Authorities have upended the curriculum at one of the most respected Uyghur high schools in northwest Chinaâ€™s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), replacing Uyghur language instruction with that of Mandarin Chinese, as part of what the Uyghur diaspora says is a campaign to eradicate their culture in the region.
Kashgar Uyghur High School, in the seat of Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture, was founded in 1956 and widely known within the XUAR as the regionâ€™s top educational institution for Uyghur children to learn their language and cultural heritage.
After reducing its junior high school classes in the early 1980s, the school focused on teaching senior high schoolers, but maintained its focus on studies upheld in the Uyghur tradition.
However, in the early 2010s, authorities merged the school with another institution for Han Chinese residents and renamed it Kashgar No. 6 High School, including class instruction in Mandarin on topics related to Han Chinese culture, and requiring all students to study the curriculum.
In April 2019, a job advertisement was published on the webpage of the Tianshui Normal Institute in neighboring Gansu province calling for teachers to apply for the fall term, at which point the name of the school would officially be changed to Shanghai Normal University High School.
The school said that as of April that year it had 59 classes with a total of 2,811 students and 319 teachers and was looking to hire applicants from across China who were under the age of 30 and had recently received their undergraduate or masterâ€™s degrees. It said 19 positions would be made available for graduates of Shanghai Normal University.
The advertisement touted high salaries and generous benefits for teachers, including a monthly salary of 4,361 yuan (U.S. $615) for teachers with bachelorâ€™s degrees and 5,021 yuan (U.S. $710) for teachers with masterâ€™s degrees. When other benefits are added, teachers could expect a total compensation exceeding 8,000 yuan (U.S. $1,130) per month and be eligible for annual bonuses of 12,000-15,000 yuan (U.S. $1,695-$2,120).
RFAâ€™s Uyghur Service recently spoke with a Han Chinese woman from the schoolâ€™s Teaching Division who said that teachersâ€”including Uyghur language instructorsâ€”are still being sought â€œon a rolling basis,â€ although she suggested that Uyghur is only being taught to some students on an individual basis and is not part of the regular curriculum.
â€œWe are currently teaching everything in the national language [Mandarin],â€ the staffer said, when asked whether the school offered bilingual education.
She refused to answer additional questions about the curriculum, saying further inquiries would need to be made in person at the school.
RFA also spoke with a Uyghur-speaking male employee at the school, who hung up the phone after telling a reporter to â€œmind your own businessâ€ when asked about Uyghur language classes.
Jurat Obul, a Uyghur former student of the school who is now based in the U.S., told RFA that the changes there indicate authorities are trying to whitewash its importance as an institution of learning for Uyghur language and culture.
â€œ[The authorities] Sinicized [the name] and changed it [to Kashgar No. 6 High School], but they still werenâ€™t totally satisfied, so they combined it with a Chinese school,â€ he said, before changing it again in the fall of last year.
â€œThe [school] was the best-known, most important school in the whole prefecture. It was also important within the autonomous region as a whole. Many talented students have come out of that school. Itâ€™s very important for Uyghurs in Kashgar.â€
Obul said that he visited the school in 2012 and said it reminded him of a â€œprison.â€
â€œTheyâ€™d made it completely Chinese … it was already completely different from the school where weâ€™d studied,â€ he said.
According to Obul, Han Chinese teachers at the school treated Uyghur students â€œas if they were animals.â€
â€œI was very upset by this and my eyes filled with tears,â€ he said.
â€œOur teachers were so kind and loving to us when we were studying there. They really devoted themselves to developing our potential … Now thereâ€™s no love there, only destruction. Theyâ€™ve completely done away with Uyghur education.â€
Reports of changes at the school come amidst conflicting information about the fate of one of its Uyghur administrators, Dolkun Tursun, who went missing after delivering a speech in February 2013 to mark International Mother Language Day in Kashgar, during which he said it is â€œa point of pride to know a foreign language, and a sin not to know oneâ€™s mother tongue.â€
RFA recently attempted to call Tursunâ€™s home but found that the number had been disconnected.
A Han Chinese staff member at the Kashgar Uyghur High School, when asked why Tursunâ€™s phone was disconnected, said â€œhe was sent down to a village,â€ referring to a form of punishment that originated during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when urban dwellers were forcibly relocated to the countryside to assist in rural life.
The staffer hung up upon realizing that the call had originated from outside of China.
Norway-based Uyghur language activist Abduweli Ayup, who organized the February 2013 event and used it to announce his intention to found a Uyghur language preschool, disputed the stafferâ€™s claims, however.
â€œHow can we trust what [the employee] says if he canâ€™t even tell us what village heâ€™s in,â€ Ayup said, adding that Tursun had been targeted for police interrogation over his speech and that sources suggest he was arrested in one of the first waves of internment camp detentions in Kashgar in 2017.
â€œHe was detained in 2017, and Iâ€™m unaware of any news that heâ€™s been released,â€ he said.
According to Ayup, who was also detained by police in the aftermath of the February 2013 event, authorities â€œgave [Tursun] a bit of a rough time for having used the word â€˜sin.â€™â€
A culture targeted
Last week, the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) outlined what it called the Chinese governmentâ€™s â€œcampaign to stamp out tangible aspects of Uyghur culture,â€ using the destruction of much of the old city of Kashgarâ€”an ancient Silk Road trading centerâ€”as a model.
While several international organizations, including UNESCO, have voiced their concern at the potential loss of architectural legacy, UHRP said in its report that â€œit is precisely because of Kashgarâ€™s uniqueness and its profound degree of cultural significance for Uyghurs that the Chinese government has gone to extraordinary lengths to co-opt the cityâ€™s symbolic heritage.â€
Kashgarâ€™s Old City offers one of the clearest examples of Beijingâ€™s efforts to reshape the Uyghur cultural narrative, but it is by no means the only one. RFAâ€™s Uyghur Service has documented countless cases of official efforts to wipe away the historical and social touchstones of Uyghur civilization and replace them with symbols of loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
But the targeting of Uyghur cultural traditions goes far beyond the destruction of their physical manifestations. Heavy restrictions on religious practices, the teaching of the Uyghur language in schools, and even appearance and diet, are in place throughout the region under the guise of â€œmodernization.â€
Those who violate these rules are arbitrarily detained in the XUARâ€™s vast network of some 1,300 internment camps, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring â€œstrong religious viewsâ€ and â€œpolitically incorrectâ€ ideas since April 2017.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China last year changed tack and began describing the facilities as â€œboarding schoolsâ€ that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
But reporting by RFA and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often-overcrowded facilities.
Reported by Mihray Abdilim for RFAâ€™s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.