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.