fighting for linguistic autonomy on International Uyghur Language Day

You hear the call to prayer echo through busy streets of vendors selling samsalar (سلمسالار, cf. samosa), polu (پولۇ, cf. pilaf) and kawaplar (كاۋاپلار, cf. kebab). Many of the women are wearing brightly coloured headscarves and many of the men have beards or moustaches. Signs written in the Arabic script and the sounds of a language not unlike Turkish would never have you guessing that you’re actually in China. And this isn’t merely a small border region, but a large area encompassing deserts and mountain ranges that have been under Chinese occupation since 1949. The area is referred to in Chinese as Xinjiang (新疆 = new frontier) and covers a sixth of China’s land mass. Many locals would prefer to call it East Turkestan, though this term is officially banned in the region. East Turkestan/Xinjiang is home to a large number of ethnic groups, each with their own identity, language, and culture, but the Uyghurs are the most populous. They number over 10 million, however outside of China they are scarcely known.

The Uyghur people (pronounced /ˈwɡər/ in English) have received only limited attention in international media regarding the oppression they face by the Chinese government and the subsequent violence that erupts between the two groups. Ilham Tohti is a well-known Uyghur economist and outspoken supporter of autonomy and freedom in Xinjiang who is now serving a life sentence on unfounded charges of separatist activity. He has been lauded in the west for his fight for the freedom of speech of Uyghurs. The wrongful detainment of a group of Uyghurs at Guantánamo Bay, some for over ten years, was reported in the media, but this gave no attention to the problems Uyghurs face in Xinjiang. Very little is ever reported on the systematic sinofication of the Uyghurs’ homeland and the ensuing cultural damage threatening their traditions and language.

Uyghur is a Turkic language spoken by about 10 million people in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and in the neighbouring countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. There are also diaspora communities in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Small communities of Uyghurs have also migrated for work to cities throughout China. Highly agglutinative in nature, the language resembles other Turkic languages, though with a significant amount of vocabulary borrowed from Chinese. It is written in a modified Arabic script.

I haven’t had much contact with Uyghurs since I left China in 2002 – after all, the diaspora communities that exist are quite small and low profile. Two events this month, however, have motivated me to revisit the topic of the Uyghurs and their language. The first is the Chinese government’s strict controls on and surveillance of the Uyghurs’ celebration of the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.

For several years now the Chinese government has had an official policy of (further) restricting freedom of religion in Xinjiang and even outlawing the observance of Ramadan. Anyone with a government job is forbidden from fasting during Ramadan. The fact that the government pays their salary means that they can withhold payment if any non-compliance is suspected. Young people under the age of 18 are forbidden from participating in any religious activities, including visiting mosques, studying the Qur’an, and fasting. During Ramadan some high school students observing the fast have been forced to eat at school or suffer punishment. Uyghur-owned restaurants must maintain normal business hours and stock food and alcohol during the month of Ramadan or face possible fines and/or harassment. The Uyghurs face discrimination and pressure to assimilate year round, but during this month in particular they are under much closer surveillance and surrounded by a heightened military presence in the region.

The second event this month is International Uyghur Language Day, today June 15th. The annual commemoration was inaugurated by the World Uyghur Congress in 2015 to bring attention to the linguistic plight of the Uyghurs and to defend their right to receive an education in their own language. Since 9/11 the Chinese government has been increasingly pressuring Uyghurs to conform to Han Chinese culture and has adopted assimilationist policies such as the so-called bilingual education.  In reality the Bilingual Education Policy is a transition to monolingual Mandarin-medium education aimed at “helping” Uyghur-speaking children adjust by blurring the lines of cultural identity between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. The adoption of Mandarin for the sake of integration comes at the cost of the Uyghur language. The Uyghur population, with its youth exposed exclusively to Mandarin in schools, is naturally worried about the fate of their mother tongue.

In 2015 the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, D.C. released a report on the effects of “bilingual education” on the Uyghur youth of Xinjiang today. The report found that the regional government has set a goal of having nearly the entire Uyghur student population enrolled in “bilingual schools” by the year 2020. As it stands, they have achieved about half of their goal. To accomplish this the government is spending over US$700 million, money which would be more wisely and justly spent improving educational resources through the medium of the Uyghur language. Xinjiang’s Party Secretary Wang Lequan commented in 2002 that minority languages lack the vocabulary for modern science and technology and this renders education in these languages “impossible”. However, if the government is prepared to increase spending on education by hundreds of millions of dollars, I don’t see how more up-to-date educational materials, terminology, and training in Uyghur couldn’t just as easily be provided. The quality of education is clearly not the issue at hand.

The Chinese Communist Party has often equated a distinct Uyghur cultural identity (and language) with an affinity towards terrorism and separatist ideology. Furthermore, opposition to government policies such as bilingual education can get one labeled as a terrorist or separatist. Parents who do decide to send their children to “bilingual” schools are told that their children will have more job opportunities in the future due to their Mandarin language skills. In reality though, these children will still face systemic discrimination in the job market and severe competition from the droves of Han Chinese workers who are brought into Xinjiang from the east specifically to fill job positions. Either parents keep their children from bilingual education and risk being labeled terrorists, or they submit their children to a system that is designed to discriminate against them and distance them from their own language.

In the media, the situation is no better. There is a lack of Uyghur language print materials compared to what is available in Mandarin, and Uyghur language websites are subject to especially heavy censorship (the Chinese internet is already censored in the first place). In July of 2009 demonstrations in Ürümqi against the discrimination of Uyghurs turned into a violent riot. In response, the government shut down the internet in Xinjiang for ten months in order to inhibit communication and the spread of information. In May of the following year when internet service was restored, the vast majority of Uyghur language websites had been taken down, even though most of them did not contain religious or political content.

Two months ago, five web administrators and writers for Uyghur-language websites were detained in anticipation of the politically sensitive time of Ramadan. Some of the detainees have still not been released and have not been allowed any contact with the outside world. Through intimidation, harassment, and imprisonment the amount of platforms for original literature, news, and commentary in Uyghur is steadily decreasing, and the lack of Uyghur language education means that fewer children will master the language enough to create new content in the future. The CCP is doing its best to take away the voice of the Uyghur people.

I’m writing today to bring attention to the struggle of this language and culture. In the case of the Uyghurs, linguistic freedom is one of the many human rights being denied to them. As we see more languages die every year, it is important to keep in mind that this decline is not something that happens in an instant. It takes years of constant pressure and adversity to bring a whole linguistic community down to its last few speakers. Uyghur still has a strong population of speakers, but with the youngest speakers being strategically targeted, something will need to change soon to stave off the decline of this very old and very beautiful language.

Rebiya Kadeer, President of the World Uyghur Congress and human rights activist has said, “We should be proud of our language, culture and ethnicity. Only by saving our language can we save the Uyghur people and our heritage.” To commemorate International Uyghur Language Day, during the month of Ramadan when so many Uyghurs are subject to even greater persecution, I encourage you to learn about the situation in East Turkestan/Xinjiang, spread the word, and perhaps learn your first words in the Uyghur language:

Yaxšimusiz? (ياخشىمۇسىز؟) – Hello!/How are you?

Qandaq ähwalingiz? (قانداق ئەھۋالىڭىز؟) – How is your health?

Yaxši (ياخشى) – Good/well.

Rähmät (رەھمەت) – Thank you.

Iš ömlüktä, küč birliktä. (.ئىش ئۆملۈكتە، كۈچ بىرلىكتە) – (Proverb) Work should be done with a group, power comes from unity.

Check back in for a more in-depth look at the Uyghur language itself in a future post.  Until then, here is a well-known Uyghur folk song:

 

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