A Visit to Tongxin Middle School

Uyghur third-graders in Urumchi study in Chinese. @China News Service 2009

Amy Reger, Researcher, Uyghur Human Rights Project

In a recent article published by Phoenix New Media, reporter Qi Rui describes a visitto TongxinMiddleSchool, a schoolcomprised of Uyghur, Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Hui students located in an impoverished area of East Turkestan’s Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture.[1] Qi’s visitis part of an exploration into the importance of promoting “bilingual education” and reducing poverty in the western-most sliver of Chinese territory. While the reduction of poverty is a praiseworthy endeavor, the tone of the article displays the patronizing approach that typifies official Chinese attitudes towards ethnic minorities who, in their view, should be grateful for the development bestowed upon them by the dominant culture. The “bilingual education” touted in the article, which is currently being promoted throughout East Turkestan, belies the true nature of a campaign to phase out the Uyghur language and other “ethnic minority” languages from all levels of instruction and replace them with Mandarin Chinese. Absent from Qi’s commentary is recognition of any value of preserving and promoting the Uyghur or Kyrgyz languages among the region’s schoolchildren, or in teaching these languages to non-native speakers.

Uyghur parents and former students from East Turkestan have told the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) that they recognize the need to learn Chinese in order to survive in a Chinese language-dominated society, but they lament the fact that parents are no longer given a choice regarding whether or not their children will study in the Uyghur language in school.

A report issued by the organization “Save the Children”, which carries out educational work in East Turkestan, stated:

Fully aware that good Mandarin is required for employment; parents from ethnic minority communities are now enrolling their children in Han schoolswhere the standard of Mandarin is considered to be better.

However, the report also notes that the organization was precluded from “implementing a bilingual programme that promotes the full development of mother tongue languages”, even in preschools.

Essentially, it seems Uyghur parents and students must balance a desire for cultural survival with economic and social realities- and even this stark choice is increasingly being taken out of parents’ hands.

Qi observes in his article that TongxinMiddleSchool’s facilities are almost the same as those of schoolsin eastern China, except for that “in every classroom, next to the teacher’s podium there is a poster proclaiming an “ethnic unity” pledge, with the second line stating that “every teacher and student should, in thinking and behavior, be fully conscious that the biggest danger to Xinjiang derives from “ethnic splittism” and “illegal religious activities”.

The ubiquitous pledge, doubtless present at many other schoolsin East Turkestan, makes clear to TongxinMiddleSchool’s young students that their responsibility to learn Chinese is tinged with political urgency. It is made clear to them the importance of assuming a Chinese identity, and learning Mandarin Chinese, lest their lack of Chinese language knowledge make them vulnerable to “ethnic splittists”. In 2009, regional chairman Nur Bekri even implied that those Uyghurs who only speak their mother tongue are inherently terrorist suspects, stating “that “[t]errorists from neighboring countries mainly target Uygurs [Uyghurs] that are relatively isolated from mainstream society as they cannot speak Mandarin. They are then tricked into terrorist activities”.

At the “Xinjiang Work Forum” that took place in May 2010, 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. Qi states that bilingual education, already underway in Akqi County, where TongxinMiddleSchoolis located, will have a positive effect in terms of increasing employment opportunities and ensuring “social stability”.

“Bilingual education”, which is a policy of compulsory Mandarin language education, was first implemented in experimental classes at middleschoolsin 1999. The policy was then expanded over the course of the next several years, with Uyghur schoolsbeing merged out of existence region-wide beginning in 2004, at which time the rate at which “bilingual” education was eliminating Uyghur from East Turkestan’s schoolsincreased dramatically.

In 1997, “Xinjiang classes” were established, in which Uyghur and other “ethnic minority” students are sent to high schoolsin large cities in eastern China, where they receive Chinese-language instruction as well as immersion in Chinese culture. In 2005, former Xinjiang Party Secretary 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 schoolsin eastern China in fall 2010, marking an increase of 2,000 over the previous year.

Last month, Tibetans in Qinghai and Beijing protested over an official plan to change the language of instruction for Tibetan students. Thousands of students in Qinghai and hundreds of Tibetan university students in Beijing peacefully demonstrated, expressing concern over the official plan, which aims to replace Tibetan with Chinese in textbooks. Tibetans, like Uyghurs, fear that the downgrading of their mother tongue in education represents an attack on their identity and culture.

Language policy in Tibetan areas has also been heavily politicized. The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) cited Qinghai Party Secretary Qiang Wei as stating that strengthening “bilingual education” is “an important political duty.”

