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Uyghurs Support Language Protest

October 29, 2010

Radio Free Asia
October 27, 2010

Students assemble at a bilingual middle school
for Uyghur and Han students in Hotan, Xinjiang, Oct. 13, 2006.

Beijing is moving to clamp down on 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 Xinjiang.

"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., 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 protests.

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 Xinjiang.

"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, said Uyghur students
at his school have been eager to join in protests
with their Tibetan classmates.

"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 protests began.

"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.

Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur
service. Translated by Mihray Abdilim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
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