Zhen ’13 Examines Plight of Uyghur People in China

Yan Zhong Zhen ’13
Yan Zhong Zhen ’13
Ethnically, religiously and linguistically distinct, the Uyghur people are very different from the rest of Chinese citizens. The Chinese government’s recent push to make Mandarin the only language spoken in China has raised questions in the community about Uyghur and Chinese citizenship. Yan Zhong Zhen ’13 is studying the definition of citizenship and the plight of the Uyghur people through an Emerson grant.

When China’s communist regime was established in 1949, surveyors spent decades researching the ethnic groups in the country to eventually determine that there were 56 groups (including the 92 percent majority, the Han). The government has made great efforts to preserve these minority cultures, giving them the status and privileges of an “autonomous region” while connecting the bloodlines of all Chinese ethnic groups to create a unified national identity. In the Uyghur region of Xinjiang, located in China’s northwest corner, the people have been allowed to speak their own language, can have more than one child, and government officials must be Uyghur. Mostly Muslim, the Uyghur people consider themselves more Turkish than Chinese, and prayer in a mosque in Xinjiang has many fewer restrictions than in much of the country.

But in the past few years, the Chinese government has pushed for mandarin to be the only language spoken throughout all of China. This is especially significant in Xinjiang as the government is encouraging more Han to migrate to the region; before 1949, only six percent of Xinjiang’s population was Han, but by 2000 that number had grown to more than 40 percent. “Xinjiang is really significant for China,” Zhen said. “The region is a frontier between Russia, China and Central Asia. There is a huge amount of minerals and oil. This region is critical for China to have and they want to keep hold of it.”And as China’s western regions are the poorest in the nation, the government is encouraging investment in the region to ensure that it remains under Chinese control.

The Uyghur people now feel their culture threatened, and nowhere is this more evident than with regard to language. As the central Chinese government intervenes more in Xinjiang and more migrants move west, fewer Uyghur children are learning their parents’ language, as it is no longer useful. “Being able to speak their language makes the Uyghurs part of their ethnic group. When you take that away, they lose their identity,” Zhen observed. Although many parents want to instill the value of their culture to their children, they recognize that job opportunities are becoming increasingly limited for people who do not speak Chinese.

As the region becomes more prosperous, Uyghurs become more conflicted about the separatist movement they started decades ago, as well as about their own identities. Riots for independence in 1997 resulted in the Chinese implementation of a “Strike hard” policy to maintain control over the region, and recent riots in 2009 have shown that the issue is far from resolved. “If you asked a group of Uyghurs if they are Chinese citizens or Uyghurs first, you would get a mix of answers,” Zhen commented.

As he and his advisor, Luce Junior Professor of Asian Studies and Anthropology Christopher Vasantkumar, work their way through the literature to fully understand the issues, Zhen finds that it is very biased towards one side or another. He will write objectively about the status of the Xinjiang region as well as the flexible citizenship of the Uyghur people at the end of the summer.

Zhen is a graduate of Murray Bergtraum High School in Manhattan.

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