Beijing is moving to clamp down on the Internet in northwestern China as ethnic minority Uyghurs express support for protests by Tibetan students campaigning for language rights, according to Uyghur residents and intellectuals.
Tibetan students have been protesting over the last two weeks, mostly in China's western province Qinghai, over fears the authorities will introduce a Chinese-language-only curriculum.
As the protests spread to Beijing about a week ago, authorities tried to block information about the demonstrations from reaching Uyghurs, who have long endured erosion of their language rights throughout schools in Xinjiang, according to Uyghur students.
“The local government is controlling the university websites and news about the Tibetan protests in Qinghai, but we have already received information from our friends in inner China about the protests there and at Beijing National Minorities University,” said one student from Xinjiang.
“They told me that the Uyghur university students [in Beijing] are talking about the Tibetan student protests and are very excited about it. Even the Kazakh students are in support of the Tibetans,” he said.
“But right now, every university is tightly restricting the students in Xinjiang and also in inner China. Even groups of Uyghurs who are studying in inner China’s ‘Xinjiang classes’ are being controlled,” said the student, who asked to keep his name and location anonymous for fear of persecution.
Uyghurbiz.net, a popular website and online discussion forum for Uyghur issues, recently reported that nearly every student enrolled in special “Xinjiang classes” for Uyghurs in inner China has been approached by school security and told to refrain from joining in any protests backing Tibetan language rights.
The report said that parents have also received calls from school security telling them to prevent their children from supporting the protests.
School restaurants serving Uyghurs, and which prepare food according to Muslim dietary rules, have been dishing out special meals in a bid to prevent any unrest, the report added.
‘No one asked us’
A Uyghur teacher in Xinjiang, who also requested anonymity, agreed that Uyghur support for the Tibetan protests is high in the region.
“Every Uyghur teacher and student is supporting Tibet right now, because we have the same problems here,” the teacher said.
“We should be using our own language, and our students need to be learning about our culture so that we can stay Uyghurs,” she said.
The teacher added that the Uyghur community in Xinjiang has been very upset with the work of recently appointed Xinjiang Governor Nur Bekri and other officials who claim to represent their interests to Beijing.
“The Chinese central government wants bilingual education here, but the local government should be asking the local people what they want. We don’t agree with this policy, but no one has asked us,” she said.
“The local government is doing everything wrong. The government should not be enforcing a bilingual policy, especially on the young Uyghur children in kindergarten.”
She said that enforcing the use of Mandarin Chinese in Uyghur schools has had a detrimental effect on the entire education system in Xinjiang.
“After the bilingual policy, many local Uyghur teachers lost their jobs because they don’t speak Mandarin, which has been very bad. Some high school students no longer want to study at school. All of the courses require Mandarin now, so the students aren’t interested in class,” she said.
“This may end up destroying the Uyghur school system.”
Solidarity in Beijing
Ilham Tohti, an outspoken Uyghur professor at Beijing National Minorities University, and webmaster of Uighurbiz.net, said Uyghur students at his school have been eager to join in protests with their Tibetan classmates.
“From the beginning of the Qinghai protests, Uyghur students studying at my university were all supportive. Some students came to my office and said they want to protest with the Tibetan students, but I advised them that we can support them without protesting,” Ilham Tohti said.
“If we protest, we may run into trouble.”
Ilham Tohti said in a telephone interview that he has been under constant surveillance by school security personnel since the Tibetan protests began.
“The other day someone from the Beijing security police came to talk to me about my ideas on these Tibetan protests. I told them they must be careful with their policies in the Xinjiang region,” he said.
“The Chinese government has been using bilingual education in Xinjiang for much longer than in Tibet, and Uyghurs have had a very bad experience with this policy.”
“I can 100 percent guarantee that if the government doesn’t change this policy in Xinjiang, Uyghurs will carry out this kind of protest as well, and it could become another July 5,” he said, referring to deadly riots in the capital Urumqi last year that left nearly 200 people dead, by the Chinese government's tally.
Ilham Tohti called for a rethink in Chinese policies in Xinjiang, which he said is “essential for the sake of stability in the region.”
“I hope the government will find a new strategy for Xinjiang which will allow the people there more freedom. If they really want to keep Xinjiang, this is what they must do.”
Support from abroad
Erkin Sidik, a U.S.-based senior optical engineer at NASA, agreed that the Chinese central government must allow the preservation of local dialects and minority culture if it hopes to maintain stability in the country’s frontier regions.
“All minorities should keep their own language. The Chinese government says they have a bilingual policy, but it’s really a Chinese language policy. They will destroy these minorities’ languages and cultures. So I am very supportive of the Tibetan students’ situation.”
Erkin Sidik was named as one of the “splittist elements” responsible for inciting the July 5 ethnic riots after he had visited Urumqi earlier to give a presentation at Xinjiang University on language in the Uyghur school system.
The Uyghur author of several articles on bilingual education in Xinjiang maintains that his talk was not politicized and merely summarized the situation according to central government policy and its implementation in the region.
“It’s like the Pakistani independence movement. They fought against the use of Hindi because they wanted to keep the use of Urdu and this led to their fight for independence [against India],” he said.
“The Chinese government should learn from this lesson if they want to maintain control of Xinjiang.”
Millions of Uyghurs—a distinct, Turkic minority who are predominantly Muslim—populate Central Asia and Xinjiang.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Mihray Abdilim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.