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April 27, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright April 27, 2008 Timothy B. Weston. Used by permission.


The US media rarely covers the regular people who are living in the areas of China with large ethnic minorities. In chatting with a Han Chinese student (Han Chinese are by far the largest ethnic group in China) at the University of Colorado named Leong, I was struck by his nuanced perspective on his experiences growing up in Xinjiang, a province in western China with large populations of Hui (ethnically Chinese Muslims), Uighers (Turkic Muslims), and other ethnic minorities. Given the recent discussions in the Western media—in light of the situation in Tibet—of Chinese policies toward ethnic minorities, I thought China Beat’s readers might be interested to hear from Leong.

(Timothy B. Weston conducted this interview with Leong on April 23, 2008.)

Timothy B. Weston: Please explain who you are and where you grew up and when?

Leong: I was born in Urumqi to Han parents. I grew up in Urumqi and lived there for 18 years in a neighborhood of kids from different ethnic groups, such as Uighurs, Hui, Tajikis, Kirghiz, Kazaks and Han. My school was ethnically integrated. Though most students were Han, there also many Uighurs and Kazaks and even more Hui. There were two kinds of schools in Xinjiang when I was growing up – one kind had students of all ethnic backgrounds and the language of instruction was Chinese. There were also special schools for ethnic minorities where instruction was in their native language. Otherwise the curriculum was the same. It was up to the parents where to send their kids. More ethnic students went to special schools where there were no Han Chinese and instruction was in their native languages. Recently the Xinjiang government combined the two types of schools together, so the teachers have to learn the other languages. According to the old model, when the students took exams to enter the next level of school they took different tests and answered different questions depending on who they were. Now all the questions are the same. Han Chinese kids never have to learn ethnic languages. There was no serious tension or self-segregation among students when I was a student. That is because all students speak Chinese and share the same culture and talk about similar subjects. When I was a student at a mixed school virtually all teachers were Han, though there were also a few Hui teachers, but none were Uighurs or Kazaks because they don’t speak Chinese. The mother tongue of the Hui people is Chinese.