Bilingual education reform could become a double-edged sword for Chinese minorities and social unity

Ella Whitehurst | China Fellow

Many people might be unaware of the degree of China’s ethnolinguistic diversity. The nation is home to over 50 minority groups speaking over 130 languages. While numerous countries embrace such cultural diversity, Beijing is increasingly seeing it as a significant challenge to achieving political and social harmony. The assimilation of ethnic minority groups in particular remains a priority for the Chinese Government, as seen by recent legislative pushbacks against mother-tongue education.


Han Domination through Language Laws


In January this year, the head of the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NCP Standing Committee announced that in two unnamed places certain education laws were violating an article in the Chinese Constitution - “The State promotes the nationwide use of [Mandarin]”. According to the NCP Observer, a blog that discusses government legislation, the only areas that matched this claim are Inner Mongolia and Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture.


On the surface, the laws relating to those two education systems do not seem to comply with the constitution as they ban ethnic schools from teaching in Mandarin. However, they also both mandate the teaching of Mandarin languages classes, which is consistent with the Government’s Education Law that allows ethnic schools to use bilingual education.


The Education Law is a relic of policies that originated during the founding of the Communist Party back in 1949. But since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, Beijing’s focus on achieving the “China Dream” has seen the implementation of regressive social policies aimed at marginalising various ethnic minority groups.


There is now a prevalent institutional inequality in the Government’s attitudes toward minority languages. Mandarin is at the top, with a monopoly over national political and economic domains. Ethnic languages have been marginalised, which is exacerbated by the low socioeconomic levels of minority groups. There is also a hidden agenda, as these education reforms are being used by the Government as tools to dissolve perceived ethnic barriers and promote a ubiquitous national identity. These policies however could be a double-edged sword for ethnocultural identities and Chinese social unity.


Marginalisation of Minority Education


There is a likely connection to be made between the announcement in January and the protests in Inner Mongolia during late August of last year against the authorities’ push for the introduction of Mandarin-only lessons. These reforms are presented as improving the standard of the curriculum and textbooks, but many Mongolians are fearful that the education achievements of their children will be jeopardised. The same could be true for the ethnic Korean children of Yanbian.


Currently, Mongolian and Korean students are able to take a translated version of the national university entrance exam. But should the introduction of Mandarin education occur, the exam is likely to follow suit. If that happens, those students would need to compete with native Mandarin speakers, thereby reducing their ability to enter university. Lower university attendance rates would exacerbate the already low socioeconomic position of many minorities.


Beijing’s disregard of the rights of minorities is explicit in their interpretation of the constitution. The announcement in January indicates that the Government does not just want Mandarin language classes; they want classes to be taught in Mandarin. However, this is inconsistent with article 4 of the constitution, which states that all nationalities have the freedom of use of their languages and customs. The interpretation is likely to have negative impacts on the preservation of ethnic languages and cultures. This is yet another example of how ‘equal uniformity’ doesn’t necessarily translate to ‘uniform equality’. The elevated importance of achieving social equality is seen to outweigh the harm done to minorities through language marginalisation.


Linguistic Harmonisation or Cultural Eradication?


Beijing needs to recognise that monolingual education policies only serve to create an illusion of a uniform society. What has been underestimated is the potential social impacts these policies will have on ethnic minorities are actually the inverse of Government aims to achieve nationwide social unity and economic equality. The Inner Mongolian protests are a clear example that monolingual education does not serve to encourage social unity. Further, research on multilingualism suggests that it can even foster stronger intergroup relations. China should embrace linguistic diversity as fitting within the Government’s various campaigns to promote social and economic development.


Other recent bilingual reforms in Xinjiang and Tibet have received the majority of international attention as they are surrounded by much larger waves of repressive policies. However, this means the reforms in smaller provinces, such as Yanbian and Inner Mongolia, are often overlooked in the reporting of minority repression by the international media. But their smaller size does not make them less obvious to the Chinese Government. With little foreign interest and their newfound unconstitutional status, the linguistic and cultural futures of Yanbian and Inner Mongolia are bleak.


Ella Whitehurst is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs