When China announced this month that it has spent some $63 million in recent years to build or renovate kindergartens in Xinjiang, raising the restive region’s preschool enrollment rate to 98%, Uyghurs saw more reason for concern than for gratitude, analysts from the ethnic minority said.
The figures, announced at Dec. 9 news conference in the regional capital Urumqi, in Uyghur eyes are seen as a sign of Beijing’s intensified drive to assimilate the 12 million Uyghurs, replacing their Turkic native language with Chinese and “Sinicizing” children at an ever earlier age, exiled Uyghurs said.
“In recent years, Xinjiang has continuously increased investment in education and carried out educational projects to benefit the residents. Free three-year preschool education covers all rural areas of the region,” the official Xinhua news agency quoted an official named Hellat as saying after unveiling the figures. The official did not give an annual breakdown on school spending.
China faces intensifying criticism and sanctions from Western countries over its increasingly repressive policies in the Xinjiang region, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia. Beijing vehemently rejects the criticism.
“The Chinese government has attempted to evade criticism by announcing that they are allocating hundreds of millions of yuan for this, and saying that they’re doing good things,” said Qelbinur Sidik, who taught at an elementary school in Urumqi for more than 30 years before emigrating to the Netherlands.
“But in reality, their intent is very clearly and openly to eliminate the identities of our Uyghur children,” she said.
In August, the Chinese Communist Party issued a directive extending compulsory Mandarin language teaching to preschoolers across the country. Mandarin would supplant minority languages like Uyghur, Mongolian, Tibetan, as well regional Chinese tongues like Sichuanese and Cantonese, as the medium of instruction for children of all ages across the country.
The harder line on ethnic minorities is driven by President Xi Jinping, who told the Central Conference on Ethnic Affairs in Beijing in August that ethnic minority groups must put the interests of the nation first and share a sense of community with the Chinese nation.
“[We] should actively and steadily address the ideological issues that involve ethnic factors, and continue to eradicate poisonous thoughts of ethnic separatism and religious extremism,” Xi was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
Previous RFA reports have documented Chinese government policies to reduce or eliminate culture and language education in schools in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia, causing friction with local communities and prompting protests against the moves.
‘Bilingual education’ policy
The government’s latest action is an acceleration of a long-standing plan by the Chinese government to Sinicize later generations of Uyghurs, Asiye Abdulehed, a Uyghur activist and analyst in the Netherlands, told RFA.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, this process took the form of establishing Chinese-language classes in elementary and secondary schools and later morphed into “bilingual education” after the 1990s, when the “Xinjiang class” boarding school programs were established, she said.
“Looking at it now, we can see that these were entirely Sinicized schools under the name of ‘bilingual education,’” Asiye said. “Children were separated from their parents and housed in boarding schools.”
She said the campaign to assimilate Uyghurs at younger ages gathered steam in the form of “spreading national-language education” following the start of a mass detention and internment campaign in 2017 that has seen up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities incarcerated in a network of detention camps.
“If we look at what undergirds all of these policies, we can see one commonality, which is that as part of these policies, ‘bilingual education’ for many years has been and continues to be undertaken with the purpose of separating Uyghurs from their roots, or in other words, of committing genocide, of erasing this people from history,” Asiye said.
Scholars as well as previous RFA reporting have found that thousands of Uyghur children whose parents have been detained have been sent to camps, boarding schools, and orphanages.
“They have used pleasant-sounding names,” said Qelbinur, who taught Chinese in the camp system for two years.
“For example, they took children away from their homes to boarding schools and orphanages that they called things like ‘home schools.’”
Officials there keep the doors locked to ensure that the children are brought up in ways that are creating “abnormalities” in their psychology, Qelbinur said.
“There’s a sense of separateness, withdrawnness, timidity, and fear in these children,” she said.
“Because they’ve been separated from the warmth and love of their family home, their education, love for their native language, ability to speak their language, and their cultural knowledge, they simply have no way to know about their national identity,” Qelbinur said.
“In their school education, their ethnic identity is completely eliminated. It’s a very distressing fate,” she added.
‘An experiment to eliminate Uyghurs’
In its Dec. 9 ruling that China’s policies toward Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity, the Uyghur Tribunal in London listed treatment of children and language education among evidence it weighed.
“Children as young as a few months were separated from their families and placed in orphanages or state-run boarding schools. In some cases the parents of these children did not know if their children were alive or dead,” it said.
“The use of the Uyghur language has been punished. Children from an early age have been denied education in their native language and have been punished for the use of it,” read the ruling, which is not binding but has been used as the basis for a lawsuit against China.
In recent years, the Chinese government made significant investments in education to assimilate Uyghurs, said Erkin Sidick, a Uyghur intellectual and NASA engineer based in California.
“The Chinese government would never just invest 500 million yuan in Uyghur schools in the countryside [because] there are no actual Uyghur schools left [there],” he said.The children are born Uyghurs, but everything in their lives starts in preschool, beginning with the language, which is Chinese,” Erkin said.
“We can understand the investments the [Chinese government] has made as money spent for an experiment to assimilate Uyghurs, to eliminate them.”
Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
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