A countywide middle school consolidation in China’s volatile Xinjiang region has led to ethnic Uyghur students dropping out of classes as local authorities move to implement a bilingual education system based on the Uyghur and the official Mandarin Chinese languages.
Education officials in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have shuttered middle schools in seven of eight townships in Aksu prefecture’s Uchturpan county in recent years, indicating the rapid pace of consolidation.
The former schools, all of which taught classes solely in the Uyghur language, have been replaced with one centralized middle school, which includes a partially bilingual curriculum with Mandarin—the official language of China.
Language is a highly sensitive subject for Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people who resent Chinese rule of Xinjiang and controls on their religion and culture.
Muhtar Kerem, the ruling Chinese Communist Party chief of the Uchturpan county education department, said that while the consolidation has been helpful in maximizing the use of county resources, logistical issues have led some students from far-flung townships to drop out of classes.
“We established the Guoqing Middle School in the center of the county. We have brought every middle school student from seven townships to the school, except for those from Akyar township,” Kerem told RFA in an interview.
“Right now we have around 5,500 students and 550 teachers. We have eight classrooms for bilingual students,” he said, adding that the education department plans to implement a bilingual standard for all schools in the county by 2015.
He said the merging of schools has allowed the education department to “combine educational spending” and to “provide all students with a chance for an education.”
“Also, we have a lack of teachers in the county, which we can solve through consolidation,” he said.
“By doing this, we save a lot of educational resources.”
But he acknowledged that the move had led to some unexpected “problems” in the school environment.
“Let's say, for example, the number of students is 100—among them 10 students are not coming,” he said, citing logistical and other issues for their staying away from school.
He said that of that 10 percent, nearly half are students who may not have dropped out completely, but do not attend school regularly.
“Four to five percent of them are students who come and go—who are not always there. So we dispatch officials who go after them and force them to come to school,” he said.
Kerem said that many students who live in the county center have also been forced to travel longer distances to visit home, leading to increased financial pressures and emotional problems among the children.
Students are only permitted to return home once every two weekends, he said, and must go to school every other day.
“If they had to return home once a week, they would have difficulty in paying their travel expenses … so it’s only twice a month. To be honest, because most are so poor, they have pressure covering even these expenses,” Kerem said.
“Some peasants are unwilling to send their children to school. They say their children are old enough to help with the farm work [and should not have to attend],” he said.
But the cost of travel and the expenses associated with life in the county center are also likely to contribute to the parents’ decision to pull their children out of school.
China’s government requires children to attend a compulsory nine years of education, up through the end of middle school, but parents in poorer rural areas routinely flout the rules in favor of extra help for family farming.
“The students take two days off in two weeks, so they tend to miss their parents or get bored. By the end of the two weeks, they get frustrated and stop paying attention and have conflicts with the teachers over small things,” Kerem said.
He added that the huge number of students at the central school has led to overloaded dorms and classrooms where more than 50 students take lessons together at a time, also affecting the children’s learning experience.
An official with Uchturpan county, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that the school is experiencing problems that have led to a decline in the student population.
“This school has created problems,” the unnamed official told RFA.
“If they had their own local schools, most could attend. Right now, some students who should be there are not coming to school.”
Assimilating a culture
Two independent Uyghur researchers, both of whom have experience in Xinjiang’s education system but now live abroad, said Beijing is using the region’s school system as a method by which to eradicate traditional Uyghur culture.
Memtimin Ela, an Australia-based doctor of philosophy, likened Uchturpan’s middle school system to “camp education” used by imperialist societies to assimilate the cultures they ruled over.
“We’ve seen similar historic instances where this kind of education was used to colonize the world. The children are taken from their parents when young so that they can be easily assimilated and brainwashed,” he said.
“This is dangerous for the future of the Uyghur people.”
And a former professor named Parda, who previously taught at Xinjiang University in the regional capital of Urumqi but now lives in Germany, said the government has tried to cover up its true intentions by touting improved education for the Uyghur people.
“The government says this is for the benefit of the children, but if they were given a better schooling environment and were situated closer to their families, they would have a better education,” she said.
“Traditionally, we have seen that in situations with more students per classroom and harsher living conditions, children tend to perform worse in school.”
Reports indicate that local-level officials in Xinjiang have also been consolidating middle school systems in the county-level cities of Gulja and Atush and to a large extent across Aksu province. There may also be a push to consolidate primary schools at the county level, sources say.
Not only are students affected by the changes, but teachers have also experienced problems through school consolidation.
They say they face the loss of their jobs, particularly if they are placed in a bilingual school setting where they are unable to teach classes in Mandarin Chinese.
According to a number of interviews RFA conducted with Uyghur educators, 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.
The government of Xinjiang a decade ago outlined plans requiring all schools in the region 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 2010, 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 more than 10 years after the policy was initiated, schools in the region offer little Uyghur education, instead requiring teachers to teach course materials which are published in Mandarin to students who often cannot understand them.
Reported by Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.