Authorities in the Chinese capital have sent dozens of volunteer teachers to the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang in a bid to boost comprehension of Mandarin among local ethnic minority Uyghurs, official media reported.
The move was promptly slammed by exile groups as a bid to further wipe out Uyghur language and culture, assimilating it into the culture of the majority Han Chinese population.
Forty-six teachers were dispatched by Beijing authorities in recent days to take up teaching posts in Hotan and promote the official policy of "bilingual education," official media reported.
More postings will follow of some 50 teachers from Beijing next year, who will teach in primary and middle schools across the region, using Mandarin, the China News Service reported.
But Dilxat Raxit, Munich-based spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, said the move has a far more sinister motive behind it than simply adding a language to Uyghur students' curriculum.
"The so-called bilingual education system is actually, to put it bluntly, a coercive bid to cut Uyghurs off from their own mother tongue and to force Han Chinese culture on them," Raxit told RFA.
"The Chinese government has already adopted extremely repressive policies with regard to the religious beliefs of Uyghurs, and has a policy of assimilation regarding their culture,” he said.
The news comes just days after a court in the regional capital Urumqi handed an 18-month jail term to an overseas-educated Uyghur linguist after he set up a school promoting the use of the Uyghur language.
Abduweli Ayup was also fined 80,000 yuan (U.S. $13,000) for "illegal fund-raising," a charge his family said was a form of political retaliation.
Ayup, who earned a master's degree in linguistics from the University of Kansas, returned to Xinjiang in 2011 to pursue his dream of opening Uyghur language schools, but was arrested and jailed with two of his business partners—Dilyar Obul and Muhemmet Sidik—on Aug. 20, 2013.
The court also sentenced the director of the language-teaching company Mother Tongue International, Sidik, to two years and three months' imprisonment, while fellow executive Obul received a two-year jail term.
Ayup had already established a Uyghur-language kindergarten in Kashgar, China's westernmost city, together with his business associates in the summer of 2012.
According to Raxit, Beijing's insistence on "bilingual" education gives scant opportunity to Uyghur-medium educators.
"Why are they pushing bilingual education, and yet not respecting Uyghur-medium education and development?" Raxit said.
"A lot of Uyghur mother-tongue teachers are now out of work, while some educators have now lost their freedom," he said.
"Bilingual education, and the posting of so many teachers [to Xinjiang] is actually the obliteration of Uyghur language and culture," he said.
Upsurge in violence
The Xinjiang region, which is home to the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamic insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
But overseas groups say the authorities regularly target members of the Uyghur community, controlling all aspects of their religious and social lives, including the wearing of traditional clothing, veils and beards.
Uyghur rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including curbs on Islamic practices and the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Many Uyghurs say headscarves are a marker of Uyghur rather than Muslim identity. Chinese authorities, however, discourage the wearing of headscarves, veils and other Islamic dress in the region.
Authorities in Urumqi last month banned bus passengers from carrying a range of items, including cigarette lighters and yogurt, in a bid to prevent violent attacks.
Chinese state media said this week that 96 people were killed in July 28 riots which erupted after a "gang" of Uyghurs attacked a police station and government offices in Kashgar prefecture's Yarkand (in Chinese, Shache) county, and that the authorities reacted with "a resolute crackdown to eradicate terrorists."
But exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer accused the authorities of covering up a massacre of up to 2,000 Uyghur civilians.
Chinese president Xi Jinping announced a harsh, one-year antiterrorist campaign in May, following a bombing in the regional capital Urumqi that killed 31 people and injured 90.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.