The Xinjiang Conflict: Uyghur Identity, Language Policy, and Political Discourse
This study explores Chinese language policy and language use in Inner Asia, as well as the relation of language policy to the politics of Uyghur identity. Language is central to ethnic identity, and official language policies are often overlooked as critical factors in conflict over ethnic nationalism. In Chinese Inner Asia, any solution to ethnic conflict will include real linguistic and cultural autonomy for major ethnic groups. Language policy has been at the heart of Chinese nation building. Shortly after the inception of the People's Republic of China (PRC), language policy in China's border regions was responsive to local conditions and arguably one of the more flexible in the world. In the last 15 years, however, although China's official language policy has remained constant, its covert language policy has become increasingly assimilative, and tied to geopolitical considerations. This trend has been particularly salient in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where multilingualism and cultural pluralism have been progressively curtailed. This has served to reinforce both Uyghur nationalism and small separatist movements, with potential to undermine the territorial integrity of the PRC and the Chinese effort to build a modern Chinese nation. This study argues that both Beijing and Washington are about to lose crucial political opportunities in this far-flung territory. The PRC should realize that supporting the maintenance of Uyghur language and identity is not antithetical to the Chinese goal of nation building. In fact, it would ultimately support that goal: The United States, for its part, should make clear to Beijing that current U.S. political imperatives will not distract U.S. policy from supporting human rights, including cultural rights, and seek to cultivate a cooperative partnership with China, including the Uyghurs.
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