There is a sizable population of Tibetans in truly multi-ethnic Yunnan, and I was keen to take advantage of this and learn a bit of Tibetan alongside my studies of classical Chinese in Kunming back in 2012. The head of my private language school had difficulties finding a teacher, however, because he utterly refused to advertise for one.
Why? Because he risked losing his school’s license if the authorities learned a foreigner there was learning Tibetan.
Switch focus to Xinjiang in northwest China. A few years earlier I had visited a friend whose mother was on the staff at a major university in Urumqi, and he introduced me to a long-time teacher of the Uyghur language who lived in the same courtyard. She told me she was earning just 2,000 yuan a month, though she’d been on the job well over a decade; even by Xinjiang standards that’s a pittance. Given that only a handful of universities in China teach Uyghur—and there are more than 10 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang—I got the impression instruction in the language isn’t exactly a high priority.
But in the wake of a spate of recent attacks, especially the March Kunming train station massacre—all allegedly carried out by Uyghur separatists—teaching Uyghur has apparently become a very problematic undertaking indeed, and not simply a poor-paying profession.
Reports the New York Times on May 11, 2014 (Devotion to Language Proves Risky):
A poet, linguist and globe-trotting polyglot, Abduweli Ayup had a passion for the spoken word, notably Uighur, the Turkic language spoken in his homeland in China’s far northwest. In 2011, soon after finishing his graduate studies in the United States, Mr. Ayup returned home to open a chain of “mother tongue” schools in Xinjiang, the vast Central Asian region whose forced marriage to the Han Chinese heartland has become increasingly tumultuous.
But in a country where language is politically fraught, Mr. Ayup’s devotion to Uighur may have proved his undoing.
Last August, Mr. Ayup and two business partners were arrested and accused of “illegal fund-raising,” charges that stemmed from their effort to finance a new school by, among other means, selling honey and T-shirts emblazoned with the school’s insignia.
Mr. Ayup, 39, and his two associates, Dilyar Obul and Muhemmet Sidik, have not been heard from since.