Written by James Leibold and Timothy A. Grose.

Over the last thirty years, China has been engaged in a poorly understood experiment in multicultural education. Since 1980 the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been uprooting Tibetan, Uyghur and other minority youths from their communities in Western China and schooling them in the language and culture of the Han majority in eastern and coastal cities thousands of kilometres away. This dislocated schooling system, known as ‘inland ethnic boarding classes’ (内地民族班) in Chinese, has expanded rapidly in recent decades, with nearly 200,000 minority students recruited into the program and tens of thousands now employed as teachers, state workers and government officials.

The boarding school system promises and delivers high quality, affordable education, making it a popular choice among many minority parents. Yet its goals are more political than pedagogical. Through the project, the Party-state seeks to cultivate a loyal cadre of ethnic elites fluent in Mandarin Chinese, while promoting politically correct thinking and behaviour as well as knowledge and affinity with Han-centric norms in minority communities. Recent interethnic violence has increased the importance of this ideological mission, with Party boss Xi Jinping staking his personal credibility on the ethnic stability and social cohesion required to achieve his ‘China dream’.

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A recently published textbook provides rare insight into the Party-state’s indoctrination program in these schools. Entitled Introduction to Xinjiang History & Ethnic and Religious Theory and Policy (新疆历史与民族宗教理论政策概论), the textbook was produced by the Department of Education of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and published by the Xinjiang Educational Press in late 2014. It is now taught as a required and assessable subject for all inland boarding school students from Xinjiang as a part of “ideological and political theory education” (思想政治理论教育), a cornerstone of the curriculum.

The textbook’s preface emphasizes the importance of cultivating ‘the correct ideological perspective’. State schools, it is claimed, are danger-zones of potential infiltration by the ‘Three Inimical Forces’ (三股势力) of separatism, terrorism, and extremism. The aim of the textbook is to ‘build an ideological line of defence’ and ‘criticize false ideas and misguided thought’ while cultivating ‘reliable people’ who will protect national unity and social stability, and also feel a sense of belonging and connection with the ‘Chinese race-state’ (中华民族) and ‘Chinese culture’ (中华文化). The terms ‘ethnic/racial unity’ (民族团结) appears 116 times in this 186 page textbook, while ‘fatherland’ (祖国) is used 145 times. The first chapter begins with a saccharine reminder of the Party-state’s ‘warm and loving concern for the people,’ and how ‘preferential policies’ enable Xinjiang minority students to ‘enjoy the superior educational resources of the interior’. In turn, students are obligated to become ‘a steely force for the protection of the fatherland’s unity’, especially in the face of continued ethnic violence and acts of terror.

The textbook takes students through the Party-state’s ethnic and religious policies, stressing not only the importance of a ‘scientific worldview’ and the embrace of ‘modern culture’, but also how ‘antagonistic forces’ (敌对势力) are using religion, in particular, to infiltrate Xinjiang and divide the race-state. In sharp contrast to previous claims that ‘religious belief is a citizen’s personal affair’, which appears (among other places) in the government’s 1997 White Paper on Freedom of Religious Belief in China, students are told that religion is deeply political rather than a mere private matter. Religion, it prompts students, is a pernicious and false consciousness, or what Marx called the ‘opiate of the people’, and thus must be resisted at all turns. Furthermore, the separation of education and religion means all students are prohibited from practicing religion or wearing religious symbols and clothing on campus. Yet, at the same time, religion should be distinguished from less harmful ‘ethnic customs and social habits’ (民族风俗习惯), such as food taboos and traditional festivals, which can be observed in accordance with the principle of ‘absorbing the best while casting off the dregs’.

The textbook spends a great deal of time highlighting the ‘historical’ and ‘scientific’ basis of ethnic and racial unity in China. Here the focus is not only on demonstrating how ‘Xinjiang has been an inalienable part of China since ancient times’, but how the different peoples of China have been ‘one family since ancient times, sharing weal and woes and thus inseparable’. There is repeated emphasis on the deep consanguinity of the Chinese people, and how the long history of contact has literally fused bloodlines together. ‘Over thousands of year’, the textbook states, ‘the continuous migration, mixed residency, interethnic marriage and exchange between different groups in ancient China gradually fused them together and gave birth to a new minzu (民族, race, nation, or race-state)’.

The character rong (融, meaning ‘to blend’ or ‘fuse’) appears 56 times in the text, with numerous stories, quotes and anecdotes aimed at convincing minority students that ‘the comradeship of blood is thicker than water’. This blood lineage is mixed yet not equal, with students reminded that some groups still ‘lag behind’ due to differences in size, natural environment, and historical and social development, which produces obvious deviation in physical features and innate ‘quality’ (素质). These inbred differences, in turn, help to explain gaps in wealth, social status, income and living conditions among ethnic groups, despite the achievement of formal political equality under the CCP.

How effective is this sort of ideological training? On the surface, the message and its delivery are crude and overdone. We now have a number of excellent ethnographies on these dislocated schools. They find that the schooling process not only strengthens minority ethno-national consciousness, but in many cases, actually forges a strong oppositional consciousness and identity that did not exist prior. Here the textbook’s point about ethnic harmony, unity and fusion seems to fall on deaf ears.

Yet it is premature to dismiss the affects of this sort indoctrination. The textbook and these required political education classes, teach minority students the ‘official script’ while impressing on them the importance of political correctness. Students might privately reject aspects of the message, yet they also come to realize that their future success and wellbeing depends on the ability to master the rules of the current political system and parrot the language of the Party-state when required. China’s frontier governance relies on a series of carrot and stick mechanisms, which rewards political compliance through preferential benefits and promotion while harshly punishing those who stray too far from the Party line. A parallel system of self-disciplining exists among the Han majority; yet the bar of loyalty and obedience is set much higher for minority students as their otherness fosters suspicion.

Graduates of minority boarding schools are told they are special, different not only from the Han majority but also their co-ethnics back in the frontier. In return for this precious ‘gift’ of education, nurturing and social mobility, they are expected to ‘give service back to the fatherland’ and put aside their own language, religion, and culture in order to advance the Party and the race-state. In their daily lives, however, these minority youths make their own decisions on how best to navigate the complexities of the current political system. The results can be confusing and contradictory. Carefully manoeuver between multiple identities and bureaucratic obstacles, students find themselves at times reaffirming, and at other times deflecting, the Party-state’s ideology, as they seek to preserve their Uyghur identity while strategically embracing elements of Han-defined modernity.

James Leibold is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and Philosophy at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia and Timothy A. Grose is an Assistant Professor of China Studies at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, USA. They are the co-authors of “Islamic Veiling in Xinjiang: The Struggle to Define Uyghur Female Adornment,” forthcoming in The China Journal.  Image Credit: CC by La Priz/Flickr.