China intensifies its official push to eliminate the Uyghur language from instruction

For immediate release
November 15, 2010, 5:40 pm EST
Contact: Uyghur American Association +1 (202) 478-1920

Students assemble at a bilingual middle school for Uyghur and Han students in Hotan, Xinjiang, Oct. 13, 2006.

As Chinese officials in East Turkestan intensify a campaign to rid the region’s schools of Uyghur language instruction under the rubric of a “bilingual education” (Chinese: 双语教育) policy, Uyghur students, parents and teachers have expressed anger over the implementation of the policy. A move by educational officials in Toksun County, located in Turpan Prefecture near the city of Turpan in the eastern part of the region, is emblematic of the policy’s effects on Uyghur teachers subject to layoffs after years of teaching. The firing of Uyghur teachers has highlighted grievances among the Uyghur population with respect to “bilingual education”, which many feel constitutes an attack on Uyghurs’ core identity, and is also tied to concerns that a recent push for development in the region will primarily benefit ethnic Han Chinese and not Uyghurs and other Turkic “minority” groups.

Employing the term “bilingual” education, the Chinese government is, in reality, implementing a monolingual Chinese language education system that undermines the linguistic basis of Uyghur culture. The use of the term “bilingual” presents a façade of cultural diversity to the international community and obscures a campaign to eliminate Uyghurs’ cultural distinctiveness. While the term “bilingual” is used, Chinese officials are aggressively promoting only the use of Chinese in education and other spheres, in the absence of any official programs to promote and protect the Uyghur language.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) recently interviewed Uyghur teachers in Toksun County who will be affected by local officials’ plans, announced on October 24, 2010, to fire 518 out of nearly 2,000 teachers in the county. According to RFA, a day before the announcement, Sharapet Tursun, chief of Toksun County’s educational bureau, told principals of local Uyghur schools at a meeting that the 518 layoffs were required in order to abide by the spirit of a red-letter document[1] on bilingual education issued in October by the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government. Tursun requested that each school conduct Chinese language proficiency exams prior to November 8 in order to determine which 518 teachers to lay off, and to showcase the legitimacy of the directives outlined in the official document.

Local Uyghur teachers told RFA of their extreme dissatisfaction and opposition to the layoffs. They said they wanted to protest because of their disagreement over the firings, but they were afraid of the consequences. RFA contacted Toksun County’s education bureau to confirm the news of the upcoming layoffs, but local education officials refused to comment.

Tibetan language protests

During peaceful protests in October in Tibetan areas over plans to replace Tibetan with Mandarin Chinese as the language of instruction in the classroom, Uyghur students and teachers expressed support for the thousands of Tibetan protestors, but said they had been told by school authorities not to join Tibetans as they demonstrated for language rights.

Professor and economist Ilham Tohti, who cautioned Uyghur students in Beijing not to join in the Tibetan protests for fear of running into trouble with the authorities, has been visited by security personnel, who have warned him to keep silent on the issue of “bilingual education” for Uyghurs. A November 8 report from “Uyghur Online” states that, when invited to “have tea” with security personnel recently, they interrogated him over his support for Tibetan students and his interviews with foreign media. They indicated that they would visit Tohti again, and stressed that his problems would “become bigger” if he did not stop talking about language rights.

As Tibetan blogger Woeser points out, Chinese officials have decided that even the Chinese dialect Cantonese is too distinct from what they view as “Han culture” to be allowed to flourish. She wrote about protests that broke out in Guangzhou, the provincial capital of Guangdong Province, in July 2010, following moves by local political advisory officials to ensure that Mandarin is used on Guangzhou television shows, as part of a “vital national policy”. Woeser notes that Cantonese protestors are allowed to demonstrate openly on behalf of their language rights, unlike Tibetans and Uyghurs. While Tibetans demonstrated en masse over language rights in October, there are reports that 20 demonstrators have now been arrested, and all students in the area of the initial protest have been ordered to attend daily political re-education classes. No such reports emerged regarding comparable consequences for Cantonese protestors.

Woeser cites a Beijing cadre’s comment in 2002 that “those minorities that do have a written language should just let it die out, our entire system uses one unified language, which is Mandarin, the Han language.”

One Uyghur netizen’s comment, adds Woeser, reads: “in China, when Uyghur people from Xinjiang support their language or when Tibetans support their language, their actions are most likely to be labeled as “splittist activities.””

