China’s decision to ban the use of Uyghur language in Xinjiang schools represents an attack on Uyghur linguistic rights, and an effort to tighten its stranglehold over the ethnic minority by weakening its cultural identity, PEN America said today.

On July 28, news outlet Radio Free Asia reported that it had obtained a copy of a June 2017 directive from the Hotan Prefecture Education Department banning the use of the Uyghur language at all education levels up to and including secondary school, in favor of Mandarin. The directive, which bans the use of the Uyghur language in all “collective activities, public activities and management work of the education system” includes the order to “prohibit the use of Uyghur language, writing, signs and pictures in the educational system and on campuses.” A government official discussing the directive acknowledged that this would include replacing Uyghur-language textbooks with Mandarin-language texts. The directive will reportedly go into effect at the beginning of the upcoming school year.

Hotan Prefecture is one of several prefectures within Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a provincial-level region in northwest China. The Uyghurs are a distinct ethnic group primarily based in Xinjiang, possessing their own language and culture and primarily practicing the Muslim faith. Human rights groups have repeatedly noted that Uyghurs are subjected to severe restrictions on their ability to express their religion or culture, and in recent years, tension between the Uyghur population and the Chinese government has periodically resulted in violence. In April, it was reported that the government had banned Xinjiang citizens from giving their children “strong religious names.”

This new directive violates the Chinese Constitution and other domestic laws, which explicitly protects the linguistic rights of ethnic minorities. Article 4 guarantees the freedom for ethnic nationalities to use their own spoken and written language, while Article 121 states that government institutions in China’s autonomous regions (which would include Xinjiang) are to “employ the spoken and written language or languages in common use in the locality.” China’s Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law also includes specific guarantees for the freedom of ethnic groups to use and develop their own language, including Article 37 of the Law, which explicitly states that “schools (classes) and other educational organizations recruiting mostly ethnic minority students should, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use these languages as the media of instruction.”

The recent directive also violates international human rights treaty provisions, including Articles 29(c) and 30 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, to which China is a signatory; and Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory; in addition to prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of language that can be found in other treaties and declarations, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“This directive to ban the use of the Uyghur language in schools within the Xinjiang  Uyghur Autonomous Region can only be understood as part of an effort to eradicate Uyghur as a language and to wash away Uyghur peoples’ right to maintain their culture and express their identity,” said James Tager, Free Expression Programs Manager at PEN America. “The directive will also likely result in Uyghur-speaking children receiving a poorer quality education, as they are abruptly being forced to learn in a language other than their native tongue.”

PEN America, the literary and free expression organization and American chapter of PEN International, has long engaged on issues of free expression in Xinjiang, including through its recognition of Uyghur academic and writer Ilham Tohti, in 2014, with its PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Ilham Tohti is currently serving a life sentence for “separatism,” and PEN America continues to call for his unconditional release. PEN America also awarded Uyghur historian and writer Tohti Tunyaz with the Freedom to Write Award in 2002.

PEN International was one of the main drafters of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, designed to safeguard the language rights of every linguistic community. In 2011, PEN International developed the Girona Manifesto on Linguistic Rights, which includes the principle that “School instruction must contribute to the prestige of the language spoken by the linguistic community of the territory.”


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world.  Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

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