As news of the Tibetan protests spread throughout China, Uyghur students and teachers expressed solidarity with Tibetan demonstrators. A teacher interviewed by Radio Free Asia about the Tibetan protests said:

“Every Uyghur teacher and student is supporting Tibet right now, because we have the same problems here,” she said. “We should be using our own language, and our students need to be learning about our culture so that we can stay Uyghurs,” she said.

The teacher stated that government officials never asked the local Uyghur community what they thought about the “bilingual education” policy, and that enforcing the use of Mandarin Chinese in Uyghur schoolshas had a detrimental effect on the education system in East Turkestan, causing teachers to lose their jobs and students to lose interest in their classes.

“The local government is doing everything wrong. The government should not be enforcing a bilingual policy, especially on the young Uyghur children in kindergarten.”

The parents of Uyghur children were previously given a choice regarding whether to send their children to Uyghur-language or Chinese-language schools. Students who graduated from the former are often referred to as minkaomin, or ethnic-study-ethnic, while students graduating from the latter are known as minkaohan, or ethnic-study-Chinese. Minkaohan students have described feeling alienated from both Uyghur and Chinese cultures, and from minkaomin. Today, students are increasingly becoming alienated from their own parents, who often cannot help their children with their homework, or even fully communicate with them.

Save the Children noted in its report that one of the most effective ways of teaching children their mother tongue and a second language is by first building a foundation in children’s mother tongue, and then teaching them the second language. However, the organization stated, educational trends in East Turkestan are making this increasingly difficult for ethnic minority children. A Mandarin-only education policy is increasingly being implemented in kindergartens and even pre-schoolsthroughout East Turkestan.

Back in TongxinMiddleSchool, where students are given 220 yuan per month for living expenses and have access to a library boasting 50,000 books, there is an obvious equation of development with Chinese language and culture, and of backwardness with one’s native language. The Chinese language is promoted as a civilizing influence that will bring prosperity to the students, while it is implied that Uyghur, Kyrgyz and Kazakh have no value in the modernizing world.

Based on conversations with the school’s principal, reporter Qi states that the schoolacts as a civilizing force for the students, as many of them come from rural families who, prior to attending the school, did not often brush their teeth, and may even never have seen a glass door.

“Therefore, the teachers at TongxinMiddleSchoolhave to regularly arrange for the students to take showers, and teach them how to use a toilet,” states Qi.

Qi dismisses existing domestic guarantees regarding the right of minorities to be educated in their mother tongue, stating “these policies led many Uyghur students to fail to master the Chinese language, affecting their employment prospects and their interactions with other ethnic groups.” Qi further argues that the policies are inconsistent with Western norms of “equal opportunity” for all ethnicities, in that they provide an unfair advantage for ethnic minorities. Qi highlights several government policies toward ethnic minorities, such as the policy allowing ethnic minorities to have more than one child, as examples of what he views as “unequal” treatment of minority groups vs. Han Chinese.

Qi makes much of the need for Uyghurs and other ethnic minority students to learn Chinese in order to be able to enter the workforce, but non-Han graduates have in recent years given accounts of immense challenges in finding employment even after having mastered the Chinese language.

In September, according to ICT, hundreds of Tibetan university graduates protested a lack of available jobs. ICT documented discrimination in the government sector in favor of ethnic Chinese graduates in recent years, and government incentives provided to ethnic Chinese graduates to work in “western or remote areas” of the PRC, which marginalizes Tibetan, Uyghur and other graduates.

UHRP has documented similar discrimination in the government and private sectors in East Turkestan. Hiring notices posted on the Internet for civil service and university jobs in East Turkestan have revealed blatant discrimination against Uyghurs and other non-Han ethnic groups, as well as against women of any ethnicity.

Uyghurs interviewed by UHRP have spoken of encountering discrimination upon entering the workforce, in spite of their academic background and fluency in the Chinese language.

A UHRP report noted the experience of one Uyghur teacher who took his Mandarin-speaking Uyghur students to a job fair: “At job fairs in schoolsI would go with my students to look for jobs but the signs will say ‘we don’t want minority people’. I felt ashamed, humiliated. My students, they study hard, but they still have no opportunities, no jobs. So I felt like I was teaching a lie.”


[1] According to the 2000 census, nearly 64% of the prefecture’s population is comprised of Uyghurs, 28% is comprised of Kyrgyz, with the rest comprised of Han, Tajiks, Hui, and other ethnic groups.

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