News from Tartary

by Translation Guy on November 8, 2010

In recent weeks, Tibetan students have been protesting against Chinese government plans to introduce Chinese as the language of instruction to Tibetan schools. With the Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority in Western China, already up in arms (literally) over ethnic Chinese economic and demographic encroachment in China’s Far West, the central government has been scrambling to keep minority language issues out of the news.

As the protests spread to Beijing, government censors have tried to block information about the demonstrations from reaching Uyghurs, who have witnessed the 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 quoted in a report from Radio Free Asia.

“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.

“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. Ilham Tohti, an outspoken Uyghur professor at Beijing National Minorities University. . . said Uyghur students at his school have been eager to join in protests with their Tibetan classmates. . . . ‘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.”

Rapid economic development in China’s west has increased tensions with the Uyghurs, who were only absorbed by the Chinese state in the 19th century. Jianying Zha, in a New Yorker piece, “Servant of the State”, reported on the meeting of writer and literary giant Wang Meng with Uyghur friends he had not seen since his exile to Xinjiang decades ago. Wang is one of few Han Chinese who speak Uyghur well, and Zha saw a different man, relaxing in a language as comfortable as an old shoe, with none of the political and social obligations that weigh every word uttered in Chinese by a notable man.

News from Tartary, by Peter Fleming (brother of Ian, and the one who could really write), is a wonderful account of humping through the region on camel-back in 1935, and the source of my life-long fascination with a place and way of life that must have completely disappeared by now. Oh well.



  1. Cathy Newton says:

    You my friend, are so right. Fleming’s travelogue is written in a style you simply don’t see anymore. I mean can you imagine a modern, mainstream journalist writing a quote like the one below, taken from pages 96-97 of the book “Ma, a typical Moslem — hook-nosed, bearded, vigorous, and velvet-capped – was charming and pressed on us tea and sugar and bread.”

  2. Get this, Chinese authorities have repeatedly alleged that Uygurs do use suicide bombing methods. According to the 3 August Congressional Research Service report on U.S.-China Counterterrorism Cooperation: “these attacks were not the first time that coordinated multiple bombings occurred, that crude home-made bombs were used, that women allegedly were involved, or that suicide bombers committed the alleged acts. Such events were reported in the 1990s.” However, I’m told by a friend close to the Uygurs that there is a strong consensus in the Uygur community that there is no real and confirmed evidence that any Uygur militants have carried out suicide bombings.

  3. Ned says:

    Sounds like a great read!

    Thanks to a smart journalist friend of mine in Russia, I have a copy of “The New Central Asia”. Remind me to lend it to you (if interested) – it has a lot of interesting things to say about the creation (by the Soviets) of a national identity for the different nations of Central Asia.

  4. Oh dear, get ready for the inevitable trolling from Charles Liu and the other AntiCNN-niks

  5. Ian? Wasn’t he the creator of James Bond? James was originally from Winnipeg Canada you know?

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