Omer Kanat, Director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, spoke at the conference entitled “Uyghur Linguistic Rights Under Assault: Uyghur Language & Cultural Rights In East Turkestan” held at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, on March 16th. He spoke on the main theme of the conference, namely the importance of the Uyghur language and the violation of the Uyghur people’s rights to use their own language. Below is a transcript of his speech.
Thank you all for attending this important conference this morning. It has been very beneficial to hear from such a diverse and interesting set of speakers. It is this sort of solidarity and sharing of ideas that that is so necessary for improving the situation of the Uyghur people.
I will speak today about the importance of the Uyghur language, the mother tongue of the Uyghur people, and the threats posed to its continued use and existence.
Language is an essential part of the social fabric and identity of any people, encapsulating thousands of years of history and traditions in the spoken word. It forms an important bond between the Uyghur people and structures our experience of the world. It ties generations of Uyghurs together with one common thread, uniting the Uyghur diaspora scattered across the world with our relatives and countrymen in East Turkestan.
However, the Uyghur language has come under attack from a series of repressive policies introduced by the Chinese government. While efforts to undermine the use of the Uyghur language have been ongoing for decades, we have witnessed a marked escalation in these efforts in the past 5 years.
The attack on the Uyghur language is part of a broader campaign of assimilation from the Chinese government. In the past 5 years and particularly in 2017, we have witnessed the implementation of a coordinated and systematic attack on the Uyghur identity. As the Uyghur people have their own culture, religion, history and ancestral land, Xi Jinping sees this as a threat to his absolute power. This is also the case with the Tibetans and Southern Mongolians. Any competing loyalties are not tolerated and are being stamped out ruthlessly.
To solidify its power and assert control over the Uyghur population, the Chinese government has targeted the things that make the Uyghur people unique, which form the core of our ethnic identity. In the past few years, we have seen ever-escalating restrictions and attacks on our religion, culture and, very importantly, the Uyghur language.
The strategy of the Chinese government has focused especially on influencing young Uyghurs in an attempt to diminish the importance of the Uyghur language with the younger generations and to sever their ties to their ethnic Uyghur identity. The approach appears to have two main focuses: (1) discouraging the use of the Uyghur language among young Uyghurs through language bans and ‘bi-lingual’ education classes and (2) encouraging the use of Mandarin Chinese through preferential access to employment, universities and government positions to those who speak Mandarin. Chinese efforts to assimilate the Uyghur population have been acknowledged in official policy, Xi Jinping and his allies have explicitly referenced ‘ethnic intermingling’ as the policy solution to ethnic issues in China.
While learning Mandarin is not wrong in itself, it is the Chinese government’s efforts to totally erode Uyghur language and replace it with Mandarin that is problematic.
For the regional government, ‘bilingual education’ does not mean to maintain both Mandarin and Uyghur at the same level in terms of teaching, but to transition Uyghur students at all levels from education in their mother tongue to education in Chinese. In practice, the program prohibits young Uyghurs from being taught in the Uyghur language and even prevents them from speaking to one another in their mother tongue between classes or on campuses.
It reveals that the Chinese government’s intention is not to promote communication and intercultural dialogue, but to supplant the Uyghur language. It shows that the Chinese government does not appreciate and celebrate the Uyghur identity, as it claims to, but rather has increasingly had a homogenous conception of ‘China’ with the Han-Chinese ethnicity at its centre. In this approach by the Chinese government, there is an inherent false assumption that Chinese language and culture is superior, that Uyghur language and culture is disposable or even a hindrance.
It is worth noting that learning the Uyghur language is not a prerequisite for Han Chinese students in the region and the rest of China.
Furthermore, funding for the ‘bi-lingual’ education program has seen drastic increases over the last two decades as well as the sheer number of Uyghurs enrolled. In 1995, 5,533 students were enrolled in ‘bilingual’ schools, by 2007 it was 294,000, by 2010, 994,300 and by 2012, 1,410,000. The regional government has now set a target of 2,600,000 students in East Turkestan by 2020, which constitutes nearly all non-Chinese students. Uyghur teachers are forced to teach in Mandarin or have trouble finding employment, while the regional government is bringing in thousands of Mandarin-speaking teachers to East Turkestan from other parts of China.
This past year, Chinese authorities have done away with any pretense of promoting Uyghur and Mandarin simultaneously and have instead opted to implement a ban on the use of the Uyghur language at all levels of education in the Hotan prefecture. The ban went into effect on 1 September 2017, at the start of the school semester. It not only bans the use of Uyghur as the language of instruction in classroom, but also prevents Uyghur students from speaking Uyghur on school premises. Given the Chinese government’s propensity for testing policies at a lower level before enacting them as national policy, we are very concerned that the language ban will soon extend to the whole region.
The right of children to receive an education in their native language is enshrined in international law, most explicitly in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as China’s own Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law. Learning in one’s native language is very important in the formation of cultural identity and, as the most recent Annual Report from the Special Rapporteur on the right to education emphasizes, “Students learn best when they are taught in their native language.” The language ban is therefore in clear violation of international law, China’s own domestic law and human rights norms.
In addition to the ‘bi-lingual’ education classes and outright bans on the use of the Uyghur language in schools, young Uyghurs are heavily pressured and incentivized to prioritize learning and using Mandarin Chinese for the sake of their future professional and academic ambitions.
Almost no university classes at prestigious universities in China are taught in Uyghur, so ambitious or intelligent Uyghur students are heavily pressured to focus on improving their Chinese and attend universities in different parts of China. Well-paying jobs in the rapidly developing industries in East Turkestan, including the energy service sector, construction, resource extraction and government positions, are dominated by Han Chinese living in the region. These lucrative employment opportunities all require prospective employees to speak Mandarin Chinese fluently and incentivize the Uyghur population to forsake their mother tongue to favor Chinese.
This is why this issue and, therefore, this conference today are so important to us. I fear that if nothing changes, the younger generation of Uyghurs still living in East Turkestan will be cut off from their mother tongue and their culture. This would not only lead to a Sinification of the Uyghur people, and the world would lose a truly unique language and culture, but also sever the ties between the Uyghur people, between older and younger generations and between those in East Turkestan and the diaspora. This is what is at stake: the fate of the Uyghurs as a unique people and the continued existence of the Uyghur language and culture.