Abduweli Ayup fled Xinjiang (also known as East Turkestan) in August 2015 to escape persecution from the Chinese Communist Party. His official crime was “abusing public money” in the operation of schools, but this fraudulent charge concealed his true affront to the Chinese government – resistance to the state plan to advance Mandarin language assimilation.
In 2011, Mr. Ayup founded a school in the southwestern city of Kashgar that used Uyghur, Mandarin, and English to implement a culturally relevant education. He and his associates were aware that, by offering instruction in Uyghur, they were at odds with the Chinese government’s objective to marginalize minority languages. They also knew that by affirming the status of Uyghur as valid for academic purposes, they were challenging the government’s language ideology, which depicts the Uyghur language as backward and unpatriotic.
Scholars recognize that mother tongue-based multilingual education has a positive impact on students’ cognitive and sociocultural development. For the ethnic minorities of Xinjiang, it also had popular appeal. At the request of Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Mongol community members, Mr. Ayup was planning to open additional schools that provided minority language instruction in the regional capital of Urumqi.
However, Mr. Ayup’s popularity aroused the Chinese government’s fear of ethnic nationalism. He and his associates were interrogated on several occasions and arrested in August 2013. While incarcerated, Mr. Ayup was sexually assaulted by police officers and suffered psychological and physical abuse from inmates. He was released in November 2014, but Chinese security personnel continued to torment him with arbitrary beatings and confinement. Unable to endure this treatment, Mr. Ayup escaped to Turkey. His family followed, and they lived in Ankara as stateless refugees for nearly four years, before relocating to France in April 2019.
In the Chinese Communist Party’s drive to erase markers of Uyghur identity, the Uyghur language is a target because it is a Turkic language with many words of Arabic origin, and loanwords from Persian, and written in an Arabic-based script. These aspects of the Uyghur language serve to connect Uyghurs with Turkic and Islamic communities. The CCP seeks to sever these affinities and is using Mandarin language assimilation as a tool to reorient Uyghur identity.
This motive serves as the foundation of the Chinese government’s decades-long strategy to normalize Mandarin as the primary language of communication for the ethnic minority communities of Xinjiang. As part of this plan, CCP language policy on education has shifted from the tolerance of ethnic minority languages to their prohibition, concurrent with the promotion of Mandarin.
The CCP’s most pervasive language policy in the region concerns “bilingual” education for ethnic minority students. While the name of this policy may suggest that students maintain their native language while adding another language, “bilingual” education in Xinjiang subtracts native language skills en route to Mandarin language assimilation. This mode of education had expanded, by 2014, to schools serving 2 million primary and secondary students, including 480,000 preschool students. The Chinese government is advancing toward their goal to institute “bilingual” education in over 90 percent of ethnic minority primary and secondary schools by 2020.
The Chinese government’s homestay program also plays a role in the campaign for Mandarin language assimilation. By 2017, more than a million Chinese cadres had been implanted in the homes of rural Xinjiang residents for at least five days every two months. Tasked with observing Turkic Muslim families, the cadres also report the Mandarin proficiency levels of Uyghur family members and their general use of Mandarin. Thus, language skills and practices serve as points of evidence when deciding who should be recommended for “re-education” at an internment camp.
In the network of internment camps of Xinjiang, where close to 3 million Turkic Muslims are being held, internees are required to speak in Mandarin and prohibited from using their native languages. In a white paper, the Chinese government stated that “trainees” needed to learn Mandarin to “acquire modern knowledge and information” because “only by mastering standard Chinese language can they better adapt to contemporary society.” This argument implies that the minority languages of Xinjiang are deficient for communication, a politically convenient but scientifically false assertion.
Some may argue that the Chinese government is justified in their use of internment camps to remove the threat of anti-government sentiment. Others may contend that this act of ethnocide is no different than the U.S. campaign against Native Americans, the Canadian campaign against First Nation communities, and the Australian campaign against Aboriginal communities. Yet, it is difficult to imagine that cultural trauma will engender positive feelings toward the source of that trauma. And historical instances of cultural assimilation do not justify their repetition.
The prospect of opposing governments that threaten minority cultures may seem daunting, but those interested in challenging Chinese linguistic imperialism can take action by pressuring U.S. politicians to support the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019 (House Resolution H.R. 649 and Senate Resolution S. 178). This act condemns the “elimination of the Uyghur language as a medium of instruction in Xinjiang schools and universities.” Interested parties can also support the UYGHUR Act of 2019 (House Resolution H.R. 1025), which has a section dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the Uyghur language. Citizens worldwide should encourage their governments to use tools like the Global Magnitsky Act to impose economic sanctions and travel penalties on Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in northwest China.
The Chinese government is heavily invested in silencing the sound of Uyghur. Opponents of linguicide in Xinjiang are urged to publicize, condemn, and resist this violation of human rights.
Rustem Shir is a Research Associate for the Uyghur Human Rights Project.