Educational Reforms Aim to Mold Model Citizens from Preschool in the PRC

Introduction

On July 23, the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) published the “Notification on the ‘Children Speak in Unison’ Plan” ( [关于实施儿童普通话教育童语同音计划的通知], Guanyu shishi ertong Putonghua jiaoyu ‘tongyu tongying’ jihua de tongzhi, hereafter ‘Plan’) to implement Mandarin Chinese education in preschools across China (PRC Ministry of Education, July 23). Preschool is the non-compulsory year of education for “pre-school children” (学前儿童, xueqian ertong), sometimes also translated as kindergarten. While preschool is not currently mandatory in the PRC, universal preschool attendance is an education goal under the Education Modernization 2035 campaign ([中国教育现代化2035], Zhongguo jiaoyu xiandaihua 2035) (State Council, February 23, 2019).

The Plan demands that, beginning in the fall semester of 2021, preschools in ethnic and rural areas that are not yet using the nation’s official Putonghua language and script, which refers to a standardized variety of Mandarin Chinese, must develop health care (保健, baojian), nurture (养育, yangyu), and educational (教育, jiaoyu) activities—together called baojiao (保教). These topics will be taught completely in Putonghua. There is ambiguity about the Plan’s effect in terms of actual teaching hours. It seems that for the compulsory grades after preschool, teaching in a local language will still be allowed in addition to any compulsory Putonghua, which has long been the way that bilingual education is structured in China for both minority languages and regional areas’ Mandarin lingua francas; the 1995 PRC Education Law allows common local languages to be used in schools and this was supported by the “National Outline for Medium and Long-term Educational Reform and Development (2010–2020)” (China.org.cn, March 8, 1995; internationaleducation.gov.au, July 2010). In practice, it is possible that such languages will now get decreased time and attention in later grades following the Putonghua-only year of preschool. Prioritizing Putonghua at the expense of local languages has long been the way that bilingual education often works, even though education in local languages is not prohibited.

The Plan has the potential to drastically reduce minority language learning, especially the acquisition of literacy and school subject vocabulary in minority languages. As a result of its implementation, young first-language speakers of minority languages are likely to become less able to undertake elementary school subjects in languages other than Putonghua compared to previous years’ students. If the Plan disincentivizes or even disables minority language school education, it will further reduce the value that parents and county-level school funders can see in terms of minority languages helping their students one day get university degrees/jobs. Alexandra Grey’s research in the Guangxi Zhuangzu Autonomous Region found that such a belief in the low economic value of the Zhuang language already encourages parents not to pass on their minority language to children, lest Zhuang interfere with the acquisition of Mandarin Chinese.[1] Stopping integrational transmission rapidly shrinks a speaker group, even for a language like Zhuang that has some 10-17 million reported speakers (counts vary widely).

Perhaps minority language cessation in the youngest generation is the Plan’s intention. Even if it is not, the new Putonghua immersion for preschoolers represents an early and influential site of contact between the state and its citizens. The authors will discuss these concerns through a case study of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, an area where bilingual education has been relatively strong and known for its high quality.[2]

Bilingual Education in Inner Mongolia

The PRC’s public education system includes a bilingual stream in addition to the main Putonghua-medium stream. Regional models vary, but all include some instruction in a language other than Putonghua—typically one of the PRC’s 55 official minority group (民族, minzu) languages, such as Mongolian or Zhuang. Many bilingual schools are actually only bilingual for the first few years, when children are transitioning to learning and using Putonghua. This process has been dubbed the “walking stick theory” (拐棍论, guaigun lun).[3] Some bilingual schools do not even teach written minority languages, but only use them orally as an aide in the early years. Across the PRC, bilingual schools are already obliged to start teaching at least partly in Putonghua from first grade.

Implementing the new Plan will create greater and earlier Putonghua exposure for children who are not learning it at home. Improving access to Putonghua as a poverty alleviation measure has been a government priority in recent years. It is not clear, however, that beginning Putonghua education in preschool is necessary for children to eventually become proficient in it, or that students who undertake preschool in other languages have later been unable to learn Putonghua well. In general, Linguistics and Education research shows that childhood bilingualism does not hinder proficiency in the non-home language. Indeed, being introduced to school practices and fundamental concepts in their first language actually helps children do better at school in their second language, as opposed to missing out on fundamentals because they do not fully understand the language of instruction. 

At least until 2020, schools in the bilingual stream in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region taught subjects in Mongolian through secondary school, with students taking Mongolian-medium university entrance exams (高考, gaokao). Mongolian students’ successes on such exams is one of the reasons that Chinese politicians have described the Mongolian minzu as a model minority (模范少数民族, mofan shaoshu minzu) (e.g., 163.com, July 26, 2020).

