Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is an autonomous border region of northwestern China inhabited mostly by ethnic minorities including Uyghur, Hui, and Kazakhs, etc. National unity and social stability in China are considered to be hugely affected by this region. This politically sensitive issue became more agitating after armed uprising in Baren in 1990. Since then, there has been a significant increase of terrorism activities and separatism activities (Arienne, 2005). As social order is thought to be threatened by factors of terrorism and separatism, the Chinese government designed and implemented a series of policies and acts to strengthen ethnic unity and tame possible division. Among them, language policy was targeted to include minority groups and promote ethnic integration boosts in a short period.
This embodies language policies and education policies in Xinjiang (XUAR) since 1990, targeted at promoting Mandarin as a lingua franca in teaching and learning as an important strategic issue, especially teaching among local ethnic minorities. Before 1995, Uyghurs were required to start the formal study of Mandarin from the first year of middle school. Then, in 1999, such start was pushed into the third grade of primary school according to the Policy of Fully Promoting Education for All-round Development (adopted in 1999) (Wang, 1992). More recently, XUAR began implementing the Preschool Chinese Language Education Planning (adopted in 2008) to popularize Chinese in students’ earlier childhood, which forced ethnic minorities to acquire basic communication skills in Mandarin before they attend elementary schools. In addition to the shift lowering the initial age of learning Mandarin, the subjects instructed in Mandarin tend to be increasing gradually. Mandarin had been taught only as a second language in bilingual schools, not as the primary language before 2012. Since 2015, physics, mathematics and chemistry are required to be taught in Mandarin. And by 2018, all subjects except for minority language courses will be instructed in Mandarin at bilingual high schools. Besides, during this period, the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), an official language exam designed to test Mandarin proficiency among the minority students was implemented in Xinjiang and accounted for scores of 30 in the college entrance examination in 1998. Since 2000, the score increased to 80. This probably indicates a rising trend of fostering national identity in Xinjiang. Compared to its rise, ethnic identity seemingly got less attention. All graduates from senior high schools are required to reach Mandarin level higher than level six of HSK and the HSK performance of those students is connected to their college entrance examination results.
Many case studies found that the improvement of Mandarin level from 1990 to 2010 among ethnic minority students is prominent all over Xinjiang, especially in the southern part of it where rural farmers and herdsman mostly inhabit. This may be the result of changes in the instructing, language and exam policies. Because of these changes, there appeared to be a prominent boost of comprehension of Mandarin among ethnic minorities. The ratio of Mandarin teaching in elementary and middle schools increased from 34% in 2010 to 69% in 2015; however its effect on strengthening national unity is still uncertain. However, some scholars suspect that there may not be a reliable relationship between national unity and integration-oriented language policy. Some scholars also worry that minorities in Xinjiang—particularly Uyghurs—have perceived the changes to monolingual instruction as a cultural attack (Arienne, 2005).
Many scholars think that unifying language is way of strengthening national unity because language is thought to be an instrument of constructing national identity. To maintain long-term stability in XUAR, Robert Phillipson directly points out that “our language and culture are our identity and tell us who we are, where we came from and where we are going” (Phillipson, 2009). It seems to imply that an integration-oriented language policy may have a huge influence of national unity.
Although the effectiveness of language policy is uncertain, language policies aiming at maintaining national unity are widely accepted as powerful tools to weaken ethnic barriers and promote a shared national identity. Thus, more studies about the limitation of a language policy are needed before firmer conclusion can be draw. Also, the trend of identity polarization is probably needed to neutralize.