise prior to the Chinese invasion. "There was no serious education system [in Tibet] before 1950 except in the monasteries," he says. "Tibet was in 1950 essentially a medieval, feudal country."
Xia Zhu says that the government ultimately hopes to bring Tibet into the 20th century by investing in schools and infrastructure, but he concedes that less than 15 percent of Tibetans who begin school ever complete a secondary education.
Members of the Dalai Lama's India-based government-in-exile, along with human rights monitors in the West, also say Beijing is denying a large proportion of the populace a basic education.
"The scarcity of schools in Tibet is a deliberate policy on the Chinese government's part to eradicate the Tibetan identity," says Mary Beth Markey, a spokeswoman at the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.
Education official Xia Zhu, himself an ethnic Tibetan, concedes that "41 percent of Tibetans are functionally illiterate," but he says that the figure has been dropping since the party replaced the Dalai Lama at the peak of Tibet's power pyramid.
The US State Department, in its annual human rights report on China for 1998, said that "The current illiteracy rate for all Tibetans is approximately 40 percent, and in some areas it reaches 80 percent." Tibetan rights groups say those figures compare with a 15 percent illiteracy rate for China.
Yet Beijing routinely blames the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile during a 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, for Tibet's backwardness.
"When the Dalai Lama was still in power, over 90 percent of Tibetans were illiterate serfs," says Li Guoqing, a Chinese researcher who spent 15 years in Tibet.
Before the Communist Party took over Tibet's leadership, "only the Buddhist and land-owning elite had the right to an education," Mr. Li says. "It has only been in the past 40 years, since the Dalai Lama fled to India, that common Tibetans could enter public schools," he adds.
China's State Council, or premier's office, said in a recent report that before the Communist takeover, Tibet's "society was even darker than the European society of the Middle Ages."
The report adds that the Chinese government has not only freed the Tibetan masses from the yoke of serfdom, but also invested millions of dollars to construct schools, send Chinese teachers into Tibet, and send Tibetan children to school in China proper.
Civilizers, or culture destroyers?
Beijing officials say ethnic Han Chinese who have migrated to the region since the "liberation of Tibet" have had a great civilizing influence on a backward culture.
Tibetans, long cut off in time and space by the world's highest mountain ranges, for centuries lived under a theocracy headed by a succession of Dalai Lamas.
In traditional Tibet's social pyramid, with Buddhist priests at its peak and serfs at its base, entering a monastery became the most accessible path to an education and upward mobility.
"Tibet's monasteries were traditionally used to transmit not only Buddhist beliefs, but also Tibetan learning and culture," says Ms. Markey.
Although the Lhasa No. 1 middle school was the first built by China in the Tibetan capital and was initially headed by a People's Liberation Army general, it too was closed down and only reopened in the late 1970s.
Rinchen Khando Choegyal, minister for education in the Tibetan government-in-exile, says more and more Tibetan parents are sending their children on the often-hazardous journey to India to receive a Tibetan education.
Since the Dalai Lama escaped to India four decades ago, the Tibetan exile community has built a network of schools, hospitals, and refugee processing centers. The India-based "alternative Tibet," presided over by the Dalai Lama and a democratically elected parliament, has flourished in the last decades.
Literacy among Tibetans born in exile is now 90 percent, and the average yearly income for Tibetans living in India has reached $1,800, in contrast with $125 for the millions of Tibetans under Communist rule.
Yet Ms. Choegyal says that it is time for a truce between Beijing and the Tibetans in exile over the state of education within Tibet. "The Chinese government often says that its biggest problem in educating Tibetans is a lack of teaching staff," Choegyal says. "The Tibetan government is waiting to reopen talks on Tibet's future and is willing to send Tibetan teachers and textbooks to help solve Tibet's educational crisis."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society