Ethnic minority voices

By Xuyang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2014-1-27 23:18:01

Students walk out from the Minzu University of China in Beijing. Photo: IC

The recent arrest of a Uyghur teacher allegedly involving separatist activities has sparked hot debate among his colleagues on the boundary of speech concerning national solidarity.

Ilham Tohti, an associate professor of economics at the Minzu University of China, was taken away by the police early this month, according to the AFP.

Ilham has voiced doubts about the official explanation regarding an incident on October 28, when a jeep crashed into the railings of Jinshui Bridge in Tiananmen Square. Three people of Uyghur ethnicity were in the jeep as it plunged into the crowd, crashed and caught fire, killing five and injuring dozens. The East Turkistan Islamic Movement later claimed responsibility for the incident.

On January 25, the public security bureau of Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, said on its Sina Weibo that police have obtained evidence indicating Ilham is involved in separatist activities. The statement said Ilham created the Uyghur Online website to spread separatist ideas and to incite students to overthrow the government, according to the Weibo post.

Hong Lei, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters at a daily news briefing on January 16 that Ilham was suspected of violating the law and the case was being handled according to the law.

Although the authorities have not gone into details, Ilham's case in some degree highlighted the conditions facing ethnic scholars. 

Rare voices

There are very few Uyghur or Tibetan scholars who publicly express their opinions on social or political issues.

"There are of course regulations. For instance, you should not attack the government and the Party, you should not spread the wrong historic views, and so on, but the problem is who should be the judge of it, and what the criteria are," said a Uyghur scholar who asked to remain anonymous.

"What a scholar sees as suggestions might be interpreted as an attack, and academic discussions about ethnic, religious or historic issues might be taken as a political matter," he said. As a result, scholars tend to be cautious and avoid speaking up. He said he was scolded by his supervisors after speaking about the current ethnic policies at a seminar last month.

The Minzu University of China isn't known for controversial scholars. Several teachers at the school said that the university isn't particularly lenient or particularly strict when it comes to supervising teachers.

"The case about Ilham is different. I think he's more of a social activist, not just an outspoken teacher," the Uyghur scholar said.

According to the university's regulations, which are available on its website, teachers should not speak against the "four basic principles" - upholding socialism and the leadership of the Communist Party of China, upholding Marxism and Maoism as well as the people's democratic dictatorship. Teachers should not spread comments that violate the Party's policies on ethnic and religious issues, or spread superstition, among other things.

Teachers who violate the regulations can receive administrative punishments and salary cuts, and would be fired in the most serious cases.

Evaluating teachers

Jin Binghao has been teaching at the university for 40 years and serves as dean of the School of Marxism. He said he couldn't recollect any instances of teachers spreading separatist comments.

"There might be a couple of teachers who are always complaining about society in class and sometimes students report it to the school, but not many," said Jin.

Jin said if a teacher scored too low on student evaluations each semester, the school might suspend the teacher from teaching for a semester or two. "But I don't recall any instances where a teacher was suspended for political comments or the like," said Jin, who is of Korean ethnicity.

The university was founded in 1951 and tasked with producing cadres of ethnic minorities as well as Han cadres who would be working in related fields. It was also tasked with researching and promoting ethnic languages and cultures. There are 15 such colleges and universities in China.

The school was formerly known in English as the Central University for Nationalities but in 2008 it changed its name to the Minzu (meaning ethnicity) University of China. It is directly affiliated with the State Ethnic Affairs Commission of China.

It's not clear what percentage of the faculty at the university are of an ethnicity other than Han, but some teachers at the school estimate that fewer than half of the teachers are of ethnic minorities, while over half of the students are of ethnic minorities.

Grey areas

Schools and research institutions in China have to comply with similar general principles. Neither the schools nor the authorities list specific taboo areas and the Constitution protects freedom of speech. It's left to the individuals to take caution. Outspoken scholars often get into trouble with the schools or the authorities, although often on charges other than voicing dissent.

Zhang Haiyang, a professor at the School of Ethnology and Sociology at the university, believes that there's an overall misunderstanding and bias towards people of ethnic minorities and as a result, scholars of ethnic minorities are probably more cautious.

"Our school is very unique in China that it can maintain a normal relationship among different ethnicities," said Zhang.

"There are diverse languages, cultures, religions on our campus that can't be found on any other campuses," he said.

"But nobody would still be here teaching if they spread separatist or extremist ideas. Since they are still here, and they are evaluated according to the standards the authorities have made, it means they are approved and recognized," he said.

China's ethnic minority policies emphasize the traditions, languages and religions of these groups, in line with the Constitution, which focuses on equality and opposes discrimination toward any ethnic minority groups.

Regional autonomy for ethnic minorities is a key policy adopted by the Chinese government, in an effort to guarantee the ethnic minorities' rights to participate in politics at an equal status with Han people.

The authorities note that the equality of all ethnic groups, which is protected by China's ethic minority policy, is crucial for national solidarity.

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