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China: Assimilation Policy Damages Uighur National Identity

In China's westernmost province of Xinjiang live the Uighurs, Muslims who speak a Turkic dialect. Through language and settlement policies, the Chinese government has long sought to bring the region into conformity with the mainland. RFE/RL correspondent Beatrice Hogan examines the challenges Uighurs face in preserving their language.

Prague, 7 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The desert of China's Xinjiang province is ringed with the tent settlements and villages of more than 6 million Uighurs. The province is also home to almost that many Han Chinese.

That ethnic ratio, fast approaching parity, is a relatively new development. The province was once known as Eastern Turkestan and populated mainly by Uighurs. In 1949, the People's Republic of China annexed Eastern Turkestan and renamed it the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

That was the first step of "sinofication," the process of making the local language and culture more Chinese. Following Marxist dogma, the Chinese communists sought to merge, rather than preserve, national differences. Beijing has relocated hundreds of thousands of Han, or ethnic Chinese, into Xinjiang. The government has promoted mixed marriages between Han and Uighurs, and built numerous schools where classes are taught in the Chinese language.

Chinese law guarantees its ethnic minorities the right to use and develop their own languages, keep or reform their folk customs, and worship according to their own religions.

But in practice, according to Asian studies expert Bruce Dickson of George Washington University, China is using educational policy to try to obliterate minority culture and traditions. Mandarin remains the official language of China, and the Chinese government takes the view that all residents must be fluent in Chinese.

Erkin Alptekin, an ethnic Uighur journalist, spoke to RFE/RL at the recent Permanent International Altaic Conference in Prague. He says Uighurs in Xinjiang face enormous pressure to assimilate.

"At present, in Eastern Turkestan, all higher educational institutions are taught in Chinese, textbooks are in Chinese, and 70 percent of teachers in Eastern Turkestan are ethnic Chinese."

Before the Chinese arrived, Uighurs spoke a highly developed literary language and used Arabic script. But in 1964, the Chinese Communists installed the Latin script in Xinjiang, rendering millions of Uighurs illiterate. Since then, more and more words from Chinese have made their way into the Uighur vocabulary. And local names for cities, towns and districts have been changed, stripping them of their meanings. Yarkent, for example, means "city on the cliff" in Uighur. But its Chinese name, Soche, has no meaning in either language.

Alptekin believes the assimilation policy has caused irrevocable damage to the Uighur national identity.

"What happened is a generation, right from the school age -- you know, those parents who want to give their children a better education are sending their kids to Chinese language schools. They grow up and they forget their language, they forget their mother tongue, [and] they forget their traditions and culture."

Chinese language policy in the province is part of what the New York-based group Human Rights Watch calls "thinly veiled institutionalized discrimination against Uighurs." The group says China's educational policies and employment practices discriminate against Muslims.

Another aspect of the Chinese policy of assimilation is to encourage the once-nomadic Uighurs to settle in villages. The traditional Uighur way of life was based on herding. But they are increasingly being forced to leave their nomadic communities and take up farming or service-sector jobs.

Years of frustration boiled over in Xinjiang in 1996, when Uighur nationalists launched a separatist campaign against the Chinese government. The uprising, often violent, served as a catalyst for Uighur cultural awareness. Beijing responded with the "Strike Hard Campaign," a crackdown on local opponents and Uighur culture. Hundreds have been killed and more are in prison, as the fighting continues.

Mark Moore, a policy analyst for the Center of International and Strategic Studies in Washington, DC, says the crackdown in Xinjiang reflects Beijing's insecurity about losing power.

"Beijing takes very seriously Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan as far as their separation from the mainland, because of the domino effect."

If China's economy declines, Moore says, the chance of social unrest in the outlying regions will increase. This is the reason, he says, that Beijing is placing so much emphasis on educating children in the Chinese language, to strengthen the Communist Party's grip on society.

Moore says that Uighurs have little hope of achieving independence, given the overpowering strength of the Chinese military and the economic importance of Xinjiang as an oil supplier for mainland China.

In addition, throughout Chinese history, the fragmentation of the perimeter has been the first sign of dynastic decline. For this reason, Moore says, keeping Xinjiang within China is symbolically important for Beijing.