Uyghur primary school and kindergarten teachers in China’s Xinjiang region are losing their jobs at an alarming rate because they cannot speak fluent Mandarin, according to instructors, as Chinese authorities move to increase bilingual education in the region.
According to a number of interviews RFA conducted with Uyghur educators, at least 1,000 primary school teachers in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have lost their jobs since 2010 because they could not speak Mandarin in addition to their own Uyghur language.
Uyghur had been the official medium of instruction in schools in the region, but the language is being phased out.
One teacher, who taught primary school for 20 years in Nogayto village in Xinjiang’s Gulja city, said she was forced to quit in 2010 because she could not speak Mandarin.
“Instead, they brought in Chinese teachers to teach the children because they had changed the Nogayto primary school to a bilingual school. In just that village, 30 teachers lost their jobs,” the teacher said.
“We are good educators and we love the students, but now the government will only allow people who speak perfect Mandarin to teach them,” she said.
“The primary school principal said that if you can speak Mandarin you are a good teacher, but if you can’t then you will lose your job.”
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 to train bilingual kindergarten teachers in 2008.
An assistant professor from a teachers college in Xinjiang said that schools in the region have been aggressively training bilingual teachers since the initiative was launched.
“This college began training 1,500 bilingual primary and kindergarten teachers in 2009,” he said.
“The Xinjiang Early Childhood Training College has trained around 2,000 bilingual teachers for kindergartens every year since 2008.”
The assistant professor said that since the beginning of this semester in September, some 20 Uyghur professors at his school have had no lessons to teach because the government has required that their classes be taught in Mandarin. Instead, the classes have been given to Chinese professors or Uyghur professors who can speak fluent Mandarin.
“Kindergarten and primary school teachers had always trained in children’s psychology, literature, health, and mathematics—all with Uyghur culture in mind. Before, the course materials were all published in Uyghur and taught in Uyghur,” the assistant professor said.
“Now the textbooks are published in Mandarin and the classes are taught in Mandarin with a Chinese cultural perspective instead of a Uyghur one,” he said.
“The Chinese government is trying to brainwash our Uyghur teachers and children. They want to force Chinese culture on us and have us act like Chinese people.”
The director of a Teaching and Research Center of a teachers college in Xinjiang said a growing number of Uyghur teachers say they no longer want to train in bilingual education.
“They say that the so-called ‘bilingual education’ is really only Chinese education, with no Uyghur input. They say Uyghur education is being lost and that teachers are losing their jobs,” he said.
“We are planning to write a letter about this and send it to the Xinjiang government. If they don’t listen to us, there may be a big problem in the region. We have other plans [to make ourselves heard].”
On Wednesday, a teacher who had taught at a primary school in Kashgar’s Beshkerem village for 28 years was jailed for eight days following an altercation with her principal over the use of Mandarin in the school’s curriculum.
According to an article entitled “Words from my Heart” she published on Anatuprak.com the day she was imprisoned, she was overlooked for a promotion because of her inability to speak Mandarin fluently.
Despite having graduated from a teachers college and receiving numerous honors over the course of her career, the teacher said that her principal had begun to “make trouble” for her after her school switched to a bilingual format in 2010.
When she recently applied for a senior teaching position, the principal told her that while she was a good teacher, she was not “modern” enough and was constantly “fighting the government,” so the school could not offer her the job.
The two got into an argument which led to a police investigation.
Two days later, she said, she received a letter informing her to report to the police station where she would be held for an eight-day period.
Before she went to the station, she published her account on the website, saying that she didn’t care about the consequences because the voices of the Uyghur teachers needed to be heard.
“Right now I’m going to jail, but I hope someone will hear me … I hope that one day things will be better. I hope that these days will be behind us soon,” she wrote.
“This is not just my opinion. These words come from the hearts of all Uyghur teachers.”
Minorities around China have been required to include class instruction in Mandarin and forgo their native dialects at school as part of a campaign to promote a unified national language.
Anger over the policy erupted in October last year as students took to the streets in Tibetan areas of Qinghai province protesting the forced use of Mandarin in the classroom.
Tibetan students protesting against China's education policies also brought their campaign to the nation's capital later that month.
Some 400 students held demonstrations at the Beijing National Minorities University, joining protests by thousands of Tibetan high school and college students in the remote western province of Qinghai amid fears they will be forced to adopt a Mandarin-language-only curriculum.
Several prominent members of the Uyghur community voiced their support for the Tibetan protests and have warned Beijing to reconsider the new education policy, saying its continued enforcement could lead to unrest in Xinjiang.
Reported and translated by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.