East Turkestan: Uyghurs Support Language Protest
Uyghurs are voicing their objections to a language policy as they back Tibetan protests in western China.
Below is an article published by Radio Free Asia:
Beijing is moving to clamp down the Internet in northwestern China as
ethnic minority Uyghurs express support for protests by Tibetan
students campaigning for language rights, according to Uyghur
residents and intellectuals.
Tibetan students have been protesting over the last two weeks, mostly
in China's western province Qinghai, over fears the authorities will
introduce a Chinese-language-only curriculum.
As the protests spread to Beijing about a week ago, authorities tried
to block information about the demonstrations from reaching Uyghurs,
who have long endured erosion of their language rights throughout
schools in Xinjiang, according to Uyghur students.
"The local government is controlling the university websites and news
about the Tibetan protests in Qinghai but we have already received
information from our friends in inner-China about the protests there
and at Beijing National Minorities University," said one student from
"They told me that the Uyghur university students [in Beijing] are
talking about the Tibetan student protests and are very excited about
it. Even the Kazakh students are in support of the Tibetans," he said.
"But right now, every university is tightly restricting the students
in Xinjiang and also in inner-China. Even groups of Uyghurs who are
studying in inner-China's 'Xinjiang classes' are being controlled,"
said the student, who asked to keep his name and location anonymous
for fear of persecution.
Uyghurbiz.net, a popular website and online discussion forum for
Uyghur issues, recently reported that nearly every student enrolled in
special "Xinjiang classes" for Uyghurs in inner-China has been
approached by school security and told to refrain from joining in any
protests backing Tibetan language rights.
The report said that parents have also received calls from school
security telling them to prevent their children from supporting the
School restaurants serving Uyghurs, and which prepare food according
to Muslim dietary rules, have been dishing out special meals in a bid
to prevent any unrest, the report added.
'No one asked us'
A Uyghur teacher in Xinjiang, who also requested anonymity, agreed
that Uyghur support for the Tibetan protests is high in the region.
"Every Uyghur teacher and student is supporting Tibet right now,
because we have the same problems here," the teacher said.
"We should be using our own language and our students need to be
learning about our culture so that we can stay Uyghurs," she said.
The teacher added that the Uyghur community in Xinjiang has been very
upset with the work of recently appointed Xinjiang Governor Nur Bekri
and other officials who claim to represent their interests to Beijing.
"The Chinese central government wants bilingual education here, but
the local government should be asking the local people what they want.
We don't agree with this policy, but no one has asked us," she said.
"The local government is doing everything wrong. The government should
not be enforcing a bilingual policy, especially on the young Uyghur
children in kindergarten."
She said that enforcing the use of Mandarin Chinese in Uyghur schools
has had a detrimental effect on the entire education system in
"After the bilingual policy, many local Uyghur teachers lost their
jobs because they don't speak Mandarin, which has been very bad. Some
high school students no longer want to study at school. All of the
courses require Mandarin now, so the students aren't interested in
class," she said.
"This may end up destroying the Uyghur school system."
Solidarity in Beijing
Ilham Tohti, an outspoken Uyghur professor at Beijing National
Minorities University, and webmaster of Uighurbiz.net, said Uyghur
students at his school have been eager to join in protests with their
"From the beginning of the Qinghai protests, Uyghur students studying
at my university were all supportive. Some students came to my office
and said they want to protest with the Tibetan students, but I advised
them that we can support them without protesting," Ilham Tohti said.
"If we protest, we may run into trouble."
Ilham Tohti said in a telephone interview that he has been under
constant surveillance by school security personnel since the Tibetan
"The other day someone from the Beijing security police came to talk
to me about my ideas on these Tibetan protests. I told them they must
be careful with their policies in the Xinjiang region," he said.
"The Chinese government has been using bilingual education in Xinjiang
for much longer than in Tibet, and Uyghurs have had a very bad
experience with this policy."
"I can 100 percent guarantee that if the government doesn't change
this policy in Xinjiang, Uyghurs will carry out this kind of protest
as well, and it could become another July 5," he said, referring to
deadly riots in the capital Urumqi last year that left nearly 200
people dead, by the Chinese government's tally.
Ilham Tohti called for a rethink in Chinese policies in Xinjiang,
which he said is "essential for the sake of stability in the region."
"I hope the government will find a new strategy for Xinjiang which
will allow the people there more freedom. If they really want to keep
Xinjiang, this is what they must do."
Support from abroad
Erkin Sidik, a U.S.-based senior optical engineer at NASA, agreed that
the Chinese central government must allow the preservation of local
dialects and minority culture if it hopes to maintain stability in the
country's frontier regions.
"All minorities should keep their own language. The Chinese government
says they have a bilingual policy, but it's really a Chinese language
policy. They will destroy these minorities' languages and cultures. So
I am very supportive of the Tibetan students' situation."
Erkin Sidik was named as one of the "splittist elements" responsible
for inciting the July 5 ethnic riots after he had visited Urumqi
earlier to give a presentation at Xinjiang University on language in
the Uyghur school system.
The Uyghur author of several articles on bilingual education in
Xinjiang maintains that his talk was not politicized and merely
summarized the situation according to central government policy and
its implementation in the region.
"It's like the Pakistani independence movement. They fought against
the use of Hindi because they wanted to keep the use of Urdu and this
led to their fight for independence [against India]," he said.
"The Chinese government should learn from this lesson if they want to
maintain control of Xinjiang."
Millions of Uyghurs-a distinct, Turkic minority who are predominantly
Muslim-populate Central Asia and Xinjiang.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive
religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite
China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly
attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of
maintaining ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.