Uyghur Language Instruction Absent From Schools in Xinjiang’s Kelpin County

County officials say only Mandarin Chinese is used, despite laws protecting bilingual education.
Uyghur Language Instruction Absent From Schools in Xinjiang’s Kelpin County Uyghur students study at a bilingual middle school in Hotan, Xinjiang, in a file photo.

At least one county in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) no longer offers Uyghur language instruction to students, according to officials, despite being home to a mostly Uyghur population and national laws guaranteeing minorities the right to a bilingual education.

Earlier this week, RFA’s Uyghur Service received an audio recording made by a Uyghur man from the seat of Kelpin (in Chinese, Keping) county, in the XUAR’s Aksu (Akesu) prefecture, who currently lives elsewhere in China. The county, which is located at the base of the Tian Shan mountains and on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, is home to some 55,500 residents—around 97 percent of whom are Uyghur.

In the recording the man, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal, makes a phone call to the Bureau of Education in his hometown and asks for information about how to place the children of his neighbors, who he claims are detained in an internment camp, in school. Authorities in the XUAR are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of camps they describe as “vocational centers” since early 2017.

A man who identified himself as an employee of the Kelpin Bureau of Education told the caller that he could bring the two children, reportedly aged five and seven, to the bureau offices. When the caller asked to clarify which language the children would study in, the bureau employee said that education in Kelpin is conducted in the “national language,” or Mandarin Chinese.

Asked whether it was possible for the children to study in Uyghur, the employee responded that the national language was now the norm in Kelpin and that there are no minority languages used in classes anymore.

“The national language is the standard now,” he said.

RFA called the Kelpin County No. 1 Intermediate School to inquire whether any courses there are taught in the Uyghur language.

A Han employee who identified herself as the school principal answered, saying that there are no Uyghur administrators at the school. When asked whether other schools in Kelpin offer Uyghur-medium instruction, she referred further inquiries to the local propaganda department.

An administrator at the same school told RFA that schools in Kelpin no longer offer Uyghur language instruction, adding that not even teachers or other employees are permitted to use the Uyghur language when speaking to one another.

“Speaking Uyghur language is not allowed [on school grounds],” she said.

“Normally, it’s not even OK for us [staff] to speak to one another in Uyghur.”

Language restrictions

Similar policies to supplant local languages in other ethnic minority regions have led to complaints in Tibet and large-scale protests in Inner Mongolia, RFA has previously reported.

Reports of the language restrictions in Kelpin county come a week after former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—on his last full day as top U.S. diplomat—said Chinese policies in the XUAR aim for “the forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group” as he announced a designation that Uyghur exile groups have advocated since the revelation in 2017 of mass internment camps in the region.

Pompeo said he had “determined” China is “committing genocide and crimes against humanity” in the XUAR against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups, and that Beijing and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “must be held to account.”

The new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has endorsed the designation, suggesting that President Joe Biden’s administration will pursue a more forceful approach in holding China accountable for its abuses in the region. Emily Horne, the spokesperson for Biden’s National Security Council, told the Washington Examiner over the weekend that “President Biden has called the oppression of the Uyghurs a genocide, and he stands against it in the strongest possible terms.” And on Friday, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the U.S. must be prepared to impose costs on China for its actions against Uyghurs in the XUAR, as well as a crackdown in Hong Kong and threats towards Taiwan.

In the days since the genocide determination, Chinese state media broadcasts have published a number of attacks on Pompeo and the U.S., reiterating an official government position that the XUAR is “prosperous” and that Uyghurs are living “happy” and “normal” lives.

Uyghur-language broadcasters on Xinjiang Television (XJTV) have particularly touted what they say is Chinese government “protection” of “minority” language education as evidence that the Chinese government cannot possibly be perpetrating atrocity crimes.

In these broadcast spots, news anchors have claimed that the government has protected Uyghurs’ rights to mother language, culture, and traditions.

However, Uyghurs who flee government persecution in the XUAR say that in addition to extrajudicial detention, members of their ethnic group regularly face state-sponsored discrimination in the region and are restricted from practicing their religion, using their own language, and preserving their culture.

Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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