China is replacing languages of ethnic minorities with Mandarin

China is replacing languages of ethnic minorities with Mandarin
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China has been carrying out propaganda that it cares for its minority communities, putting forth this perspective at various international forums, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council and the council’s Universal Periodic Review Working Group, and in white papers issued periodically.

In its September 2019 white paper, “Seeking Happiness for People: 70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China,” Beijing claimed that it has effectively guaranteed ethnic minority rights in administering state affairs, with representation of all 55 ethnic minority groups in the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. 

It also claimed that it fully protects the freedom of ethnic minorities to use and develop their spoken and written languages, and that the state protects by law the legitimate use of spoken and written languages of ethnic minorities in the areas of administration and judiciary, press and publishing, radio, film and television, and culture and education. China claims to have established a database for the endangered languages of ethnic minority groups, and has initiated a program for protecting China’s language resources.

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Contrary to the propaganda, however, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is gradually replacing the languages of China’s minorities with the Chinese language, and the government has started the process to replace Uighur and Tibetan language in the schools in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, introducing Mandarin as the medium of instruction.

Besides these examples, China separately has been pushing a “Sinicized religion” campaign in China, defying the growing international condemnation over its sweeping crackdown on Muslims and Christians. The push to “Sinicize religion” — introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2015 — is an attempt by the officially atheist CCP to bring religions under its absolute control and in line with Chinese culture.

The campaign has brought an intensified clampdown on religious freedom across the country, especially on Protestants, Catholics and Muslims, who the CCP fears could become tools of foreign influence or ethnic separatism. In the far western region of Xinjiang, more than 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities have been held in internment camps and reportedly forced to denounce Islam and pledge their loyalty to the CCP.

During the two legislative sessions in May, National People’s Congress delegates from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region sought the state council’s approval to recognize the Mongolian language as one of the national minority languages of China. This demand also was raised in last year’s two sessions. The Chinese government has hesitated to approve this, despite its disinformation about protecting the rights of minorities.

Recently, the Provincial Education Bureau in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, undertook to replace Mongolian language and introduce Chinese language as the medium of instruction in the schools and universities, starting in September 2020. The teaching of history and political science, which has been done in Mongolian, instead will be done in Mandarin.

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The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region government has reasoned that since the Mongolian language, script and spoken, is more closely aligned with Central Asian and West Asian languages, it should be replaced with the Chinese language. 

Classes in Mongolian language in parts of the region, and elsewhere in China, were suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now they will cease forever and all teaching will be in Chinese. This is happening in high schools in and around Tongliao City, and is expected to extend to Tongliao Nationalities University and other areas of the so-called “autonomous” region.

Tongliao was chosen to begin the implementation of the language policy because nearly 1 million ethnic Mongolians live in Tongliao, making it the most Mongolian-populated area and a linguistic stronghold for the Mongolian language in China. Some 5 million Mongols represent less than 20 percent of the region’s population.

The move, paving the way for Chinese linguistic hegemony, should be seen as part of a larger campaign to eradicate Mongolian identity, language and culture from what the CCP calls “Inner Mongolia.” The story of Mongolians is underreported by the international media, and therefore less well-known internationally than what is happening to China’s other minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet. Nonetheless, what happens in Inner (or Southern) Mongolia is also a cultural genocide, the CCP’s attempt to destroy a proud culture in the name of “Sinicization.” It should not be left alone.

Across China, Beijing apparently intends to replace the languages of all ethnic minorities with Mandarin, to bring in uniformity of language and enhance people’s identity as Chinese. It is believed that the languages of minorities could fade away gradually and, in time, Mandarin would become the only language in use.

Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a Tiananmen Massacre survivor, and a former political prisoner in China.

Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, he was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.