Education in Xinjiang Tongue-tied
“I CAN speak Chinese, I’m so awesome!” reads a sign on the wall of the Mingde primary school in Shufu, a town near the oasis city of Kashgar in the far western province of Xinjiang. Nearby, children’s artworks hang beneath another banner which proclaims: “The motherland is in my heart.” Though every pupil at the school is Uighur, one of China’s ethnic minority peoples, most lessons here are taught in Mandarin—a very different language from their Turkic one. It is the same at ever more schools across the region. Educating young Uighurs in Mandarin may one day help them find work—but it is also a means by which the government hopes to subdue Xinjiang and its many inhabitants who chafe at rule from Beijing.
Xinjiang began to fall under China’s control in the mid-18th century. It was then mainly populated by ethnic Uighurs, whose culture and Muslim faith set them apart from much of the rest of China; Kashgar is far closer to Kabul and Islamabad than it is to Beijing. Despite the migration into Xinjiang of Hans, China’s ethnic majority, minorities (mainly Uighurs) still make up 60% of its residents, compared with less than 10% in China overall.
For decades the region has been racked by a low-level insurgency by Uighurs against growing Han influence. In 2009 around 200 people died in ethnic clashes in Urumqi, the region’s capital. Security has since been ramped up—the police and army are ever-present—but last July tensions flared again when an estimated 100 people were killed near Kashgar following attacks on government buildings. Violence has spread beyond Xinjiang’s borders too, into China’s interior. In 2013 five people were killed when a car driven by Uighurs ploughed into pedestrians in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and burst into flames. Last year 31 people died in a knife attack by Uighurs in the south-western city of Kunming, an incident described by state media as the country’s “9/11”. Eighteen people were reportedly killed on June 22nd in an attack by Uighurs armed with knives and bombs on a checkpoint in Kashgar.
As well as bulldozing dissent, the government has tried pouring in cash to boost Xinjiang’s economy. Yet Hans have disproportionately benefited from the resulting boom; minorities’ feelings of alienation and inequality have worsened. Hans and non-Hans in Xinjiang are growing further apart—some Hans are nervous about entering Uighur districts; Uighurs complain of harassment by the police. Officials are beginning to recognise that there is a social problem, as well as a security-related one. There is a renewed focus on breaking down ethnic barriers and promoting a shared national identity.
Mandarin-teaching for Uighurs is seen as a tool to achieve these goals. Since 2011 officials in the region have been promoting what they call “bilingual education”. By this they mean that most instruction is to be in Mandarin. Ever more schools are moving towards using Chinese only, with the exception of a few hours of classes each week in Uighur literature. President Xi Jinping emphasises this policy as a way to fight terrorism. Last year he described better education as “essential” to the region’s long-term stability. Schools such as Mingde, with its troops of Uighur children wearing the red ties of the Young Pioneers, a junior branch of the Communist Party, embody the government’s great hope.
The government’s desire to boost Mandarin-speaking ability is reasonable: few Uighurs speak fluent, or even passable, Chinese. Mastering the language should open up opportunities for Uighur children and improve their job prospects (in 2010, 83% of all Uighurs were farmers). Bringing Han and Uighur children into the same classroom, as some urban schools are at last trying to do, should help too.
But the authorities risk arousing complaints that Uighur culture is being marginalised. Even before Xinjiang’s ethnic troubles intensified in 2009, schools conformed to Han norms. Recently bans have been made stricter on the observance of fasting rituals during the month of Ramadan. Few Han children in Xinjiang are taught minority languages.
Our culture, not yours
The Xinjiang curriculum is about learning to be Chinese. Schools prize “patriotic education” even more than others in China. At Mingde the Chinese flag hangs at the front of each classroom between laminated photos of the late leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. A kindergarten in Kasghar features a wall poster declaring: “I am Chinese. Beijing is my country’s capital, I love China. I love the motherland, I love the Great Wall. I love my father, mother, teacher, classmates, but most of all I love my motherland.”
Around two-thirds of minority children now receive Mandarin-language instruction. But educational quality is suffering. Not enough Uighurs speak sufficient Mandarin to teach in it; those who do want better-paid jobs than teaching. It is hard to attract Han teachers to a poor, volatile region. The government is pumping money into the recruitment effort, but it says Xinjiang still needs 30,000 more teachers who can speak both Mandarin and a local language. Uighur-speaking parents can rarely help their children with school work and many pupils have no chance to practise the Mandarin they acquire. Even in a model school like Mingde, staff admit that children speak only Uighur outside class. Many six-year-olds cannot understand basic questions in Chinese. Other skills suffer, too: children typically learn English via Mandarin, for example, even though English and Uighur—unlike Chinese—both use alphabetical scripts.
Some older Uighurs view such instruction as an erosion of their culture. Reza Hasmath of Oxford University says they may therefore either fail to support their children’s education or actively resist it (some send their children to illegal religious schools). Despite this—and unlike in Tibet—there have been few reports of public protests against Mandarin-medium teaching. This is probably because other issues, such as the banning of Muslim veils, have raised more hackles, and possibly because some incidents go unreported.
In other parts of China, such as Hong Kong and Shanghai, where Mandarin is not the native tongue, learning the national language does indeed open doors. But in Xinjiang even many Uighurs who speak fluent Mandarin find it hard to get ahead, partly because of racial prejudice. Highly educated Uighurs tend to earn less than their Han equivalents, says Mr Hasmath. Attempts by the Chinese government to promote knowledge of Mandarin and Chinese culture in Xinjiang may generate more problems than they solve.