Omnipresent state propaganda exhorts Uyghurs and other local ethnic groups to love and protect the Chinese state, which even in Xinjiang is ironically dubbed the "motherland." However, despite public campaigns as well as patriotic education in schools, it is clear that bright youth are questioning official political, historical, and religious narratives. Based upon interactions with students from all over Xinjiang (East Turkestan), it is clear that they are not passively absorbing and accepting official propaganda. On the contrary, they are thinking critically about their identity, their history, the role of the Chinese state in their lives, and most importantly, their collective future.
A common fear among Uyghur students is that the government is weakening and eroding the bilingual language policy currently in place. Although the government is eager to showcase its policy as evidence that it respects minority rights, in fact the bilingual schools are anything but bilingual. A Xinjiang high school teacher stated that although her students attend nine class periods per day, the only class conducted in Uyghur is the actual Uyghur language class. Teachers are not supposed to instruct students in other classes in Uyghur, even if the teacher and students are all native speakers and feel more comfortable speaking in Uyghur. Students revealed to me their concern that the ultimate goal of the government is assimilation. "They don't want us to be Uyghur," they complained, "they want us to be Chinese."
Students and teachers in Xinjiang are prohibited from attending any religious activities. They are not allowed to pray at a mosque or fast during Ramadan. One teacher noted that in Kashgar, students are kept on campus during the early afternoon so that they cannot attend midday prayers. College students also lose college credit if they are caught attending religious activities on campus. Moreover, if teachers or students in Xinjiang fill out any official government form that asks for a religious identification, they must write "none." They are explicitly told that they can believe in nothing more than Marxism, despite China's constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
The political situation in Urumqi is particularly tense now that the Party Congress is taking place. During noontime prayers on Friday, a Uyghur teacher must stand by the outer gate of an assigned mosque and make sure that none of his students attempts to enter the premises. If one does, he will receive a demerit from his school. A Chinese teacher accompanies the Uyghur teacher to ensure that the latter does not turn a blind eye to student rule-breaking. In addition, there are cameras inside and outside the mosque, as well as public security officers in the streets, to ensure that students do not enter. If students are caught, the teachers who failed to stop them are reprimanded as well.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government also forbids students and teachers from wearing headscarves or traditional hats on school campuses. One Uyghur professor with whom I spoke argued that these head coverings are a cultural marker, rather than strictly a religious marker. In fact, many Uyghurs have remarked that the July 2009 riots acted as a major turning point in their society. Since that time, the number of Uyghur women wearing headscarves has increased dramatically. They argue that they wear them to stand in solidarity with other Uyghurs as well as identify themselves as Muslim.
One day, I encountered a handful of students on a college campus wearing traditional hats and headscarves. I asked one of the young women why she chose to cover her head in spite of the ban. "It's part of our culture," she responded. When I subsequently inquired what might happen if she continued to defy the ban, the student said that the school could choose to expel her. Such acts of resistance, albeit on a small scale, seemingly indicate the desire of Uyghurs and other Central Asian ethnic groups to assert their own identity as well as their rights.
Uyghur teachers are increasingly unemployed as more teaching jobs go to Chinese. I asked a teacher why it is difficult for young Uyghur college graduates with strong Chinese language skills to find employment in schools. She said that Uyghurs are asking the same question. Upon receiving applications from potential teachers with similar backgrounds, she has noticed that schools tend to give preference to Chinese applicants. The government has also imposed a new requirement that Uyghur teachers, even those who only teach Uyghur language classes, must have a certain level of proficiency in Chinese or they lose their jobs. This stipulation has proven challenging for many older Uyghur teachers.
One student to whom I spoke began to discuss Xinjiang's Central Asian neighbor, Uzbekistan. "Our neighbors," he mused, "share with us a similar language, a similar culture, and a similar history. Why is it that Uzbekistan is a nation, and we are not?" The overwhelming message I receive from Uyghur and other ethnically Central Asian students is that they must unify. They must unify if they wish to protect the future of their culture, their religion, and their people.
Graham Adams specializes in the study of ethnic minority policy in the People's Republic of China. His name has been changed to protect his identity.