In the eyes of Chinese officials, the Uyghur and Tibetan languages constitute a greater threat to Han society than Cantonese. They believe Uyghur separatism will remain as long as Uyghurs are allowed to retain a separate Uyghur identity, culture and language. If Uyghurs’ language and religious beliefs are allowed to thrive, Chinese officials fear that Uyghur nationalism and “splittism” will threaten Chinese rule in East Turkestan and the “unity of the motherland”.

An intensification of “bilingual education” in East Turkestan

On November 12, official media announced that the Chinese education ministry had set up a special group to promote education in East Turkestan, focusing on bilingual education, secondary vocational education and higher education. At a “Xinjiang Work Forum” that took place in May 2010 aimed at planning massive development projects region-wide, government cadres pledged to ensure that all students in the region would be able to speak Mandarin by the year 2020. In October, the regional government published a document outlining a ten-year plan toward reaching this goal. According to the South China Morning Post, the regional government will hold a conference this month on “bilingual education”.

The government mandate to remove the Uyghur language at all levels of instruction in East Turkestan’s schools, which was carried out and intensified under the leadership of former Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan, is extremely unpopular among the Uyghur population. Regional officials, including XUAR chairman Nur Bekri, have tied the policy to political stability, and have gone so far as to state that Uyghurs who do not speak Chinese are vulnerable to terrorists. While the Chinese government asserts that “bilingual education” will provide ethnic Uyghurs with the Mandarin language skills necessary to succeed in China’s competitive job market, many Uyghur graduates who are fluent in Mandarin Chinese report facing employment challenges due to rampant ethnic discrimination among employers.

In 1997, “Xinjiang classes” were established, in which Uyghur and other “ethnic minority” students are sent to high schools in large cities in eastern China, where they receive Chinese-language instruction as well as immersion in Chinese culture. In 2005, Wang Lequan described the program in terms of its political importance, stating that “political thought training”, and not academic preparation, was its chief goal. According to official media reports, 22,000 students were reportedly enrolled in Chinese-language high schools in eastern China in fall 2010, marking an increase of 2,000 over the previous year.

Background- “Bilingual education” in Toksun County

According to 2000 statistics, there were 50 Uyghur schools in Toksun County, including elementary, middle/high schools and vocational schools. However, due to the implementation of the “bilingual education” policy and the forcible merging of Uyghur schools with Chinese schools in recent years, the number of Uyghur schools has been reduced to just 24. The school mergers had already resulted in a high number of Uyghur teachers being laid off, but the planned layoff of 518 Uyghur teachers will mark the biggest layoff of Uyghur teachers thus far.

In line with school districts throughout East Turkestan, Turpan Prefecture[2] officials announced in June that 42 “bilingual education” preschools would be constructed in the prefecture by the end of 2010, and that the central government would invest more than 52 million yuan (approx. US$7.5 million) to construct a total of 58 preschools by the year 2012, as part of the national plan to invest in East Turkstan’s development.

Uyghurs left out of development benefits

The firing of Uyghur teachers, and their replacement with ethnic Chinese teachers, throughout East Turkestan is likely to feed resentment among the Uyghur population as the benefits of large-scale development plans drafted at May’s Xinjiang Work Forum manifest themselves unequally among Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Employment rates are skewed heavily in favor of Han Chinese, and Chinese domination of the regional commercial and government sectors, coupled with institutionalized discrimination, are likely to prevent much of the profits from official development from trickling down to the Uyghur population.

Many Uyghurs feel that the eradication of the Uyghur language in the educational sphere constitutes an attempt to assimilate them into Chinese society, amid fears that a distinct Uyghur identity will lead to separatism. The intensification of the “bilingual education” policy has coincided with official efforts to weed out “terrorism, separatism and extremism” and official proclamations regarding “splittism” and the need to maintain territorial integrity.

Other policies have also raised fears of cultural annihilation among the Uyghur people. In early 2009, officials began the demolition of traditional Uyghur buildings in the Old City of Kashgar, an initiative that has already eradicated much of an ancient, irreplaceable center of Uyghur culture and religion. Many Uyghurs consider protection of Kashgar Old City as vital to maintaining a separate Uyghur identity. Chinese government authorities have stated that the demolition was initiated by the need to protect Old City residents from homes prone to earthquake damage and poor drainage. However, the demolition is consistent with ongoing official moves to restrict and manage Uyghur cultural traditions.

See also:

[1] Red-letter documents refer to official Chinese documents of high importance.
[2] Turpan Prefecture encompasses Turpan County.