Minority languages in China are increasingly under threat. Over the past week, language learning app Talkmate and online video streaming site Bilibili appeared to remove the Tibetan and Uyghur languages from their platforms due to government policy, while continuing to allow the Mandarin Chinese and many foreign languages. This decision reflects the will of the CCP switch to a more assimilationist position on linguistic and ethnic diversity.
On Friday, Talkmate’s Weibo account announced that Tibetan and Uyghur language lessons had been axed indefinitely due to “government policies”. On Monday, the position itself was no longer available. Ironically, Talkmate prides itself having been “selected by UNESCO to become the only application platform of the World Atlas of Languages to promote […] multilingualism and linguistic diversity in the world. Its partnership, which dates back to 2016, has been updated ahead of the Year of Indigenous Languages 2019. A UNESCO brief on the partnership describes Talkmate’s commitments and objectives:
The partnership between UNESCO and Talkmate on the World Atlas of Languages aims to develop an innovative and scalable ICT-based platform for accessing data on linguistic diversity around the world. This partnership not only contributes to the promotion of language learning through cyberspace, but also encourages the collaboration of stakeholders to raise awareness of the importance of multilingualism through the effective application of ICT, which are vital educational and communication tools. that help communities and organizations. to access education, share information, provide services and goods to which citizens are entitled in the context of open, pluralistic, participatory, sustainable and inclusive knowledge societies.
In the long term, the partnership will help achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a whole, ensure a multilingual cyberspace through the effective application of ICTs, which are vital educational and communication tools that help communities and organizations to access education, share information, provide services and goods to which citizens are entitled in the context of open, pluralistic, participatory, sustainable and inclusive knowledge societies.
UNESCO, in collaboration with Talkmate, is committed to safeguarding the diversity of the world’s linguistic, cultural and documentary heritage. [Source]
It seems today there has been a relatively widespread crackdown on Tibetan and Uyghur scripts on the Chinese internet today, with Bilibili and Talkmate removing/banning the languages, I suspect there are several other apps that do same. https://t.co/z2LfVNGSeL
— Nathan Ruser (@Nrg8000) November 1, 2021
Bilibili revealed similar signs of censorship. On Monday, users appeared unable to comment on videos using Tibetan or Uyghur script, while languages such as Hebrew, Russian, Thai, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese were allowed. When a user tried to use Tibetan or Uyghur, the resulting error message was “评论内容包含敏感信息” (“Comment content contains sensitive information”), which usually refers to politically sensitive content. History of Bilibili censorship history understand remove certain LGBTQ+ content deemed “inappropriate” in 2018, after heavy criticism from regulators for hosting “vulgar content”.
Bilibili, Chinese video platform listed on the Nasdaq @bilibili_en apparently banned Uyghurs and Tibetans.
I was only able to post “Interesting” in English and Mandarin, but Uyghur or Tibetan were not allowed.
Error message = “评论内容包含敏感信息” (Comment content contains sensitive information) pic.twitter.com/MMCQgOVYH4
— Fergus Ryan (@fryan) November 1, 2021
CDT translated several reactions from Internet users to the bans on Reddit:
Lubiaoyang: We respect minority cultures. Derp.
True-Pension5772: Come on, we printed these minority languages on the yuan, didn’t we? /s
Madazuo: Why don’t you watch how America wiped out its indigenous peoples? Which is more human: killing them or erasing their tongues?
Accomplished-Cat8996: Why don’t you watch how humans wiped out mammoths? [Chinese]
The suppression of minority languages in China is the result of increasingly assimilationist government policies. In January, Shen Chunyao, head of the National People’s Congress Legislative Affairs Commission, said the use of minority languages in classrooms was “incompatible with the Chinese Constitution,” despite article four of the constitution guaranteeing all ethnic groups the “freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages”. In September, the National Ethnic Affairs Commission’s draft Child Development Policy omitted this language freedom guarantee and replaced it with the phrase “promote the common national language.” Changes in assimilationist policy regarding minority languages demonstrate the arrival of “second generation ethnic politicswhich promote ethnic unity rather than diversity and are officially rolled out nationwide.
In this tightening political climate, the use of the Uyghur language has been particularly dangerous, as the CCP’s campaign against the “three evils of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism” confuses linguistic and cultural expression with threats to national security. In the network of mass internment camps believed to have housed more than a million Uyghurs, inmates are forced to undergo intensive mandarin lessons. Authorities targeted and arrested many Uyghur writers, translators, poets and intellectuals in these camps, where some subsequently died. In some cases, Uyghur books have been blacklisted and removed from bookstoresand Uyghur textbooks have been banned and their perpetrators arrested for incitement to terrorism. The authorities have bans the Uyghur language in some schools in Xinjiang and sent about 500,000 Uyghur children to public educational institutions, where some children have suffered physical abuse for speaking Uyghur instead of Mandarin.
Despite heavy censorship, some netizens are still finding ways to share their experience of the current state of ethnic languages in China. A Han Chinese tourist who visited Xinjiang earlier this year noticed the lack of native scripts in some regions:
Outside of Kashgar, you can barely see traces of indigenous culture on storefronts. When we arrived in Ghulja, our travel companion from Tieling [a city in Northeast China] joked: “Welcome to the melting pot of Sichuan and Dongbei.” Szechuan restaurants were everywhere; the same was true of the grayish or yellowish buildings which resembled those of Dongbei. There were rows and rows of chain stores such as Dicos, Miniso, Chabaidao and other counterfeit brands.
Walking into a tea shop, I tried to prank a Han Chinese vendor and asked why there were no Kazakh characters on the shop sign. The staff member suddenly became serious and answered me in a high voice, “We are all Chinese. Why should we use two different languages? I was surprised and didn’t know what to answer. [Chinese]
The Tibetan language has also suffered from state policy. The development of bilingual education has discarded Tibetan in favor of Mandarin and raised concerns at the UN. Public signs and banners have officially Chinese characters imposed above the Tibetan scriptoverturning a norm dating back to the 1980s. In 2015, a Tibetan language rights activist Tashi Wangchuk was arrested on charges of separatism, reportedly tortured during his two years in pre-trial detention and has remained under official supervision since his release in February 2021.
Mongolian is another endangered minority language. Authorities suppressed a wave of protests across Inner Mongolia end of 2020 on language education reform proposals which would gradually replace Mongolian with Mandarin. To silence popular unrest, local governments shut down more than 70 Mongolian WeChat groups, suspended Mongolian-language online social networks, arrested at least 23 people and offered rewards for identifying suspected protesters. In early 2021, state media reportedly began replacing Mongolian content with Han Chinese cultural content in a campaign with the official slogan “Learn Chinese and become a civilized person.” CDT Chinese has published many examples of how increasingly restrictive language education policies in Inner Mongolia are gradually transforming the materials used in classrooms:
Legend: In the original textbook (left), the signs on the school gate were written in Mongolian characters. In the new manual, the signs on the school gate are written in Chinese characters. (Source material: Volunteers / Publisher: Qiao Long)
Legend: Mongolian school textbooks suppressed nationalist poems about the Mongolian people’s love for their hometown, culture and mother tongue. (Twitter screenshot provided by Qiao Long.) [Source]
Alex Yu contributed to this post.