October 31, 2017

Quietly, China is reneging on promises to respect minority ethnic languages in its troubled northwest


Uyghur girls in Xinjiang.

In addition to twenty-two provinces, four federally administered municipalities, and two special administrative regions, the People’s Republic of China contains five “autonomous regions,” areas with large minority ethnic populations and limited rights to self-government. The best-known of these is the Tibet Autonomous Region, but the largest is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, home to around 22 million people. Xinjiang is home to China’s largest concentration of Muslims; ethincally, its population is about forty-five percent Uyghur (pronounced “WEE-gur”), and about seven percent Kazakh, with the balance comprised primarily by members of China’s ruling Han ethnicity (as well as a small but significant number of Hui people). Substantial and growing inequality, especially between long-established Uyghur populations and Han populations that have boomed since the seventies, along with a general sense of Han cultural domination, have helped fuel significant social unrest.

A Uyghur bookworm (and Bulls fan), in Xinjiang.

Although Chinese law protects the rights of Uyghur and Kazakh communities to be educated in their own languages (Uyghur and Kazakh are related to each other and to Turkish; both are unrelated to Chinese), in a recent report translated into English by Luisetta Mudle for Radio Free AsiaQiao Long and Yang Fan write that authorities in some areas of Xinjiang are enforcing a new directive that prohibits the use of any educational materials in Uyghur or Kazakh in schools. The directive specifies that “the use of all Uyghur and Kazakh-medium textbooks and teaching materials must be terminated across the board,” and orders that those materials “be put away in sealed storage.”

Central Asia has been a hotbed of politically motivated language policy recently. Back in April, we reported on strict new regulations on the transportation of books to Tajikistan, which borders Xinjiang. Earlier this month, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev made waves when he announced the Kazakh language would cease to be written with the Cyrillic alphabet, and instead adopt the Latin. The government in Xinjiang this summer banned books by Saifuddin Azizi, a transnational revolutionary who traveled with Mao Zedong and served, for a term of more than twenty years, as the first chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In recent years, minority activists in the PRC have protested government restrictions on education in Tibetan and Mongolian, both, like Uyghur, official languages of autonomous regions designated for ethnic minorities.



Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.