S OMETIMES EASY victories are the most revealing. Lots of governments are capable of ruthlessness in the face of terrorism or real threats to national security. When a regime uses its full strength to impose its will on a group offering no resistance, however, that is a clarifying moment. Just such an unequal contest is now unfolding in the forested hills of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, near the Chinese border with North Korea.
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Yanbian is home to fewer than a million members of an officially recognised Korean ethnic minority, most of them descended from migrants who fled wars and famines on the Korean peninsula in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chinese scholars study the region as a model of co-existence with the country’s Han majority. Education is part of that story. Ethnic Korean schools in Yanbian have offered bilingual education for more than 60 years. Until recently, classes in maths, science and foreign languages were offered in Mandarin, while Korean was used to teach hard-to-grasp concepts in subjects like history, politics and other social sciences.
Traditionally, the urge to learn is strong in Korean culture. “Parents would sell cattle for their children to go to school,” says one academic. In this century Yanbian pioneered trilingual education, passing local education laws in 2004 that gave precedence to Korean but placed new weight on teaching students a third language (sometimes Japanese, but mostly English). In a globalised age, parents understand that languages are about more than tradition: they are a bridge to other cultures, says the academic. Multilingual Yanbian graduates are sought after by employers in southern boomtowns such as Shenzhen and Guangzhou.
Yanbian’s ethnic Korean schools were for a long time sheltered from a campaign to promote Mandarin over minority languages, which was rolled out a decade ago in such restive spots as Xinjiang and Tibet and has since spread nationwide. Last November a leading member of the National People’s Congress ( NPC ) called Mandarin-promotion a crucial policy for “managing ethnic affairs, enhancing national unity and safeguarding national security”.
Now Yanbian finds its education laws under direct assault. On January 20th a powerful body, the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC Standing Committee, announced that education laws in two unnamed places violate an article of China’s constitution that says the state promotes the nationwide use of Mandarin. As first reported by NPC Observer, an invaluable blog run by Changhao Wei of Yale University Law School, the only education laws that match the announcement are in Inner Mongolia and Yanbian.
The ruling is shocking in several ways. For one thing, it is the bluntest of legal instruments to declare a law unconstitutional. For another, the NPC ruling made no mention of another article in the constitution that offers protection for ethnic-minority languages. In reality, those protections are a relic of policies that date back to the founding of Communist China in 1949. Today, the political tide is with prominent scholars and officials who call for “second-generation ethnic policies”, built around assimilating minorities into a single, Chinese civilisation. Such nationalists justify their centralising zeal with claims that China risks ethnic unrest and a Soviet-style break-up if minority privileges are not ended.
In Xinjiang education policies are bound up with a larger wave of repression, imposed in the name of counter-terrorism and fighting Islamic extremism. Most foreign attention has been paid to Xinjiang’s political re-education camps, through which perhaps a million Muslims from the Uyghur minority have passed, after being flagged as potential extremists for such acts as praying too often or telephoning relatives overseas. But in Xinjiang’s ethnic-minority schools, life has also been transformed. Formerly, many subjects were taught in the Uyghur and Kazakh languages. Now those tongues have been downgraded from mediums of instruction to mere subjects, offered for a few hours each week. In Tibet and in Tibetan areas of Qinghai, a neighbouring province, similar changes to education policies prompted street protests in 2010. In the late summer of 2020, thousands of parents in Inner Mongolia boycotted schools after it was announced that such sensitive subjects as literature, politics and history must be taught in Mandarin by 2022. Across Inner Mongolia riot police broke up protests, and parents were ordered to send children to school or else be declared ineligible for government subsidies or bank loans.
No riots greeted a similar change to language rules in Yanbian, unveiled as the school year began last September. Today the academic urges patience, encouraging families to wait to see how the government balances the need to strengthen general-purpose education with the task of preserving ethnic languages.
Bad Korea move
Locals encountered in Yanji, the regional capital, on a recent weekday, including parents who had brought children to skate or sled on the frozen Buerhatong river, offered mixed opinions of the change. A Korean-Chinese man with a son at kindergarten supports the greater use of Mandarin in schools. He struggled at university and had to study Chinese in his spare time. He accuses some groups, such as Tibetans, of separatist ambitions. “We Koreans don’t feel like that, we’re more supportive of the government.”
Others are torn. A mother of two toddlers worries that Korean culture may be weakened by the new rules. But there must be a logic to the state’s actions, she adds, as locals glide past on chairs fitted with ice-skates, pushing themselves along with spike-tipped poles. The government sees a bigger picture than mere citizens can, suggests the mother, loyally. Such deference to authority is not rewarded with much trust. Plain-clothes police followed Chaguan around Yanji and tried to eavesdrop on interviews.
The fate of Yanbian—a region that finds itself accused of unconstitutional acts—points to a bleak reality for ethnic minorities. Loyalty is not enough. Their duty is to become more Chinese.■