China’s rubber-stamp parliament declares use of minority languages “unconstitutional”

Chinese authorities have declared “unconstitutional” local regulations that require the use and development of the spoken and written language of “ethnic minorities”, further cementing the Chinese party-state’s aggressive attempts to assimilate minority nationalities into a single Chinese national identity.

The National People’s Congress (NPC), which is subservient to the Chinese Communist Party, made this pronouncement in a work report submitted by the Legal Affairs Committee of the NPC Standing Committee in January this year. The report presented by Shen Chunyao, director of the Legal Affairs Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, justified the use of Mandarin Chinese as medium of instruction in “ethnic minority” areas by stating that “local regulations stipulate that schools of various ethnic groups at all levels should use the spoken and written language of their own nationality or the spoken and written language commonly used by the nationality. Other local laws and regulations provide that, with the consent of the local education administrative department, some courses in the school can be taught in Chinese.”

China’s brazen attempt at achieving the party-state’s assimilationist goals to neutralise diverse minority cultural and linguistic communities is further justified with the invocation of constitutional provisions that purportedly authorise the NPC and its Standing Committee to review and interpret various administrative and local regulations.

Emphasising the superiority of national laws over local laws, even those made in autonomous provinces and regions, by terming as “inconsistent” and “inappropriate” all local regulations that violate “the country’s major reform directions” and “the provisions of the higher-level law”, Shen Chunyao’s report explicitly derogates from considerable political, economic and cultural autonomous rights guaranteed to minority groups in the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law. Further derogation is evident in the claim that local provisions for minority languages were “inconsistent with the provisions of Article 19 of the National Common Language Law, Education Law and other relevant laws.” 

The common language law called the National Commonly-Used Language and Script Law was passed in 2000 and has been in force since 2001. This law provides more areas for the use of Mandarin Chinese in government and education of minority communities. The introduction of national common language law is aimed at educating minority students as Mandarin Chinese users “while allowing the transitional and/or supplementary use of minority languages.” Article 5 of the law is political in nature as it reads: “Use of the common national language must be of benefit to state sovereignty and dignity of the nationalities, be of benefit to national unity and unity of the nationalities, and be of benefit to the construction of socialist material and spiritual civilisations.”

The 1984 law on regional national autonomy provides for language rights in six provisions:

    • Article 10 Autonomous agencies in ethnic autonomous areas guarantee the freedom of the nationalities in these areas to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and their freedom to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs.
    • Article 21 While performing its functions, the autonomous agencies of an ethnic autonomous area, in accordance with the regulations on the exercise of autonomy of the area, use the language or languages commonly used in the locality; where several commonly used languages are used for the performance of such functions, the language of the nationality exercising regional autonomy may be used as the main language.   
    • Article 36 In accordance with state guidelines on education and in accordance with the law, autonomous agencies in ethnic autonomous areas decide on educational plans in these areas, on the establishment of various kinds of schools at different levels, and on their educational system, forms, curricula, the language used in instruction and enrollment procedures.  
    • Article 47 In the hearing and investigation of cases, the people’s courts and people’s procuratorates of ethnic autonomous areas shall use the language commonly used in the locality.  In addition, they should be reasonably equipped with personnel proficient in the spoken and written languages of the ethnic minorities. For those involved in a case who are not familiar with the local language and script, a translator should be provided. Legal documents should be written, according to actual needs, in the language or languages commonly used in the locality. Citizens of various nationalities are guaranteed the right to use their own spoken and written languages in court proceedings.
    • Article 49 Autonomous agencies of an ethnic autonomous area persuade and encourage cadres of the various nationalities to learn each other’s spoken and written languages.  Cadres of Han nationality will learn the spoken and written languages of the local minority nationalities.  While learning and using the spoken and written languages of their own nationalities, cadres of minority nationalities should also learn the spoken and written Chinese language commonly used throughout the country.  Awards should be given to state functionaries in ethnic autonomous areas who can use skillfully two or more spoken or written languages that are commonly used in the locality.
    • Article 53 Autonomous agencies of an ethnic autonomous area shall promote the civic virtues of love of the motherland, of the people, of labor, of science and of socialism and conduct education among the citizens of the various nationalities in the area in patriotism, communism and state policies concerning the nationalities.  The cadres and masses of the various nationalities must be educated to trust, learn from and help one another and to respect the spoken and written languages, folkways and customs and religious beliefs of one another in a joint effort to safeguard the unity of the country and the unity of all the nationalities.

The 1984 law on regional national autonomy, along with the PRC’s constitution and other national laws and statutes provide for areas where minority languages and Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) should be used as well as citizens and officials who should learn minority languages and Putonghua.

The evisceration of the regional autonomy law has been consistent since a 2001 amendment to the law on regional national autonomy that changed PRC’s classroom language policy in favour of the party-state’s assimilationist goals. The amendment requires the teaching of Mandarin Chinese either in the early or late years in primary schools in minority communities, rather than the late years in primary schools or in middle schools. Article 37 of the revised autonomy law stipulates: “Beginning in the lower or senior grades of primary school, Han language and literature courses should be taught to popularise the common language used throughout the country and the use of Han Chinese characters.”

During the interactive dialogue for the periodic review of China by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2018,  the Committee experts raised concerns over the detrimental effect of PRC’s implementation of bilingual education on minority languages. The experts were equally concerned about the quality of and access to education in minority areas. Ahead of the review, the Committee asked for additional information on “bilingual education in ethnic minority areas” and “measures taken to promote and respect local and regional languages, cultures and traditions.” So far, China has failed to provide a satisfactory response to the experts.

The NPC Standing Committee’s interpretation of local regulations on minority language provisions is a blatant attack on the rights and autonomous powers of minority nationalities in internal self-determination, conferred by the regional autonomy law. China has neither recognised nor implemented the right to minority language instruction as a linguistic human right

Given the dominance of the party apparatus in all matters of governance, the NPC Standing Committee’s interpretation should be viewed merely as a public announcement of a decision taken in advance by the party. Nonetheless, the NPC Standing Committee plays a greater role than the ordinary delegates, who only attend the meetings for 10 days a year and thus play marginal role in legislative affairs. 

TCHRD calls on the Chinese authorities to repeal all laws, policies and practices that undermine Tibetan language and directly impact the survival of Tibetan linguistic and cultural identity. Chinese authorities must implement a culturally relevant education or a genuine bilingual education rooted in minority culture by promoting Tibetan as the first language. Tibetans have the right to determine their own educational and cultural affairs as provided for in the PRC’s Constitution and Law on Regional National Autonomy. TCHRD urges the international community and civil society members to pressure China to host independent visits by the UN or other relevant international agencies to assess the quality and availability of mother tongue-based education for schools in Tibet.

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