This review also adresses the following publications:
Han, Y., De Costa, P.I., Cui, Y., ‘Exploring the Language Policy and Planning/Second Language Acquisition Interface: Ecological Insights from an Uyghur Youth in China4, Language Policy 18 (2019): 65–86
Yuan, Z. & Zhu, H. (2020). ‘Uyghur Educational Elites in China: Mobility and Subjectivity Uncertainty on a Life-Transforming Journey’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (2020) [doi: 10.1080/1369183X.2020.1790343]
In the context of growing attention towards repressive policies in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XUAR), the reviewer thought it timely to look at publications concerning language policy shifts and their impact on the Uyghur youth that they target. Studying Chinese language policy in the XUAR, and its impact on the language habits and lived experience of the ‘minorities’ affected by it, is of key concern to our appreciation of the assimilationist tendencies evident in the region. This discussion is central to a complete understanding of the camp system, the most headline-grabbing element of a wider process operating at all levels of society. This review groups together recently published articles, each written or co-written by at least one Chinese scholar currently working in the PRC, in the view of broadening our understanding of the ways in which the ongoing language planning is viewed by academics inside China, but also to start building an appreciation of the conceptual space, bounded by the Chinese Communist Party’s standards of acceptability, in which these academics live and work.
The articles selected here, despite situating themselves in different academic disciplines (namely, applied linguistics for the first two and ethnography for the third), display a number of shared features, starting with the use of qualitative research methods. All use interviews and participant observation with a limited number of subjects, ranging from one Uyghur student, Alim, in the case of Han et al.’s article (2019), to four in Han & Johnson (2020), to 97 questionnaires and 16 semi-structured one-to-one interviews in Yuan & Zhu (2020). The subjects targeted can all be considered to be part of the young Uyghur ‘educational’ elite, the latter article studying adolescents as they make their way to Xinjiang class schools in inland China (a boarding school project aimed at easing interethnic conflict, initiated in 2000), the other two focusing on university students’ Chinese language acquisition and language ideologies, again in inland China.
All articles shed light on the personal lived experience of young Uyghurs as they mould themselves to and are moulded by the inter-ethnic harmony objectives of the Chinese state. As such, they provide fascinating inside accounts of how the focus on learning Standard Mandarin as well as this specific educational programme are viewed by the communities they hope to shape. With the stated aim of bridging second language acquisition insights with those of language policy and planning, Han et al.’s article addresses how the Uyghur student of their case study’s learning of Standard Mandarin was influenced by his environment, state and society discourses, as well as his ‘identity driven investment in learning the language’ (2019: 1). In Han & Johnson (2020) we are introduced to how public discourse on the learning of Standard Mandarin is internalised, negotiated or resisted at different times by the students and their families. Lastly, the study conducted by Yuan and Zhu (2020) taking place aboard the train taking junior school graduates from Xinjiang to their new schools in inland China, focuses on their evolving sense of identity and their attitudes towards their relocation process as they project themselves towards their new learning environment.
Overall, there is a noted utilitarian attitude towards Chinese language acquisition (Chinese being a language identified as key to upward social mobility and integration into the modern Chinese nation-state) and an acceptance of Sinocentric ‘monoglot’ ideology. However, there is also resistance to complete linguistic and cultural assimilation (expressed for example through a maintenance of endogamy) and a wish to use the ‘national language’ (referred to as such by the students, as in Han & Johnson, 2020: p.10) to foster understanding towards Uyghur cultural practices and to rectify the negative image of the region that is currently projected to the Han majority in inland China.
While all papers acknowledge the assimilationist turn taken by Chinese state language planning over the last decade or more, going as far as to point out that current laws and practices contravene the 1984 Law of the People’s Republic of China on Regional National Autonomy (Han & Johnson, 2020: p.5), only one makes direct reference to the current state of affairs in the XUAR, particularly what the authors call the ‘securitization-driven surveillance [which] has become a major approach of government in Xinjiang’ (Yuan & Zhu, 2020: p.10), citing a 2017 article by Adrian Zenz and James Leibold, two scholars who have published extensively about the worsening situation in the region. Furthermore, despite these more or less indirect references, none of the authors mentions how the ambient fear in the XUAR, the very real risk of being targeted for disappearance or of implicating friends and family in the wave of repression currently being carried out, could affect their subjects’ responses to questions about their personal attitudes towards Chinese language learning or those of their families.
The findings of the research presented in the articles all reveal a degree of internalization of official discourse surrounding language policy, which translates into making interdiscursive connections to the PRC constitution and laws or into identifying Uyghur as a language of lesser symbolic and cultural capital than Standard Mandarin. Yet the researchers do not explicitly factor in the possible tailored nature of the responses. The most jarring example of this comes from Yuan & Zhu’s publication, as it is reveals that access was granted to the researcher by virtue of his personal contacts: he was himself a Han student in a school that hosted a Xinjiang class programme and later served as a ‘casual external educational consultant for both Xinjiang class teachers and Xinjiang students in a Xinjiang class school’ (2020: p.7). One could therefore plausibly assume that the researcher was not seen as a neutral individual by the teenagers under study and that this, combined with the patrolling teachers (p. 4), would have inevitably impacted the student’s responses in some ways, something that is not acknowledged by the authors.
Therefore, while these articles present us with precious new information about the subjective experiences of the young Uyghur educational elite, it also reveals what are considered by the reviewer to be important omissions, despite a wide ranging bibliography of secondary sources, including works by scholars such as Finely, Grose, Leibold, Zenz, etc., pointing therefore maybe not to an ignorance of current circumstances in the XUAR but rather to a limitation in what can be stated in publications funded by institutions and written by scholars working within the PRC.