Uyghur children in China’s troubled northwestern Xinjiang region face mistreatment by their teachers in Chinese-language schools, according to sources in the region who say the students are discriminated against because of their ethnicity.
Ethnic tensions in the schools are driving some Uyghur parents to transfer their kids to bilingual schools where there are more Uyghur students to skirt the problem, they said.
One Uyghur man in western Ghulja’s Kepekyuz village said his daughter, who is attending second grade at a Chinese-language elementary school, had been beaten “badly” by her teachers many times.
But she was afraid to provide details of the incidents, the father said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“She just said, ‘If I tell you and if you go to my school and talk with my teacher, after you leave the teacher will beat me again. She’ll neglect me and won’t answer my questions if I don’t understand something.’”
His other daughter, who is in grade five at the same school and has also suffered beatings, told him that it is mostly the Uyghur children at the school who suffer physical punishment from their teachers, not Han Chinese students.
Mistreatment by teachers
The Han Chinese population in Xinjiang, which is home to 9 million Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has skyrocketed in recent decades.
For Uyghur students in schools dominated by Han Chinese students and teachers, discrimination and mistreatment are common, sources said.
A mother in Ghulja city said her son had been pushed to the floor by his teacher at a Chinese-run day care center when he was four years old.
“His face was badly injured and he told me that his teacher was angry because he didn't sleep, and she had pushed him from his back onto the cement floor,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The boy was earlier in another Chinese-run day care institution where she feared his health was in danger.
After those two incidents, she said she cared for him at home and then transferred him to a bilingual school.
“Since then, I stopped sending him to the Chinese day care and sent him to the bilingual school.”
One Uyghur mother from the Xinjiang capital Urumqi, Mahire Ghopur, whose children attended the city’s No. 43 Elementary School before the family immigrated to Canada in 2004, said her kids had been abused by their teachers at the Chinese-language school “from time to time.”
“Once when my son was in grade three in primary school, he was detained for a half day in a dark basement just because he forgot to do his homework. He probably was too afraid [to talk about it] at the time, and he only told me about it a few years later.”
The father from Kepekyuz village said Uyghur students—particularly younger children who have not been in the Chinese-language school system long and speak Uyghur at home—bear the brunt of mistreatment from their teachers because they can’t follow the teacher’s instructions in Chinese.
“Uyghur children are always getting beaten or abused verbally by the teachers, especially kindergarten and preschool children, because they don’t understand the Chinese language very well, which makes it difficult for them to understand the teacher.”
He added that a few months ago, his friend’s young son had been “beaten very badly” by a Han Chinese teacher for not wearing his uniform, and that since then the teacher had ignored the boy in class because his parents had complained to the principal.
One woman, also from Ghulja, said she had transferred her third-grader to a bilingual school because Uyghur children are discriminated against in Chinese-language schools.
“You know that at Chinese schools there is no way for them to get the same treatment. It was this way for my daughter too, so I transferred her to the bilingual school when she was in grade two,” she said on condition of anonymity.
Xinjiang’s bilingual schools, primarily aimed at educating Uyghur students, teach some classes in Uyghur and have more teachers who are Uyghur.
But with government efforts focused on promoting Chinese-language literacy among Uyghur students, critics say that Uyghur culture is being eroded in the schools.
Under the regional “bilingual education” policy implemented over the past decade, schools that used to be run in Uyghur are teaching most of their lessons in Chinese, and Uyghur teachers are being replaced by Han Chinese.
The father in Kepekyuz whose daughters were beaten in their Chinese elementary school said he did not want to transfer them to a bilingual school because the situation there could be just as bad.
“The kids are Uyghur in the bilingual schools, but most of the teachers are still Chinese. So that is no different [from the situation in Chinese schools].”
“Besides, I am hoping if [my children] get the same education as Chinese kids, maybe they can have better job opportunities in the future."
One Uyghur student, now living in exile in Canada, said ethnic tensions in schools had worsened after July 2009 violence in Urumqi and had pushed Uyghur parents to transfer their students to bilingual schools, where they hoped they would be safer.
The July 5, 2009 clashes between Han Chinese and Uyghurs, which prompted a harsh crackdown, was the worst ethnic violence China had seen in decades.
“After the July 5 Incident, the situation got worse. Most of the Uyghurs in Urumqi city transferred their kids from Chinese schools to bilingual schools, or sent them to the other countries,” the student said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
With tensions running high in the schools, aside from mistreatment by their teachers, Uyghur students also face clashes with their Han Chinese classmates.
In 2011, a group of Han Chinese students armed with sticks set upon their Uyghur peers while teachers stood by, sparking protests accusing school authorities of racial discrimination.
The student in Canada said, “I was sent to Canada to study ... because I couldn’t go to school back home because I was afraid of my Chinese teachers and Chinese classmates.”
Corporal punishment in the classroom
Teachers and administrators contacted by RFA at the Ghulja and Urumqi institutions where the students’ mistreatment was reported refused to comment when asked about abuse of Uyghur children.
But a Han Chinese schoolteacher at Urumqi No. 14 Elementary School said teachers use corporal punishment on all students.
“Yes, especially if children do not listen and do something that can harm others,” the teacher surnamed Sun said.
“Some children do not listen to their teachers, and we as teachers cannot control ourselves,” she said, but refused to comment on whether Uyghur students faced harsher treatment because of their ethnicity.
Call for tougher laws
Physical punishment by teachers has also been a problem in the rest of China, with Chinese legal and education experts calling for stricter curbs on harm against children following high-profile reports of abuse in schools in eastern China last year.
In October, photos and video posted online of a teacher at a kindergarten in Zhejiang province picking a boy up by his ears provoked a public outcry and calls from legal experts to revise the Criminal Code to clarify definitions of and punishments for child abuse.
But tougher laws on child abuse or stricter curbs on corporal punishment in schools may not be enough to stem the mistreatment Uyghur students face if they do not address the discrimination at the root of the problem, one Uyghur mother said.
“The law is there to protect them, not us … because there is no equality,” she said.
Reported and translated by Rukiye Turdush for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.