Xinjiang Government Promotes Mandarin Chinese Use Through Bilingual Education

January 3, 2006

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) government and the region’s Communist Party Committee convened a meeting on elementary and middle school bilingual education on December 4, according to a Xinjiang City News report posted December 5 on the Tianshan Net Web site.

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) government and the region’s Communist Party Committee convened a meeting on elementary and middle school bilingual education on December 4, according to a Xinjiang City News report posted December 5 on the Tianshan Net Web site. Ismail Tiliwaldi, Chairman of the XUAR government, stressed the importance of bilingual education in fostering the economic and social development of minority groups. He outlined two approaches for improving bilingual competency among ethnic minorities: strengthening skills from childhood through bilingual pre-school education, and raising the quality of the teaching staff in the XUAR. Tiliwaldi called for better bilingual skills among pre-school students by combining ethnic minority students with Han students in schools that place primacy on instruction in Mandarin Chinese. The article reported that the region will launch a comprehensive plan for promoting bilingual pre-school education in 2006, as well as begin a construction project for 50 combined ethnic minority-ethnic Han schools.

Nur Bekri, XUAR Party Committee Vice Secretary, noted that, to augment the region's bilingual teaching corps, each district in the XUAR may relax recruiting standards for bilingual Han students and minority students who have had a Mandarin-language education (called "minkaohan" students in Mandarin). In addition, the government plans to give special consideration in cadre appointments and promotions to individuals who encourage bilingual education, the article reported. Bekri also discussed a new teaching assistantship program that, starting in September 2006, will place selected bilingual students and "minkaohan" students in basic-level bilingual schools to carry out at least four months of teaching practice.

As noted in the sections on "Language Policy" and "Rights Violations in Xinjiang" in the CECC 2005 Annual Report, upward social, economic, and political mobility among minorities increasingly depends upon their ability to use Mandarin Chinese. Government language policies in the XUAR, however, have infringed upon the right of minorities to use and develop their own language, as provided for in China's Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law (REAL) (passed in 1984 and amended in 2001). In the specific area of education, Article 37 of the REAL stipulates that "[s]chools (classes) and other educational organizations recruiting mostly ethnic minority students should, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use these languages as the media of instruction." Linguistic anthropologist Arienne M. Dwyer observed in a 2005 paper entitled The Xinjiang Conflict: Uyghur Identity, Language Policy, and Political Discourse that bilingual education in the XUAR has been focused on transitioning students from using their native language in school to using Mandarin Chinese. Media reports illustrate this policy focus. According to a Xinjiang Daily article posted on December 7 on Tianshan Net, many bilingual programs have moved from offering only math and science classes in Mandarin to teaching the entire curriculum in Mandarin, except in classes devoted specifically to minority-language study. Dwyer writes that until the mid-1990s, education in minority schools consisted of full instruction in an ethnic minority language, with only the academic subject of Mandarin taught in that language.

The number of bilingual classes in the XUAR has increased in recent years. According to statistics cited in the Xinjiang Daily article, in 1999 experimental bilingual classes were available in 27 middle schools and reached 2,629 students. By the end of 2004, some 52 middle and elementary schools supported 946 bilingual classes for 35,948 students. Figures for 2005 show the number of classes has increased to 4,505, and the number of students to 145,000. The article noted that bilingual education has already expanded to the pre-school level and has spread to rural areas. The 2005 State Council Provisions on Implementing the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law support such an increase. The provisions affirm the freedom to use and develop minority languages, but also place emphasis on the use of Mandarin by promoting bilingual education and bilingual teaching staff.

Government efforts to limit minority language use, especially Uighur use, have intensified since 2001, as noted in the CECC 2005 Annual Report. In May 2002, the XUAR government announced that Xinjiang University would change its medium of instruction to Mandarin Chinese in first- and second-year classes. In March 2004, the government announced a plan to combine 50 ethnic minority schools with Han schools by 2009 and give preference to Mandarin as the medium of instruction. Despite a severe shortage of teachers in the XUAR, the government is forcing teachers with inadequate Mandarin Chinese out of the classroom. Party Secretary Wang Lequan noted in April 2005 that XUAR authorities are "resolutely determined" to promote Mandarin language use, which he found "an extremely serious political issue." The government has favored Mandarin speakers when setting school admission requirements and in hiring government personnel.

Language restrictions in the XUAR have coincided with government restrictions on religious and cultural freedoms. The CECC 2005 Annual Report observed that these policies, as well as government-supported Han migration into the area and the promotion of economic policies that disproportionately benefit the Han, have increased Uighur resentment and fears of cultural assimilation.