China Bans Uyghur Language in Schools in Key Xinjiang Prefecture

The new directive prohibits use of the language in schools up to and including the secondary level in Hotan prefecture.

A Uyghur woman is shown with her children in Kashgar, Xinjiang, in a file photo.

UPDATED at 04:25 P.M. on 2017-08-04

Authorities in a key prefecture in northwest China’s Xinjiang region have issued a directive completely banning the use of the Uyghur language at all education levels up to and including secondary school, according to official sources, and those found in violation of the order will face “severe punishment.”

The new ban marks one of the strongest measures yet from Beijing aimed at assimilating ethnic Uyghurs, who complain of pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression by the China’s ruling Communist Party in Xinjiang.

In late June, the Education Department in Xinjiang’s Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture—an area largely populated by Uyghurs—issued a five-point directive outlawing the use of the Uyghur language at schools in favor of Mandarin Chinese “in order to strengthen elementary and middle/high school bilingual education.”

Under the directive—a copy of which was obtained by RFA’s Uyghur Service—schools must “insist on fully popularizing the national common language and writing system according to law, and add the education of ethnic language under the bilingual education basic principle.”

Beginning in the fall semester this year, Mandarin Chinese “must be resolutely and fully implemented” for the three years of preschool, and “promoted” from the first years of elementary and middle school “in order to realize the full coverage of the common language and writing system education.”

The directive instructs schools to “resolutely correct the flawed method of providing Uyghur language training to Chinese language teachers” and “prohibit the use of Uyghur language, writing, signs and pictures in the educational system and on campuses.”

Additionally, the order bans the use of Uyghur language in “collective activities, public activities and management work of the education system.”

Any school or individual that fails to enforce the new policy, that “plays politics, pretends to implement, or acts one way and does another,” will be designated “two-faced” and “severely punished,” it said, using a term regularly applied by the government to Uyghurs who do not willingly follow such directives.

‘Encouraging’ Mandarin

Four different officials anonymously confirmed the directive to RFA and said their local county governments were preparing to implement it ahead of the fall semester.

A Han Chinese official at Hotan’s Qaraqash (Moyu) county Education Bureau said that the directive was issued on June 28 and distributed to all county education bureaus two days later.

“I can give you the contents of this directive, but only the Prefectural Educational Department has the right to explain them,” he said, referring further questions to the department.

A Uyghur official with Hotan’s Chira (Cele) county government said she had heard about the directive, but was not fully aware of its contents.

“I heard that all teaching in elementary and middle/high schools will be done in the Chinese language, beginning in September, and Uyghur language will not be used,” she said.

A Uyghur official at the same county’s Education Bureau was able to provide more information about the new policy, which he said his bureau was “urgently discussing the implementation of.”

“All teachings will be conducted in the Chinese, not Uyghur, language in the upcoming semester,” he said.

“Even the Uyghur textbooks will be replaced with Chinese textbooks from inland China. All teachers and students are required to speak the Chinese language only in the school and education system,” he added.

The Uyghur official said that while Hotan prefecture had repeatedly tried to implement a bilingual education policy over the past 10 years, “the national language hasn’t become popularized.”

“As a result, the Prefectural Education Department issued this directive to deal with this situation,” he said.

A Han Chinese official from the Education Bureau for the seat of Hotan prefecture told RFA that the directive is being implemented throughout the prefecture to “encourage” the learning of the national language.

“Education authorities decided to ban the use of the Uyghur language in order to create a favorable environment for minorities to study the national language,” he said.

“This is, in fact, good for Uyghurs to study the national language. Uyghur students will not study Mandarin if they learn from Uyghur language materials in the school system. That is why they should immerse themselves daily in Chinese language announcements, propaganda, signs and other materials.”

“All meetings and collective activities” in the school system will be held in Mandarin in the future, the official added.

Illegal policy

While Beijing has attempted to implement a “bilingual” system in Xinjiang’s schools over the past decade, Uyghurs say the system is monolingual and reject it as part of a bid to eliminate their mother tongue and increase their assimilation into Han Chinese culture.

Additionally, the bilingual education policy is in violation of both China’s constitution and regional ethnic autonomy laws.

Article 4 of the first chapter of China’s constitution states that “the people of all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages, and to preserve or reform their own ways and customs.”

Article 121 of the charter’s sixth section states that in performing their function, the organs of self-government in China’s autonomous regions should “employ the spoken and written language or languages in common use in the locality.”

Additionally, Article 10 of the first chapter of China’s Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law on Language states that agencies in ethnic autonomous areas “guarantee the freedom of the nationalities in these areas to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and their freedom to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs.”

Article 37 of the law’s third chapter states that “schools (classes) and other educational organizations recruiting mostly ethnic minority students should, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use these languages as the media of instruction.”

Ilshat Hassan, president of the Washington-based Uyghur American Association, told RFA that Beijing is attempting to skirt its own laws by labeling the new policy part of a bilingual education, while it works to “eradicate one of the most ancient Turkic languages in the world.”

“In fact, by enforcing this new policy at the preschool level, the Chinese government intends to kill the Uyghur language at the cradle,” he said.

“It is nothing short of cultural genocide. The international community must not allow China to destroy our beautiful language and culture, which has thrived for several millennia.”

Reported by Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.