A group of 20 Uyghur professors at a teachers college in northwestern China has refused new positions in school security after they were laid off because they could not speak fluent Mandarin, saying that authorities should abandon a policy of bilingual education in the region.
Uyghur had been the official medium of instruction in schools in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, but the language is being phased out in favor of the official national language of China.
One of the teachers at the college, located in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, said the group had planned a protest when they were notified that they would lose their jobs, but the school management approached them Monday and offered them work in exchange for their silence.
“They said, ‘We have thought about the teacher income and we have built an Education Research Center for you to work at. Don’t protest, don’t say anything. If you work at this center, you can keep your salary,’” the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, told RFA in a phone interview.
“It’s a position working in security. But we teachers refused to accept because we hold higher degrees and had been professors. After negotiating, we feel we are winning the battle because the government has likely seen the RFA article published last week about the bilingual policy in Xinjiang,” he said.
“We think that if something happens, we should tell the media because it is causing the government to come under scrutiny.”
Last week, RFA published an article detailing how at least 1,000 primary school teachers in Xinjiang have lost their jobs since 2010 because they could not speak Mandarin in addition to their own Uyghur language.
“We won’t take [the offer] because if we do, they will do nothing to change the policy, so we will continue to fight. Uyghur education is going downhill—all the materials are in Chinese, so the students can’t even understand it,” the teacher said.
“The management has told us to give credit to the students no matter what they write as an answer on exams, even if they don’t understand the question. The students can’t learn anything at school. They spend all their time learning Mandarin and trying to understand the questions,” he said.
“We need to research this situation to get information from both the teachers and the students—the government doesn’t understand this problem. This is not bilingual, it is Mandarin. Teachers and students should stand up against this policy.”
In 2001, the government of Xinjiang posted a notice on its website outlining plans requiring all schools in Xinjiang to institute bilingual education, though students would still be offered the opportunity to learn Uyghur language, culture, and literature as part of their curriculum.
And in May last year, government cadres pledged to ensure that all students in Xinjiang would be able to speak Mandarin by the year 2020.
But Uyghur teachers say that ten years after the policy was initiated, schools in the region regularly offer no Uyghur education at all, instead requiring teachers to teach course materials which are published in Mandarin to students who often cannot understand them.
Even kindergartens are being targeted as part of a so-called bilingual campaign, which basically emphasizes Mandarin.
According to a Sept. 18 report on the state-owned Xinhua news agency website, the Xinjiang government built 1,470 bilingual kindergartens from 2009-2011. Sixty-six percent of those kindergartens have been completed and have begun teaching classes.
Bilingual kindergartens now make up 85 percent of all kindergartens in Xinjiang, the report said, adding that all teachers colleges in the region initiated programs in 2008 to train thousands of bilingual kindergarten teachers annually.
A female Uyghur lecturer at Xinjiang University in Urumqi said that despite speaking Mandarin fluently, she has no interest in using the language to teach her classes.
“We are Uyghur. We should keep our language for the preservation of our culture. Now, at university, college, middle, and even primary schools and kindergarten, the government is trying to use the Mandarin language. I don’t understand why the government is forcing us to do this,” she said.
“This question isn’t just from me. It’s from all teachers, students, and students’ parents as well.”
The lecturer said that the Chinese government’s label of “autonomous” is a misnomer for the region.
“This is Uyghur autonomy. We should have autonomy, but right now we have none. We cannot even use our own language at school. This government is only publishing educational material in Mandarin—none in Uyghur,” she said.
She noted that minorities around China have been required to include class instruction in Mandarin and forgo their native dialects at school as part of the government’s campaign to promote a unified national language.
“Last year, the Tibetan students protested in Qinghai wanting to keep their language. I agree and understand why they took to the streets to protest, because we too have had a bad experience with bilingual education,” she said.
“We hope the government can understand why we disagree with this policy and why we want to keep our language, culture, and other heritage.”
Anger over the policy erupted in October last year as thousands of students took to the streets in Tibetan areas of Qinghai province protesting the forced use of Mandarin in the classroom. Tibetan students protesting China's education policies also brought their campaign to the nation's capital later that month.
Xinjiang chairman Nur Bekri said recently that Uyghurs should not complain about the language policy, citing the case of the Hui Chinese Muslims who he said do not have their own language but still maintain their ethnic identity, according to some Uyghur teachers.
“So, 'If the Uyghurs cannot speak the Uyghur language, it shouldn’t be a big problem'—I cannot understand why Nur Bekri said this. I can’t tell whether he is even a Uyghur anymore,” the Uyghur lecturer at Xinjiang University said.
“I hope every Uyghur scholar and Uyghur student will stand up against the Chinese language in school and demand that we can keep our Uyghur language and culture. We hope the world will stand behind us.”
Reported and translated by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.