The Global Times, house organ of the Chinese Communist Party, reported on Wednesday that students at the No. 7 Elementary School of Kuqa County have been “encouraged to learn Chinese calligraphy and read classical Chinese literature as part of a program to boost traditional Chinese culture and core socialist values.”
What makes this interesting is that Kuqa County is located in the restless Xinjiang province, home of the Uighur Muslim minority.
According to the Global Times, about 500 of the 2,500 students at No. 7 Elementary School are from “an ethnic minority.” The article later notes that the majority of the county’s 500,000 residents are Uighurs.
Activities at the school included calligraphy lessons from a noted expert and a “classical Chinese literature reading contest” in which the students dressed up in traditional Han Chinese garb to expound on the writings of Confucius.
The Uighurs have complained about the Chinese government attempting to suppress their culture, replacing it with Chinese literature and history, while limiting the teaching and practice of Islam. They have accused Han Chinese of moving into Uighur areas and taking the best jobs for themselves. The Chinese government insists an influx of technically proficient Chinese workers is a necessary consequence of economic development in Xinjiang province.
China’s educational program in Xinjiang can become much more aggressive than “encouraging” elementary-school students to study Chinese literature. In September, Human Rights Watch called upon the Chinese government to release thousands of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities from “political education centers” in Xinjiang where they are “subjected to propaganda promoting Chinese identity.”
The detainees include entire families, held without a warrant or formal charges. They are subjected to indoctrination sessions including Mandarin language instruction and government propaganda, made to renounce their own ethnic and religious identities, and taught slogans such as “religion is harmful” and “learning Chinese is part of patriotism.” According to whistleblowers, merely traveling abroad can be enough to land Xinjiang residents in one of these “counter-extremism training sessions” for a semester or two.
“The Chinese authorities are holding people at these ‘political education’ centers not because they have committed any crimes, but because they deem them politically unreliable. The government has provided no credible reasons for holding these people and should free them immediately,” said Human Rights Watch China Director Sophie Richardson.
The Economist noted in June that Chinese President Xi Jinping has portrayed “bilingual education”—by which he means forcing Uighur children to learn Mandarin Chinese—is vital to suppressing social unrest and preventing terrorism.
As the article pointed out, teaching Xinjiang’s children the language necessary to access job opportunities across China is not unreasonable, especially since the Uighurs are making a difficult transition to industrial life from a largely agrarian economy. In that respect, the initiative is similar to most efforts at maintaining a common national language, but Chinese authorities have been accused of going too far and suppressing Uighur religion and culture.
Resistance to these efforts leads some Uighur families to show less than enthusiastic support for the formal education of their children or even send them to illegal private religious schools. Also, the Uighurs point to evident wage and job discrimination to argue that learning Mandarin is not quite the ticket to prosperity Chinese officials portray it as.
In some areas of the Xinjiang region, use of both the spoken and written Uighur language has been banned outright to “create a favorable environment for minorities to study the national language.” Uighur activists denounced this policy as “nothing short of cultural genocide.”