The Plan pushes further than controversial 2020 reforms to bilingual education policy in Inner Mongolia. The 2020 reforms mandated Putonghua as the medium of instruction for three core subjects at otherwise Mongolian-medium primary and secondary schools: Chinese Language; Morality and Law (covering politics and ideology); and History (Inner Mongolia Government, February 5, 2020; China Brief, September 28, 2020). Implementation of the 2021 ‘Children Speak in Unison’ Plan in Inner Mongolia thus raises concerns about whether the cohort of children who are exposed to Putonghua instruction and caretaking in preschool will be able to master Mongolian sufficiently to learn subsequent school subjects, such as math, in Mongolian.  

Moreover, the 2020 bilingual education reform had already triggered a series of lost battles for Mongolian language. From Fall 2021, the University of Inner Mongolia slashed the quota for social science majors taught in Mongolian—including journalism, Mongolian literature and law—by almost half, demonstrated by the abrupt decrease from the recruitment of 420 new students in 2020 to 260 in 2021 (Inner Mongolia University Admissions Office, June 16). In addition, several Mongolian-as-medium-of-instruction majors including Cyrillic Mongolian literature, Japanese and Tourism Management simply disappeared in 2021. The education reforms are already draining symbolic and socioeconomic capital in the sphere of education, and the authors predict the new preschool Plan will aggravate these cuts to Mongolian throughout all stages of education.

Voiceless People

Since the doomed-to-fail protest against the Fall 2020 bilingual education reforms, a deep sense of despair and hopelessness has engulfed many people from the Mongolian minority. It is significant to observe that Mongol individuals and associations are not voicing any objections to this July’s Plan, compared to the energized, direct opinions voiced online last year, except for the occasional surfacing of a few oblique and melancholic lines on Mongolian-medium websites. One such verse goes: “Rain is falling on Mount Khan unstoppably; the birds who forgot their languages are flying here and there indifferently; the cows who forgot their words are chewing grass in contentment.”[4]

Recent mass rectification campaigns such as the “Firmly Casting the Common Consciousness of the Chinese Nation Study Sessions” (铸牢中华民族共同意识专题培训, Zhu lao zhonghua minzu gongtong yishi zhuanti peixun) (Sohu News, December 9, 2020), combined with omnipresent digital propaganda campaigns on official media platforms, have also saturated public spaces and contributed to the suppression of dissent against the new Plan.

Mongolian as a Private Language

The ‘Children Speak in Unison’ Plan may herald a new era wherein the Mongolian language retreats from public to private spaces, and from prestigious activities to lowly valued activities. This happened during and after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), but many Mongolians are keen not to see it repeated. The recent strength of bilingual education in Inner Mongolia, and Mongolian language in general, is the outcome of a concerted reaction against that time. Retired Mongolian officials in a regional county of Inner Mongolia recalled in an interview with Grey in 2014 not only that they felt convinced to not have their children learn Mongolian at school, but also told of the ongoing tension and pain that this has caused, as their now-adult children feel disinherited of their language and culture. These older officials thus came to value and support bilingual education.[5]

Indeed, bilingual education had renewed government and popular support in many parts of the PRC in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Since the early 1990s, however, the PRC’s language policy for minority education has gradually shifted from a pluralistic approach that emphasized linguistic and ethnocultural diversity to an integrationist approach that emphasizes assimilation and unity.[6] In the last decade, the linguistic element of unity has had increasingly strong political purchase as a national response to domestic security concerns: Grey’s work calls this “securitized language policy.”[7] The ‘Speak in Unison’ title of the policy announcement reflects this long-standing but now ascendant rationale. Different language speakers coming together as a harmonious single voice is a well-worn metaphor, but there is also a deeply ingrained belief that linguistic difference is indicative of national disloyalty and even separatism. (Such ‘One Nation, One Language’ ideology is certainly not unique to the PRC). Assimilationist language education policy has been enacted in different regions with different paces and intensities, and these recent education reforms should be seen as connected to that.

Recent decades’ increasingly pro-Putonghua education policies are closely linked with China’s Han-centric racial state-building, which entails a shift in how the state sees minorities. The Inner Mongolian scholar Uradyn E. Bulag points out that this policy overhaul is inseparable from the PRC’s political attempt to acquire “a nation for the state,” wherein minorities are redefined from nationalities (民族, minzu—a political category following the Soviet tradition) to ethnic groups (族群, zuqun—a cultural and depoliticized category) and melded into a newly-imagined Chinese national community of shared destiny. Bulag states, “The vehemence and determination shown by the Chinese government in dismantling minority rights indicates that China wants nothing less than to change China’s institutional form from a state of many nationalities to a nation consisting essentially of one people.”[8] Grey’s recent work on the Zhuang minzu in Southern China notes the same trend emerging after decades of less concerted but effectively assimilatory policies, particularly in urban spaces. Her study suggests that the state’s duty to assist in “developing” minority languages (per Article 4 of the PRC Constitution) (NPC, March 14, 2004), is now seen as fulfilled, and notes that minority language policy across the PRC is shifting from use and teaching to recording and archiving under the current Language Protection (语保, yu bao) Project. She links this to the Second Generation Minzu Policy (第二代民族政策, di er dai minzu zhengce) paradigm advocated by prominent Chinese scholars in the early 2010s (examined in China Brief, July 6, 2012). Second Generation advocates proposed dismantling the legal recognition and administrative division of the population into the Han majority and 55 minority minzu, and the “death” of minority languages as the only way for all Chinese people to gain equal access to educational and economic opportunities.[9] The Second Generation nomenclature was never officially approved, but the paradigm shift seems to be happening in practice in education reforms and elsewhere.

