Step by step, China gives less and less room to minoritised languages

Parliamentary committee announces that requiring the use of languages such as Tibetan or Uyghur in schools is “unconstitutional” · Decision is part of Xi’s policy of strengthening Chinese nationalism

Tibetan exiles demonstrate for the freedom of language activist Taashi Wangchuk.
Tibetan exiles demonstrate for the freedom of language activist Taashi Wangchuk. Author: Students for a Free Tibet
Pressure in China against the use of languages such as Tibetan, Uyghur, or Korean is worsening, with schools having become one of the battlegrounds. Chinese authorities have now announced that regulations allowing the use of minoritised languages in classrooms are unconstitutional.

Pro-government outlet Global Times echoes the words of Chinese Parliament’s Legislative Affairs Committee Director Shen Chunyao, who last week gave explanations on the matter. According to the newspaper, “some local regulations” allowing the use of “ethnic languages” are “inconsistent” with the Chinese Constitution’s “order promote Putonghua,” or Standard Chinese.

The move is affecting schools in Tibet, East Turkestan, and Southern Mongolia, as well as several regions where other minoritised languages are spoken. This is the case for Yanbian, where descendants of Koreans who settled there during the 19th and 20th centuries are concentrated.

This Globe and Mail story reports on a school in Yanbian’s city of Yanji, where Korean has ceased to be used as the main language of instruction as of this school year. The language is now only used in the Korean language subject. For the remaining subjects, everything is taught in Chinese.

Radio Free Asia reports that the same is taking place in East Turkestan, or Xinjiang Uyghur, at least in one county where 97% of the population is Uyghur.

And last September, popular protests took place in Southern Mongolia, or Inner Mongolia, when students learned that three subjects previously taught in Mongol would be from then on taught in Chinese.

The Tibetan government-in-exile office in Geneva, meanwhile, complains that not only is Putonghua replacing Tibetan as the medium of instruction in schools, but that Chinese authorities are banning Buddhist monasteries from teaching the language to children during holidays.

The US PEN centre says that Chinese authorities have for years been curtailing instruction in minoritised languages such as Tibetan, Mongol, and Uyghur, which only 5 years ago had a more significant presence in classrooms. This Human Rights Watch report shows how the weight of Chinese in the education system is being increased year after year.

“This is yet another serious blow to mother-tongue education –not to mention language, diversity, and cultural rights– in China,” says Maya Wang, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Since President Xi Jinping’s rise to power in the 2010s, and his vision to build a Han-centric ‘China Dream,’ his government has marginalised these languages in schools.” Wang adds that this policy violates the rights enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which China ratified in 1992.

Xi’s political project is based, among other pillars, on the reinforcement of a single Chinese national identity, which requires the assimilation of all nations and peoples within the borders of the People’s Republic. Re-education camps in East Turkestan since 2017, or labour camps in Tibet since 2019, are part of this assimilationist policy.

Activist Tashi Wangchuk released from prison

For having protested against this state of affairs, Tibetan activist Tashi Wangchuk was arrested in January 2016 and subsequently sentenced to 5 years in prison for “incitement to separatism.” His lawyer, Liang Xiaojun, has announced that the man has been released from prison. However, the lawyer could not confirm whether Tashi is completely free, or the authorities are holding him under some form of supervision.

The US PEN Centre has welcomed the activist’s release from prison, and has stressed that Tashi “unjustly served years behind bars.” “Speaking one’s own language is no crime, and neither is peacefully advocating for its use,” the organisation has said. “We call upon the Chinese authorities to stop the criminalisation of language defenders.”

Other people have been imprisoned for the same reasons. One case that has come to light is that of monk Sonam Palden, who was arrested in 2019 for posting a poem on the WeChat platform about the marginalisation of Tibetan.