Chinese authorities in Xinjiang are expected to begin removing Uyghur teachers under a stepped-up enforcement of a bilingual policy combining Mandarin in Uyghur schools, according to educators from the region.
Teachers in Toksun county, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s Turpan prefecture, said all school instructors are required to take a Chinese language proficiency examination on Nov. 20 which will be used to determine who will be fired.
One Uyghur teacher working at the local education department for nearly 30 years said authorities made an announcement that 518 teachers would be cut from the Toksun county school system in early November.
“It’s about consolidating staff. In some places, there are too many teachers. Because of the Chinese language in school, the number of Uyghur students has decreased and there were too many teachers. That’s why they are cutting some of the positions there,” said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous.
“Of course there was a feeling of resentment and resistance.”
He said Uyghur teachers had to register for the examination by Nov. 8, but that many had refused.
“Mainly, non-Han Chinese teachers and teachers who taught math and science, but don’t have experience in bilingual teaching will be targeted,” the teacher said.
“Some Uyghur teachers are saying that they won’t sign up for the exam. They will reject the order and refuse to sign.”
He said education officials have promised the laid-off teachers will be transferred to other government offices and will continue to earn their salary, but added that it is unclear whether authorities intend to honor those promises.
A staff member who answered the phone at the Toksun county Education Department acknowledged that Uyghur teachers will be required to participate in an evaluation exam, but said he was unable to answer a question about why teachers would be fired before hanging up.
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 last month as students took to the streets in Tibetan areas of Qinghai province protesting the forced use of Chinese in the classroom.
A call to the principal’s office of a Uyghur middle school in Toksun county was answered by a female teacher who asked to remain anonymous, but said she had been teaching there for 25 years.
“Our principals have been taken to inner China. [The authorities] took 20 people, including four or five principals and other cadres,” she said.
When asked why Chinese officials would call local principals to a conference far from home at the same time the education department board was planning to fire nearly a quarter of the Uyghur teachers in the county, the teacher seemed at a loss for words.
“What can we say about things organized by the Chinese government?”
The teacher said she had heard about the examination and expected cuts at a teachers meeting where management read out the government decree.
“They asked us to register before Nov. 8, but I was told that none of the teachers want to register. It’s not a fair competition. The Uyghurs are going to be laid off and none of the Chinese are going to be laid off,” she said.
The male teacher from the Toksun county education department said a number of schools had brought in Han Chinese teachers in anticipation of a layoff but that they spoke heavily accented Mandarin, as they were recruited from various regions.
“It’s because they are forcing bilingual education, so the school should teach math and other subjects in Chinese. Some schools are bringing Chinese teachers in for math and Chinese language,” he said.
The education department teacher said that there are roughly 2,000 Uyghur teachers in the four towns of Toksun county, but that the number of primary and middle schools had decreased to 27 from 43 after Chinese authorities recently consolidated Uyghur schools with Chinese schools as part of the bilingual education policy.
The school mergers had already led to the firing of several Uyghur teachers, but the planned layoff of 518 Uyghur teachers will mark the biggest thus far.
The teacher said that while there is widespread resentment of the plan, the teachers have not considered organized protests.
“Even though they are unhappy, they are only talking about it amongst themselves. If they organize, they may only do so if they are forced to leave [their jobs],” he said.
“[But] they are saying they won’t participate. And they are saying that unanimously. And when the school principals try to force them, they say, ‘We didn’t elect you, you cannot speak for us. You cannot force us—mind your own business!’”
A young female primary school teacher in Turpan city said she had heard about the planned cuts, but was unsure of the details.
“In Toksun they say there are too many teachers. I don’t know if they are just experimenting in this county—it’s not happening in Turpan yet but this is affecting many Uyghur teachers,” she said.
“They are controlling the phones, so I can’t say any more.”
Tibetan students protesting against China's education policies brought their campaign to the nation's capital on Oct. 22.
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 Chinese-language-only curriculum.
Several prominent members of the Uyghur community have voiced their support of the Tibetan protests and have warned Beijing to reconsider the bilingual education policy, saying its continued enforcement could lead to unrest in Xinjiang.
In May, government cadres pledged to ensure that all students in Xinjiang would be able to speak Mandarin by the year 2020.
Reported by Guliqiekela Keyoumu for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.