Of course, education is a key policy area in many nations, including the PRC, because it is not just about schooling; it is about socializing citizens. The self-serving purpose of socializing young citizens to benefit national goals of harmony and modernization co-exists with what is often described in policy documents as a benevolent purpose of improving and developing the lives and the prospects of minority minzu children—in Inner Mongolia and elsewhere—by homogenizing to reduce minzu children’s perceived disadvantages in education and development compared with the majority.

That is, a better future must come at the cost of minority practices and minority identity resources, including minority languages. Based on this now-dominant view, it is no longer accepted that good students and citizens can be bicultural and bilingual in minority languages.

Conclusion

It is likely that this Plan will, in practice, further reduce children’s ability to learn school subjects in minority languages, leaving schools and parents to make a coerced choice to abandon those languages so as not to disadvantage children when they grow up and compete in nationwide university exams and job applications. This choice is already being made in minority households across the PRC, and now the push factors have increased. Coercing this choice is a quick and effective government maneuver toward stopping inter-generational language transmission, even in very populous minzu. The ascendance of assimilationist and securitized language policy and education policy rationales in recent decades suggests that this may be a government intention. Moreover, the introduction of Putonghua at preschool not only starts socializing the right kind of citizen for the state at an earlier age than before, but it is framed in prominent government discourses as a benefit delivered by the state to those children.

Dr. Alexandra Grey is a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Law Faculty at the University of Technology Sydney. She is the author of Language Rights in a Changing China: A National Overview and Zhuang Case Study (2021, De Gruyter), free Mandarin extract here. She has lived, worked and studied in China, and publishes frequently about the governance of linguistic diversity in both China and Australia, in academic journals, books and blogs.

Dr. Gegentuul Baioud is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Hugo Valentin Centre of History Department at Uppsala University. She received her PhD from Macquarie University, in Sydney. Her research interest lies in languages and cultures in multicultural societies on the periphery.  In particular, she is interested in studying linguistic and cultural transformation experienced by Mongolians in China in the context of urbanization and nationalization. She has published journal articles and blogs and presented a wide range of conference and seminar papers on the subject.

Notes

[1] Alexandra Grey, Language Rights in a Changing China: A National Overview and Zhuang Case Study, 1st edition, De Gruyter, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1515/9781501512551.  

[2] Naran Bilik and Has Erdene, “Trilingual Education and Mongolian Ethnicity” in Frontiers of Education in China, 11(4), 2016, p435–454, https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03397135.

[3] Grey’s interview with a minority language researcher, Beijing, June 30, 2014. In academic terms, the process is referred to as Transitional Second Language Acquisition.

[4] Original text: khan uuliin boroon, kharahiin jav ugei ornoo, kheleen martagsan shuvuud, kheneg ch ugei nisuldnee, ugeen martagsan uher, undiikh ch ugei emkhulenee. The cold rainy Fall of 2020 is associated in this text and similar ones with the memories of pain, failure and demise of Mongolian language transmission. Social media screenshot taken by Baioud, collected August 15.

[5] Grey’s interviews with retired Inner Mongolia minzu officials, 2014.

[6] Gulbahar H. Beckett, and Gerard A. Postiglione, China’s assimilationist language policy: the impact on indigenous/minority literacy and social harmony, 1st edition, Routledge, 2012, https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203804070.

[7] Grey, Language Rights in a Changing China,  p5, see further p291.

[8] Uradyn E. Bulag, “Minority Nationalities as Frankenstein’s Monsters? Reshaping ‘the Chinese Nation’ and China’s Quest to Become a ‘Normal Country,’” The China Journal (Canberra, A.C.T.), 86(1), 2021, p46–67, https://doi.org/10.1086/714737.

[9] A comment from Ma Rong cited in He, 2014: 3, authors’ emphasis. He Baogang, “The power of Chinese linguistic imperialism and its challenges to multicultural education,” In James Leibold & Chen Yangbin (eds.), Minority education in China: Balancing unity and diversity in an era of critical pluralism, Hong Kong University Press, 2014, p27–64.